Would you believe that one of the best (affordable!) destinations for a Caribbean vacation is actually a part of Colombia? The Rosario Islands, located in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Cartagena, is an easily-accessible and budget-friendly destination with the white sand and clear water you’re dreaming of in a Caribbean vacation.
In this ultimate travel guide to the Rosario Islands, we share how to make the most of your trip to these paradise islands, including where to stay in the Rosario Islands, things to do, and how to get here.
Whether you’re visiting the Rosario Islands as part of a day trip – one of the best things to do in Cartagena! – or making this your primary vacation destination, you’ll love all this spot has to offer travelers.
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The Rosario Islands – known as las Islas del Rosario in Spanish – is a group of 27 islands located about an hour or so away from Cartagena by boat. These stunning Caribbean islands are home to clear water, white sand, and plenty of activities, whether you’re looking to kick back and relax or keep busy.
You’ll find a wide array of places to stay on the islands, ranging from basic hostels to luxury accommodations, offering incredible ocean views and access to swimming and water sports to enjoy this tropical paradise.
If you’ve never heard of the Rosario Islands before, you’re not alone. They’re some of the most under-the-radar, underrated islands in the Caribbean. However, with frequent, affordable flights between the U.S. and Cartagena, and the budget-friendly prices you’ll find on the islands, they’re among the best Caribbean destination for budget-conscious travelers.
Where are the Rosario Islands?
Located about 60 miles (100 km) southwest of the shore of Cartagena, the Rosario Islands are an easy day trip from Cartagena and a favorite excursion for visitors to the area.
The Rosario Islands are part of a national park (Parque Nacional Natural Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo) that consists mostly of islands and ocean off this section of Colombian coast, and is designed to protect the fragile ocean environment.
The Rosario Islands are close enough to Cartagena to be easily accessible by speed boat. The journey from Cartagena to the Rosario Islands generally takes around an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the type of boat you take to reach the islands – you’ll have plenty of options for how to get to the Rosario Islands, as they’re a popular day trip or overnight destination.
One benefit of the location of the Rosario Islands? While they are located within the Caribbean Sea, they are squarely OUTSIDE of the hurricane belt. Now, this doesn’t mean you’ll be totally immune to a rogue storm, you’ll have much more certainty if traveling during hurricane season (June through November) that you won’t have to postpone or cancel your travel plans.
Rosario Islands Map
Check out our interactive Rosario Islands map as you read through this article to get a better sense of the locations of the different islands that make up this archipelago, as well as the best hotels and things to do here.
I’ve also added in Cartagena and Isla Barú as reference points. Plus, some bonus destinations I haven’t covered in this article! Click around and even download it for your trip.
Are the Rosario Islands Worth It?
Yes, a visit to the Rosario Islands is definitely worth it! Whether you just have time for a quick day trip from Cartagena, or you’re planning a week-long getaway on a remote island, the stunning natural beauty of these islands is unmissable. It’s a fantastic budget Caribbean getaway to remember.
Of course, it’s best to spend at least one night in the Rosario Islands if you can fit it into your itinerary. You’ll have so much more time to enjoy the beaches and crystal-clear water, plus any of the unforgettable things to do in the Rosario Islands, if you are able to spend a night here. Spreading out your travel over at least two days makes such a difference.
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How Do You Get to the Rosario Islands?
There are plenty of different ways to get to the Rosario Islands, though the best one for you will depend on both your time and budget. Whatever your plans, you’ll be traveling here by boat… but which one?
Navigating travel to the Rosario Islands can be one of the most confusing aspects of traveling here – but it doesn’t have to be! These are all ways to get to the Rosario Islands:
1. Travel by Public Boat
Public speedboats to the Rosario Islands depart from Cartagena’s Muelle de la Bodeguita in the morning, with the last speedboat ferry leaving around 9:30 am for Isla Grande. This is the most economical travel option
Keep in mind that once you arrive to the main dock in the Rosario Islands (on Isla Grande), if you plan to stay the night or embark on another activity, you should have this planned in advance, as you’ll need transportation to get there. Hotels and hostels will have detailed information about how to arrive on their website or if you reach out to them directly after booking.
2. Book a Day Trip from Cartagena
Perhaps the best and most popular way to travel to the Rosario Islands is by booking a day trip from Cartagena. You can find all-inclusive day trips starting around $60 that will give you several hours on the water, zipping around to snorkeling spots and excellent beaches. Keep in mind, you can sometimes find less expensive trips, but they’ll often be very low quality, so be warned!
For the best day trips, I recommend booking ahead and avoiding the tour salesmen that often wander through Cartagena looking for tourists – these tours often pack unsuspecting travelers into tiny boats like sardines. Here are two great, quality options for day trips to the Rosario Islands:
3. Use a Day Trip from Cartagena as One-Way Transportation
Though less common, a great way to get from Cartagena to the Rosario Islands with the intention of sticking around to spend the night can actually be booking a day trip! Depending on the itinerary of the day trip, it may be more convenient to stick around and let the rest of the group return to Cartagena.
For example, say you book a day trip to the Rosario Islands that includes a stop at Hotel Islabela, a favorite spot for daytrippers. You could plan on spending the night there and making your way back by private boat or public ferry the next day, or a few days later! This is a great way to travel conveniently.
4. Travel by Private Boat
If you’d like to explore the islands with more freedom than a standard tour or excursion will allow, consider booking a private boat to cruise around the Rosario Islands. These can get pricey, but they’re incredibly well-done excursions and allow you to explore the best of the islands as you like.
Book ahead for the best rates and the most reliable tour operators.
Things To Do in the Rosario Islands
Go Snorkeling or Diving
Other than hitting the beach(es) in the Rosario Islands – a must for any visitor – one of the most popular things to do in the Rosario Islands is snorkeling or diving. With ultra-clear water and incredible corals and tropical fish to discover below the water’s surface, it’s a snorkelers dream destination.
Snorkeling will certainly be part of any Rosario Islands day trip from Cartagena, though if you’re staying at a hostel or hotel you’ll have plenty of options, too.
You’ll likely be able to swim and snorkel right in front of your accommodation, or hotels and hostels universally offer their own excursions to some of the best nearby spots for undersea exploration.
Practice Water Sports
This is the perfect spot for water sports like kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding. With mostly calm and flat waters, plus plenty of protected coves and areas of mangroves, there are plenty of great places around the islands for these water sports, and more.
If you’re interested in practicing water sports while in the Rosario Islands on a day trip, look for a day trip itinerary with a stop at a beach club, such as Hotel Islabela or other popular spots. These hotels will have the gear for you to rent and plenty of space for you to get out on the water.
If you’re staying at least one night in the Rosario Islands, even better. Hotels and hostels in the islands universally have water sports gear for rent, though check ahead with your accommodation beforehand if you have your heart set on one particular type of activity.
Swim with Bioluminescent Plankton
Imagine taking a dip in the ocean at nightfall and having the water light up all around you. This is a reality in parts of the Rosario Islands. Evening excursions to swim among bioluminescent plankton are some of the most popular in the Rosario Islands, and make for an unforgettable travel experience.
Party at Bora Bora Beach Club
If you’re looking for a bit more excitement, head to the Bora Bora Beach Club for an unforgettable beach party. There are popular day trips from Cartagena to Bora Bora for their beach parties, or you can visit from your accommodation on the Rosario Islands.
While it can get crowded during the high season, this just adds to the party atmosphere.
Visit Isla Barú and Playa Blanca
While not technically a part of the Rosario Islands, Isla Barú and its famous Playa Blanca are a popular spot to visit in the area. While Isla Barú (Barú Island) is called an island, it wasn’t always one – it was formerly peninsula, until the Spanish built a canal severing it from the mainland during the colonial era.
Isla Barú is home to plenty of hotels and beach clubs, as well as Playa Blanca, the largest stretch of white sand you’ll find on these islands. It’s a favorite (and affordable!) day trip destination.
Playa Blanca can get quite busy with day trippers visiting, so if you’re looking for more of a serene escape, either skip it or spend one night to enjoy the early morning and mid to late afternoons once the day trippers head back to the city.
Take an Islands Tour
If you’re not up for visiting Isla Barú and the famous Playa Blanca, consider booking an excursion around the rest of the Rosario Islands.
Hotels and hostels here organize regular small group and private excursions by boat around the islands for travelers to explore the many beaches, dive spots, and stunning natural areas the islands have to offer.
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Where to Stay in the Rosario Islands
Most places to stay in the Rosario Islands are affordable, considering what you’ll get for the money. While some hotels and hostels out here are more expensive than what you’d find in Cartagena proper, you will save significantly over Caribbean resorts and even standard hotels in other beachfront Caribbean destinations.
Many hotels and hostels on the islands include room AND board, though drinks are usually extra. When you book a place to stay in the Rosario Islands, make sure you understand what is included in your room rate. These are some of the best places to consider as you decide where to stay in the Rosario Islands.
If you’re looking for an excellent budget stay in the Rosario Islands, El Hamaquero Hostel should be at the very top of your list. Located on Isla Grande, this hostel is the perfect place to kick back on a budget, with a great mix of dorm rooms and private rooms, excellent and affordable excursions, and an incredible beachfront.
Plus, the hotel is very eco-friendly, using solar panels for energy and taking all kinds of measures to protect the lush environment and stunning ocean for years to come.
Hotel IslaBela ($)
The stunning Hotel IslaBela is the best value for your money in the Rosario Islands. Offering standard rooms and affordable bungalows, even backpackers can enjoy what feels like a much more luxurious hotel than the check would leave you to believe. The beachfront is stunning, the staff is helpful, and the food is delicious.
Be aware that during the day, daytrippers visit the hotel and make use of the beach and activities, meaning it can get busy during the high season, but the hotel clears out in the afternoon and is quite peaceful.
Hotel San Pedro de Majagua is a dream. With it’s stunning white-sand beachfront and daybeds, outdoor massage palapas, and innumerable hammocks spread out around the gorgeous and lush property, you’ll never want to leave.
The hotel has its own dedicated speedboat from Cartagena, which makes getting here a breeze.
Hotel Isla del Sol ($$ – $$$)
The Hotel Isla del Sol is one of the best places to stay in the Rosario Islands if you’re a mid-range to luxury traveler or would just like to splurge a bit on an unforgettable stay.
This small and friendly hotel has a stunning beachfront, excellent food, personalized service and attention, and the incomparable ocean views you can expect when staying in the Rosario Islands. Rooms are dreamy, though you’ll probably be spending more of your time on your balcony, in a hammock, or at the pool!