Travellers insight: The Beaches of Cartagena

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Cartagena is a truly diverse tropical paradise, 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. 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 first thing I look to do when visiting any coastal resort or town is find out the best 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 contrasting beaches is a must do before your visit to Colombia.

Playa Blanca - Isla Baru

Playa Blanca - Isla Baru was recommended to us instantly upon arriving in Cartagena from Panama City. Playa Blanca was our first official stop whilst exploring Cartagena, we chose public transport over the costly tours for our first visit and boarded the bus from Calle Media Luna.

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.

Travellers insight - National park entrance fees apply

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The colour of the ocean - what dreams are made of
Playa Blanca is a strange place. It isn't at all the relaxing beach paradise the tourist information centres sell you. In fact, it's probably the exact opposite, a hectic crowded beach with a receding shoreline meets the whitest sand and clearest crystal blue waters imaginable.

The beach is the Caribbean you dream of - 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 (White Beach). Its the hundreds, maybe even thousands of tourists that descend upon the sands every morning from Cartagena.

Travellers insight - Avoid any form of boat trip excursion to Playa Blanca - take the bus from Calle Media Luna. Its safer, cheaper and air conditioned

The Beaches of Cartagena, Colombia

If you don't enjoy being woken by women you do not know massaging you against your will then it's probably best to avoid Playa Blanca all together. It's 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.

Travellers insight - The warm waters of Playa Blanca are often polluted with boats to the point its dangerous to swim. Be cautious!

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.

Travellers insight - Vendors selling almost anything fill Playa Blanca - the hum is almost harmonious, take headphones if you're intent on relaxation

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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Unfortunately after our first encounter with Playa Blanca we were convinced into a second visit by Jamie's mum and brother who were equally as disappointed at the anti-climax of a promised paradise. For the second time we were to experience the overcrowded masses of tourists on the perfect sands. On our second visit 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. 

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

The Boca Grande

From clear blue waters and white sandy Caribbean shores to the concrete and grey Boca Grande. Cartagena's beaches couldn't be more contrasting. Tower blocks shade the promenade that runs the length of the Boca Grande from The Walled City 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 in the many restaurants that line the back of The Boca Grande.

Travellers insight - Fresh crab and other fish is often served by vendors on The Boca Grande - many locals choose this budget friendly lunch option

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

Travellers insight - Sun lounges and umbrellas are going to cost you - if you sit, you pay

The grey sand and backdrop makes The Boca Grande 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.

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. 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

Travellers insight - Take the bus from The Walled City to The Boca Grande - or walk 20 - 25 minutes

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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