My name is Frank and I run a travel agency based in Bogota, Colombia. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please write them in our comments section. Thank you and have a great trip to Colombia!
Introduction to Islands of Colombia
Colombia, the most northern country of South America with a total area of over 1 million square kilometers and a population of 48 million has a lot to discover. Thanks to the signing of a peace treaty between the government and one of the biggest guerrillas -FARC, the country is starting to leave its reputation behind. In 2019, 3 million foreigners visited Colombia and the numbers are expected to increase.
Colombia is blessed with huge biodiversity and dream landscapes that leave visitors speechless. However, did you know that Colombia is among the privileged countries that share borders with 2 oceans? This tropical country is the only one in South America with coasts on the Pacific Ocean and access to the Atlantic Ocean through the Caribbean Sea. Its several beautiful islands make it a special tourist destination on the continent.
Colombia has 74 islands approximately, including oceanic, river and lake islands, cays and islets.
Most are located on the Caribbean coast and just 2 on the Pacific coast, which are uninhabited. There are a few private islands for rental, mainly on Rosario islands, Barú and San Bernardo Archipelago, but generally, they are open for tourism and easily accessible by boat from the main coastal cities, such as Cartagena (rides usually take from 10 minutes up to 3 hours). However, some of them are a bit more remote and it takes several hours to finally arrive -i.e. Malpelo, where the trip lasts about 36 hours-, but it is definitely worth it since you will discover a natural paradise.
If you want to know more about the paradisiacal islands of Colombia, read on!
Colombia Caribbean Islands
The Caribbean region of Colombia is in the north of the country and extends over 132,288 km2, that corresponds to 1/10 of the total territory. It is home to about 9 million people and comprises tourist spots such as Cartagena, Santa Marta, San Andrés, Barranquilla and La Guajira. Most Colombian islands belong to this territory and attract more tourists than those on the Pacific coast. They are characterized by warm weather, beautiful white sanded beaches with crystal clear water, kind people -also annoying vendors- and a diverse wildlife!
Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina
This Archipelago is the smallest of the 32 administrative departments of Colombia. It is a set of several islands, cays and islets located on a volcanic platform to the west of the Caribbean Sea and although it is nearer to Nicaragua than Colombia (200 km versus 800 km away), it remains as a favorite holiday destination among all Colombians. It is formed by San Andres island and Providencia and Santa Catalina island. Almost 80,000 people live there, which can seem little but makes it the most densely populated department in the whole country! Diversity is present in nature as in people: mestizos, raizales, white and black people live in the islands and speak not only Spanish, but Creole English and English. Also, the two most important economic activities are tourism and commerce, driven by its declaration as a free port.
It is an interesting melting pot with many tourist attractions and natural beauty that you can’t miss when traveling to Colombia!
It is located about 200 km from the coast of Nicaragua and it is the biggest island of the archipelago, with a total area of 27 km². As the capital of the archipelago, it receives most tourists seeking perfect sunsets, white-sanded and palm-full beaches at 27°C to enjoy a tropical holiday. San Andres has become a mass tourism destination, in 2018, more than 1 million people visited the island for second year in a row.
Mass tourism is important for the region’s economic growth, as tourism activities generate jobs and income to invest in infrastructure and life-quality of locals. However, tourism income does not always flow into the local communities but just to the big projects and companies that run the industry, and the high number of visitors causes a negative effect on the ecosystem, because of trash and a bad handling of spots such as coral reefs, which end up being destroyed. You are likely to find many tourists, street vendors, garbage and some low-standard or unfairly priced lodging and restaurant offers, so be prepared.
How to get there and transportation
You can get to San Andres in a 2-hour flight from Bogota and other major cities. LATAM, Viva Air, Avianca, among other companies offer round-trip direct flights starting from USD$110 approx. Flights from Cartagena don’t save you a lot of money but take around 40 minutes less.
- Tourists must pay a tourist card in cash in the departure lounge. It is approximately COP$115,000 and is a tax required to guarantee the island’s sustainability and invest in tourism development.
On the island you can rent a motorcycle, a golf cart or a mula, otherwise you can take the tourist bus, local buses for COP$2000 or a taxi. Walking is always one of the options
There are various boutique and resort hotels, as well as local inns. Decameron’s Maryland Resort is the biggest all-inclusive resort in the town.
Among the several tourist attractions and activities this island offers, the best are:
- Spratt Bright, on the commerce zone of San Andres, is bordered by a +2km pier with restaurants, hotels, bars and stores. You can enjoy nautical sports such as kite surfing, scuba diving and jet sky.
- Sound Bay, a more remote beach right in a natives’ housing area with a stronger current and more rocks.
- Cocoplum Bay, protected by a coral reef, has a calm sea and shallow, crystal-clear water that allows you to walk to the Rocky Cay, a spot 200 meters from the shore full of submarine life.
- El Acuario, Haynes Cay and Rose Cay provide visitors crystal water recognized as a natural aquarium where you can do snorkeling and find typical restaurants as well as Caribbean wildlife. For example, there is a manta ray tour, but it is better to let them enjoy their freedom.
- The Botanical Garden, an 8 hectares space in the center of the island that purifies the air. Here you can observe the vegetation that lives since the dinosaur era and other native plants.
- Westview Park, an ecological park to the west of the island where mangoes, pineapples, plums, tamarinds and the unique breadfruit grow and are used to make desserts you can buy. Also, you can visit the Siren’s Cave, the Salto de Morgan and La Piscinita, where you can snorkel and jump off the rocks.
- Cueva de Morgan, legend has it that the famous pirate Henry Morgan used to hide his robbed treasures in this island, especially in this cave. Today it is a theme park with exhibitions and dance shows.
- Casa Museo Isleña and the First Baptist Church, if you are into history, you need to come to these places. The first one is a 1800’s house where you can learn about local history and the second one stands out for being the 1st Baptist church in all Latin America and has a bell tower with views to the entire island.
- Johnny Cay, a small island 15 minutes away by boat which is famous for its beaches with white sand and big palm trees. Reggae music gives life to this place and serves as the soundtrack for fun evenings of fried fish dishes and cocoloco
To the northeast of San Andres, this little island is easily spotted by its three highest peaks. Known as “the hidden treasure of the west Caribbean”, this place astonishes tourists with its beauty and marine wealth.
How to get there
You can take a 20-minute flight from San Andres or a 3 to 5-hour ride in a catamaran to get to Providencia.
You can find more information about where to stay in Providencia in our Providencia Travel Guide.
- Activities include visiting beautiful beaches, go scuba diving or walking around to enjoy the landscapes, such as the sea with 7 shades of blue.
- It takes a couple of hours to tour the island in a golf cart. You can stop at deserted beaches or interact with the locals, who have the English tradition of drinking tea.
- Puente de los Enamorados (the lovers’ bridge) is a 150-meter floating structure that connects both islands and rumor has it that those couples who cross the bridge together will have eternal love. It is made of color-painted wood and allows boats to pass through a narrow tunnel.
- Also, delight yourself with the typical food such as shellfish, fishes, plantain cake and crab empanadas while hearing the vibrant rhythms of reggae, socca and calypso.
Islands near Cartagena
Cartagena itself has a lot to offer to tourists, you could spend days and not get bored. Historic landmarks, restaurants, museums, bars, hotels and beach clubs… But apart from the mainland, there are other fabulous places to discover! These are some of the best islands near Cartagena.
Tierra Bomba is an island of nearly 20 km² south of Cartagena divided in 5 zones: Punta Arena, Caño de Loro, Bocachica, Tierra Bomba and Isla Nueva. Despite being really close to the colonial city, this island is still unspoiled and is home to 9000 people.
How to get there
It is easily accessed by boat from El Laguito, Castillogrande or Los Pegasos pier in Cartagena. The ride only takes 10 minutes.
The island has some hotels, among which Fenix Beach Cartagena and Blue Apple Beach House stand out.
- Its 43 kilometers of coastline have amazing beaches such as Punta Arena, Playa Linda, Playa Palmarito, Playa Chiringuito and Playa Marina, where you can enjoy the view of Cartagena’s skyline.
- If you’ve had enough of sand and sea, the highlight of Tierra Bomba is the San Fernardo de Bocahica fort, built to protect the town from pirates.
Barú is one of Cartagena’s most visited spots, located in the south of the city. The former peninsula was separated from the continent by the Canal del Dique, an artificial canal built to connect the Magdalena River to the Cartagena Bay, forming an artificial island. Barú is one of those places where you feel you are in heaven and since a bridge was built, tourism skyrocketed. Although today this activity provides for the 20,000 inhabitants, tourists exceed the capacity of the island and harm local nature.
How to get there
It is 45 minutes away from Cartagena by boat. This was the only way to arrive until 2014, when Puente de Barú was inaugurated and made traveling there easier.
There is a wide offer of hotels and beach resorts including Hotel Las Islas, Decameron and Hotel Isla del Encanto.
Click here to read about my experience in Hotel Las Islas
Barú has beautiful white sand beaches with turquoise water, canals surrounded by mangroves and still some multicolored coral reefs. Cholon Beach, Punta Iguana, Playa Puntilla, Playa de los Muertos, Playa Bobo and Punta Barú are the most popular beaches and are private or belong to tourist ventures, Playa Blanca is the only public beach.
- Aviario Nacional – Since Colombia is the country with the most bird diversity in the world, here you can visit the national aviary and have a 2-hour tour where you will find 21 exhibitions and 3 ecosystems where 170 bird species live. This is a must for birders!
- Playa Blanca – This beach is a famous stop in Barú, although it lacks tourism control. The white sand and clear water become secondary when the first thing you see is a crowded place with many street vendors harassing and swindling tourists, while these ones leave garbage trails on the beach. Also, the quality of hotels and other services is overall low.
- Playa Puntilla – This is a better ranked beach since it belongs to Decameron Barú resort. Guests have access to a private club and can practice water sports such as kayaking, diving and snorkeling.
This archipelago, also known as Corales del Rosario, is formed by 27 islands and has an area of 20 hectares. Some of them are too small and uninhabited. Its highlight? Here is one of Colombia’s natural national parks created to protect one of the most important coral reefs in the nation’s Caribbean coast.
How to get there
From Los Pegasos pier in the historic center of Cartagena you can take a boat which will take you to these islands in 45 minutes approximately.
This region is full of accommodation options, from medium size hotels to several eco-lodges.
- Crystal water and corals for scuba diving, although they have been deteriorated by the high flow of tourists and uncontrolled practices.
- Isla Grande is the largest island of the archipelago and concentrates most of the tourism. The Enchanted Lagoon offers a cool view since the bioluminescent plankton makes the water glow. Also, you can go diving, snorkeling and practice other watersports. However, today it is under red alert because of mass tourism and illegal commerce.
- Natural aquarium in San Martin de Pajarales Island.
- Corales del Rosario y San Bernardo Marine Natural National Park covers ecosystems such as coral reefs, wetlands, mangroves, sandy beaches, rocky littorals, seagrass meadows, sedimentary seafloors and xerophytic formations. Hundreds of microscopic animals, varied fish, crustaceans, mollusks, anemones, sea urchins, starfish and different sea birds live there.
- Isla Fuerte is less known but is a great place four nature tourism. You can swim, surf and hike in paths in tropical forests or hidden caves!
- Other Rosario islands are Isla Marina, Isla de Roberto, Isla del Tesoro, Isla del Pirata and Isla Fiesta.
The archipelago of San Bernardo islands is located outside the Morrosquillo Gulf, in front of the towns of Tolú and Coveñas and 50 km southwest of Cartagena. It is formed by 10 islands with turquoise water which make up a land of 213 km² with 1300 inhabitants that live from fishing. Part of it belongs to the Corales del Rosario natural park.
How to get there
There are 2 ways of getting there from Cartagena: a 2-hour speedboat ride or going by car to Tolú (3 hours) and then taking a boat ride (20 minutes).
There are some hotels in the area, including the luxurious Punta Faro resort and a floating hostel called Casa en el Agua -literally means house on water.
- Santa Cruz del Islote – This islet is known to be the world’s most densely populated artificial island! With an area of 1 hectare (0,01 km²) and around 500 inhabitants -mostly young- living in 90 houses, it is fascinating for tourists, who are well received. The electricity is powered by a fuel and a photovoltaic plant set right on the island. It has 1 good ranked hostel.
- Isla Múcura – This is a larger island with beautiful beaches, mangroves and corals. The Punta Faro hotel offers activities such as bicycle rides, water sports and hiking trails.
- Isla Tintipán – Here you can swim with bioluminescent plankton, do diving and snorkeling or spot dolphins!
- The other islands are Maravilla, Mangle, Panda, Palma, Cabruna, Ceycén and Boquerón.
Colombia Islands on the Pacific Ocean
The Pacific coast of Colombia boasts with ecological, hydrographic, mining and forest wealth, which make it one of the most biodiverse and rainy regions on the planet! Despite that, the Pacific region is still underestimated in tourism, especially by locals. It is a zone with low population density, due to its climate conditions. However, the Pacific region is home to a huge biodiversity. That is why there are over 5 natural national parks preserving local flora and fauna. Actually, the only 2 islands on the Colombian Pacific Ocean are important natural reserves. Read on to find out what these islands have to offer.
“The Living Rock”, as it is commonly known, is the most western site of Colombia, 500 km from the Pacific coast. The island consists essentially of a single rock of 1 square kilometer at 360 m.a.s.l that may not appear quite appealing for tourists to visit. However, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 due to the wide range of wildlife it hosts. Actually, it is a Colombian Flora and Fauna Sanctuary. It is surrounded by 11 small islets, 4 of which are at the northern end of the island and are known as “Los Mosqueteros”: Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan, 2 are to the east: Vagamares and La Torta, and 5 are at the southern end: La Gringa, Escuba and Los Tres Reyes (David, Saúl and Salomón). The only building on the island is a 1986 military detachment built to protect the area from illegal fishing and other harmful practices for the environment.
How to get there
The trip is a 36-hour ship ride from the Buenaventura port, there are only 3 authorized tour operators. It may be long, but it is worth it.
To visit Isla Malpelo, there are some requirements:
– You should be over 18 years old or have a permission from your parents
– You must have a scuba diving certificate and minimum 35 previous logged excursions.
– For diving, there must be a guide for every 6 people, and everyone must have the minimal safety equipment.
– It is recommended but not mandatory to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
- Most visitors belong to the scientific community or are scuba diving professionals that come to observe the wonderful ecosystems such as rocky littorals and coral reefs along with the native wildlife: over 300 fish species, 60 bird species (i.e. the Nazca booby) and variety of marine wildlife (crustaceans, mollusks, corals and starfish).
- It is in the top 10 of shark watching spots, since the area is full of different species such as hammerheads, the small tooth sand tiger and the whale shark.
- Come know Malpelo’s endemic species such as the Agassiz’s anole, the blackback land crab, the dotted galliswasp and the gecko!
This natural paradise is easily spotted from the sea on the Pacific coast of Colombia, as an imposing tropical rainforest lies from the small peaks to the shore next to a deep blue water. Gorgona and Gorgonilla are the islands that constitute this National Park, named after the female Greek monsters similar to the snakes that abound in the area. This island was a maximum-security prison for 25 years! Then it became a protected natural area in 1984, which is now on the check list of many researchers and nature lovers!
How to get there
- By plane: 4-hour connection flight from Bogota to Guapi. TAC and SATENA operators offer a daily round trip from Cali and Tumaco respectively.
- By boat: You can book a boat service from Guapi that will take you to the island in an hour and a half up to 2 hours. Otherwise, from the Buenaventura port, there are speedboat services that offer round trips for groups of over 10 people.
National Parks offers a small hotel and a restaurant.
– It is recommended but not mandatory to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
- Challenge yourself in one of the 4 hiking trails that allow you to see the ancient prison’s ruins, the ocean, some bridges and wooden stairs, the many species that inhabit the rainforest and the clean energy and water plants that supply the island.
- Bird lovers can observe species such as frigate birds, pelicans and booby birds (Sula).
- Apart from birds, Gorgona has a rich marine wildlife: 381 fish species, 11 whale and dolphin species and 4 sea lion species. Also, one of the favorite attractions is the migration of humpback whales to the island, which tourist can observe every year!
- Gorgona is a paradise for scuba divers due to its biodiversity, there are many sites on the island to practice this activity.
Nestled in Laguna de la Cocha -a large lake in Nariño department- is this small island of 12 hectares. Despite its size, it is a Flora and Fauna Sanctuary from the Colombia National Parks System, actually the smallest protected area. This is a unique island in the country, having a cold rain forest ecosystem instead of the typical dry tropical forest one and being 2,830 m.a.s.l with an average temperature of 11°C.
How to get there
If you travel to Southern Colombia, you can get on a 1-hour ride from the capital of Nariño, Pasto.
- Most tourists come to observe the rich wildlife living in this area. 1,500 plant species along with several ducks, reptiles, amphibians and fish species can be found.
- It also has historic and spiritual value since the Quillasinga indigenous community inhabited the region 500 years ago and considered the island a sacred site for their culture.
Islands in the Amazon
The glorious Amazon. Besides its essential function as the “lung of the world”, although it does the inverse process of a lung -taking the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it into oxygen- the Amazon is home to huge biodiversity and indigenous communities that preserve the national heritage.
An island in the Amazon? You may wonder. It is not a usual place for an island. However, there is one you need to visit some day!
Isla de los Micos is a river island, actually named Isla Arara, located in the Amazon border with Peru. 20 kilometers from Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas department, it is famous for being the monkeys’ kingdom. The common squirrel monkey is the largest species that lives in this territory and attracts a lot of tourists, although there are other kinds of monkeys and animals.
How to get there
You can take a boat from Leticia that sails the river to the island, there are several tour operators that offer different packages.
There was a hotel in the past but now it serves as a shelter for some indigenous people that sell crafts to tourists.
- Explore the island and see hundreds of monkeys move freely around it, they may even jump on you to ask for food.
- Birdwatchers can also enjoy the view of different bird species, and there are always alligators appearing from everywhere.
- You can also do canoeing in the lakes around the island or canopy (tree climbing. There are over 40-meter trees from where you can spot the vastness of the Amazon jungle!
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