Destination Cartagena – Scuba Diving the Rosario Islands

Cartagena Door

Located on Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, Cartagena is a destination city for any serious traveler.  The historic Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a maze of cobblestone streets and superbly preserved colonial architecture.  From the famous wood doors to the bougainvillea covered balconies, the photography opportunities are endless.  Throw in the late night arrepas, salsa dancing, and rooftop bars and you have what quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world. 

Travelling without a Plan

The Old City of Cartagena was our main destination, but it was the Rosario Islands that really drew me to Colombia.  A little more than an hour by boat, the Rosario Islands sit off the coastline of Cartagena and are a destination for island hopping day trips, overnight stays, and especially scuba diving.  With no plans made in the islands, except for an AirBnB, we walked the streets of Cartagena looking for a dive shop that would accommodate once we got there.  After speaking to a couple different outfits that set off a few alarm bells, we came across Diving Planet and knew we had found our group. 

An aerial view of the Rosario Islands and the incredible surrounding reefs

Diving Planet offers daily transportation from the marina in Cartagena out to the Rosario Islands.  The ride is a little over an hour and you arrive at their dive resort on Isla Grande.  All the dive equipment is stored on the islands and shortly after arriving you are ready to jump back in the boat and head out to one of the many incredible dive sites.

Our situation was a little different.  We explained how we were staying in an AirBnB right off the largest of the islands, Isla Grande.  We were told this is not a problem and they would just come by and grab us off of our dock with the dive boat.  With little to no communication once we were in the islands, we crossed our fingers and hoped that they remembered us in the morning. 

Is This Really Going to Work?

We arrived at our little island mid-afternoon to discover we had our own house reef.  It was hot, really hot, so within minutes we were all snorkeling around looking for whatever creatures lived in the area.  It wasn’t long before I found a couple of cuttlefish that called our reef home.  After chasing them around for about thirty minutes, it was time to enjoy a cold beer and get prepared for tomorrow’s adventure.    

One of the colorful cuttlefish that called our house reef home

It was finally our first day to dive in Colombia.  We were up bright and early and patiently waiting on the dock for our ride.  As the day boats began to arrive from Cartagena, I started to think our plan was too good to be true.  I mean, we randomly walked into a dive shop in a city we had never visited.  We asked them to pick us up at our AirBnb that had no address, only a name. And we paid them nothing in terms of a deposit.  Of course this wasn’t going to work.  Well it turns out I was wrong.  Shortly after I had given up, they came and got us in the dive boat and took us across the channel to get all set up and ready for our underwater adventure.

Sunrise over our AirBnb where we awaited our day of diving

What are We Really Getting into?

As you have probably gathered from earlier, we didn’t have any plans so we didn’t really do any research into what we were going to see.  I knew it was a dive destination, but for what?  I had no idea if the islands were famous for biodiversity, visibility, or maybe it’s home to amazing reef structures.  Well it’s safe to say that on our initial descent I could immediately tell it was all of the above.  With the water temperature around 82 degrees, we could dive as light as possible and enjoy some of the better reefs I’ve seen anywhere in the world. 

Dive Time!

Our first dive was your standard set-up dive to make sure everyone was a capable and advanced diver.  We were on a protected reef and did a fun little circuit looking for octopus, eel, and enjoying the vibrant schools of fish.   Once it was established that everyone could be trusted, we got to the fun stuff.  It can get windy on the islands and along with a few other factors, the resulting currents are strong on the ocean facing sides of the islands.  If you dive you know where this headed. 

The invasive lion fish seems to have found every corner of the tropical world

After a surface interval with coconut candy and fresh fruit, it was time for our first drift dive of the trip.  And the current was ripping.  Hold on to the line as you wait for everyone to hop in ripping.  Once we were ready to go, it was a quick descent to 50 feet deep and off we went. The conditions were perfect, and the massive wall of coral seemed to go on forever.  Taking photos can be a little difficult in these conditions because you have to kick hard back into the current to hover in place.  This isn’t conducive for the sharpest photos, but you can sometimes find an overhang that allows for some dwell time on an interesting fish or sea fan.  One hour and about 3 miles later we sent up our safety sausages and began our ascent to the waiting dive boat.  It was a phenomenal dive with an experienced crew.  Our dive master could see how much fun I had and casually mentioned, “you know, we are going on a night dive tonight”.  In!

Grab a Torch

Night diving isn’t for everyone.  Personally, I love it.  There is an entirely different population of sea life that comes out at night.  From the giant crabs and lobsters that hide during the day, to the bioluminescence that looks like fairy dust, night diving allows you to see the full range of diversity on a healthy reef.

Our night dive took place on a reef we had visited earlier in the day.  We got picked up in a tiny dive boat with no running lights and headed out into the pitch-black night.  Under a moonless sky, with no lights on the boat, I have no problem saying the ink black water looked less than inviting.  After convincing myself that it’s no different then the last time, we all hopped in and went exploring.  Once again, the Rosario Islands did not disappoint.  Another great dive in the books and time for some well needed rest.

A big crab out for a late night snack

The following morning, I hopped in for a couple more tanks before we went island hopping.  The diving was excellent once again, but we wanted to see what else the islands had to offer.  We started with a snorkel over a sunken plane off of Pablo Escobar’s abandoned compound.  From there we bought coconuts from the locals that go from boat to boat selling their wares.  Finally, we ended the day at a beach club with a few proper Colombian cocktails. 

A Special Place

Colombia has come a long way over the last few years.  The city of Cartagena is easy to navigate and the people are wonderful.  Add in the incredible food and historical beauty, and you have an ideal destination to visit and explore.  On top of that, if you like to dive or enjoy a little island time, the Rosario Islands are one of the most beautiful little island groupings you can find less than an hour from a major metropolitan city. 

I hope you get the chance to visit and if you have any questions regarding the city or the scuba diving please let me know.  If I don’t have the answer, I know somebody there that does. 

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