Isla Barú, located just off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, is the kind of tropical paradise that most visitors to Cartagena envision when they book their tickets. Palm trees, bright blue Caribbean sea, sandy beaches, fresh seafood and fruit juice… heaven, basically. But you won’t find that beachy paradise within Cartagena, a bustling city that is better known for its spectacularly colorful streets, flower-laden balconies, and delicious food than its beaches.
Many visitors choose to leave Cartagena to visit some of the nearby beaches on the Caribbean coast, such as Santa Marta or Parque Tayrona. But not everyone has the time to hop on a 5-hour bus to access those beaches. Luckily, there is Isla Barú, a small island floating in the Caribbean located under an hour away from Cartagena by ferry or taxi. You can visit Isla Barú for the day, sunning on the shores of stunning Playa Blanca, or you can choose to stay overnight, which is what we did. Read on for more tips about visiting Isla Baru and Playa Blanca, and our pick for the best Isla Barú hotel!
Planning a trip to Cartagena? Here are a few posts you’ll want to check out before your trip:
- What and Where to Eat in Cartagena, Colombia on a Budget
- What to Pack for Colombia: The Ultimate Packing Guide
- The 10 Most Instagrammable Places in Cartagena, Colombia
- How to Get from Cartagena to Santa Marta
How to Get from Cartagena to Isla Barú
To get from Cartagena to Isla Barú, there are a few options. If you’re looking to spend the day on Playa Blanca, you can head straight from Cartagena to Playa Blanca. You can take a ferry, a private shuttle, or a bus + moto-taxi. You can also book a private day tour, like this one. Along Dusty Roads has a fantastic guide outlining each option.
What some folks don’t realize is that there’s more on Isla Barú than just Playa Blanca! It isn’t just a remote island – there are roads. So, you can easily take a taxi from Cartagena directly to your destination on Isla Barú, which is what we did. We were heading straight to our resort on Isla Barú. Our resort actually offered a shuttle driver, so after doing some price comparison research ourselves (by asking local taxi drivers for a quote) we opted to book their private shuttle. It sounded easy, low-stress, and at only $80.000 COP each way (or $100,000 COP to and from the airport) it was economical, too.
But it’s us, of course, so nothing is ever as easy and low-stress as it’s supposed to be…
Our private shuttle to Playa Manglares from Cartagena showed up promptly to pick us up from the main plaza just outside the entrance to the walled city of Cartagena, as we had requested. Except before we found our actual driver, Jorge, we were approached by some other random taxi driver, who asked us if we needed a taxi to Isla Barú (an educated guess for gringos in Cartagena covered with luggage, I guess). Trying to figure out whether he was actually our taxi driver, we asked him whether his name was Jorge. He insisted that it was, and then launched into a full-on theatrical production trying to convince us that he was our driver. Except that he couldn’t tell us the name of the hotel he was supposedly driving us to. Cue massive eye-roll. Y’all, one day I hope to stride through life with the conviction of a taxi driver in Colombia.
The good news is that it’s incredibly easy to find a taxi to Isla Barú or Playa Blanca: just head to the main plaza with your luggage and look confused for 3 seconds. Someone will be by straight away 😉
- Travel Tip: When traveling in or around Cartagena, always, always, always negotiate the price of a taxi BEFORE getting into it! Otherwise, you will find yourself paying a “gringo tax” far above a reasonable price. The taxis here do not have meters – they also typically do not have backseat seatbelts. However, we still recommend them over renting a car and attempting to drive yourself. For more information about getting around in Colombia, check out our guide to transportation in Colombia.
Playa Blanca Day Trip vs. Overnight on Isla Barú?
The first question to ask yourself when planning a trip to Playa Blanca or Isla Barú is: do you want to spend just the day on Playa Blanca, or do you want to stay overnight? If a day trip is all that you’re after, you can easily book a tour like this one or take the ferry to and from the beach.
However, it’s not what we recommend. Our recommendation is to stay overnight on Isla Barú instead of taking a day trip to Playa Blanca!
Why wouldn’t we recommend one of the most popular day trips from Cartagena? Well, because it’s so popular. In recent years, there’s been a surge of tourism to Playa Blanca, which has turned it from a sleepy beach to a bustling marketplace. A few hours of laying on the beach Playa Blanca means crowds of tourists and vendors coming up and selling you everything from massages to fresh shrimp cocktail (for what it’s worth, the shrimp cocktail is delicious, and the massages are terrible). Jump in the water, and vendors on jet-skis will come up and offer to sell you things, then zoom away in a plume of smelly gas when you say “no, gracias” for the 85th time.
As a tourist, the constant barrage of salespeople is irritating, but also understandable. The native residents of Isla Barú have lived here for many years, and it is only thanks to a recent rise in tourism that the island has basic amenities like electricity or running water. For more information, you can read about the story of Isla Baru here.
Marketing handicrafts and services to the tourists who are coming to visit their beautiful, isolated home is one of the best ways these locals have to earn a living. But there is little quality enforcement and a lot of unlicensed businesses that have sprung up in recent years. Plus, the constant interactions are overwhelming and can quickly undo the feeling of relaxation that relaxing on a beach typically brings.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the morning and after around 3PM, Playa Blanca becomes gloriously quiet again. The crowds haven’t yet arrived or have already gone home, the vendors have cleared out, and you can take a blissfully peaceful walk on the beach admiring the beauty that brought visitors to Playa Blanca in the first place.
So, bottom line? The best way to visit Playa Blanca is to stay overnight on Isla Barú! By choosing to stay overnight in Isla Baru, you can still use your tourist dollars to support locals working in the service industry and you can take advantage of the off-peak hours on Playa Blanca. It’s a win/win, and that’s why we recommend visiting Playa Blanca and Isla Barú this way rather than as a day trip.
There are several options for places to stay on Isla Barú for all budget ranges. We stayed at a wonderful family-owned boutique resort called Playa Manglares – more on that later.
What to do on Isla Barú, Cartagena
There’s more to Isla Barú than just one of the most beautiful beaches in the world! I mean, not much – this is a small, quiet tropical island, after all. But here are the top 3 things to do when you’re visiting Isla Barú.
Relax on Playa Blanca
Playa Blanca is the most popular attraction in Isla Barú for a reason! If you’re staying on Isla Baru, you should at least spend a few hours on Playa Blanca – just arrive before noon or after 3pm to avoid the crowds. Bring what you need for a beach day: swimsuit, towel, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a good book. There are plenty of places to eat and drink near the beach, but bring cash to pay for them (and any vendors who offer you something tempting).
Snorkel in the Rosario Islands
Las Islas del Rosario are an archipelago of islands located near Isla Barú, also off the coast of Cartagena. They are a protected national park, and home to Colombia’s most beautiful coral reefs, which makes visiting them an excellent chance to snorkel! The beaches on the Rosario Islands are every bit as stunning and tropical as Playa Blanca, but there’s absolutely NOBODY there.
You can book a tour of the Rosario Islands via Cartagena (like this one) but it’s cheaper to visit from within Isla Baru, where you’re much closer. We were able to arrange an affordable private tour directly with our resort, so ask your hotel or hostel if they can assist.
Visit the Bird Sanctuary
The Avario Nacional de Colombia is a little known attraction on Isla Barú, but well worth a trip – especially if you like animals, which we do! The spacious, privately owned bird sanctuary is home to lots of feathered friends, from flamingos to peacocks to macaws to condors. Each giant enclosure is designed to mimic the birds’ native habitats. Allow about 3 hours to make your way through all of the habitats!
The bird sanctuary is a bit too far to walk to from elsewhere on Isla Baru, so you’ll want to take transit to get there. To visit the bird sanctuary, you can either take a taxi from Cartagena (45 minutes) or a taxi or moto-taxi from anywhere on Isla Baru. Ask your resort or hostel to help arrange a trip, or look for the drivers around Playa Blanca and ask one of them for a ride.
- Travel Tip: The sanctuary opens at 9am, and the earlier you arrive, the better to catch the birds at their most active! Plus, it gets fairly hot around 11am and you’ll be outdoors – bring a bottle of water to help you stay cool.
What to Pack for Isla Barú, Cartagena
Now that you’re all rarin’ to hit the beach, what are you going to pack for Cartagena and Isla Baru? You gotta look cute for those white sand beach/bright blue water photos. But what else do you need to bring? What about way less cute stuff like safe drinking water and bug repellent?! No worries, we gotchu. Here’s a quick summary of the most important things to bring to Isla Baru.
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: The tap water in Colombia is not safe to drink. Instead of wasting a bunch of disposable plastic bottles of water, our preferred environmentally friendly solution is the rechargeable Steri-Pen! It purifies water in 90 seconds, using an UV light to kill living bacteria and viruses in even the most untrustworthy tap water. This handy little water purifier saved us a LOT of money (not to mention plastic waste and illness). We use ours with our foldable Sawyer water bottle or our hydration pack and it works like a charm, but you can stick it into any water bottle. (Note: you can also use a Sawyer mini filter or water purification tablets to purify undrinkable tap water, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Picaridin Bug Repellent Lotion: This is hands down our favorite tried and true bug repellent. It’s incredibly effective, lightweight on your skin and doesn’t make you feel like a greasy mess, and it’s quick and easy to apply. After discovering this lightweight little bug repellent lotion, I will never go back to those awful sprays. First of all, I hate spraying them because it always somehow gets in my mouth and makes everything taste like chemicals for the rest of the day. Second of all, DEET literally burns my skin. And third, this is more effective and provides better skin coverage than the sprays. The bugs on the beaches in Isla Baru come out around sunset and you WILL need some strong protection.
- Permethrin Spray: This actually isn’t something to pack for your trip, but something to do BEFORE you visit Colombia. Permethrin is a bug repellent that adheres only to fabrics, leaves no smell or residue on clothes, and doesn’t harm human skin. Before your trip, spray all of your clothing, paying special attention to hems, cuffs, and socks, to fight bug bites all day long. Thanks to our diligent use of Permethrin and Picaridin during our trip to Colombia last month, we left with just a few bug bites while our travel companion was COVERED. Permethrin spray lasts for up to 6 machine washes. Important Note: this is something to buy and use BEFORE you leave for your trip! Set a day or 2 aside for spraying all of your clothes, PLUS your backpacks and anything else made of fabric, like a sleeping bag or liner.
- Reef-Safe Sunscreen: If you plan to snorkel in the Rosario Islands, help preserve the reef by wearing reef-safe biodegradable sunscreen when you go swimming or snorkeling. Regular sunscreen is harmful to the ocean and the critters who call it home, but reef-safe sunscreen is specifically developed to be ocean-friendly. Here’s a full-sized bottle and here’s a travel-sized bottle for carry-on luggage.
- Sunscreen: When you’re not in the water, you’ll want to slather on the strongest sunscreen you can find. We like this one from Neutrogena because it’s dry-touch, meaning you don’t feel like a disgusting grease ball after applying.
- Leather Sandals: I’m completely in love with my Capri Teva sandals. These things are amazing. Not only are they actually cute, but they’re incredibly comfortable. They’re cute enough to be worn with a dress or shorts, on long hikes, to the beach, white water rafting, anything. They’re comfy enough to stand and walk in for 12+ hours, versatile enough to hike in, and the perfect water shoes. They’re lightweight and well made. After near daily use in sand, dirt, and rocks, my Tevas are barely showing any wear at all. I’ll never buy another brand of sandals again. They’re the perfect sandals for travel!
- Full-Sized Travel Towel: A full sized, lightweight, quick-drying towel is super handy to have in Isla Baru. This awesome travel towel is much bigger than your hotel room’s towels, weighs next to nothing, rolls up small enough to throw in your bag, and dries quickly so you’re not lugging around a heavy wet towel all day. Bring it to the beach, on your snorkeling tour, or just in case you can’t resist the urge to dive in to the sparkling blue water!
- Travel Clothesline: This is a super handy tiny little clothesline that is easy to hang up almost anywhere. We think it’s a must-have for Isla Baru because it’s perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits and towels that need to be dried. It weighs nearly nothing but is strong enough to hold a ton of wet clothing! String it up outside on your deck in the sun to dry your bathing suit overnight – much more effective than hanging it in a damp bathroom.
- Flowy Sundress/Beach Coverup: You NEED a cute, beachy dress that doubles as a beach coverup! Trust me, being able to toss on a cute dress and go all day long will make your life so much easier (or at least reduce stress during your vacation). I found some majorly cute dress/coverup options at Swimsuits For All, which sells affordable swimwear for sizes 10-34. This is my current favorite find – it’s hella cute, super soft and comfy, AND it has pockets, which I LOVE. I’m also digging this and this. I have major chub-rub so I wear these handy little bike shorts underneath, which have 3(!!!) phone-sized pockets, and I’m set all day long chafe-free.
- Cute Bathing Suit: YOU GUYS. I have found THE perfect swimsuit, and I’m obsessed. I literally bought this suit in 3 different colors the day I tried it on. See that picture of me?! It’s the first picture of myself in a bikini that I’ve ever truly and deeply LOVED. I feel SO gorgeous in this bikini, I can’t even. It’s amazing. It’s perfect. It’s a freakin’ steal! Pick one up in every color from Amazon! If that’s not your style, I recommend browsing Swimsuits For All, which sells adorable suits for sizes 10-34. Even just looking at their models makes me feel all curvy and beautiful.
Now that you’ve got your bathing suit and sandals ready to go, it’s time to book your accommodation. We’ve got just the spot!
The Best Isla Baru Hotel: Playa Manglares
Situated on Isla Barú, about an hour outside of Cartagena de las Indias in Colombia, is Playa Manglares. The beautiful resort is located on the shores of the mangrove forest at Barbacoa Bay, on the other side of Isla Barú from the more popular – and far more crowded – Playa Blanca. We were seeking peace and quiet and hammocks and a private beach, and Playa Manglares was exactly what we needed! If you’re considering a trip to Isla Barú or the nearby Rosario Islands, we highly recommend staying overnight on the island, away from the crowds of tourists & vendors, to soak up the best of the Colombian Caribbean coast.
Getting from Cartagena to Playa Manglares was a fairly simple task because we arranged an inexpensive private shuttle through the resort. And even though we were propositioned by a taxi driver claiming to be our shuttle, our real shuttle driver soon rescued us and whisked us away in his air conditioned van that actually had seatbelts in the back seat (backseat seatbelts are not a thing in Colombia). Luxury had arrived! The drive from Cartagena to Playa Manglares lasted about an hour, winding through small Colombian villages, fields of shrubs and a few grazing cows.
Upon our arrival at Playa Manglares, it was as if a wave of relaxation rushed over us. From the sounds of birds energetically calling through the palm trees to the waves we could hear crashing on the beach through the trees, we could feel all the stress and tension of the exciting but bustling city of Cartagena fading away.
Our room at Playa Manglares was straight luxury. Like, OK: we’re budget to mid-range travelers, and we can’t typically afford luxury. Playa Manglares is actually within our price range, and the luxury is freaking incredible. Like, the first thing we saw upon entering our room was a gigantic outdoor shower. Picture a waterfall shower-head in a massive ceramic tiled tub built above the treetops in a stunning, open-air bathroom.
My jaw hit the floor. I’ve never looked forward to a shower so much in my life.
I’m not gonna lie, it took us a while to stop freaking out over the bathroom and actually check out the rest of the room. We are easily excited.
But the rest of the room was every bit as baller as the bathroom. In-room hammocks? Check, one for each of us. A massive bed the size of my kitchen? Check. Multiple fans for maximum cool breezes? Check, check, and check. And finally: a massive balcony with 360 mangrove views, the sound of crashing waves, and comfy chairs? CHECK.
Every inch of our room was beautiful and comfortable. The sounds of the waves crashing just outside our window and the calling birds just added to the amazing ambiance!
The friendly owner’s son, Juan, led us on a tour of the property. The resort is small and intimate, with only 5 rooms. And every aspect of the resort was designed with an eye for detail and beauty, from the open-air pavilion on the beach where meals are served family-style to the beckoning stone pathways running criss-cross through beachy brush and foliage.
The resort somehow manages to feel both luxurious and homey. The open-air bathroom – with its giant mosaic jacuzzi bath, palm leaves and stars overhead – feels like pure luxury, something out of a 5-star resort. But then there are the little reminders that you’re still here in Colombia: not at a 5-star hotel but run by a giant corporation, but in a small boutique resort still run by the family who built it, stone by stone.
Like, there’s the honesty bar, where you can pour your own drinks – or wait until someone politely knocks on your door and asks if you want a mojito – and record your tab to pay at the end of your stay. There’s an outdoor shared bathroom, both to shower off after the beach and just because it’s convenient to have a shared bathroom for use by anyone who might need it.
And of course, there are pets: one chubby old muffin perennially passed out on the ground, sleeping so hard we were legitimately concerned; and another little fluff-muffin who made friends with us only while we were eating, when he’d come up and put his head in our lap endearingly. Full disclosure: all animals are muffins to us. They’re all just fluff-muffins full of love, and we adore them all. Yes, even the ones that aren’t fluffy. Like the frog we found in the toilet of the shared bathroom. Which was adorable, after we stopped freaking out about it.
We settled into our room and full-on flomped. There were hammocks in our room, which we’ve recently realized is all we’ve ever wanted in life. Swaying in our hammocks, reading and working, we were lulled by the birds twittering outside our open windows, the gentle rustling of palm fronds and, just close enough to still be audible, the sound of waves crashing on the beach.
We’ve experienced the feeling of Colombian “tranquilidad” before, but this was a new level of chill, even for us.
What to Do at Playa Manglares
Although Isla Barú is the home of the famous Playa Blanca, one of the most popular day trips from Cartagena, Playa Manglares is located on the other side of the island with a private beach tucked between clusters of mangrove trees. The private beach at Playa Manglares is a bit more rocky than the brilliant white sand that Playa Blanca was named for, and the water is a darker blue and just a touch cloudy. However, what it lacks in picture-postcard looks, it makes up for in brilliant, incomparable emptiness.
While Playa Blanca is buzzing with tourists and salespeople hawking their wares for much of the day, Playa Manglares is quiet and calm, with only a single other resort in eyesight several miles away down the shoreline. The water may not be good for snorkeling, but it’s invitingly warm and excellent for swimming. It’s also perfect for kayaking, and of course, there’s a kayak free for any guest at Playa Manglares to borrow as they please.
Of course, Playa Blanca is a short taxi ride across Isla Barú if you DO want to experience it, but we didn’t feel the need. We loved having the beach all to ourselves. We set our camera and towels down by one of the hammocks strung to a mangrove tree and skipped off into the water without worrying that somebody might take our stuff (this is a huge deal, seriously).
At some point, we managed to drag ourselves from our restful lull, pull on our swimsuits, and grab the helpfully provided beach tote to take the extremely short walk to the beach. We splashed in the water for a few hours, until the sun started to fall – we’d been warned not to stay out on the beach too late, lest we risk bug bites. Hey, if that’s the only downside to this paradise, we’ll take it.
If you’re looking to venture out from Playa Manglares, you can easily arrange a private day trip to the Rosario Islands which picks you up and drops you off directly from the hotel. You can also arrange a trip to the bird sanctuary nearby on Isla Barú!
The Story of Playa Manglares
After a shower in our ridiculously beautiful open-air shower, towelled off and clean, we headed down to the open-air pavilion for dinner. The entire resort eats together, family-style. Between bites of fresh grilled fish and spinach, we all introduced ourselves, swapping stories and tips. It felt like what we love about a good hostel: that excited inquiry about where you’ve been, where you’re going, recommendations shared and requested. And it felt all the more special to share the table with Juan, the owner’s son.
As we all ate together, he regaled us with stories of Isla Barú and of the origin story of Playa Manglares. And y’all: the story is CRAY. It’s like, some Gabriel Garcia Marquez realismo magico cray sh**. OK, here’s the story.
So flash back about 20 or so years. Little Juan’s father fell ill, and the doctors gave him only a year to live. Faced with this gravity, his father made the pilgrimage to the family’s vacation home, here on Isla Barú, to spend his final days.
At the time, the property was little more than a tree-house and an artist’s studio. But it was everything to the family, and it was just as restful and tranquil as it is today. His father meditated and swam each day, spending hours in his painting studio overlooking the beach and the mangroves. He listened to the birds chirp and the rustle of the leaves and the crashing of the waves … and he got better.
Instead of 1 year, he lived for 15, when he died peacefully of old age, here at Playa Manglares.
Y’all, if that’s not a good reason to quit your day job and go live your dreams on a beach somewhere, I don’t know what is. I was sold. I was also nose-deep in a bowl of fresh vanilla ice cream topped with fried plantains with panela and I was ready call it a night. But the story wasn’t over yet….
Every night, a friendly spirit is said to walk the grounds of Playa Manglares, wearing white robes and happily admiring the foliage and breathing in the ocean air or whatever. And every night, at EXACTLY the same time, the resident dogs bark at EXACTLY the same spot – right over there, just off of the dining pavilion.
As if on cue, the dogs rose from the tables and STARTED BARKING AT THAT SPOT, tails wagging in excitement. I kid you not. This actually happened.
Honestly, I probably would have been creeped out if I wasn’t so incredibly enchanted. Y’all: if you haven’t read 100 Years of Solitude yet, consider this the push you need, because I felt like I was living the book right then and there. The magic of Colombia was here: strange and unexplainable things were happening and Jeremy and I were just like, “oh, that’s cool, that makes sense. Nothing wrong with the friendly ghost of your father hanging around the resort!” I felt like I had slipped into Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s head, taken a look around, been like “yup, weird sh** happens in Colombia, and wow, it really makes for an excellent story.”
We lay in bed later that night, sprawled out comfortably under our mosquito nets and watching tiny lizards chirp and chitter their way across the white walls, lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing through the open windows and the swaying of the palm trees.
Colombia is magical.
We highly recommend a stay at Playa Manglares if you’re visiting Isla Barú! You can check availability on Booking.com
Where to Stay on Isla Barú on a Budget
Playa Manglares is a great option if you’re willing to splurge a little bit (by Colombia standards), but you can stay on Isla Barú on a backpacker’s budget, too. We’ve heard great things about Hostel Urantia and also about Media Luna Barú, which is a sister property to this popular hostel in Cartagena.
There are also some really great Airbnbs on Isla Barú, we really like this private beach cabin that literally steps right out onto the beach. It is simple but what do you need from a cabin ON the beach?! The owner is also a really great cook and is happy to serve up delicious local cuisine.
Are you ready to hit the beach? Hey, are you planning a trip to Cartagena & Isla Barú? Here are a few posts you’ll want to check out before your trip:
- What and Where to Eat in Cartagena, Colombia on a Budget
- What to Pack for Colombia: The Ultimate Packing Guide
- The 10 Most Instagrammable Places in Cartagena, Colombia
- How to Get from Cartagena to Santa Marta
If you are looking for more tour tips during your visit to Colombia the amazing guys over at ViaHero will connect you with a local person who will share all their juicy knowledge and help you plan your perfect itinerary. Check it out here.
And don’t forget to subscribe below for a FREE printable packing list for Colombia, plus our favorite tips for visiting our favorite country!
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Disclaimer: I was hosted by Playa Manglares in exchange for an unbiased review. Any inaccuracies, opinions, and ghost story embellishment are 100% my own and totally not their fault.