Cartagena is abundant with things to do just outside of the city. We decided that we visit a couple of the most popular sites outside of the city – Playa Blanca in Baru and the Rosario Islands.
We booked a day trip through a hostel in Getsemani. As you walk towards the port terminal where you take the boat, you’re bombarded with people offering agua, boat trips, and other random items such as chiclet gum and cigars. There is a port tax and National Park fee to pay, and once you pay it and cross into the port area you are separated from the street vendors. It’s almost as if you’re paying a tax to be free of the street vendors!
We were herded and squished into a boat with 20 other people. One lady brought her adorable 2 month old baby with her. She was quite strange with her child because I saw her place the baby on a sheet over the concrete ground and let her have “tummy time” in a crowded area. The baby could barely keep her head up and kept squishing her face into the ground and crying while her mom happily cheered her on. Why she would want to risk having her baby trampled over I have no idea, but this very baby was sitting right beside me on this jumpy boat.
The ride to Playa Blanca was gorgeous. You can clearly see Cartagena’s skyline and the huge ports where gigantic boats dock after their long journey across the Atlantic or the Pacific via the Panama Canal. The plan for the day was snorkelling, lunch, and hanging out at Playa Blanca.
We stopped at an island to pick up snorkel gear. As we approached the island, children ran from the docks, jumped in the water and swam towards the boat. They climb onto the side of the boat and ask for money. The Colombian tourists on the boat seemed to know that if you throw coins off the side of the boat, the children will dive after the coin and catch it with their mouths. I found it seemingly cruel but impressed when they resurfaced triumphantly with coin in mouth!
There are 2 choices when visiting the Rosario Islands: visit the aquarium or go snorkelling. Derek and I opted for snorkelling and were the only ones to go. After dropping a bunch of people off at Playa Blanca and the aquarium, the boat driver took Derek and I to the snorkelling area and told us that we had to pay the National Park Fee. Derek and I were not prepared to pay this fee because we thought everything was included. Derek gave him the quoted amount and all we had left for the rest of the day was $1. Unfortunately I was having stomach cramps so stayed in the boat. But as Derek left the boat to snorkel with another group, the boat driver took the money we gave him and divided it up between himself and another boat driver. Why would he divide the National Park money amongst himself and another boat driver if it were to be given to the National Park? Later, we pulled out our port tax receipt and realized that we already paid the National Park Fee! Had we remembered this we would not have been outsmarted by our boat drivers who proactively ensured themselves an excellent tip. The boat parked by the Aquarium and the boat driver let me sleep off my cramps.
About 30 minutes later, Derek climbed onto the boat! The group he was tagging along with dropped him off at the aquarium and he had a hell of a time trying to find the boat. He thought he was going to be stranded! He also said that while snorkeling, the coral was all brown and there were not a lot of fish to see. It seemed to be such a short time for snorkelling but if there wasn’t much to see it then it wasn’t too much of a loss.
The next interesting thing occurred when the boat driver let a “junior” drive the boat. This “junior” driver didn’t even look as if he’d hit puberty yet but if he was learning the ropes, he might as well do it with the few passengers from the aquarium and us. We went from amused to fearing the worst as he drove the boat over shallow waters, hitting the coral below with the motor, and then providing a consistently jolting ride towards Playa Blanca. We anxiously looked at the boat driver but he peacefully fell asleep on top of a bunch of life jackets. Thankfully he didn’t run over any snorkelers along the shoreline as he let us off the boat.
Playa Blanca in Baru is a beautiful, white sand beach with clear, warm, and swimmable waters. However, the beach area is quite narrow due to the vast number of small tents to shield day-trippers from the sun (for a price), people offering a massage (for a price), dreadlock extentions (people actually buy these!), and an assortment of jewellery, drink, food, and souvenir vendors. Therefore, it is quite difficult to relax without someone hassling you to buy something. After talking to other backpackers, it is best to visit Baru and camp overnight to enjoy the beach while it is not littered with day trippers and vendors. This way, you can enjoy the island in uninterrupted peace.
Boarding our boat became quite the fiasco. Most other boats had picked up their passengers and left but our boat was having trouble coming toward shore as the waves picked up and the tide came in. Of course, “junior” was the one driving the boat and just barely missed decapitating snorkelers along the shoreline. One German couple, Derek and I stayed back and watched what the German guy called “madness” – everyone was trying to get onto the boat while being knocked down by the waves. There were 10 people hanging onto the side at one time as others tried to toss their belongings onto the boat as others were unceremoniously and literally tossed on by the boat crew. After this 20 minute ordeal we finally boarded the boat.
I happily sat next to the adorable baby and her mother. The baby’s mom was trying to put on her life jacket while holding the baby, so I offered to hold the baby. It was great to hold the baby – she was so cute! But then “junior” started the boat and we were rockily on our way. Since the waves were higher, the boat bounced around more and I had trouble trying to keep the baby covered while her mom started putting on soaking wet, white leggings under her dress. Why this was priority over her baby that was being hit with waves and barely covered with the tiny blanket, I have no idea, but I can’t judge because I am not a mom. Fortunately, the baby seemed unbothered by all this but I guess it’s no different from having your face smushed into concrete while your mom makes you do tummy time in a crowded area.
“Junior” unskilfully tried to dodge the waves and it was such that he was TRYING to freak us out as the boat went airborne countless time. The boat drivers finally switched after the passengers’ screaming crescendo reached a fortissimo and several people begged for the driver to slow down. But did it REALLY have to get to that point?
Despite all that happened, we actually had a great time! The Colombian tourists, the people of Baru and the boat crew alike were hospitable, jovial, and friendly. The seafood we had on Baru was delicious. Playa Blanca is quite peaceful and pristine once the day-trippers and vendors leave the beach. We would definitely visit Playa Blanca again, but on an overnight camping trip.
When we arrived on shore and exited the boat, I saw the mom put a thin blanket down on the crowded concrete ground and place her baby on its tummy again as it cried in protest. Several moms watched in horror, shaking their heads and mouthing the words “¿por qué?” I am still shaking my head in wonder…