Where to enjoy sun and sand on your Cartagena vacation.
The old town of Cartagena is nothing short of spectacular–a colonial wonderland of domed towers and narrow streets kissed with the cool breeze of the Caribbean just beyond the city’s ancient wall. But while Cartagena is set so close to the sea you can literally taste it, actually swimming in those waters is a rookie mistake. Even the city’s “nicest” beaches in Castillogrande and Bocagrande are littered with garbage and swarming with relentless vendors. No, the answer to your Cartagena beach dreams lies not in the city, itself, but on the nearby islands and distant beaches that surround the Caribbean Peninsula. While it used to be something of an adventure to reach these distant shores for a day of tranquility, the local tourism industry has since stepped up its game. Now a number of hotels and beach resorts offer day passes that will keep you up to your eyeballs in sun, sea, and sand without requiring you to choose between spending your whole vacation on a quiet island or in the center of it all.
Blue Apple Beach House
This laid-back beach house evokes the sort-of mid-century luxury and fun-in-the-sun that once graced the spreads of long gone magazines with names like Travel Holiday and Venture. Through a door embedded in beachside foliage, a leafy green corridor draws guests to the multi-level wooden patio, set with ocean blue lounge chairs around a sparkling rectangular pool. On the semi-private beach, cabanas strung with gauzy curtains and wave-kissed, pillow-laden platforms offer a quieter counterpart to the bright, beachy music and boozy carousing above. Sumptuous lunches—think, seafood paella, octopus confit, and seabass carpaccio—are served on the stone patio that rings the stylish hotel. Book a day pass ($27/person), which includes boat transportation departing three times a day from Cartagena, or stay overnight in a rustically luxurious bungalow.
INSIDER TIPIf you prefer your beach day on the tranquil side, book a spot on the beach; the music poolside, while a great selection of new and vintage international tunes, is turned up to 11.
Bomba Beach Club
The bohemian vibes are strong at Bomba Beach Club, a slice of paradise with a view of the high-rises of Cartagena’s Miami-like Castillogrande. Here, seaside hammocks slung beneath thatch-roof pergolas are interspersed with colorful sunbeds, swing-beds, and chairs. The beach bar churns out fruity cocktails throughout the day—including a free one upon arrival—for enjoying seaside or on the freshwater pool’s retro patio. Day trips ($31/person) to Bomba include transportation (leaving every 30 mins from Castillogrande) and a “bonus” to put towards delicious Caribbean specialties like ceviche, baskets of stuffed plantains and grilled garlic lobster. Overnight guests have the option of spacious, air-conditioned rooms or cabins large enough to fit five.
Fenix Beach Club
The beach club approach at the Fenix is more down-to-earth than some of its Cartagena competitors. Wooden sunbeds, rustically-constructed pergolas, and Tulum-meets-Burning-Man-inspired globular sunshades face the gentle waves on the club’s palm-tree laden 215,000-square-foot beach. Further inland, the large pool takes center stage outside the hotel and its adjacent stand-alone wood cabins styled with shabby-chic simplicity. Sweat through a cocktail-fueled game of beach volleyball or ping pong or chill out in a hammock with tasty snacks inspired by Colombian, Spanish, Peruvian and Mexican cuisines. Day passes, with return transportation from Cartagena’s Marina Santa Cruz (about 15 mins each way) include lunch for around $35/person.
Eco Hotel Islabela
Located in the Rosario Islands, an archipelago protected as a national park in 1988, the Eco Hotel Islabela’s charm is in its solitude. At around 60 miles away from Cartagena (45 mins by speedboat), it’s the calm waters and white sand beaches around Islabela that draw guests here, not the party-hearty beach vibe found at some other resorts and clubs. Snorkel spectacular coral reefs, head out on a kayak to explore nearby inlets, or settle in with a free welcome drink on beachside loungers. As the “eco-lodge” moniker suggests, the Islabela is relatively no-frills, but the quality of the ultra-fresh seafood served at the restaurant-bar rivals that of the nicest Cartagena restaurants. Day trips ($68/person) leave from La Bodeguita dock in town.
INSIDER TIPEco Hotel Islabela prides itself on sustainability and is dedicated to providing local people with education in areas like customer service, ecotourism, language, and environmental management, as well as support for entrepreneurship in new and traditional activities.
Hotel Isla del Encanto
The Hotel Isla del Encanto is a family-friendly beach club located on a private island in the Rosario Islands National Park. Built along a thousand foot stretch of pristine beach, Isla del Encanto is among the most secluded of Cartagena’s beach clubs. Despite, or perhaps because of, its tranquility, this hotel holds its own when it comes to a day of sea, sand, and fun: Activities (some of which cost extra) run the gamut from snorkeling and scuba diving to paddle boating to beach volleyball. And while kids are welcome here, sunny cocktails and an outdoor spa are geared specifically to the grown-up set. Day tours ($63/person) include return transportation from town and a lunch buffet teeming with Caribbean-style meat, seafood, and veggie dishes.
INSIDER TIPFrom the Hotel Isla del Encanto (and from all the Rosario Islands beach clubs and hotels), the Oceanario, an open-water aquarium featuring sharks, turtles, dolphins, and a whole host of other Caribbean sea life on the nearby island of San Martin de Pajares is a quick and easy side-trip.
Aura Hotel Baru
Tucked between the forests and mangroves of Baru Island, the boutique Aura Hotel is a grown-up jungle house of luxurious proportions. The beach, located just outside the Rosario Islands National Park, is a window into some of Cartagena’s most serene, crystalline waters. Guests can soak up the tropical heat on sunbeds and loungers lining the white sands of the hotel’s private cove or borrow kayaks, paddle boards, and other sports equipment for a bit of friendly competition. An exquisite lobster lunch is included in each “deluxe” day pass (starting at $74/person), as is a change-of-scenery trip to the nearby beach of Agua Azul (optional); “premium” day pass (starting at $61/person) holders will gorge on fresh local fish or grilled chicken. Overnight guests will bed down in simple, clean suites, some with hammock-strung balconies.
The Cocoliso Resort is exactly that: An all-inclusive Caribbean resort with beautiful beachside views, a king-sized pool, and an outdoor spa. The family-friendly property showcases the best of the Rosario Islands and offers a bevy of activities to experience all the sea has to offer, including snorkeling and a guided canoe tour of the island’s extensive mangrove forests. Back on dry land, relax on a poolside lounger; when the sun gets too intense, just dive in and order a drink from the swim-up bar. The resort offers two different day pass options, both of which include a traditional lunch and return transportation from Muelle de la Bodeguita in Cartagena (approximately one hour).
INSIDER TIPFor certified divers, Cocoliso offers full-day excursions with two dives in the mesmerizing waters of the National Park. Book in advance for $81/person.
Hotel San Pedro de Majagua
With two different private beaches, one with loungers perched on a low rocky outcropping above the water, Hotel San Pedro de Majagua offers one of Cartagena’s more exclusive beach days. After an hour boat ride from town, settle in for a quiet day relaxing on the beach or frolicking through the Caribbean’s bathtub-warm waves. Lunch varies, an extravagant meal of whole fresh fish or grilled lobster, according to the day pass you choose (starting at $99/person). If you crave more time in this paradise of tranquility, well-appointed suites fit a minimum of three people and have solar-paneled showers, air conditioning, and private outdoor living rooms with hammocks and built-in couches.
INSIDER TIPThe Hotel San Pedro de Majagua hosts a PADI dive center that offers courses and mini-courses in scuba, snorkeling, and other water activities.
Kohsamui Hotel de Mar
Carefully crafted of renewable materials, the stylish Kohsamui offers a sophisticated take on the typical thatch roofs and wooden palapas of the Caribbean so inviting that is impossible to leave after just a single day. No, literally, it’s impossible—the Kohsamui doesn’t offer single day beach club passes—but trust us, it’s for your own good. Lounge in hammocks just meters from the lapping waves, or have an adventure kitesurfing, kayaking or fishing with locals at Manzanillo del Mar. Wake up with yoga and green juice and send the sun to bed with salsa nights and tropical rhythms at the seaside Xi-Xi, the hotel’s chic restaurant-bar. Bright, colorful rooms and an outdoor spa round out 24 unforgettable hours (or more!) of Cartagena’s best beach time, conveniently located just 20 minutes away from town via car.
Gente de Mar
The picturesque Gente de Mar is exactly what you’ve been envisioning for your vacation: sun, sand, and sea in a slightly whimsical, modern take on the Caribbean resort. Soak in the sun from beds and loungers set on a sliver of white sand beach and the clear, cool waters beyond. Order drinks and dinner from the nautical-themed bar or schedule a massage in the hotel’s outdoor spa. The trip to and from the island (45-minutes each way), traditional lunch and a welcome cocktail are included in the cost of a day pass ($61/person).