I have a love-hate relationship with tropical beaches. I dream about them, long for them, and then when I visit one, I remember all the things that photos of turquoise water and palm trees don’t show: the salt spray that sticks like glue to your sunglasses, the sand that gets everywhere so you never really feel clean, the heat and relentless sun, the mosquitoes and sand flies that cover you in bites, no matter how much bug spray you apply (over the layers of salt and sand and sunscreen on your skin), the towels and swimsuits that never quite dry in the humidity, and the faint smell of mildew that perfumes your water bottle and everything in your luggage. But still I keep coming back. (Note from Melissa: Exactly how I feel! But swimming in the warm sea is just so addictive, even when there aren’t fish to see.)
So after two days in sweltering Cartagena, Melissa, AJ, Francesca, and I took an hour-long boat ride to Isla Grande, the largest of the Rosario Islands off Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There we moved into a two-story wooden rental house for four nights to experience life at a much quieter pace.
Isla Grande is the most rustic and authentic-feeling Caribbean island I’ve visited. Despite the name, it’s not terribly large (maybe 4 km by 1 km). It has a village of about 1200 people, and we saw far more islanders than visitors during our stay. There are no cars, golf carts, or paved roads, only push carts, bicycles, and dirt paths crisscrossing the island, most with little or no signage.
The island has no fresh water and minimal electricity. Our house—part of an “eco-hotel” that also included the owners’ house and two one-room guest cabins—relied on stored rainwater and solar panels, so we tried to use the shower, ceiling fans, and lights sparingly. Ants and mosquitos were ubiquitous, but we were spared the giant cockroaches, moths, and spiders we’ve encountered elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The island is part of a marine national park, and there are lots of signs highlighting the importance of preserving nature and keeping the island free of trash. The message seems to be getting through. Isla Grande has lots of tree cover in the interior and intact mangrove forests along the water—a vital coastal ecosystem that in other places has been cut down for development. There’s minimal plastic trash on the beaches and much less litter than we’ve seen in other parts of the developing world. There are also tree iguanas and plenty of bird life, including parrots, pelicans, egrets, and magnificent frigate birds.
Our rental house was large and airy, with good beds surrounded by mosquito nets, lots of windows with shutters to let in the afternoon breeze, and best of all, an upstairs veranda with five hammocks (so no fighting over who got one). However, communicating with people was far tougher than on the mainland; we found the Spanish creole spoken by the island’s Afro-Caribbean residents almost impenetrable. The island gets very dark after 6 p.m. (there are few outside lights), so there wasn’t much to do in the evening besides huddling at the table eating dinner and playing cards under a single bare lightbulb. We did take flashlights outside a couple of time to look at the stars, which were amazing. The food (cooked to order by the family that runs the place) was tasty but expensive and very repetitive: grilled chicken, fried fish, or shrimp, served always with rice, fried plantains, and chopped carrots and cucumber.
We swam often at the small but sandy beach a five-minute walk from the house. Francesca practiced using her little snorkel and mask and was delighted to spot a couple of small fish. Our best beach moment came when we bought a freshly caught lobster from a local vendor, who grilled it for us for lunch. Heavenly!
Later we took a boat trip around Isla Grande and some of the 26 smaller islands in the Islas Rosarios chain. We saw, from a distance, the private island of Colombia’s presidents (a kind of Caribbean Camp David) and a vast crumbling vacation house that had belonged to the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. On a nearby island we visited the Oceanario, an aquarium with pens fenced off from the surrounding sea, where the staff cares for turtles, brown sharks, dolphins, and other marine creatures. It seemed like a reputable place, as aquariums go, and we got a good view of two adorable baby dolphins swimming with their mothers.
On our final day on Isla Grande, we spent the afternoon at a nearby resort (called Cocoliso), where we relished the chance to eat slightly different food for lunch and enjoyed the immense luxury of a large freshwater pool with real lounge chairs. (Note from Melissa: I never quite understand how a pool can beat the ocean, but the lounge chairs were nice!)
By far our most memorable experience on the island was a visit to the bioluminescent “Enchanted Lagoon.” On a dark, moonless night, our guide led us with flashlights on a 20-minute walk along dirt paths and down some wooden planks to a floating platform at the edge of the lagoon. Climbing down the metal ladder into the cool, ink-black water was daunting. But when we started to swim, tiny sparks of light appeared around our arms and legs (wherever there was motion) from the bioluminescent plankton in the water. Swimming or floating among those specks of underwater light, while looking up at a sky full of stars, was utterly magical.
This post makes it sound like we packed a lot into our three and a half days on Isla Grande. But in reality there were long stretches of time spent lolling in hammocks and trying to keep Francesca occupied. We were more than ready to get back to the comforts of civilization by the time we left. But we had some wonderful experiences on the island, and I got enough of a dose of tropical beach to last me for a good long time—or until my mosquito bites fade and I start dreaming of turquoise water again.
[Thanks to AJ Ferraro for the great pics. Melissa left her camera stored away while on the island.]