Travellers insight: The Beaches of Cartagena

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Cartagena is a truly sensational tropical Colombian paradise. The city of Cartagena is situated on Colombia's northern peninsula it's South America's perfectly located slice of the Caribbean. For many Central and South America backpackers Cartagena is usually the a stop on the way to or from the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama. If you're planning a South American stop off in Cartagena and want to feel the Caribbean sand and sea on your feet then this is the ultimate guide to the contrasting beaches of Cartagena - Colombia's northern fortified city. 

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia

The ultimate guide to going to the beach in Cartagena - as part of the Travellers insight series


The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia

The first thing I look to do when visiting any coastal resort or town is find out about the beaches - if you love nothing more than spending your days at the beach with your feet in the sand and the sun on your shoulders then cracking Cartagena's beaches is a must do before your visit to Colombia. Cartagena is home to many beaches but the two most popular are Playa Blanca and The Boca Grande.


Playa Blanca - Isla Baru, Cartagena 

Playa Blanca - Isla Baru is the first beach of Cartagena I visited. Playa Blanca was recommended to us instantly upon arriving in Cartagena from Panama City. Playa Blanca was our first official stop whilst exploring the great city of Cartagena and we chose to take public transport over the costly tours available outside The Old City. The reason we chose to visit Playa Blanca as our first beach of Colombia is because someone sold me on the 'tropical island paradise' with white sand beaches and clear blue waves.

We boarded the shuttle bus to Playa Blanca from Calle Media Luna the main street in the Getsemani district of Cartagena.

The beach of Playa Blanca is located just outside of Cartagena on Isla Baru which is an island connected by suspension bridge to the mainland. It's classed as part of the Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo, but I'm not sure Playa Blanca officially sits in the national park. Take note - you do have to pay park entrance fees as with most national parks in Central and South America.

Other than the entrance fee to the park and our return bus ticket there are no additional costs associated with taking public transport to Playa Blanca beach, Cartagena.

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Playa Blanca - one of the beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
Playa Blanca is an odd place. It isn't at all the relaxing beach and island paradise the tourist information centres sell you. In fact, it's probably the exact opposite to relaxing. Playa Blanca is a hectic crowded beach with a receding shoreline. Although the beach itself has the whitest sand and clearest crystal blue waters imaginable the island paradise isn't a very well kept secret in Cartagena.

The beach is the Caribbean you picture in your mind - coconut cocktails and the white, blue, blue of clean sands pristine waters and clear skies. Except there's one problem and major threat to the picturesque shores of Playa Blanca, Cartagena. Its the hundreds, maybe even thousands of tourists that descend upon the sands every morning from Cartagena.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia

If you don't enjoy being woken from sleep by women you don't actually know casually massaging you against your will then it's probably best to avoid Playa Blanca, although I will say there probably are quieter times to visit than during the Christmas Holidays like we did. The beach itself is ridiculously overcrowded for its size as rouge captains leave the dock from Cartagena every hour on the hour all morning and afternoon.

The water at times is unswimmable. The boats and jetskis fill the shallows and make entering the water almost impossible at times. The masses tend to arrive in the morning but this trend continues throughout the afternoon from outside The Walled City of Cartagena.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
Sunloungers are available to rent
Perhaps Playa Blanca was once a picturesque area of uninhabited national park now a tourist infected zone and not in a sustainable way.

The tour guides advertise Playa Blanca very well and a lot of people choose to visit its idyllic waters, but beware it's the ultimate tourist trap and once you arrive you are expected to stay until your excursion is over.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
Busy Playa Blanca
The waters on Isla Baru are warm and occasionally peaceful enough for you to take a dip to cool off, the beach is also equipped with amenities such as toilets food and drink vendors and possibly anything else you could want at the beach.

The constant hum of vendors selling goods never leaves Playa Blanca from the early morning to the late evening you are offered everything from a massage to a jetski.

There is rarely an empty spot to bathe, we walked the length of the beach to find a small spot under a palm offering some quiet and shade. 

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We were convinced of a second trip to Playa Blanca and were equally as disappointed at the anti-climax of a promised paradise. On our second visit to this beach we opted for the popular boat trip that turned out to be much less value for money than advertised. Don't take this excursion it can also be dangerous as the captains of the boats are not always professionals. I understand Lonely Planet have also given a couple of warnings against this trip. 

My second visit to Playa Blanca really got me thinking about national parks and I can only assume that because Playa Blanca is one of many beaches within Isla Baru and in close proximity to the national park that the Colombian tourism authorities try to contain the tourists here rather than spread them out over the other blissful beaches. Sacrifice one to save the many.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
The rogue boat to Playa Blanca - take the bus
If you are in Cartagena, Playa Blanca is worth a visit. Pay for the air conditioned bus from Calle Media Luna rather than the overpriced and rogue boat trips offered outside The Walled City. Ours experience was a terrifying experience and a lot of time was wasted during the day due to large numbers of people to coordinate.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
Behind the main beach at Playa Blanca

The Boca Grande, Cartagena 

From clear blue waters and white sandy Caribbean shores filled with tourists to the concrete and grey Boca Grande also filled with people. Cartagena's beaches couldn't be more contrasting. The second beach of Cartagena we visited was the Boca Grande. Where large tower blocks shade the promenade that runs the length of the beach  from the Old Walled City of Cartagena and beyond.

As equally as crowded and busy as Playa Blanca the Boca Grande is less attractive, less expensive and filled with locals as opposed to tourists. The residents of Cartagena, Colombia spend their afternoons at the beach eating and drinking and eating local in the many restaurants that line the back of The Boca Grande beach.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
The Boca Grande, Cartagena, Colombia

The grey sand beach and backdrop makes The Boca Grande, Cartagena look more like a construction site than a beach but the umbrellas and cool waters attract Colombian families and locals especially during the Christmas holidays. The beach is near Cartagena's Old City which makes it more accessible than the other beach option in Cartagena, Colombia.

It's easy and free to visit The Boca Grande for a quick swim and sunbathe but don't expect any picturesque photos.

A budget cerveza can be enjoy at the many small locally owned restaurants and bars up and down the beach. The bus costs $1 and runs the length of The Boca Grande from The Walled City of Cartagena's Old Town. The route back takes a slight detour through the blocks of apartments, malls and fast food style restaurants located near The Boca Grande.

There's also a large shopping mall just by The Boca Grande for anyone looking to shop or just take advantage of the clean toilets and cool aircon on your sun kissed skin.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
Having a quick drink at a beach bar on the Boca Grande

We spent a lot of time here sampling the local beverages and saving money on the grey sands of The Boca Grande. I'm happy to sunbathe and swim almost anywhere so the intimidating tower block hotels didn't bother me so much, I've seen better and I've seen worse in this case but what I liked about the Boca Grande is that it makes no promises to impress like Playa Blanca and Isla Baru do.

The Caribbean dream is sold to you by almost every tour guide in Cartagena and you are instantly committed to visiting Isla Baru. The Boca Grande is rarely spoken of and no local recommended a visit here which gave us no expectations upon arrival.


Both of the beaches of Cartagena are worth a visit but make your own way there using public transport for a free and easy day out. Always take supplies for a long day of sun worshipping.

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia
The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia


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Travellers insight: The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia - travelsandmore

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