San Bernardo is an archipelago of ten islands forming half of Colombia’s ‘PNN Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo’ and are situated two hours off the coast of Cartagena in the Caribbean sea.
The islands are a well known destination for holidaying Colombians however are pretty off-the-beaten track for the regular tourist trail. While planning our trip to Colombia this summer I kept coming across mentions of them from backpacker friends but could find little information about them online. All I knew was that they were secluded islands with paradise beaches and off the beaten track – exactly what I was looking for!
I read traveler forums which suggested staying on the main land in Cartagena or Tolu and visiting the islands on a boat tour. The tours spend the day island hopping, finishing up on Isla Murcura for lunch and sunbathing time, before taking you back to the mainland before evening.
Following the crowds and organized tours aren’t really my vibe. And I wanted to spend at least a week on the islands not one day. So we decided to break away and visit the islands our own way. Organization was a little difficult but the adventure meant we got to stay longer, bond with the locals and experience real island life.
Here is my guide to travel the San Bernardo islands like a pro…
How to Get There…
From Cartgena take a two hour bus ride along the coast to Tolu. (Side Note: Tolu makes a great place to spend the night if you want to see some authentic Colombia culture.) From here jump on a morning boat tour visiting the San Bernardo Islands. The tours last for a day but speak to your boat driver, explain where you want to be dropped off and schedule a day for them to come and collect you back. It costs a little more for a ticket this way but the drivers are more than happy to oblige and its worth the extra cost to see the real beauty of the islands.
Where To Stay…
The main islands to sleep on are Isla Palma, Isla Tipitan or Isla Murcura and most of the accommodation options available are luxury resorts. I much prefer hippie places with chilled out vibes, and after a lot of research I scouted out these three cool options.
Hostel Isla Murcura. Our hostel of choice, we stayed here for ten days and loved it. The hostel has a private beach and stilted cabanas overlooking the sea. The bar and restaurant serve amazing food and the guys who work there are super cool. There is no wifi so you can disconnect and spend the days swinging in hammocks and drinking fresh coconuts.
Casa En Nel Agua. Located just off Isla Tipitan the hostel is build on stilts surrounded by sea and coral reefs. This place looks cool if you want to stay somewhere totally unique.
La Playita Hostel. Located on the more secluded Islas Furte this hostel is great if you want some adventure and action. The hostel organize sufing, kite boarding and paddle boarding trips and offer private rooms, dorms and an open air restaurant and bar.
What To Do…
Chill. With no cars, roads or wifi there is little to do on the islands but chill, swing in hammocks and drink fresh coconuts. Read books, journal, sunbath on white sand beaches and swim in crystal clear waters.
Discover the Beaches. As well as our hostel’s private beach, Islas Murcura also has a public beach on the opposite side of the island. Though it fills up with visiting tours over lunch the beach has a family fun vibe and come 3pm when the boat tours leave you will have the place all to yourself again.
Take a Night Time Plankton Tour. Visit the mangrove lagoon on Isla Tipitan after dark and jump in the water to see the florescent plankton light up and glow around you. It looks like your are surrounded by hundreds of tiny stars!
(sunset views from hostel isla murcura)
What to Explore…
The Coral Reefs. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs and it’s possible to see amazing marine life by snorkeling just off the island. If you want something even more special organize a snorkel trip to ‘Chara’ an underwater gardens out at sea to view beautiful coral formations and groups of colorful fish.
The Coastline. Isla Murcura is tiny and it’s possible get around the island pretty easily. Go on foot to meet the locals and see the colorful shacks of the pueblo or rent a kayak and paddle around the islands for beautiful coastline views. Bring a snorkel to see some fish or stop on the public beach for a coconut half way around.
Isla Sucre. Neighboring island, Isla Sucre, is the most densely populated island on earth. Its 350 sq m is occupied by 500 people who live in a mass of colorful shacks and concrete. Explore the maze of alleyways weaving thought the community that is teaming with cooking smells, music, children playing, animals and generations of family living together.
(colorful shacks in the pueblo)
What To Eat…
Fresh Fish and Lobster Tails. Head over to the public beach and try the delicious food being cooked up by the locals. Choose from fish or lobster freshly caught and enjoy served with fried plantains, rice and salad.
Exotic Fruit Smoothies. Visit the drink vendors on the public beach to sample delicious fruit smoothies freshly blended from fruits picked from the forest. Choose guava, starfruit, passion fruit or mango – yum!
Local Seafood. Befriend local fisherman and restaurant owner Joel who works on the far end of the local beach and organize a fresh seafood catch for dinner. His home cooking is delicious and eating on the beach under the stars is a beautiful experience.
What to Bring…
Money. There are no banks or ATM’s on the islands so bring as much money as you need.
Snorkel and Mask. The islands are surrounded by beautiful coral reefs and its not possible to rent snorkels on the island so make sure to bring one with you.
Sun Cream and Bug Spray. Bring essentials like sun cream and bug spray with you from the main land. There is a tiny shop in the Pueblo used by the locals but it isn’t always very well stocked so if you think you are going to need something, bring it with you.
For more Colombia travel inspiration check out my post “7 Must Do’s in Cartagena”…