Many people visiting Colombia for the first time arrive in Cartagena imagining quiet, sprawling, sandy beaches on the Carribean. The city has it’s charms, but the beaches around Cartagena are packed with locals and tourist. Rent a lounge chair or stretch your towel out on the beach and a barrage of strolling merchants start hawking their wares. Say no to one and another magically appears. Don’t get annoyed. The beach you’re looking for, the beach you dreamed and need, is just a short trip away.
Rincon del Mar is a delightful little Caribbean fishing village just a 2-3 hour trip south of Cartagena – 100 km. (62 miles). A quiet, authentic village, it is located right on the ocean. The town has white sand beaches and crystal clear waters. Rincon is a little town composed Afro-Colombians, mostly of fishermen and families who work with the tourists. Children run through the streets while men play dominos and an occasional tourist walks along the water’s edge.
I had been exploring different beaches up and down the coast for years. A Colombian told me about Rincon del Mar. I’d never heard of it so I arrived, checked my bags at the hostel and took a walk down the beach. I was surprised to see dozens of relaxed foreigners. Most of them had come from Cartagena. After enjoying the city they needed some relaxing beach time, something the shores of Cartagena couldn’t offer.
They were lucky. Because they had heard about the fishing village of Rincon and decided to get off the beaten path. I realized Rincon was one of those destinations that travelers find and never tell anybody about for fear of ruining it for their next visit.
No one lived in these isolated, little fishing villages before 2005. Most of them had left long before, escaping the violence. But when the political situation was right, they slowly returned to the sea to occupy the houses and launch the boats.
Fishermen come back from the sea all morning with their day’s catch in the bottom of their boat. You can buy fish and lobster right off the boat, take it to one of the family restaurants on the beach and they will cook it for you. Sit down at a table and they’ll serve it with a drink and a couple sides. When you ask them how much you owe they will tell you to leave what you like.
Most of the hotels and seaside restaurants are on the beach. Most of the restaurants are simple and inexpensive serving up fish, the latest catch of the day, lobster, coconut rice and fried plantains. The hotels range from simple, inexpensive hostels to comfortable, all inclusive boutique eco-lodges.
White sandy beaches stretch in both directions as far as the eye can see and walking the beach here is safe. Hike along the beach to the south it will take you past some houses belonging mostly to people from Medellin. Pass these and it’s nothing but deserted beach. Walk over the bridge in town towards the north and one can walk for hours along the deserted beaches.
Besides the nice beach bars in town, the fishermen offer guided expeditions out to sea:
- The archipelago of San Bernardo – one can take a boat trip to visit the untouched nature of the San Bernardo islands. The tour starts at 8 a.m. and takes around 6 hours. They take you to Isla Mangle – a great place to snorkle, to Tintipan – an island of fishing families and to Isla Mucura for lunch and swimming in a bay with crystal clear waters and white, sandy beaches. The trip costs 70,000.
- Swim with the Glowing Plankton – fishermen take you in a boat to Bird Island at sunset to watch hundreds of different birds flying back to their nests. When the sun goes down jump off the boat and swim with the glowing plankton. A certain species of plankton living here glows in the dark as a way of scaring off predatory fish. It’s called bioluminescence and can be found in just a few habitats around the world. The trip costs 70,000 COP and leaves the beach at 5:30 p.m. The fishermen only conduct the tour 15 days of the month, during the new moon, because darkness helps to increase the visibility of the phosphorescence.
- Spearfishing and Free Diving – if you like to free dive for your dinner, this is the trip for you. Boats leave the beach at 6 a.m. and they take you to their best fishing spots. Local divers, underwater fishermen can dive down to 20 meters (65 feet) to spear and catch lobsters, crab, conchs and fish. Jump in the water with mask and fins. You’re not expected to dive down go to work with them chasing fish along the ocean floor and you probably couldn’t keep up if you wanted. But watching them dive and fish underwater is an unforgettable experience. The cost is 70,000 COP per person.
- Scuba Diving – the Chill Octopus Hostel has a good dive center and can arrange a dive for you.
Where to stay?
There are a number of little hostels along the beach with prices starting at 60,000 COP a room. There are also a number of more upscale eco-lodges with prices up to 250,000 COP a night.
- Blue Sea Hostel – is located on he south side of the brige. It has a friendly staff and private beach with nice rooms overlooking the ocean.
- Dos Aguas Lodge – is where most of the travelers stay. It’s a romantic, eco-lodge, a classy hostel on the outskirts of town. It has a bohemian vibe, a nice big bar overlooking the ocean serving great craft cocktails.
A quiet town after sunset, nightlife is limited to having a few drinks on the beach.
There is no ATM in Rincon del Mar but there is one in the nearby San Onofre just 30 minutes inland. Also don’t drink the tap water in town as it is rather brackish. Buy bottled water. There are a lot of small tiendas, small shops and a mini-market to buy things in Rincon. And there’s an Olimpica supermarket in San Onofre.
In the off-season one can just show up and look for a room. There are so many accommodations it should be no problem finding something. But during the weekends and especially the holidays the place is a popular spot with the locals and Colombian tourist. During these time be sure to at least book your first night in Rincon online or by phone. Booking lists a number of lodging options.
How to Get There
From Cartagena: Take a taxi to the Cartagena Terminal de Transporte about a 30 minute ride out of the center. Take a bus to San Onofre (approx. 130,000 COP). At the bus stop there will be motor bikes and cars waiting. Take a ride on a motor bike for 10,000 COP or a car for 30,000. It’s a 30 minute ride down a dirt road to Rincon.
From Medellin it’s an 11 hour trip. Many people leaving Cartagena, enroute to Medellin, stop at Rincon on their way to city of eternal spring.
From Barranquilla – it’s a six hour bus ride to San Onofre.
A little beach no one ever heard about, an even smaller fishing village, is just 20 minutes south of Rincon del Mar. Get one of the boys in town with a motor taxi to take you back up the dirt road towards San Onofre but then it turns right and heads down to the little fishing village of Berrugas. This fishing village is much smaller than Rincon. But there is an economical hotel, bar and restaurant right on the beach in the town’s little harbor. The harbor has a sandy beach. If Rincon is crowded one can always avoid the weekend crowds by coming to Berrugas.
If you are in Cartagena Rincon is a lot closer than trying to reach the beaches of Santa Marta, Tayrona and Palomino. They are currently paving the road coming from San Onofre to Berrugas and Rincon del Mar. The plan is a paved road will pull in more visitors. So don’t wait too long to visit.