Photo essay: Life’s a beach in Tolu & San Bernardo Islands
The driver, if you could call him that, swerved precipitously around yet another car followed by a truck, passing on the right,. Yes, you read that correctly, on the right! He must have been going about 95 mph on a curve! Passing on the right during a curve!! Didn’t he ever see those trucks indicating which side was okay for passing and which wasn’t? Apparently not. I couldn’t bear to watch. I decided to close the curtain, cover the window and wrap myself as far into my jacket as I could. The bus was the temperature of a meat locker or Canada in February (more like a meat locker in Canada in February!). A Vin Diesel movie dubbed in Spanish, blared above me-loudly. And I mean like grandma-is-going-deaf loud.
Ah, the sounds of bombs being fired from the bus TV, frosty air and a maniacal driver. This was to be our first introduction to life on the road in Colombia. Now,let me explain here. We’ve been on our fair share of crazy Latin American bus rides. We survived the downright dangerous roads in Bolivia (with suspect drunk bus drivers) and even the buses in Peru had their moments. But Colombia is a whole different kind of crazy. The only objective, in a Colombian drivers mind, is to get there and get there really, really fast taking out anyone you need to. Even gramps on his moto bike lugging around 3 kids. I’m not sure where this sense of urgency stems from but it seems to be a national pastime here. All the buses are plastered with giant posters of Jesus, Mary and other religious themes or precipitously hanging rosary beads. Although not religious myself, I found myself looking hopefully up to them more than I’d care to admit!!!
The best part? All buses in Colombia are plastered with the sticker “Como Conduzco”? (How am I driving?) Dial 737 and press #3 or whatever. If I had a phone, I’d surely call up and have my say. My guess is that either the line is always busy (because the complaints come in all day long) or no one answers at all (because everyone knows this is the biggest joke in the country). Then I think to myself, what would I actually say? Where would I begin? Como Conduzo? Hmmm…..how about….maniacally(for starters!)? Or “like the driver had a suicide mission for both him and all his hapless passengers”. Ah, I digress. Colombia is a gorgeous country filled with amazing people but riding buses here is a frightening, risky undertaking.
Luckily, the reward was going to be worth it. The heat had been turned up and wasn’t about to stop. We planned to stay up on the Caribbean coast for our first month, and as I mentioned in my last post, it was blazing hot! What else do you do when the temperature soars beyond your comfort zone and the sweat won’t stop running down your back? Get on a Colombian bus! No, that’s just way too cold! Why, hit the beach, of course! Life’s a beach, so the saying goes.
A popular day trip exists from Cartagena to visit the Parque Nacional Natural Corales via the Islas Rosaria and Playa Blanca. And indeed, the photos of these islands with their white sand beaches and swaying palm trees is alluring, to the say the least. But as any of our readers know, we like to get a bit off the beaten path (i.e. make things really difficult for ourselves). So we eschewed the crowds and headed on a bus with a death wish (which ones aren’t in Colombia?!) to a small town called Tolu. This place would serve as our base to the paradise-sounding San Bernando Islands.
This archipelago, includes the islands of Palma, Panda, Maravilla & Múcura and are famous for their spectacular coral, crystal blue waters, mangroves and white sand beaches. They are reached easily from Tolu on a one hour boat ride. The bus ride (or near-death-experience) from Cartagena was just over two hours.
Come along, as we finally figured out the perfect way to beat the heat.
Santiago de Tolu sits on the Caribbean coast in the Morrosquillo Gulf and has its own fair share of tempting beaches (the best being Los Delfines and Montecarlo). The town is ‘muy tranquilo’ like many places along the coast. Its bicycle taxis loudly blare party music and compete with one another to ride you around the promenade. It gives the town a local charm. We loved the laid back feel & discovered the hammock-swinging life.
The boat ride from Tolu lasts about an hour (thankfully). We soon discovered that Colombian boat drivers are not much better than their bus driver counterparts. The prevailing ‘hurry up and get there’ mentality exists on water too. The water was quite choppy and it seemed the larger the wave, the more throttle the guy gave the boat. I was wedged in between Laurent & a grandma that kept nervously looking at the boat driver. Her knuckles were white as she held onto the seat in front of her. This did little to comfort me.
There are several companies along the waterfront to choose from but most cost about the same (50,000 COP-US $25) and they all drive the boat as if there was a fire on the water. Wait…does that even make sense? If you were on the boat, it might have. Boats depart around 8:30 am.
Thankful to have our feet back on solid sand, we made our way onto Isla Mucura-our chosen island for paradise. It did not disappoint. We pulled up to a white, powdery beach and crystal clear waters. The island is home to a large coral populated by a copious amount of colorful fish and a small group of welcoming locals who make their living fishing and also from tourism on the island (not much).
Most people who were on our boat came on a day trip. The boat arrives around 11 am and departs back to Tolu at 3:30 pm. But you also have the option to spend the night (or multiple) on the island. And after the day crowd leaves (not much compared to places like Playa Blanca and there isn’t anyone hawking you to buy things you don’t need), you have the beach to yourself. For sleeping, there is a fancy hotel-resort-like place, Punta Faro, which is all-inclusive and a good option for those with money to burn. Since we are on a budget and we genuinely like camping and nature, we chose to set up our tent.
Upon our arrival to the island, a helpful local pointed us in the direction of a place where we could camp (do NOT just set up your tent anywhere you please-as it is forbidden on the island). The island is home to quite a few mangroves which we had to navigate through to reach our campground. The best part was there was no one else camping there and we only saw one other couple that spent the night the 3 days we were there.
We were instructed to find a woman known as “Lina” and were given instructions on where to find her. We passed through the tiniest village of vividly painted shack-type houses where vallenato music blasted out of huge speakers & friendly locals swung in hammocks. Children ran around, playing in the colourful fishing boats and we even spied a small tienda (store) where we could buy beer!
After the village, we made our way out to Lina’s place. There were a few cabanas we could rent, like the one pictured, or we could set up our tent where we wanted. So that’s just what we did. Followed by an ice cold beer. Life was getting cooler by the minute.
We headed to the beach area and discovered the best thing to do on the island. Absolutely nothing. Just take in the gorgeous, clear, warm waters and laze in a hammock. Swim, relax, drink. Repeat.
Did I mention drink? We thought icy cold cervezas couldn’t be beat. Well, we were wrong. Say hello to our new friend for life, the coco loco. Freshly hacked open coconuts mixed up pina colada style with a few kinds of rum. And a friendly guy who comes up and down the beach offering more shots inside…for free!! Yes, life is indeed a beach. And that’s coming from someone who is not a big fan of beaches!
To make ourselves feel better about our coco loco consumption, we walked off our calories by exploring the island. We spent three days here but I definitely could have spent longer poking around, enjoying the colourful fishing boats, coconut palm trees & labyrinth-like mangroves.
San Bernando is a great place to do some snorkelling and locals will be happy to take you out to the coral in a small fishing boat for a nominal fee. I didn’t go out on the boat because of my bad back (getting back in takes some effort and nimbleness) but Laurent really enjoyed a morning with the fish. He also got a chance to finally use the underwater case for the camera that he carries everywhere (no longer in vain!).
The meals were delicious. Fresh fish every day directly from the source. Lina cooked our meals for us and we especially enjoyed the local specialty ‘pargo de rojo con arroz de coco y patacones’ (red snapper with coconut rice and fried, smashed plantains). The fish practically melted in your mouth, it was so fresh.
Typing this now, looking at our tent directly on the ocean watching the sun go down, I wish we had never left! It wasn’t all glitter and gold though. The nights were insufferably hot. We had difficulty sleeping due to the temperature never cooling down. Whatever happened to ocean breezes?! Not so many here on the island.
But it was all worth it. The crazy bus ride followed by an even crazier boat ride and the steamy nights. We found our slice of paradise and the perfect way to beat the heat.