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Discover the Best Place to Stay and Snorkel in Cartagena

Colombia – Cartagena has a great option if you like to visit cities but not stay in them. Accommodations just out of town offer access to the city and a nearby island without the crowds and hawkers. Discover the best place to stay and snorkel in Cartagena. When you read through the reviews of hotels in town, especially those with a refreshing swimming pool, the top complaint is that they are noisy. Beach reviews grumble about an endless parade of peddlers.

Church and hotel in Cartagena.
Landmarks. The Santuario de San Pedro Claver and Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa provide shelter from heat and heathens.

This 3-day / 4-night itinerary will provide you with a peaceful all-inclusive stay with great food and drink, a snorkeling or diving trip to the blue water island of Rosario, and probably all the time in Cartagena you need. We came after a 4-day journey to Bogotá and an 8-day adventure in the Amazon jungle, so we were ready for a relaxing place to stay.

Day 1: Getting to Cartagena

Take a flight that arrives later in the day after check-in. There are plenty of airlines offering low price flights within the country. For example, flying from Bogota to Cartagena is around $100 for two people. Choose from LATAM, Wingo, or Avianca. LATAM is efficient; you can purchase your tickets directly after finding your flight on Google.

Caribbean Dancers
Welcome. Caribbean dancers in the lobby of Dreams Karibana Cartagena all-inclusive.

Make your hotel reservation for Dreams Karibana Cartagena Golf & Spa Resort months in advance. This hotel is all-inclusive, so the price includes all meals, drinks, and alcohol. Upgrade to the Club Level to access ocean views, a kid-free pool, and a secret bar on the second floor with top-shelf booze.

Counter full of alcohol.
Club level. Pay a little extra for a top shelf private bar and no kids at your pool.

Arriving at the airport, you will need a transfer for the twenty-minute drive to the hotel. Contact the concierge to book a driver at least a few weeks before arriving. It is a great comfort to land in an unfamiliar destination, especially with travel warnings, to have your name on a sign with a driver waiting for you at the airport exit. Otherwise, you are left to negotiate a price with the barrage of taxi drivers and escorts who will be vying for your business and are not always legit.

Day 2: Relax

The coffee flows at 7 am, and poolside yoga is at 9 am. There is enough time for breakfast and a walk to the beach between these two. The beach is private, well-guarded, and about a ten-minute stroll from the main hotel. A little later in the day, the never-crowded beachside bars and restaurants will open for lunch with champagne, cocktails, fresh fish, ribeye steaks, and desserts. 

Beach with restaurants and bar in background.
Beachside. There are two bars and restaurants and the uncrowded private beach.

There are always at least two restaurants open for meals and a buffet for breakfast and lunch. Try the sweet granadilla of the passion fruit family and soursop juice that tastes like a combination of strawberries and apples, both high in antioxidants to boost your immune system. After lunch and a nap, there are activities like poolside dance lessons, pool volley, and corn hole. There is also a spa that, on occasion, offers half-price massages in an atmosphere of tranquility that are worth whatever price they might be charging at the time.

Poolside yoga.
9 am yoga. Start your day with a mimosa, swim in the ocean, or at the coffee shop.

Dinner is either Italian at the Portofino or seafood and steak at the Seaside Grill. The food is a gastronomical experience without boundaries. There is no limit to the number of dishes you can order. The best meal is the gnocchi and seafood at the Portofino, followed by just about everything. There are no bad meals. Just save room for dessert. After dinner, you can roll over to the central bar and catch the live music before a performance in the ballroom.

Red outfitted Vegas style dancers in ballroom.
Pizazz! The nighttime shows can feel like Las Vegas.

Day 3: Snorkel Rosario Island

The concierge can arrange a day-long snorkel or dive trip with Diving Planet at Rosario Island, a National Park about 62 miles off the coast of Cartagena. Ask the concierge to arrange a transfer to take you to the dock. Get the driver’s WhatsApp number and arrange for him to pick you up after the trip. The harbor is chaotic and not a good place to hunt for a ride.

Boatload of people arriving at island.
Full ferry. The boat from the mainland to the island has more party goers than divers.

A representative from Dive Planet will be visible with the company t-shirt and get you on a high-speed ferry to the island. Listen for which stop you must get off because most people are going for the party, not the diving. On the island, the pace will slow down, you will get instructions and gear, then load a smaller boat and head to the reefs.

Dive instructor giving directions.
Dive prep. Diving Planet instructor gives directions for a fast-paced two-dive day.

The water is very clear, maybe twenty feet deep over the reefs for snorkeling, with channels that drop a hundred feet for divers. The Caribbean is home to the coral-cracking jaws of the parrotfish, long sleek trumpet fish, scaly reptile fish, my favorite blue sparkling yellow damselfish, rippling stingrays, intelligent octopus, colorful Christmas tree worms, and the giant barrel sponge.

Snorkeler under water.
Clear water. The coral reefs are teaming with life in the Caribbean at Rosoria Island.

They don’t mention using reef-safe sunscreen, but hopefully, you will bring your own, or better yet, wear a long sleeve swim shirt to protect your skin from the blazing equatorial sun. Diving Planet is a leader in conservation by establishing set anchoring sites, participating in a coral breeding program, and, most interestingly, teaching locals how to catch and eat the invasive poison-spined lionfish.

Photographer on boat.
Shallow water. The return trip from Rosario Island is windy so the boat navigates a channel to a safe shortcut.

After two dives and the included lunch, it is back on the ferry for the afternoon return against strong winds with salty sprays. If the wind is high and the tide is low, it may be challenging for the boat to find a shortcut through a narrow wind-protected passage. Back at the dock, you will be so happy you sent a WhatsApp message to your driver, and he is there waiting for you.

Day 4: Cartagena Tour

Depending on the previous night’s choices, wake early or late, swim at the beach, or hang out in the coffee shop, but take it slow before the fast-paced all-day private tour of the city. Martin Guía from Cartagena Tour Guides, scheduled by your concierge, doesn’t take a break, so bring some snacks. Martin and his driver will pick you up at the hotel. While the driver keeps his eyes on the heavily trafficked road, Martin will begin your immersion into the culture and history of the Colombian people. 

Two people are walking a street in Cartagena.
World Cultural Heritage Site. Since the city was designated in 1984, no new development is allowed, only restoration.

Cartagena is the sixth biggest city but boasts that it is Colombia’s number one tourist destination. Its colorfully decorated streets have seen tourists for only thirty years, and its skyscraper business district has been in construction for just over sixty. The Spanish influence is strong in everything from the language and food to the religion and government. Colombia gained independence from Spain thirty-four years after the United States did from England.

Caribbean dressed women and tourists taking a break.
Taking a break. Not only is the city colorful but so are the Caribbean women as they relax next to tourists doing the same.

Without Martin as your guide, there is much you will miss seeing and understanding. The only place to return for another look might be the Spanish Fort and the Inquisition Museum, which are not on tour. But always remember the noise, crowds, and hustle you are avoiding by staying out of town.

Skyscrapers in Cartagena.
60 years of building. Tourists have been coming for 30 years and the downtown area has been building for 60.

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Hi. We are Paul and Cindy, two biologists, fit and over 50, who enjoy exploring, photographing, and blogging about our outdoor travel. Our journey is to find outdoor activities that are away from crowds, kind to nature, and authentic. We carry backpacks, stay in clean accommodations, and feel that good food is as important as good friends.

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