My mouth is saying no thanks, but my tone isn’t quite serious because this woman’s fingertips have somehow found a magic spot on my shoulder that is rendering me incapable of shooing her away.
Knowing better, I cave and ask how much.
Apparently, a half hour massage on Isla Baru will run you 150 000COP. At today’s exchange rate that’s about $45 USD, the same price you’d pay at a fancy hotel spa—complete with ambiance and a legitimate massage oil—for an hour massage. Inwardly wagging a finger at myself, I try to negotiate a price more along the lines of those I’ve seen at the spa/salon combos lining the streets of Bogotá (around 30 000COP) before giving my no thanks more gusto and trying to untangle myself from her tranquilizing grip.
Baru is an island just off Cartagena’s coast and is touted as having some of the best beaches in the country. But—as you’ll find upon the teeniest bit of research—reports are polarizing. I had heard it’s a must-visit in Colombia, beautiful with a stunning beach; I’d also heard that it is crowded, dirty, and filled with aggressive vendors. It would be one thing if it were just Cody and I making this decision, but we were in Cartagena for Christmas and were showing his parents a bit of Colombia outside of Bogotá.
In the end, it was street vendor Edgar Forever (yes, his last name was Forever) who convinced us that we should give Baru a chance. Edgar, as it turns out, grew up on Baru. According to him, Christmas morning is usually spent at home while the adults are recovering from the previous night’s festivities and would be a perfect time to enjoy the beaches, sans the masses.
Between the opinions of Cody (repeating suggestions from colleagues that we must visit) and myself (repeating every horror story I’d read on TripAdvisor), his poor parents had high hopes and low expectations. And so, the plan was set.
You can take a bus or taxi to Baru, but we opted for a public boat. Tip #1: all the boat tours will try to take you to Isla Rosario first for snorkeling and a visit to the eco-park, don’t do it! When we booked our tour and when we were assigned a boat, I ensured that we would go straight to Baru. This allowed us to arrive around 10:00 am, a solid couple of hours before the others.
One thing all the negative nellies get right: the crazy rush as you arrive. You’re trying not to drop your cell phone as you hop down into the surf, and all of the sudden there is a coral necklace in your face, a man is handing you an oyster, another is leading you to a cabana, another telling you where to collect your free lunch. Intense is an understatement.
Tip #2: once you get off your boat, immediately head left down the beach. Hiding my hands from all these regalitos (little gifts, which of course aren’t gifts at all), I lead us toward the less populated end of the beach. In five minutes we were a comfortable stretch from the chaos of the boat landing.
Another reason you should head down the beach (and Tip #3) is the hostels. Clustered around the boat landing are umbrellas with plastic chairs, stacked one on top of the other. Why would you want that when a few hundred yards will get you much better shade and a padded chaise lounge? A palapa for the day with 4 chairs (and access to the hostel’s bathroom) was 40 000COP. This was the first price quoted to us and as it seemed like a good deal, we didn’t bother bargaining. Beers were another bargain, at 3 000COP each. The hostelers even made us a cup of coffee, no problem, and brought it out to our little cabana.
Once we were set up for the day, I began to understand all the fuss about Baru. The water is perfection: a clear, crystalline turquoise, the surf tame and temperature that ideal warm that allows you to wade right in. The weather was a perfect blend of hot with a breeze and we had a fantastic time swimming and chatting in the sun, remarking on our cool Christmas experience and how lucky we were to be in such a beautiful spot together.
The vendors, though plentiful, weren’t a hassle at all. Say no thank you with conviction and you’ll be passed by; show even one iota of interest and you’ll be buying a basket, fruit salad or a handmade bracelet before you can say estás dando papaya.
As long as you know what to expect, Isla Baru is a perfect day trip from Cartagena. I’ve read from several sources that if you can swing it, a better idea is to stay overnight and enjoy the island after all the tourists go home.
Walking to catch our boat in the afternoon, the beach was packed. As we weaved through the crowds, a young guy with no shirt darted past us into the ocean. Cody and I snapped our faces toward each other and our expressions confirmed what the other was thinking: there goes Edgar Forever!