The Best Least Known Place in the Rosario Islands: Islabela
We found a surprising gem of a place to lounge away the day on the Rosario Islands, it’s called Islabela. It is located on a small island, Isleta, west of Isla Grande of the Rosario Islands near Cartagena, Colombia. The Rosario Islands are among a protected coral reef with clear water, beautiful beaches, and good snorkeling opportunities, however, Islabela is a diamond among the jewels.
Islabela is a small, privately owned beach destination. The property is simple and elegant. It is made up of rows of umbrella-covered lounge chairs and reclining beds, a small dining area, a bathroom with running water, and a few bungalows where you can spend the night. We chose to simply stay for the day with a day pass.
Reserve a Trip
We learned of Islabela from Cartagena Connections, one of our favorite and most trusted Cartagena tour companies. (And they speak English!) A simple email to Catalina at Cartagena Connections was all it took to reserve a day trip to Islabela (email@example.com).
Start Your Day
We arrived at Puerta 1 (Gate 1) of the Muelle de las Bodeguitas (the main dock near Old Town, Cartagena) at 8:30am and were met by an Islabela representative who, after we paid the port’s required marine tax, directed us to the Islabela waiting area just inside the gate. The Islabela representative at the waiting area checked us in and gave us these cool fabric bracelets to wear for the day to identify us with Islabela.
Islabela does not have its own boat, like some of the larger establishments, so we were all ushered onto a respectable lancha (speed boat) with individual seats and plenty of life vests.
The trip to Islabela took approximately an hour as we snaked around the bay of Cartagena and traveled out along the north side of Tierra Bomba across open ocean. Land is in sight during the entire trip, and the boat ride is usually pretty smooth in the morning, but the trip back into Cartagena in the afternoon can sometimes be a little rough.
Say Hello to the Welcome Party
Upon arriving at Islabela, our boat was met by Islabela representatives who had placed a removable set of stairs into the water. You have to walk from the end of the stairs into the water a bit to reach the shore. Many of us removed our shoes, but there are many sharp coral pieces in the sand which caused a few of us to do a bit of a jig, hopping about carrying all of our beach-day paraphernalia while trying to not step too hard on the coral.
On the shore we were greeted with an iced sangria, pleasant music, and our choice of lounges and beds. The one thing that really made Islabela stand out from the majority of the Rosario Island day-trip places was the ambiance. They took great care in making sure it was a relaxing experience. The music is upbeat, but soothing and not blaring or pumping a disco beat like oh so many other places. The lounges and beds are comfortable and shaded. There are NO vendors trolling along the beach. They only have a couple of tables where local artisans display their wares, but they do not harass or even speak to you as you peruse their selections. And the 30 or so people who traveled with us for the day, were the only ones on the beach aside from the Islabela staff.
We spent the day lounging on the chairs and a bed, reading, napping, flying the drone for some good video footage, and dipping in the water when we got hot. We even snorkeled right off the beach itself. You can take a snorkeling excursion for an additional fee, where they take you to prime snorkeling spots I’m sure. But, we just brought our own gear and tooled around their beach area, especially under the nearby dock and rock outcropping. We saw a plethora of multi-colored fish, the largest purple sea urchins we’ve ever seen (approximately a foot in circumference), and two jellyfish. Yes, I said jellyfish.
Enjoy a Warm Meal
The price of the day trip also includes a hot lunch. The choices were grilled chicken, fried fish, and grilled fish. This came with a side of yummy coconut-flavored rice, fried plantains, and a salad. Plus, a small pitcher of aguapanela (which is essentially hardened sugar cane juice steeped in water) was served. My husband liked the aguapanela, but I chose my signature jugo de fresa instead.
We were sorry to see our day end when the boat captain honked his horn at 3pm, signaling that it was time for us to pack up and board the boat for home. But, I’m confident that we’ll return to this spot again in the future. And, maybe we’ll even bring the kids the next time…maybe.
Location: On the island of Isleta, just west of Isla Grande of the Rosario Islands near Cartagena, Colombia.
Owners: We have heard nothing but great things about the Belgian couple who owns the property, Yan and Allison. However, we did not have the pleasure of meeting them ourselves. Hopefully next time.
Reservations: Islabela does have their own website, so I’m sure you could contact them directly to reserve a day trip or an overnight reservation. But, at least for the day trip, it was super easy to contact Cartagena Connections to make the reservation. For an overnight trip, the easiest may be using booking.com, which is the go-to site for booking hotel rooms on the islands (especially if you'd like to do so in English).
Cost: The day trip through Cartagena Connections cost $150mil COP per person or approximately $50 USD (Cartagena Connections states that the normal price is $160mil COP per person, so reservations made through them are at a discount). Plus, there is a standard $16.500 COP per person marine tax that you pay in cash at the dock entrance (approximately $5-6 USD). If you want to do the snorkeling excursion, that would be an additional fee. Plus, there is a small menu of food and all drinks are additional too.
Lodging: We did not venture into the lodging area. I think there may only be three bungalows that at most sleep 3 people. And they do refer to themselves as an “eco hotel” or "eco glamping" which usually means limited accommodations such as perhaps no electricity or running water in the room. I'd contact them directly to be sure of the amenities before booking.