Colombia’s Best Kept Secret

I am almost hesitant to write this, because that is how badly I don’t want more people to find out about the Islas Del Rosario. But alas, it would be selfish for me to keep this exquisite gem to myself. All I ask is, if you do decide to step foot into this Caribbean utopia, please treat it with the admiration, respect and discretion that it deserves.

I’m sure by now, you have already heard of Cartagena – the quaint, colonial city on the northern tip of Colombia. I won’t bother to praise this magical town as it merits its own entry, however it saddens me to report that it has become an increasingly popular tourist destination in the past couple years (it does not go unnoticed that visitation peaked shortly after a certain scandal occurred in 2012). Even so, it is still quite possible to avoid the menagerie of inebriated backpackers and white-clad yuppies swarming the streets. Hiding just a 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena’s shores are 27 tiny coral islands, coarsely clustered into the shape of a Rosary.

Islas Del Rosario, one of Colombia’s 46 Natural National Parks, is quite special to me for a variety of reasons. It is the first trip that opened me to the concept of spontaneity whilst traveling: as it was a gift from my father, I knew nothing of the islands before arriving. As the boat pulled into the crystalline shores of Isla Grande, a pure, unadulterated wave of awe washed over me. I was not expecting this kind of splendor from a country like Colombia, which has been repeatedly plagued by negative press from the outside world on its drug wars and political issues. I had no itinerary, no stipulations, no pre-searched images clouding my perception. All that was left was this island, and my imagination. Here is where it took me:

I discovered an infinitely vibrant and colorful underwater world snorkeling within the Caribbean coral reef of the Rosario Archipelago. My memory will always be graced by images of vast, deep trenches colonized by prairies of marine vegetation and schools upon school of unidentifiable fish. The water was crystal clear, and I could see everything; floating somewhere within the waters of the islands, I had private access to my very own Atlantis. I’ve always had an overwhelming respect for the ocean, mainly rooted in fear of its absolute power. I felt inexplicably serene as all ranks of aquatic life politely brushed past me. This was their world, and I was a visitor. Yet I was welcome.

Wander inland and you will find an enchanted lagoon, a mangrove forest, and a modest pueblo. It is difficult to tear oneself away from the flawless shores of Rosario, and fortunately most visitors didn’t, thereby eliminating the nuisance of tour groups. As I have learned over and over again throughout my travels, paying a local is the best way to learn the area from the inside out. My journey began with a bike ride through the pueblo; it was humbling and sobering to witness the poor conditions in which, shy of a 10-minute ride from swarming luxury, most natives lived. It becomes increasingly jarring to accept that such harsh realities could exist within seemingly perfect worlds. But, that is a discussion for another entry.

Woven within Isla Grande is a canal enveloped by mangroves, with a passage so tight it can only be accessed via canoe. All that was ahead was a jungle of roots and their reflection in the water, woefully wrinkled by our presence. I had to wait for nightfall for my next discovery: Laguna Encantada, a lagoon inhabited by bioluminescent plankton. At first glance there is just the darkness and silence of a moonless night. Run your hand along the silky surface of the water, however, and a trail of luminescence will follow. Don’t even bother taking photos; it won’t do justice to the magic. Strip off all of your clothes, dive into the water, and delight as every movement catalyzes the fluorescent glow of green against indigo.

Rent a boat and spend the entire day exploring the remote islands of the Archipelago. There are dozens of beaches boasting turquoise water and pearly white sand, and it is quite easy to find one that is isolated. Some islands are so tiny they only accommodate one home. The beachfront real estate was an interesting mix of luxury hotels, cabanas for rent, and massive, decrepit mansions formerly owned by the drug lords of Pablo Escobar. Local fishermen can be spotted from all directions – I was able to flag one down and eat some of the freshest, most reasonably priced lobster I ever tasted. Flavored with nothing but a spritz of lemon.

What I won’t forget about this place was the gripping sense of serenity and security that accompanied me. For those few days, I didn’t have a single problem in the world. The privacy of the island was truly special – this was what it felt to travel with yourself, without sharing your space with faceless crowds.

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