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Cartagena’s Crowded Shores: Unmasking the Reality with Idyllic Alternatives

Playa in Barú Cartagena

Updated on 03/22/2024

Dear reader,
I would also like to recommend our Cartagena travel guide, which offers a perfect overview of the tourist attractions in Cartagena. Enjoy reading it!

The Beaches of Cartagena

Cartagena, a vibrant coastal city in Colombia, boasts several beaches within its city limits, each offering a unique experience:

  1. Bocagrande Beach: Located just 5-10 minutes by taxi from the city center, Bocagrande is surrounded by tall skyscrapers and features fancy restaurants and beach resorts. It’s one of the most touristy beaches in Cartagena, characterized by its abundance of plastic seats, tents, umbrellas, and street vendors​​.
  2. Laguito Beach: This beach is similar to Bocagrande but quieter and more pleasant, with fewer street vendors. It’s located 10-15 minutes by taxi from the city center and offers easy access to visitors​​.
  3. La Boquilla Beach: Situated just after Cartagena, La Boquilla is a wide beach in a small fisherman village, used even by cars and buses as a road. It’s less crowded with skyscrapers, tourists, and street vendors, providing a more serene experience. The beach is about 20 minutes away by taxi from the city center​​.
  4. Manzanillo del Mar Beach: This beach is further out from the city center, offering a more spacious and less crowded environment compared to the beaches closer to Cartagena​​.

In-Depth Look at Cartagena’s Beach Issues

Cartagena’s beaches, despite the city’s historical allure and cultural richness, grapple with several challenges that detract from the idyllic beach experience. Here’s a deeper exploration of these issues:

Detailed Analysis of Cartagena’s Beach Issues

1. Overcrowding:

  • Data and Details: Cartagena’s popularity is reflected in its tourism statistics. In 2019, the city welcomed over 530,000 foreign visitors and 1.36 million Colombian tourists. This high influx, especially during peak seasons, leads to beaches that are densely packed, often with little room for privacy or relaxation.
  • Cruises: In the 2023-2024 period, Cartagena is expected to receive over 470,000 visitors via cruise ships. This number includes more than 320,000 passengers and over 150,000 crew members
  • Impact: Overcrowding leads to overuse of beach facilities, increased littering, and a general decline in the quality of the beach experience. The serene beach environment many seek is replaced by a crowded, noisy setting.

2. Environmental Concerns:

  • Pollution: Despite initiatives to keep the beaches clean, the volume of visitors contributes to significant litter problems. Reports indicate a rise in beach garbage, including plastics and other non-biodegradable materials.
  • Water Quality: The change in water color and quality, primarily due to sedimentation from the Magdalena River, has been a longstanding issue. The once-clear waters are now often murky.

3. Tourist Fraud and Exploitation:

  • Overpricing: Common complaints involve being excessively charged for drinks and food. There have been instances where a beer is priced at 25,000 pesos, nearly ten times its regular cost.
  • Aggressive Sales Tactics: Many tourists report being persistently followed or pressured by vendors, leading to uncomfortable experiences.
  • Specific Incidents: As reported by El Tiempo, a masseuse charged an elderly woman for a “free” trial massage, leading to a legal altercation. Such incidents exemplify the unexpected situations tourists can face.

4. Safety Concerns:

  • Theft and Security: The beaches, especially less monitored areas, have been known for instances of theft and pickpocketing, raising safety concerns for visitors.

Real Traveler Feedback:

  • TripAdvisor: A visitor mentioned, “The beach was too crowded, and we were constantly approached by vendors. It was impossible to relax.”
  • Google Reviews: Another noted, “Beautiful city, but the beach experience was underwhelming due to the dirty water and the sheer number of people.”
  • Travel Blogs: A blogger wrote, “While Cartagena’s architecture is stunning, the beaches were a letdown. Overpriced services and the lack of cleanliness were major drawbacks.”

Exploring Coastal Escapes: Discovering the Best Beach Alternatives to Cartagena

Cartagena’s urban beaches often fall short of expectations, but Colombia’s Caribbean coast is dotted with stunning alternatives. From the crystal-clear waters of the Rosario Islands to the serene beauty of the Barú Peninsula, the tranquil Archipelago of San Bernardo, and the charming Rincon del Mar, let’s dive into these idyllic escapes.

Also check out our recommendations for the best beach hotels in Colombia.

Tips for Booking Tours to a beach or an island

1. Research and Select Reputable Tour Companies

  • Online Reviews: Before booking, check online reviews and testimonials from previous travelers to gauge the reputation and reliability of the tour company.
  • Recommendations: Ask for recommendations from your hotel, local residents, or travelers who have had positive experiences.

2. Be Clear About Your Desired Tour Experience

  • Specific Requests: Clearly communicate what you are looking for in a tour, whether it’s a quiet beach day, a cultural experience, or an eco-friendly excursion.
  • Avoiding Tourist Traps: Explicitly state that you’re not interested in tours that focus on souvenir shopping or unsolicited stops, like the aquarium if that’s not in your interest.

3. Understand the Itinerary Before Booking

  • Detailed Itinerary: Ask for a detailed itinerary of the tour, including all stops and activities. Ensure that it aligns with your interests and expectations.
  • Hidden Costs: Inquire about any additional costs that may not be included in the tour price, such as entrance fees or transportation charges.

4. Avoid Street or Harbour Impulse Bookings

  • Pre-Planning: Whenever possible, arrange your tours in advance rather than making spontaneous bookings at the street or harbour.
  • Verification: If you do consider a street or harbour vendor, verify their credentials and legitimacy. Check if they are licensed and ask for references.

5. Be Wary of Aggressive Sales Tactics

  • Pressure to Buy: Be cautious of vendors who use high-pressure sales tactics. A reputable tour operator will give you space to make an informed decision.
  • Shop Around: Don’t hesitate to compare different tour options. This will help you find the best experience that suits your preferences and budget.

Drone photo of Rosario Islands

Beaches of Rosario Islands: A Caribbean Jewel

  • The Rosario Islands, situated off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, are a stunning archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. This group of islands is renowned for their pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and lush tropical scenery. Here’s a brief overview of the islands and their key features:

    1. Isla Grande

    • Notable Feature: Playa Libre, known for its peaceful ambiance.
    • Activities: Ideal for snorkeling and diving, thanks to its vibrant coral reefs.
    • Accommodations: Offers a range of options from luxurious beachfront hotels to eco-friendly resorts.

    2. Isla del Encanto

    • Notable for: Its beautiful beaches and exclusive resorts.
    • Activities: Water sports, relaxation, and nature tours.
    • Accommodations: Upscale resorts and private bungalows.

    3. Isla del Pirata

    • Highlights: Secluded beaches and a more intimate atmosphere.
    • Activities: Snorkeling and exploration of local marine life.
    • Accommodations: Boutique hotels with a focus on privacy and tranquility.

    4. Isla del Sol

    • Known for: Sun-drenched beaches and lively beach bars.
    • Activities: Beach parties, water sports, and cultural experiences.
    • Accommodations: Ranges from budget-friendly hostels to mid-range hotels.

    5. Isla Múcura

    • Specialty: Secluded and less commercialized, offering a more authentic experience.
    • Activities: Kayaking, bird watching, and nature walks.
    • Accommodations: Eco-lodges and simple, rustic cabanas.

    Getting There

    • Mode of Transport: Fast boats available from Cartagena’s Muelle Turístico.
    • Travel Time: Approximately one hour.

    Each island in the Rosario Islands archipelago has its unique charm and offers a diverse range of activities and accommodations, making it a perfect destination for every type of traveler. Whether you’re looking for adventure, relaxation, or a luxurious getaway, these islands have something special to offer.

Barú Peninsula

The Barú Peninsula, situated close to Cartagena in Colombia, is a destination of stark contrasts, blending scenic allure with notable environmental concerns. Reflecting on my recent visit, I observed firsthand the inherent beauty of its beaches, reminiscent of a bygone paradise. However, present-day realities paint a different picture, mirroring the environmental challenges plaguing Cartagena’s beaches. Should you choose to explore this locale, exercise caution, particularly on the beaches. The area has seen a surge in water activities like boating and jet skiing, often conducted recklessly close to the shoreline and among swimmers, posing a significant safety risk. It’s important for visitors to stay vigilant to enjoy the beauty of the Barú Peninsula while safeguarding their well-being.

  • Getting There:
    1. Mode of Transport: By road or by boat from Cartagena.
    2. Travel Time: About an hour.
created by dji camera

Rincon del Mar: A Coastal Haven

Rincón del Mar, located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is a lesser-known yet captivating destination for beach lovers and those seeking a tranquil retreat. This coastal haven, with its long stretches of serene beaches and quaint atmosphere, is a gem waiting to be discovered. Here’s an overview:

Getting to Rincón del Mar

  • Mode of Transport: The primary way to reach Rincón del Mar is by road transport from Cartagena.
  • Travel Time: The journey typically takes about 3 to 4 hours, offering scenic views of the Colombian countryside and coastline.

Highlights of Rincón del Mar

Public Beaches

  • Description: Rincón del Mar is renowned for its beautiful public beaches. These beaches are known for their tranquility, offering long stretches of sand with fewer crowds compared to more popular destinations.
  • Activities: Ideal for sunbathing, beach walks, and enjoying the calm, Caribbean waters.

4. Beaches of Archipelago San Bernardo: Tranquility Redefined

Also check out our recommendations for the Best Hotels in the Archipelago San Bernardo.

The San Bernardo Archipelago, nestled in the Colombian Caribbean, is a tranquil and enchanting group of islands known for their natural beauty and serene atmosphere. Here’s a detailed description and list of the main islands in the archipelago:

1. Múcura Island

  • Description: Famous for its gorgeous beaches and crystal-clear waters. Ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and enjoying the sun.
  • Accommodations: Offers boutique hotels and eco-lodges, perfect for a cozy, intimate stay.

2. Tintipán Island

  • Description: A quiet island, perfect for those seeking a peaceful retreat. Known for its mangroves and rich natural environment.
  • Activities: Mangrove explorations and nature walks are popular here.
  • Accommodations: Home to several boutique lodgings focusing on sustainability and nature.

3. Santa Cruz del Islote

  • Known for: Being one of the most densely populated islands in the world, it offers a unique cultural experience.
  • Activities: Cultural tours and community interactions.
  • Accommodations: Limited, as it’s more of a day-trip destination.

4. Palma Island

  • Features: Secluded and less frequented by tourists, perfect for a private escape.
  • Activities: Ideal for snorkeling, diving, and enjoying untouched nature.
  • Accommodations: Limited, offering a more rustic and authentic island experience.

5. Panda Island

  • Characteristics: Small and tranquil, known for its pristine environment.
  • Activities: Bird watching, snorkeling, and relaxation.
  • Accommodations: Few, typically small and eco-friendly.

6. Ceycén Island

  • Highlights: Quiet and off the beaten path, it’s a hidden gem within the archipelago.
  • Activities: Nature exploration and peaceful beach lounging.
  • Accommodations: Mostly eco-lodges and simple stays.

7. Cabruna Island

  • Attractions: Rich in marine biodiversity, it’s a haven for snorkelers and divers.
  • Activities: Marine exploration and relaxation.
  • Accommodations: Limited, with a focus on integrating with the natural surroundings.

Getting There

  • Mode of Transport: Accessible by boat, with services from Cartagena or Tolu.
  • Travel Time: Around two hours from Cartagena.

Each island in the San Bernardo Archipelago offers a unique experience, from tranquil beaches and lush mangroves to rich cultural interactions. This makes it an ideal destination for travelers seeking a mix of relaxation, adventure, and cultural immersion in a serene Caribbean setting.

Are you also interested in my Blog about Colombia’s Most Stunning Beaches?

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About Author



Hello! I'm Frank Spitzer, the founder and the heart behind Pelecanus, a specialized tour operator for Colombia travel. My journey in travel is vast and rich – I've explored over 60 countries, absorbing cultures, experiences, and stories along the way. Since 2017, I've been channeling this wealth of global experience into creating unforgettable travel experiences in Colombia.I'm recognized as a leading authority in Colombian tourism, with a deep-seated passion for sharing this beautiful country with the world. You can catch glimpses of my travel adventures and insights around Colombia on my YouTube channel. I'm also active on social media platforms like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, where I share the vibrant culture and stunning landscapes of Colombia.For professional networking, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. Join me on this incredible journey, and let's explore the wonders of Colombia together!

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