Feel like enjoying the famous islands around Cartagena, and you would like to know if Isla Barú is worth it?
This island, the best-known of the Rosario archipelago, has pros and cons. You will find luxurious hotels in the middle of mangroves, paradisiacal beaches, and thousands of noisy tourists—depending on the season and the area you’ll visit.
After visiting Isla Barú many times since 2015, I finally decided to write a detailed guide for you to:
- Decide if you want to visit Barú Island.
- Learn to make the most of your trip.
- Discover the best hotels in Barú Island.
Many travelers are unpleasantly surprised by Isla Barú. It won’t be your case.
Grab your beach towel and vamos.
👉 Want to know everything about the Rosario Islands? To learn where are the best places, and avoid tourist traps and beginner’s mistakes? Nothing could be easier. I put it all together in our guide to the Rosario Islands.
Make the best decisions for your trip to Colombia
Since 2015, Adrien, Alejandra, and I (Tom) have been helping travelers explore Colombia. Every year, I spend thousands of euros to find the best experiences and allow you to contact these agencies directly! Our analysis and feedback will teach you how to travel smartly in Colombia (no more silly mistakes)!
Isla Barú, Colombia: the takeaway
I know your time is precious. Here is what you MUST know about Isla Barú:
- You can reach Isla Barú by sea or land (through a bridge). Count 1h to 1h30 from Cartagena, depending on where you plan to go.
- Most roads to the hotels are in bad condition (potholes and all). Better to have a 4×4.
- Playa Blanca is a beautiful white-sand beach, but there are way too many tourists, especially during the high season and the weekends.
- The coast NOT facing Isla Grande doesn’t have nice beaches.
- The best hotels are in the South of the island but avoid the ones in front of Isla Cholón (the party island) if you wish for a quiet stay. My favorite hotels are Las Islas (luxury), Sofitel (luxury), Isla El Encanto (resort), and Barú Playa Eco Beach Resort (mid-range).
- I’m not a fan of the day trips to Isla Barú except the one to the Aviary.
- 1 night in Playa Blanca will be enough, but if you decide to stay in a nice hotel in the South, you should stay at least 2 nights.
- Most of the hotels in Playa Blanca are basic (wooden walls, little water, and electricity cuts)
Where is Baru Island?
Surprisingly, Barú has something in common with the island of Manhattan!
It was once a peninsula connected to the mainland, South of Cartagena de Indias. Human beings dug a canal to make shipping easier, creating the island of Barú as we know it today.
Therefore, Barú technically isn’t part of the Rosario Islands chains at all. Practically, however, people consider it to be the biggest Rosario Island, and it’s often treated as such.
👉 It’s important to note that there are no ATMs anywhere in Isla Barú. Please be sure to bring cash in large quantities with you!
Is Isla Barú worth visiting?
You might love the experience. But you have to be prepared and informed. There is definitely a right and wrong way to visit Isla Baru, which is why I give these travel tips!
If you want a tropical paradise with incredible beaches, head straight to the side facing Isla Grande.
The biggest of these beaches is the famous Playa Blanca. But be aware that it’s generally not worth going to this beach just for a beach day trip. If you go during peak hours (10 am – 3pm), the beach will be crowded and full of touts, boats, and jet skis.
Also, a bridge allows you to cross over by land. This is an excellent option if the seas are rough or you prefer to avoid boats for any other reason.
What to do in Isla Barú
As you might imagine, the island is chock full of places to go and things to see and do. As we mentioned before, though, some areas and activities are much more worth it than others. Here are some notes and pro tips to make your experience one you will remember happily:
Playa Blanca: the most famous beach
This beach, besides being famous, is huge and, indeed, quite beautiful. It does have the white sand beaches and crystalline turquoise water people look for. Unfortunately, it has been over-discovered by the tourism industry.
I already mentioned that going on day trips here is not the best idea. In addition, you want to absolutely avoid any public holidays in Colombia and any weekends, especially long weekends.
You will have endless options to stay at no-frills hotels. However, I find that you don’t even get what you pay for at these places. This is still a much better option than day trips, though.
You will experience the beach at sunset and the following sunrise, which are the best times to be on the beach. Around 9-10am, the people coming on day trips begin to arrive, and it gets crowded once again.
You do also have the option of driving a vehicle in; this is what many, many Colombian families do, in fact. They sometimes come all the way from Bogotá or even further away. This is a complicated proposition, though. There is lots of traffic, and you get swarmed with people trying to get you to park in their private parking lot.
The northern part of Playa Blanca is called Playa Tranquila and is definitely more tranquil. There is a bit of a tradeoff, though. The sand is rocker and not as nice – although the water is still beautiful here. You will also have to walk a good 20 minutes to get here from the nearest parking spot.
Where: 1 hr from Cartagena, Colombia.
Playa Tortuga: the alternative to Playa Blanca
This is another option for people trying to avoid the hustle and bustle of Playa Blanca. However, there are some drawbacks to Playa Tortuga.
Since this is on the inland side of Isla Barú, the water is slightly brackish because it is near the mouths of the rivers nearby. Because of this, I don’t think planning a full-day trip there is worth it. You can eat at the local restaurant. The food is OK, but nothing spectacular.
Colombian National Aviary: lots of beautiful birds
Even if you go to Barú for the beaches, you should not discount this beautiful place, known in Spanish as the “Aviario Nacional de Colombia”.
There are two good ways to do the Aviary. You can either show up around 9-10 am or at 2 pm or so. Either way, this will give you time to explore before catching the live bird shows (!), which take place at 11:30 am and 3:30 pm. The shows last around 15 minutes each.
Overall, this place is incredibly well-run, and I can’t recommend it enough. They get extra points for receiving birds rescued from illegal trafficking operations.
The Aviary hosts many exotic bird species from all over Latin America on seven hectares. This makes for a total of 2000 birds in some 190 species.
They take special care to tailor the local flora and fauna to meet the needs of all the species residing there. They have an extensive system of walking trails allowing patrons to access all these diverse spaces easily. This will take you through the desert, coastal and rainforest zones. You will want some 3 hours if you want to see everything here.
One downside is that this place is hard to get to unless you rent your vehicle. However, you can book this tour, and they will take care of everything for you.
- Lots of beautiful birds
- You arrive early at Playa Blanca
- End around 3 pm & bumpy road
Beach clubs and day passes
Many different beaches in Isla Barú, including sections of Playa Blanca itself, are privately owned, usually by a hotel. These hotels are more than happy to sell tourists day passes to these beaches. This allows people to avoid, at least, the worst of the overcrowding and the incessant touts.
Mambo beach club, Playa Blanca
This place allows tourists to use their facilities at a minimum per-person consumption. The charge itself is not overly expensive. Just keep in mind that you will have to find your own way to and from Cartagena, as Mambo doesn’t do transportation. Or you can book this tour.
Their stretch of beach is nice enough, although there are little pebbles mixed in intermittently with the otherwise pristine white sand. There are still too many vendors on the beach for my tastes, though, although it is better than the rest of Playa Blanca.
The staff, facilities, and food are all good enough to make this option worth it, in my opinion.
- Very friendly guides
- The beach club is a little less crowded than the rest of Playa Blanca
- Transportation is not comfortable
Isla del Encanto
When I say it’s worth staying overnight in Barú, there is no better example than Isla del Encanto.
You can get a day pass to visit this place, complete with round-trip transportation. However, there are two good reasons to stay at the hotel instead. If you come on a day pass, you will arrive around 10 am and leave at 3pm or so. This only gives you a mere 5 hours there, which I don’t think is enough.
Also, overnight guests get their own separate incredible beach area and dining facilities; if you come on a day pass, you won’t have access to these more private and exclusive areas. This is especially important because the beach here is not that big.
My friend stayed overnight, and the food, beach, and service were all excellent; pleasantly surprising, in fact. The hotel also has its own pool. There are no crystal clear waters here, though.
If you want to do this tour, try and go when the moon is new; it’s much easier to see the effects of the bioluminescent plankton this way.
Most hotels will schedule this tour for you during the evening hours. You will go to a mangrove forest area on a speedboat, which will take around 2 hours.
The best way to see the plankton light up is to swim and wear a mask while doing so. The plankton will light up when the water gets stirred up.
Barú, the main town on the island
This town was originally a palenque. This means it was originally a fort constructed by enslaved people who escaped Cartagena. Today, some 20,000 or so people live on the island, in and out of town.
It’s certainly worth a look, especially for its houses, which are painted mainly in bright Caribbean colors. If you want budget hotels, you will easily find them available in town as well.
You can get there by taking an hour and a half’s journey from Cartagena using a taxi or Uber, but I don’t know if it’s worth it. You can also, of course, take a boat.
The best reason to go to the town of Barú would be to find short boat tours from there. You can go to the best beaches for a very nominal price. Or, you can explore the island’s plentiful mangrove forests.
Tour to the Rosario Islands
👉 if you stay overnight in Barú, you may get approached to do this tour with a local agency. Please do not do it!
Most of these tours will have dozens, even over 50, people on them. You will spend most of your time on a small boat, crammed like sardines. You will snorkel in these large groups. This is guaranteed to scare away most of what would be interesting to see while snorkeling.
Some hotel tours are worth it, but make sure it’s a small group and allow ample time to enjoy the tour’s destinations.
Snorkeling and diving
Barú is not the world’s greatest place for snorkeling or scuba diving.
The mass tourism, which has been going on for decades, has unfortunately done a number on the local coral – they are fighting an uphill battle to recover it. Also, the waters have been depleted mainly of their marine life. Climate change, unfortunately, is not helping matters.
If you really want to do this, I recommend visiting Isla Grande. You can do this as an excursion from many of the hotels in Isla Barú.
More water activities
Many consider renting a jetski to tool around Playa Blanca or other parts of Isla Barú. I do not recommend this.
This is because, firstly, it’s expensive, and not good value for your money. But also, it’s crowded and more than a bit dangerous because of how many swimmers and boaters are around the island.
Especially local boaters often have the annoying and scary habit of going way too fast, too close to the shore, and leaving massive wakes that could easily cause a jetski accident, even if you are trying your best to drive defensively.
You can also rent kayaks and paddleboards.
Where to stay in Isla Barú
As you can already see, there are a lot of options for areas to stay. Here are the positives and negatives of most of them:
1# Which areas?
→ Playa Blanca: You can stay right on the beach here. You will have an easy time getting there from Cartagena, and, of course, the beach is right there. There are some pretty bad drawbacks to doing this, however.
- Most of these beach eco-hotels don’t have electricity or AC at all during the day.
- You will have to flush the toilets by using a bucket of water.
- Water pressure in the showers is next to nothing at times.
- The cabins are spartan. It’s one small step above camping out in the wilderness.
→ North of Isla Barú: Staying in this area means having two hotel options: the Sofitel and the Decameron (Sofitel is a lot better)
These areas are the closest to Cartagena and usually take 40 minutes to get to by boat – usually arranged directly with the hotel and part of a tourist package they sold.
You will benefit from staying in a private hotel, including the all-important private beach access. Both hotel beaches have beautiful sand and water and none of the beach touts.
There are other beaches on the Cartagena side of the island. These, as previously mentioned, are even less crowded, but the sand and water aren’t outstanding.
→ South of the island: If you go here, I recommend just going by boat, as the road is usually atrocious. If you do go by land, rent out a 4×4 to make sure you don’t get stuck!
This area is almost mainly composed of private beaches, where you will only get to use the beach owned by your particular hotel. Make sure you choose wisely because of this.
Also, remember that the westernmost of these hotels will be within earshot of Isla Cholón, which is extremely noisy.
You have access to the town of Barú here, with its hotels. These are also very spartan, and during the weekends, the noise is very intense—locals party hard over there.
2# Best hotels in Isla Barú
You’ll find a quick overview of my favorite hotels in Isla Barú in this section.
Las Islas: The ultra-luxurious hotel in the South of Isla Barú
- Luxurious experiences
This is the absolute most expensive resort spot in all of the Rosario Island chain. If you have the money, though, it may be worth springing for it.
The place is set up so that each of the 57 villas in the resort is private. Some are built into the treetops, others along the ocean, and others close to the sea, with private pools. Different villas have different sizes, amenities, and, of course, prices.
Service is, naturally, top-notch—albeit a bit slow (Caribbean time, bb). Activities are, as well. Just be prepared to pay top dollar for all of this. You can even arrange to come and go by helicopter if you wish.
You can also go to a sandy island called Isleta from this place – it’s a 5-minute boat ride, and it’s actually free! The actual hotel beach is nice but also small.
The area is very spread-out, so you can use complimentary bicycles to get around if you like. They also have golf carts available.
Sofitel: The luxurious hotel in the north of Isla Barú
- Many pools and beautiful property
- Amazing private beach
- Expensive food
This is the newest addition to the highly-competitive hotel milieu in Barú; it has been open for just over a year. I love this place; it’s officially considered a 4-star hotel but has the amenities of a 5-star.
The hotel has no less than 4 pools for the guests to enjoy. There’s also a sauna, a 24-hour gym, and a stunning spa with a full range of spa services. The rooms themselves are stellar; they are the very definition of comfort.
Some friends were not impressed by the 3 restaurants on-site (Humo being the best one), especially for those price tags.
Another common complaint is that the staff, while very friendly, sometimes take a long time to attend to guests’ needs.
Barú Playa Eco Beach Resort: a mid-range hotel in the South of Isla Barú
- White-sand beach & turquoise waters
- Excellent value
- Narrow dish selection on the menu
I think this hotel represents excellent value for your money, and I highly recommend this place.
The biggest point in favor of this place is that it is really extremely private—no day trip people or beach vendors whatsoever. This place is very close to total relaxation.
It takes 1h30 to get there from Cartagena (1h15 drive + 15 min boat ride from the town of Barú). The hotel can arrange transportation for you (for a steep price)
This place has excellent food. Just keep in mind that the menu could be more varied. Everything is as fresh as can be, though.
👉 A good pro tip for this place, and all of Isla Barú in general, is to bring your own bottled water. The tap water on the island is not drinkable anywhere, and it’s costly to keep buying bottled water at the hotels.
The sand and water of the hotel beach are nice enough. This isn’t crystal clear water; it’s a little dark in color compared to the island’s nicer beaches. The beach is a bit rocky.
Playa Manglares: A mid-range hotel in the north of Isla Barú
- Delicious food
- Peaceful and easy to reach
- Not the best side of Barú
This is an excellent place for people just looking for peace and who don’t care about trips, amenities, or the beach.
The best part of Playa Manglares is definitely the food. It’s freshly prepared from scratch and incredibly delicious. I especially recommend the snapper (pargo), fish and chips, carimañolas, and smoothies.
The beach isn’t the hotel’s asset. It’s swimmable but very rocky and the water is kind of murky. As I said before, this place is best for just coming to relax and eat.
The staff offers excellent customer service, and the private rooms are beautiful. There is no air conditioning, though. Also, there are a lot of mosquitos, especially in the evening.
Remember that there isn’t a lot of space there (part of its charm), so book your room well in advance if you’re coming during the high season.
Nena Beach Club: A budget hotel in Isla Barú
- Swimming pool and beach facilities
- Nice rooms
- Crowded beach & loud area
This budget option has some excellent features for its price, including a swimming pool. It is very well set up and has nice decor and good service. The pool is, of course, private, but the adjoining beach is public. You can rent lounge chairs on the beach at a discounted rate of 50,000 COP if you are a hotel guest.
If you are looking to relax, it’s better to look elsewhere. The music tends to be on the loud side here, and the area is quite busy. Also, the restaurant isn’t nearly as good a deal as the hotel itself— too high for what you get.
Isla del Encanto: a resort hotel in the South of Isla Barú
- Modern & comfy bungalows
- Excellent facilities
- Drinks aren't included
This place is every bit as beautiful and exclusive as you would expect from a resort of this nature. It’s also one of the rare all-inclusive resorts you will find anywhere in Colombia. All food and most activities here are included in your price. You will have to pay extra for drinks, however.
👉 This is another place where bringing lots of bottled water is an excellent idea. You get one small water bottle with each meal and pay extra for any others.
The rooms here are stunning, and some of them allow you to jump right into the water from the room. The water, by the way, is clear and shallow, perfect for swimming.
The hotel is located close to the town of Barú itself. This is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, exploring the city from the hotel is easy. The negative side is that, on weekend evenings, you can hear the noise from all the parties in town from the hotel.
Where to eat in Isla Barú
Generally, you will eat at your hotel when staying in Barú. It’s not convenient to do otherwise.
In Playa Blanca, restaurants offer similar meals: fish, chicken, plantains, and rice. The price is high for Colombia. Don’t forget to ask for the price before ordering and the bill before paying.
👉 If you are coming by private car, you can stop at Playa Manglares or Playa Tortuga to get a meal at one of these places. I consider them to be the two best restaurants in Barú.
How to get to and around Isla Barú
There are many options to reach Baru Island from Cartagena!
Rent a private boat
This is the best option.
I especially recommend this for people staying on the island’s far side (from Cartagena). It lets you visit the Rosario Islands first and then check in at your hotel as your next destination. Talk to our local partner Aymeric to set this up or get further info.
Since 2015, Tomplanmytrip (us) looks for the best local agencies in Colombia and put you in direct contact with them.
- Avoid the crowd
- Best Prices. Quick answers.
It’s sometimes a good idea to take a taxi from Cartagena.
Depending on traffic, this will usually take an hour or more and will cost around 25-30 USD to get to the Playa Blanca area.
The road gets very bad if you go anywhere south of Playa Blanca. Many taxi drivers will simply refuse to take the trip or could charge you up to an extra 30 USD to go to these points.
The cheap (and dangerous) way
You can also get a bus and moto-taxi to take you to Playa Blanca.
First, you must jump on a bus in Cartagena and stop at Pasacaballos (count 1h to 1h30). Then you must take a moto-taxi (never recommended) for another 30-minute trip to Playa Blanca.
A low-quality boat tour
There’s no shortage of tour operators selling boat tours to Playa Blanca from Cartagena. This is the first problem with them; you’ll be stuck with Playa Blanca as your only option in most cases.
You will find yourself waiting around half the morning before the boat is finally ready to board and eventually depart.
You will arrive at Playa Blanca to be set upon by armies of beach touts. You will swim among another army of other swimmers, combined with reckless jetski drivers and boats leaving massive wakes close to shore.
Before you know it, it will be time to go back. You’ll have to scramble to find your boat among yet another army of small boats all docked together. Very stressful.
I also do not recommend this option.
Private transportation by land
You can do this for a beach day trip using a private car. It will cost at least 100 USD to do this.
This is also a good option for people who aren’t beach fans and want to go to the National Aviary and have lunch somewhere on the way back.
Is Playa Blanca safe?
Playa Blanca is quite safe, as is Cartagena in general. You can do what you wish with little to no risk, including staying overnight there.
The biggest concern for visitors is simply the touts, who often charge ridiculous amounts of money for what they give you in services. This is sometimes jokingly called the “gringo tax.”
Best time to visit Isla Barú
Personally, I think the best time to visit is the “rainy” season, which runs from May through November. This is because this season in this part of the world still isn’t really that rainy.
Your risk for rain is greater, but if it does happen to rain, it rarely lasts for more than a half-hour to an hour, and then it’s “business as usual.”
On the other hand, from December to April, the winds on the Caribbean Sea are much higher, which means the sea is much rougher, and it’s more challenging to get around.
The times to absolutely avoid going to Barú are:
- Holy Week
- Weekends, especially long weekends (tons of these in Colombia)
- Any public holiday in Colombia
- From mid-December to mid-January
👉 Want to know everything about Cartagena? To learn where are the best places, and avoid tourist traps and beginner’s mistakes? Nothing could be easier. I put it all together in our guide to Cartagena de Indias.
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