Travel Guide to El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

Meet the most iconic marine life paradise in Colombia, the El Rosario, and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park. On the Caribbean coast of Colombia close to the coastal areas of the provinces of Bolívar and Sucre, and part of the jurisdiction of Cartagena, you will find the archipelago of El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park.

This archipelago is formed by 40 small islands, and it was declared a National Natural Park to protect the population of coral reefs and mangroves that are found in this area.

The crystal-clear waters and white beaches welcome those who visit the park to experience a large variety of flora and fauna. At the Rosario and San Bernardo islands, water activities such as canoeing, snorkeling, and diving are all must-do activities.

Discovering El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

With an area of 1,200 square kilometers, the park has an underwater set of ecosystems that give life to the largest coral platform in the Colombian Caribbean. Thus, the park is host to the largest coral reef formations in Colombia. The three ecosystems you can find in the park are:

Coral reefs

These are the essential ecosystem that provides food and shelter for approximately 25% of the marine fauna present in the area.

Coral reefs, as in the rest of the world, are very vulnerable and need crystal waters, light, and stable substrates that do not affect their composition. The ideal temperature should be between 25º C (77º F) and 31º C (86ºF).

At San Bernardo, they take an area of 191.68 square kilometers, approximately 72% of the total amount of coral reefs in Colombia.

Mangroves

This marine-coastal ecosystem, formed by trees of different sizes with roots that protrude from the mud, is a powerful filter of salty water. Mangroves are by far the most productive ecosystem in these areas and an important source of flora and fauna resources.

More than 60% of the world’s tropical fish depend on this ecosystem for their survival. The park has four species of mangrove worth preserving:

  • Red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle),
  • White mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa),
  • Buttonwood or button mangrove (Conocarpus erectus); and
  • Black mangrove (Avicennia germinans).

Coral reefs and mangroves are also a powerful natural barrier to tsunamis and hurricanes.

Seagrass

The park has 30.35 square kilometers of sea pastures, serving as a food provider and shelter for several marine species.

Pastures depend on calm waters between 20 and 30 meters deep for their survival. This allows the circulation of nutrients that benefit them as well as the species that depend on them.

In the park, the most common seagrass species is the Turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum), providing firmness to the bottom of the ground where they live.

How to get to El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

From Cartagena

When you arrive at Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG) take approximately 15 minutes to ride to the “La Bodeguita” dock (8 km). In “La Bodeguita” is necessary to take a boat trip of 2 hours to reach the facilities of the park in the archipelago of Our Lady of the Rosary (Nuestra Senora del Rosario).

From Santiago de Tolú

Take a 50 minutes flight from Bogotá to Las Brujas Airport (CTG) at Sincelejo city. From Sincelejo take an approximately 45 minutes ride to Santiago de Tolú (40 km).

Once at Santiago de Tolú is necessary to take a 1-hour boat trip to reach the facilities of the park in the archipelago of San Bernardo.

What to do in El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

Diving and snorkeling

The underwater trails of Punta Brava and Luis Guerra in Isla Grande and Isla Tintipan are perfect for sea diving or snorkeling. A supervised company by authorized instructors is highly recommended.

We recommend staying within delimited marked areas.

Diving tours in the Rosario Islands, Cartagena ©https://divingplanet.org/

Sailing in the mangroves

The natural aquatic-terrestrial path of Isla Grande, the Lagoon of Silence, an ideal place to take photos and videos.

Help support Cangrejos Azules, the entity in charge of organizing ecotourism in the area with the help of local communities at Islas del Rosario.

Wildlife Observation

In the protected area it is possible to see 62 species of corals, including the blade fire coral (Millepora complanata), the thin leaf lettuce coral (Agaricia tenuifolia), and the massive starlet coral or round starlet coral (Siderastrea siderea).

In the case of decapod crustaceans, there are 153 species; mollusks with 244 species. No less than 153 species of echinoderms; 199 species of sponges and 513 species of fish.

Coral Reef Fishes at natural national park Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo. Ph. ©Parques Nacionales

Finally, it is possible to find sea turtles such as the loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta), the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas), and the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Bird Watching

Within the park, it is possible to identify more than 60 species of birds. 31 of which are seabirds, including cormorants, gulls, frigates, and pelicans. There are also colonies of herons and ibis.

Where to stay in El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

It is possible to find different accommodations. Suggested choices are:

  • Hotel Las Islas, a luxury ecolodge in Baru.
  • Coralina island is the perfect place to relax, in Isla Grande.
  • Gente de Mar Resort, Location, and service are exceptional, in Isla Grande.
  • Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, the staff is wonderful, and the rooms excellent, in Isla Grande.
Las Islas Hotel – Barú, Cartagena

Best time to visit El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

The dry season that starts December until late March is the best to visit El Rosario and San Bernardo islands. It is also the peak season for national tourists, so be aware the place must be crowded.

Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, foreigners holding a valid residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru (ages 5 to 25): COP 9,500
  • Colombians, foreigners holding a valid residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 9,500
  • Children under 5 and Colombians over 65 years old have free entrance provided they present their identification cards.

What to consider before visiting El Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park

  • Guided tours must be taken with authorized and certified tourist guides
  • Consider wearing personal protective items (sun blocker, sunglasses, towel, insect repellent, and hat).
  • The use of flash when taking photographs is prohibited.
  • use of binoculars to admire animal behavior and beauty in their natural habitat is recommended
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance.
  • It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you. It’s never enough to carry a personal medicine kit.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering, or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

References
  • Colparques Website
  • Parques Nacionales Website
About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

The Most Awesome Nature Destinations to Visit in Cartagena

Cartagena de Indias has more than 5 island complexes around it which provide more than 20 beaches to visit and enjoy. But let me tell you that Cartagena is not only about beaches and the Walled City.

Besides this, the most extensive, diverse, and developed coral reef in the entire Colombian Caribbean continental coastline is placed near to Cartagena, in the Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo National Natural Park.

Coral Reef at Islas del Rosario

Only 30 minutes from Cartagena you will discover the islands full of natural charms, where the calm and warm turquoise waters and white sand beaches make this island area a paradise on earth, and a refugee for marine life.

On the other hand, towards the north side of the city, you will find the Ciénaga de la Virgen, a special place for birdwatching and where you can walk through the mangroves of the fishing village of La Boquilla.

Totumo Volcano. Ph. ©fabulousfabs – Flickr

A few kilometers further on is the Totumo Volcano, which instead of lava is composed of mud, and is considered a natural spa. The mud is attributed with healing, exfoliating and moisturizing properties for the skin. It is also a fun place for young and old, where taking a mud bath will undoubtedly become an unforgettable memory.

Additionally, approximately one hour from the city is the Botanical Garden of Cartagena “Guillermo Piñeres”, a place where visitors can learn about the Colombian Caribbean flora and fauna.

Let’s continue with this nature trip around Cartagena!

Ecotourism destinations in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Rosario, Barú and San Bernardo Islands

The Rosario Islands (or Corales del Rosario or Islas del Rosario) is a small archipelago of about 28 islands, which is part of the insular area of Cartagena de Indias, with a land area of 20 hectares (0.20 km²). The main and best beaches in the Cartagena area are located in there.

The islands consist of a small platform composed of successive coral formations at different depths. There are also beautiful white-sand beaches, mangrove coastal forests, and extensive seagrass prairies around the islands.

Coral Reef formation at Rosario Islands Archipelago

Islas del Rosario is the perfect place to snorkel and dive. Its marine biodiversity will leave you amazed. Diving or snorkeling is the way to know at its depth one of the most visited national natural parks of Colombia. Here you will see multicolored fish and all the flora and fauna of the Caribbean Sea.

Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo Natural National Park

The Natural National Park Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo was created in the Rosario Islands archipelago to protect the coral reefs, which are the most important on the Colombian Caribbean coast. The park has an extension of 120,000 hectares.

Coral Reef Fishes at natural national park Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo. Ph. ©Parques Nacionales

The identity and importance of this protected area at the local, regional, national, and global levels are based on its ecosystem functions and essential ecological processes.

The coral reef buffers natural disturbances and functions as a barrier that mitigates the impact of coastal erosion. It is also the habitat of commercially valuable fish and invertebrates, and has beautiful and attractive landscapes.

Unhealthy reefs cannot protect the shore from erosion or extreme weather. Ph. ©The Nature Conservancy
Ecotourism as a Sustainable Activity

Ecotourism allows for the socio-cultural development of the communities settled in the area of influence of the park. It also enables environmental education and awareness, and provides the opportunity for research in marine sciences.

In the park, you can do bird watching, since it has more than 60 species of birds, 31 of which are sea birds including cormorants, gulls, frigates and pelicans. There are also colonies of herons and ibis.

It also is a perfect place to observe marine fauna and flora. There, 53 species of reef-building corals have been identified, which constitute 83% of the coral barriers in the Colombian Caribbean.

There is also a great wealth of invertebrates and 167 species of fish, of which 18 are threatened.

Marine invertebrates. Ph. ©Parques Nacionales

Finally, the marine vegetation is of great importance too, and many species find in this ecosystem breeding and protection.

If you are not very fond of going underwater, other activities you can do are: take a canoe ride through the mangroves, or walk or bike in the tropical dry forest. You can also visit the Oceanarium of San Martin de Pajarales Island, a sanctuary for marine life.

Isla Grande

Isla Grande is part of the Rosario Islands, and it is the largest in the Colombian archipelago of Corales del Rosario. You can get to Isla Grande by public boat, or you can rent a boat just for you and your family or friends.

Isla Grande, Rosario Islands, Cartagena. Ph. ©Emmanuel Rivera – Google Maps

The main activity at Isla Grande is to relax, but you can also go snorkeling and meet with the beautiful reef fishes.

Another attraction at Isla Grande is to visit the Enchanted Lagoon. This place is recommended to visit at night, and preferably with no moon. Why? Because there is a spectacular activity of bioluminescence produced by the plankton and phytoplankton in its waters. You will feel like swimming inside a melted starry sky. It is an absolutely mesmerizing experience!

Spectacular activity of bioluminescence. Ph. ©Islas del Rosario

Cholón, a beach of Barú, is another place where you can also see the natural spectacle of marine bioluminescence.

Diving tours

It is possible to practice diving and snorkeling in Isla Grande and in Isla Tintipán.

Diving tours in the Rosario Islands, Cartagena ©https://divingplanet.org/

For divers who already have their certificate, there is the possibility of doing recreational dives in the natural reserve of corals. On the contrary, if you are not a diver, you can do mini-courses as well, and then take a one-day or multi-day dive tour.

Barú Peninsula (known as Barú Island)

Barú is a peninsula bounded by the Bay of Cartagena, the Canal del Dique and the Caribbean Sea.

This wonderful place is located south of Cartagena, 2 hours by land or 2 and a half hours if you decide to go by boat.

You can rent boats of different capacity, depending on the size of your group of travelers. So, with total freedom, you will be able to choose the places to visit.

A day without laughter is a loss!

Nearby, there are mangrove swamps, water mirrors, and underwater gardens that you can visit. You can also go and meet the Canal del Dique, a work made by the Spanish in the 16th century to facilitate navigation between the Magdalena River and the city of Cartagena de Indias.

At the Canal del Dique you will find an estuarine environment worthy of admiration since the encounter of the river with the sea creates a strange and difficult-to-imagine landscape.

Mangrove ecosystems in Barú

Barú also has several beaches, but the most outstanding are Playa Blanca, Cholón, Agua Azul, and Agua Tranquila.

Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca is a beautiful white-sand beach that contrasts with its crystalline waters, a beautiful place to rest, relax and connect with nature.

Typical meals in the popular Playa Blanca in Barú

Playa Blanca is located on the island of Barú, 45 minutes from Cartagena de Indias. According to El Universal, Cartagena’s main newspaper, this place offers dreamy postcards, with its crystalline blue and green waters.

This place is internationally compared with paradisiacal places like Koh Samui in Thailand, Negril in Jamaica, or Boulders in South Africa.

National Aviary of Colombia

Colombia’s national aviary is on the way to Playa Blanca, one hour from Cartagena, in Barú.

The aviary is a foundation that seeks to conserve and promote knowledge about the richness of birds in Colombia and the Caribbean.

Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) Symbol of the Colombian Air Force. Ph ©Colin Hepburn – Flickr

The aviary is a very special place because it has birds in open and spacious habitats, and the visitor can observe them very closely and safely for both. There you can easily see emblematic species of the Caribbean coast like the endemic and critically endangered Blue-billed Curassow (Crax alberti).

If you are a soft birder or a birder traveling with family, this is a very good place to visit.

Ciénaga de la Virgen and La Boquilla

The Ciénaga de La Virgen is a wetland at risk of extinction. It is a coastal lagoon, approximately 7 km long, which connects to the Caribbean Sea. This marsh is estuarine in nature, as it owes its balance to the mixture of salt and fresh water.

Ciénaga de La Virgen and southern sector of Cartagena seen from Salto del Cabrón. Creative Commons Licence.

Despite the strong environmental pressure, its resilience has allowed fishes, crabs, chipichipis (Donax denticulatus) and shrimps to still sustain some families in the surrounding communities. Also its mangroves are a refuge for several species of resident and migratory birds.

Ecotourism appears as a strategy for the conservation of the Ciénaga de La Virgen, and for the sustenance of the local communities. Its potential as an ecotourism destination is being increasingly exploited by community businesses in the region that are betting on initiatives like this one that contribute to the preservation of mangrove ecosystems.

La Boquilla

In 2019 a viaduct was inaugurated over the Ciénaga de la Virgen. The elevated highway above the body of water shortens the route between Cartagena and Barranquilla. This has affected tourism in La Boquilla, a fishing village famous for its beautiful beaches and traditions.

Fishermen Museum at La Boquilla. Ph. ©El Tiempo

However, you can still visit the town to meet the Afro community that lives there, learn the secrets of traditional fishing: how to catch fish and crabs and how to use the nets in the sea.

The experience is even more interesting when you go into the kitchen to learn how to cook fish and crab with coconut rice.

Fishermen Museum at La Boquilla. Ph. ©El Tiempo

You can also visit the Casa Museo de Pescadores Ancestrales del Corregimiento de la Boquilla. This is an initiative to recover the traditions and customs that identify the population, especially those associated with the work of fishing.

Botanical Garden of Cartagena “Guillermo Piñeres”

The Botanical Garden has 9 hectares, and is divided into 5 hectares of plant collections and 4 hectares of natural forest. You can walk along paths, which are rather steep, so be sure to wear good, comfortable shoes on your visit. It is a wonderful place to get into close contact with the Caribbean Dry Forest.

Macondo (Cavanillesia platanifolia) Ph. ©Botanical Garden of Cartagena

The Botanical Garden has several collections, among the most developed are:

  • Arboretum: with more than 100 native and exotic tree species.
  • Orchard: with unusual fruiting trees of the Caribbean and beyond.
  • Palmetum: with a collection of Caribbean and exotic palm trees.
  • Drug and Fragrance Garden: a collection of perfumed, medicinal and psychoactive plants.
  • Xerophytic Garden: with a collection of cacti and succulents from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Madagascar.

Totumo Volcano

The Totumo Volcano is a volcanic cone full of mud, which is located in the rural area of the municipality of Santa Catalina (Bolívar). The formation presents a scarce elevation of twenty meters. To enter and exit the crater it is necessary to ascend by a rustic wooden staircase, and then descend by another one.

Once at the bottom of the crater, you can take a mud bath! The mud is composed of water, silica, aluminum, magnesium, sodium chloride, calcium, sulfur, iron, and phosphate. It is supposed to have healing properties due to its composition.

Mud Bath at the Totumo Volcano. Ph. ©Adrian Rodney-Edwards – Flickr

This destination is not supported by the public administration, so its physical infrastructure is not the most adequate, and it is managed by the local community.

It is an interesting place to visit, if you do not mind sharing a small pool with strangers. You can also get a massage while you are there.

The Pink Sea of Galerazamba

The pink beach of Galerazamba is a must-see in Colombia. The sea takes on a beautiful pink coloration thanks to the concentration of salt in its waters and the action of an algae found in them.

The Pink Sea of Galerazamba. Ph. ©Carlos Bustamante R. – Flickr

The best time to visit Galerazamba is from December to April. After that, the pink color begins to decrease until it becomes crystalline.

In addition to this impressive landscape, you can learn about the process of salt production, as well as its history, crystallization process, use, and commercialization.

Where to Stay

There are several accommodation options. For a nature experience we recommend you to stay at Hotel Las Islas, in Barú. For more information read our Complete Guide to the Best Eco lodges in Colombia.

Las Islas Hotel – Barú, Cartagena

But if you prefer to enjoy a little bit of the city we recommend you to stay at sustainable Hotel Boutiques as the Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Choice Awards 2020 winner Sofitel Legend Santa Clara; the widely acclaimed and recognized Casa San Agustín Hotel; and, the charming hotel of the world by the Paris Magazine Hotel & Lodge and Prize FIABCI of Architecture to the best restoration Casa Pestagua Hotel Boutique.

Recommendations

  • Please use coral-friendly sunscreen. If you need help on this subject I recommend you read the article Reef-Safe Sunscreen: What You Need to Know by Chasing Coral.
  • Be vaccinated against yellow fever 10 days before the planned date of your trip and carry your immunization records.
  • Today, it is no longer necessary to stop in Bogotá to get to Cartagena. If you come from abroad, you can take a cruise or a plane.
  • Airlines such as American Airlines, JetBlue, Interjet, KLM, Delta, and Copa fly directly to the Rafael Nuñez International Airport in Cartagena.
  • The best time or season to travel to Cartagena varies little throughout the year.
  • Being a coastal city, its climate is tropical humid and dry with a relative humidity of 84%.
  • The temperature in Cartagena is warm almost all year round and generally ranges between 23 and 30º C.
  • However, the best time to visit the beautiful beaches and landscapes of Cartagena is between the end of November and the end of April, when the climate is drier.
  • The distances between the tourist areas are not very long. However, private transportation is somewhat expensive compared to public transportation and cabs. We recommend that you check the prices in advance.

With these simple recommendations, you will be able to dedicate yourself to enjoying your ecotrip in Cartagena “La Heróica” to the fullest. It’s an experience not to be missed! In case of any doubt, do not hesitate to contact us!


References


About the author

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.