There is an island off the coast of Cartagena de Indias, far from the bougainvillea-draped streets that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez, far from the sounds of horses and carts clattering over cobblestones, from the salsa drumbeat that drifts through shuttered windows. The island is near silent – the Caribbean heat is brutal here as the vegetation has withered after a too-long dry season, and nothing can bear to move. Electricity is scarce; fresh water too. The island is not far, they say – just an hour by boat over the deep turquoise seas, but it is further than you can imagine. Cartagena takes you back in time a century or so, but the island takes you beyond that. You can turn the dial on your time machine back another notch – to a time where watches don’t exist, where beds are hammocks and where showers are coconut shells in buckets of water. Soft drinks are to be found in coconuts, knocked from tall palms and hacked open with machetes; snacks are sweet Alphonso mangoes, stewed in their skins in the sweltering temperatures. Chickens scuttle along the dirt tracks around the islands, iguanas bask in trees, and the eerie shriek of a peacock shatters the silence.
Isla Grande is the largest of the Rosario Islands, an hour’s boat ride from Cartagena’s busy dock. I’d heard of a place to stay here called Eco Hotel Las Palmeras, though this was rather a grand name. A collection of huts in a small clearing created by a local woman named Ana Rosa, this was what I was looking for – a way to disappear off the face of the modern world, to be immersed in nature and in the culture of the Caribbean coast. The island is almost entirely Afrocolombian, the dark legacy of slavery and a history that tarnishes the entire Caribbean, a stain that can not be erased. Life is simple here – the islanders are largely ignored by the government. Fishing is the main source of income, and now tourism, too – though local people are rarely involved in this, as the air-conditioned hotels that have sprung up along the island’s sandy shores prefer to hire fair-skinned, more highly educated staff from the mainland. The coast is being eaten up by the resorts – mangroves and beaches disappear beneath new docks, swim-up bars, plastic sunbeds.
Ana Rosa constructed her little huts one by one, five minutes from the beach, an inland Eden. She built a bar and slung hammocks between the trees, and found local people who could guide her guests. The cooking she takes care of herself: fresh coconut rice, fish caught that morning, sliced watermelon, egg arepas, strong Colombian coffee. Most visitors to Isla Grande want to be on the beach, or beside a pool, or to have fans and air conditioning. But there are many who believe that less is more – if they come to a desert island, they want to feel that they are on a desert island. These are the people who find Ana Rosa.
I spent 24 hours on Isla Grande, and for those 24 hours time stopped. I sat on the deserted little beach, watching boats pass. I walked along the dusty paths, looking up for iguanas. I went snorkelling all the way around a nearby islet with a guide who pointed out tiny, transparent jellyfish and colourful reef fish above the jagged coral. I watched the sun set from a west-facing dock, eating warm mangoes and drinking warm Club beer. I swam at night in the Enchanted Lagoon, and made the bioluminescence around me glow blue while above, the stars shone brighter than ever. I spent my first ever night in a hammock, swaying gently, enjoying the breeze after the stuffy rooms of Cartagena, awaking refreshed. I went to bed when it got dark, and got up when it got light and the cocks began to crow. I read, and wrote, and chatted to Ana Rosa, and to my guides. All had been to Cartagena; all swore they could never live anywhere other than their island. “All the people!”, they said. “All the noise! The traffic!”
I returned to the city on an afternoon boat, the island’s sand caked to my suncream-smothered skin, hands still sticky with coconut water and mango juice that the coconut shell shower couldn’t shift. My hair was full of sea salt, my feet dark with the dust, and stinging with cuts from the mangrove roots that lined the bed of the lagoon.
There is an island off the coast of Cartagena de Indias, just an hour by boat, they say. But the island clings to its visitors, it is carried to the mainland with them on their skin, embedded in the soles of their feet, lapping at their minds, impossible to wash away.
- I stayed at Eco Hotel Las Palmeras on Isla Grande. There is no website or email address, but you can call Ana Rosa on +34 3145847358 or +34 3176387922 to reserve a room or hammock.
- A night in a hammock plus three meals costs around 70,000 pesos. Private cabins are also available.
- Activities include an island snorkel trip, swimming with bioluminescence in the Laguna Encantada, guided walks of the village, island walks and cycle rides. Each costs extra, with discounts available for more people or booking more than one tour.
- A boat to the island costs around 40,000-50,000 pesos each way. Ana Rosa will let you know which boat to take from in Cartagena (some are more direct than others). To return, you can take the “local” boat which is very cheap but departs at around 7am, or you can book a boat back at around 3pm from one of the resorts on the island.