A few hours to the south of Cartagena, the San Bernardo Island chain remains somewhat of a hidden gem. Visited largely by locals and more off the beaten path than the better known Rosario Islands, the San Bernardo Islands boast some of Colombia’s prettiest beaches and crystal clear water. Read on for a practical travel guide to the San Bernardo Islands, Colombia where you’ll learn why you should visit, how to get there, what to do, where to stay, practical tips, and what to pack for Colombia’s San Bernardo Islands.
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Travel Guide to the Colombia San Bernardo Islands – Contents
- Why You Should Visit the San Bernardo Islands
- How to Get to the San Bernardo Islands
- What to Do in the San Bernardo Islands
- Where to Stay in the San Bernardo Islands
- Practical Travel Tips
- Packing List
Why Visit the San Bernardo Islands
Although not nearly as well known as Playa Blanca, and a bit harder and time consuming (you’ll have to spend at least one night) than the closer Rosario Islands, the San Bernardo Islands are absolutely worth visiting!
First, the islands themselves are stunning. The water is crystal clear and the small islands are covered in palm trees. The two main beaches, Tintipan Beach and Mucura, are among the prettiest in Colombia’s Caribbean. They also have larger beaches than anything you’ll find in the Rosarios. And while not as deserted as the unspoiled beaches of the Pacific, like those in Nuquí, they still draw considerably smaller crowds than Playa Blanca and the beaches in Cartagena.
Located off the coast to the south of Cartagena, they are a great stop over for people busing from Medellín or the interior to Cartagena or vice versa as well as those just looking for a couple nights escape from Cartagena. They are also the best place for a nearby beach vacation if you are living in Medellín.
You can visit the islands by day trips from the towns of Tolú and Rincón del Mar and there are a small handful of hotels and hostels in the islands. They are also accessible directly to and from Cartagena (more on all that below).
In all, the San Bernardo Islands are definitely worth visiting, and absolutely worth taking at least a day trip or even spending a few nights to see for yourself. If you’re convinced to visit San Bernardo, Colombia, yourself, then read on to learn how to get to the San Bernardo Islands of Colombia and plan your trip.
How to Get to the San Bernardo Islands, Colombia
You have 3 options for how to get to the San Bernardo Islands:
- You can take boats from Rincón del Mar, a small beach town a few hours to the south of Cartgena.
- You can take boats from the town of Tolú a bit farther south than Rincón.
- You can take a once daily direct speed boat from Cartagena to the San Bernardo Islands.
How to Get to the San Bernardo Islands from Cartagena
You can use any of the above three options to get to the San Bernardo Islands from Cartagena or to get to Cartagena from the San Bernardo Islands (more on all three below).
If you are stopping over in the San Bernardo Islands between Cartagena and Medellín or the interior, you can go to the islands from Tolú or Rincón. I’d recommend Rincón over Tolú as it’s got a much prettier beach, and you could easily spend a couple nights there as well or even stay there and just do a day trip to the islands.
If you are going to stay in the islands themselves and want to go directly from and to Cartagena, then the direct boat is probably the best option. You can also book the boat one way and use it for one leg of your journey if you are coming from or going to Medellín or the interior or if you’d like to spend a night or two in Rincón before or after the islands.
When we went, we went via Tolú and spent a night there as well as a night in Coveñas before returning to Cartagena. While the bus is of course cheaper, after paying for accommodations for the night you depart and before returning, it more or less evens out to the boat.
We also visited Rincón recently and thought it was much prettier than Tolú. Therefore, if you want to just spend a day in the islands, and stay somewhere else (which is considerably cheaper), I’d recommend Rincón over Tolú (more on each below).
How to Get to the Islands from Rincón
In Rincón, you can get a day tour to the islands. As of January 2020 the price is 50,000 pesos. This tour will stop for snorkeling as well as at Santa Cruz del Islote and the two best beaches at Mucura and Tintipán. This is another advantage of Rincón, as the tours out of Tolú do not include snorkeling and only go to one of Mucura or Tintipán.
Any hotel or hostel in Rincón should be able to set this up for you or you can ask around on the beach. Ask for Jordan who takes people or if he doesn’t have a full group, will set you up with another captain.
If you would like to spend a night or nights in the islands, arrange with the boat driver to come back and get you the day you plan to depart (I would also highly recommend getting a phone number and confirming the night before so they don’t forget about you). You do have to pay the full cost of the tour both ways (it’s the same in Tolú).
But..how do I get to Rincón?
As I noted above, if you just want to do a day trip to the islands and/or stay a couple nights elsewhere, I definitely recommend Rincón over Tolú. The one caveat is it is a tad trickier to get to Rincón.
To get to Rincón, you will need to frist take a bus to San Onofre. You can get buses to San Onofre from the bus terminals in Cartagena and Medellín. I imagine from Bogotá and the coffee region, you can also get buses to San Onofre. If there are not direct buses, you should definitely be able to get there via Sincelejo or Tolú.
To get to Rincón from San Onofre, you have to get a mototaxi. As of January 2020, the price is 10,000 pesos.
Where to Stay in Rincón
When we went, we stayed at Hostel Mamallena. It has a nice space on the beach with a great view of the sunset. It was one of the first backpacker hostels in Rincón and has some of the best prices. There are dorms as well as privates, there is a kitchen on site, and while the accommodations are basic, it’s clean and the price really can’t be beat.
How to Get to the San Bernardo Islands from Tolú
This is the main jumping off point for visiting the islands. The infrastructure is a bit more developed, but again, it’s not nearly as pretty as Rincón.
Boats leave daily from Tolú to the San Bernardo Islands every morning for day tours to Tintipan or Mucura. If you’re just going for the day, you can get it with lunch included. There are several different operators, and while there are set, uniform prices, we also heard of people negotiating better.
Like in Rincón, you can set up that the boat come back and pick you up if you plan to stay in the islands. Like in Rincón do have to pay the full price both ways (we paid 40,000 each way in July 2019).
But…how do I get to Tolú?
You can get to Tolú by bus from the terminals in Medellín, Bogotá, or Cartagena. If you can’t get a direct bus from where you are coming from, you should be able to get one in Sincelejo.
Where to Stay in Tolú
We stayed at Hotel Kevin’s. There was a nice pool, breakfast was included, the room was clean with good A/C, and it was a terrific deal. There are also group and family rooms available at the hotel. If you’re spending a night on the way in or way out of the islands in Tolú, definitely check out Kevin’s (check it out on Booking.com here).
How to Take the Direct Boat from Cartagena to the San Bernardo Islands
There is a daily speed boat that goes from Cartagena to the islands every morning. The boat is named Tranq it Easy and it leaves Cartagena at 9 am every day. The trip takes around 2 hours, and it departs to do the return trip from the San Bernardo Islands to Cartagena at 12 pm every day.
They will drop you off and pick you up from most of the main hostels and hotels in the islands. There is a maximum weight of 8 kg per person for bags.
The tickets cost 100,000 pesos each way (last price update: January 2019), and you have to pay a 18,500 entry fee to the national park that the islands are a part of upon departure only.
You do need to book in advance and pay at least 1 way per person to assure your spot, although it is possible to cancel for a full refund up to 72 hours before departure. Due to the current pandemic situation, they are allowing people to rebook to any date in 2020 or 2021 if your trip is cancelled due to the health situation (prices and cancellation policy last updated November 2020).
The nice thing is you can book one way as well. That means if you’re stopping in the islands while busing to the interior or vice versa, you can book the boat for you leg of your trip from Cartagena to the San Bernardo Islands.
You must book the boat in advance. Info on doing so can be found at their website.
What to Do in the San Bernardo Islands
See the Beaches
There are two main beaches in the islands, Tintipán and Mucura.
We preferred Tintipán of the two main beaches.
There’s more beach. There’s also more tables and sitting areas. Since we stayed in the islands, we were the first ones there the day we went, and even got to see the locals cleaning the seaweed up. They do a great job keeping the beach very clean, and it’s good to know that everyone employed here are from the local communities. Getting out to the beach early before all the people coming for just the day was another great part about staying in the islands.
The above is not to say that Mucura was shabby, because it wasn’t at all. While much of this island’s beaches belong to a small handful of hotels and hostels, there is a public area on a corner. There’s ample shade from the trees, and you could actually swim out a bit farther here than at Tintipan.
Overall, you can’t go wrong at either beach, although if I had to only choose one, I’d choose Tintipan. If you are going to stay in the islands and want to be on the beach, try Mucura as most of Tintipan Island is covered in mangroves, while Mucura has more beach.
Visit Santa Cruz del Islote
This is considered the most densely populated island in the world. About 500 people live in an area of approximately 100m x 100m.
The community was originally founded by a small group of fishermen over 300 years ago, and it has expanded over the years. However, it has unfortunately largely been neglected by the Colombian government. With no running water, only a primary school, one nurse, and electricity provided by solar panels gifted by Europeans, it represents the all too common reality of many of Colombia’s rural Afro-Colombian communities, compounded by being on an island.
If you come on a day trip to the islands, the boat should stop at Isolote where you can do an optional tour. Likewise, if you stay in the islands, I’m sure your hotel or hostel should be able to arrange a tour for you. Doing the tour is a great way to support the community as the money goes towards service projects. It is also an eyeopener.
Besides walking around town, you will visit a an “aquarium” on the tour. Really a concrete pen, you can swim with big nurse sharks (giant, harmless sucker fish basically). Instagram photos of this make it look both prettier and cooler than I thought it was, but the sharks also didn’t want to come off the bottom when we went. Still, it’s kind of neat to see them up close as well as all the other fish in the pen, and the small amount of money you pay to do it does benefit the community.
See the Amazing Sunset
This might be the thing we loved the most about where we stayed at Isla Roots Hostel (more on that below). They had a little deck back area that offered an amazing view of the sunset over the Caribbean.
However, I imagine any where you are in the islands will give you an amazing view of the sunset. If you just do a day pass and don’t spend the night, there is also a pretty neat sunset along the waterfront in Tolú.
Where to Stay in the San Bernardo Islands
Most people simply do the day trip and come back in the afternoon on the same boat. However, I’d encourage you to spend at least one night.
Besides enjoying the beauty of the islands, it’s a great way to away from it all and disconnect (literally because there’s hardly cell service). If you do want to spend a night (or three), you can check out below the best places to stay in the San Bernardo Islands, Colombia.
Isla Roots Hostel – Where We Stayed (on Tintipán Island)
We stayed at Isla Roots Hostel and couldn’t have been happier. It is located in the mangrove swamps of Tintipán a short boat ride from the beach. The accommodations are nice with hammocks, dorms, and private rooms available. The food was also good and the vibe was great. I also appreciate that the hostel is committed to employing a majority local work force and sponsors a youth soccer team from Islote. And that back area was also incredible for sunset. While not cheap, especially if you enjoy buying drinks, it is one of the better values in the islands. You can read my full review of Isla Roots here, read about their work in the community here.
*Full Disclosure: Susana and I were given free accommodations, some activities, and basic meals in exchange for sharing our experience.
Other Places to Stay on Tintipán Island
As the largest island, there are more places to stay in the San Bernardo Islands on Tintipán Island than the other islands. Here are a few more places to stay on Tintipán.
Quinta del Mar Tintipán – Luxury Hotel in the San Bernardo Islands
Most of the hotels in the San Bernardo Islands are more of a hostel vibe with basic accommodations given the isolation of the islands. However, if you’re looking for a more traditional hotel style place to stay, look no further than Quinta del Mar Tintipán. It is a gorgeous property (we actually stopped here on our boat ride out of Isla Roots and saw it ourselves) with all the modern amenities. It is on the pricey side but has terrific looking rooms, great reviews, and there are family rooms that can sleep up to 7, making it a great option for a place to stay in the San Bernardo Islands for families.
Hotel Puntanorte – Great Option Near the Beach
Hotel Puntanorte is located on a point at the northern end of the island (hence the name), not far from the beautiful beach front. With a big area on a mini-peninsula (the picture above says it all!), it offers a private beach area as well as family rooms that sleep up to 4. A restaurant on site makes it perfect for those looking for an escape.
Sal Si Puedes – Great Private Option on the Other Side of Tintipan
Located on the far side of Tintipan, Sal Si Puedes, besides having an awesome name (literally: get out if you can), has a beautiful space with its own beach. All the rooms also have A/C and the hotel is one of the newer ones on the island. The exclusivity of it (it’s the only one on this side of the island) would make it an especially great choice for where to stay in the San Bernardo Islands for a couple!
Places to Stay on Mucura Island
Mucura has its small public beach and the small town where the locals live, and about half of the island is made up of several hotels and hostels. They offer exclusive beaches and places to stay in the San Bernardo Islands.
Dahlandia – Great Budget Resort
With neat little beach bungalows, Dahlandia has pretty solid prices for a place that includes all your meals. Susana and I came very close to booking a night here to experience staying on Mucura as well, and I would strongly consider staying here if we went back to the islands. It’s got a neat looking vibe to it and also has its own little private beach.
Hotel Isla Mucura – Budget Hostel on Mucura
Despite its name, Hotel Isla Mucura is more like a hostel, and it offers both hammocks and dorms. It has a cool beach vibe with a volleyball net. That makes it a great place for more budget minded and younger travelers as a place to stay in Isla Mucura.
Places to Stay on Isla Palma
Located a bit closer to the mainland, there was originally a giant Decameron Resort built on Isla Palma. However, the building, made of wood, faced problems and had to be closed. There is now a newer resort as well as a hostel run by locals operating on the island.
The island has a very neat beach area and a marine biologist friend who has done some work in the islands told me the former Decameron Resort has a sort Jurassic Park overgrown look with animals (no dinosaurs) and vegetation having taken it back over.
If we go back to the islands, it’s something I’d like to check out. See below for where to stay in the San Bernardo Islands on Isla Palma.
Mistica Island Hostel – Hostel on Isla Palma
Located on the back side of the island, Mistica Island Hostel would be another great hostel in the San Bernardo Islands for budget travelers. They offer tents, hammocks, dorms, and privates, meaning they have something for everyone’s likes and budgets. This was actually the hostel my marine biologist friend recommended to me and she had great things to say, so it seems more than worth checking out.
Practical Travel Tips for the Colombia San Bernardo Islands
- There are no ATMs in the islands, so make sure you bring cash. There are ATMs in Tolú (in Rincón there are not).
- I would also double check with your hotel or hostel if they accept cards to pay or not before hand. Most probably do, but it’s worth being sure, and they may tack on a small surcharge.
- There was limited cell service, at least where we stayed on Tintipán.
- It’s worth keeping in mind the islands are an hour boat ride away from the closest small town with no running water or electricity. Most of the hotels and hostels will have limited times for generator electricity, showers, and things like wifi.
- For the same reason, you should expect meals even at the budget hostels to be in the pricier ranges for Colombia. It will, however, be super fresh. You are in the middle of the Caribbean in a pretty exclusive destination, make sure you are expecting that and budget for higher prices than in the cities. It’s not like you can go to the empanada stand down the street or hit the local supermarket for a can of tuna, so it may be worth asking before hand about meal prices so you have a clear idea of what to expect.
- At the beaches, based on our experience in July 2019, you should expect to pay 20-30,000 pesos for a fried fish plate, 50,000 for lobster, 5,000 for a beer, and 20,000 for a coco loco or piña colada.
- I would make sure you have your boat spots lined up and confirmed before hand. All of the hotels and hostels should have contacts to help if you need it.
Packing List for the San Bernardo Islands
Wondering what to take to the San Bernardo Islands? Here’s some suggested things to pack:
Useful Travel Gear
- If you need a travel bag, I love my Osprey Porter 46L Pack. It’s a good size that will be manageable on your lap on the boat to the San Bernardo Islands. You can carry it as a duffel (shoulder-strap is not included; I have this generic one). It holds a lot, especially if you use a set of packing cubes. It has straps for condensing it when it’s not completely full too. You can also check out the Farpoint 40L that is a tad smaller to comply with the strictest carryon requirements and has more padding on the backpack straps.
- I also love my Roam Packable Backpack. It packs into the small front pouch. That makes it perfect for stuffing into a bigger pack when traveling and carrying as a day pack. This is actually the first trip I used it on, and it worked perfect to hold my towel, water, sunscreen, and book when heading to the beach. It is also sturdier than I expected (you can see my full review here).
- The ladies might also like this cute drawstring bag that fits perfect with the island vibes.
- This 3 pack of waterproof bag, shoulder bag, and phone pouch would also be handy to protect your electronics or anything else you want to keep dry on the boat ride.
- This palm sized first aid kit may also come in handy for any cuts or scrapes you get while in the isolated islands.
- Remembering that most of the hotels have limited running water, some Pepto Bismol can come in handy if traveler’s stomach strikes while you’re enjoying all the fresh seafood in the islands.
- Finally, considering there’s no ATM and you’ll have to carry cash to the islands, a Pacsafe might be a good idea. You can get a larger, theft proof safe bag. Or for smaller options, you can get a bra pouch, a sling bag, or a necklace pouch to help keep your cash safe.
Accessories to Pack
- The crystal clear waters of the islands are great for snorkeling, and you can save on paying to rent by getting your own snorkeling gear.
- You’ll also want a good travel towel if you stay in a hostel. The Rainleaf Microfiber, one of the best quick dry, travel towels on the market.
- I love my RawWood Bamboo sunglasses. The green lenses are snazzy and perfect for the Caribbean. You can see my review of them here.
- You also don’t want to forget your sunscreen. I like Coppertone Sport as it seems to hold up well when swimming.
- You will also want bug spray for the evening as the mosquitos come out in force. My favorite is OFF! Deep Woods, which you can get in spray or towelette form.
- I really like my Takeya water bottle. It keeps things cold all day, perfect for carrying to the beaches in the islands. You’ll also save a few pesos and be more environmentally friendly than buying plastic bottles. If you want something lighter to pack, check out this collapsable bottle.
- Many of the hotels and hostels like Isla Roots have limited electricity through generators only during certain hours. If you use your phone for pictures or will need a charge for anything else, a backup battery might come in useful.
Don’t Forget Your Beach Gear
- For the ladies, this sporty leaf print bikini would be perfect for the islands, and Susana has one of these cute white minidress coverups and loves it, or you could opt for a more sultry look with this skirt sarong.
- For the guys, check out these palm tree print board shorts.
- A good beach towel is also a must, and these cool retro designed microfibers from Dock and Bay are a great option. You could also check out the cool designs from Elite Trend.
- Finally, this packable Panama hat would look great in the islands. The ladies may also like this floppy sun hat, also rollup and packable.
There you have it, a complete travel guide to Colombia’s San Bernardo Islands. I can’t encourage you enough to make the space in your schedule to include them during your visit to Colombia. If you do decide to go, I hope this helped you plan your visit and , more importantly, you have a great time!
Cheers and Happy Exploring!
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