As the pencil-shaped white buildings of Boca Grande, Cartagena appear in the distance surrounded by dark blue waves, our 40-minute boat ride from the Coral Rosary Islands and San Bernardo National Park comes to an end. The strong wind cut our day trip short by two hours and left us at the entrance to Bocachica Bay, between the forts of San Fernando and San Miguel.
My mate and I share a secret sense of relief. The trip along the coast of the Barú Peninsula is the safest route to navigate the three-meter high swells on our way that leave us wet, hugging the edge of our seats, but comforted by our life jackets and grateful to our experienced captain.
Locals know how treacherous the waters can get in the early afternoon from December to April. Although they appreciate the breeze and the pleasant temperatures of the season, they generally recommend an early return. At this time of year, the water is refreshing and if the opportunity arises, a private boat is a comfortable way to explore the park, which offers plenty of places to enjoy the crisp water. -marine, coral reefs and white sand beaches.
Most places require reservations for anchoring and lunch. Food and services can be a little more expensive than in the Old Town, but most guarantee decent restrooms, shade, lounge chairs, refreshments, food and drink. The catch of the day is a popular dish, usually served with coconut rice, fried green plantain and salad, which taste best looking towards the blue horizon while the shadow of the branches of a palm tree swings above you.
As we leave the islands and stop at the San Fernando Fort jetty, Joselito, our unsolicited guide, greets us. He asks us to call him “Dad Negro” and introduces himself as a member of the Cooperative of the elderly of Bocachica, the town on the island of Tierrabomba which guards the fort. Entrance to the fort is free and the visit is free, but a tip is more than deserved, which will be shared among the members of the community, as Joselito makes clear.
The Fort of San Fernando is perhaps one of the least visited sites in the Cartagena region, although it is close to the mainland and offers plenty to explore. Visitors usually speed past towards Barú and the islands, while a few make a short pit stop and, without disembarking, listen to some of the tactics used to defend the city under Spanish rule against the English and French. in the 18th century.
Tierra Bomba is home to a vulnerable population and Bocachica a fishing town that has seen better days. Some locals strive to make the island a mandatory stop on the tourist agenda. Many make up the workforce that frequents the growing hospitality industry in Cartagena or sell beaded necklaces and local treats on the streets of the old town.
The fort is virgin and the visit turns out to be memorable. Joselito manages to draw our attention to the chambers, ramps, tunnels and pillars that tell the story of pirates, slaves and independence heroes. No worries, no spoilers here. Let Joselito tell you himself and ask him to speak slowly if your Spanish is a little rusty.
A short walk from the fort, Bocachica offers a palm-lined public beach facing the open sea from which cruise ships, freighters, and tankers enter and leave the bay. Enjoy the local and popular atmosphere. Rent a thatched-roof hut and savor coconut drinks and typical dishes. A medium plate costs around 11 US dollars, but always check prices before ordering and do not accept unsolicited services to avoid merchants.
“Next time you come to Cartagena, give me a call,” says Joselito. “Take a water taxi, like us locals, it won’t cost you more than $7,000 each way and you’ll be here in no time,” he claims. After saying goodbye to us, he welcomes another ship of unexpected tourists. “Welcome”, we hear him say before explaining how slaves were thrown into the shark-infested moat. Joselito’s hospitality is an open invitation to return to Bocachica, and although he doesn’t own a phone, he says he’s easy to find around the pier most days of the week.
“Just ask Joselito or ‘Negro Papa’, everyone knows who I am.”
Some useful tips: