In early August of 2019, I spent two hours arguing over the price of a boat ride from the docks in Cartagena to the Rosario Islands. My backpacker brain - newly minted after just a week on the road - had already converted to the morbid frugality that plagues most marathon backpackers. I had come to expect negotiations in Colombia; they were the norm for everything: sunglasses, clothes, bus tickets and, yes, boat rides. It was all fair. But this negotiation was something else. Something more complicated. More emotionally charged.
On the boat, I sat next to a forty-something doctor from Chicago. She wore a flowing sundress, $500 Ray-Bans and a bag that likely cost more than the outboard motor on our boat. She proudly boasted that Colombia was her 95th country. She’d never spent more than a week in any of them.
The Rosario Islands have become a bit of an oversaturated tourist destination in Colombia. Their convenience from Cartagena - Colombia’s most popular tourist city - and their overpowering beauty make them a little too convenient. They’ve become the Times Square of Colombia douche tourism for American vacationers (right up there with Medellin, with the mystique of Pablo Escobar piqued by Netflix’s Narcos).
Our little boat powered through choppy Caribbean waters for ninety minutes, shirtless crewman prancing on the roof in bare feet and three dozen wealthy non-Colombians literally clutching pearls in oversized moldy lifejackets. Turquoise waters and cerulean skies. Dolphins surfacing here and there.
First came the seagulls, of course. Next, I expected a slight irregularity on the horizon and an obnoxious call of land-ho! from some suburban dad sitting in the back. But there was something else. Something far more bizarre, actually. In came the thunderous bass of house music. Seriously. House music. Four-step paint-by-numbers reggaeton.
The irregularity on the horizon and the land-ho! and the murmurs and giggles came next as they would. That island grew and the music grew louder. And right there, in the middle of a tropical Caribbean paradise, was a thumping beach party. Twentysomething Instafamous scantily clad women. Men in fedoras, breezy white shirts and Kanye West shutter shades.
I wasn’t headed to the beach party, though I’ll admit I was drawn to it. A woman I had met in Cartagena arrived the day prior, and she found a great deal on a hostel that was shut down for renovations. They weren’t actually accepting guests, but she somehow charmed her way in. So my boat stopped at all kinds of docks, shuttling from beach party to beach party and emptying clusters of passengers here and there. I was the last one on the boat.
Finally, my stop. Julia stood at the end of a creaky old wooden pier with one hand on her hip and the other shielding her eyes from the blaring sun. The world was quiet. Quieter than it had been, anyway. The thumping bass was muted - tamed by the island’s trees. The dock sloshed in a gentle current. Seabirds cawed.
Julia and I walked deep through thick jungle just then, two explorers in flip-flops and knockoff sunglasses searching for the semi-completed facilities of what was later to become the jewel of the Rosario Islands: Paraiso Secreto (Secret Paradise).
We spent five days in that odd little cluster of buildings. To be sure, they were spectacular. Constructed in the 1970s by wealthy emerald mining bosses, a smattering of luxurious semi-mansions sat regally around a pool and an outdoor bar. But there were no Kanye shutter shades nor bikini-clad Instafamous twentysomethings. There were only locally-born construction workers. And for five days, we got drunk on aguardiente late into the evening with those local Afro-Caribbean blue-collar workers while muted bass music thumped from the beaches. And those workers introduced us to their friends and networked us around the island. The real island.
Once you hack through the blaring reggaeton on the beach, you find a vibrant, beautiful island community. Little shacks with no running water and electricity. Clusters of chickens clucking and pigs doing pig things. Children running about shirtless in dusty old crocks and women drying laundry on lines and men playing cards and smoking cigars. In some cases, these people live mere yards from those luxurious beach parties with cabanas and umbrellas and all kinds of fruity spiked drinks with little umbrellas, but they remain utterly invisible. And to the locals, the children masquerading as adults on their beaches fade away altogether. They faded for Julia and me, too. We’d see them from time to time, stumbling into the jungle in a drunken stupor to pee behind a tree. In the early days, we envied them. But by the morning of the third day, we wanted nothing more than what we had.
Those people were back in Los Angeles or London or Paris at their desks the following Monday, believing in their soul they had been to Colombia. And, had they zipped their flies and walked just a little deeper inland, they would have been right. If you ever find yourself on a boat to the Rosario Islands, skip past the thumping beach parties and hop off at the quietest dock. The one at the very end. And walk right by Paraiso Secreto, too, because it’s become a thumping pool party itself since I left. Walk straight until you see the shacks and the pigs. And say hello.
Things don't always go well in the Rosario Islands, though. Listen to the first episode of the Baggage Claim podcast, in which I almost die in a mangrove lagoon.