Editor’s note: What a magical story by Sam Spector, the wandering rabbi. For more of his writing, click here to visit his index. And if you enjoy it, please help support The Royal Tour via our Patreon page.
In case you are not aware, September and October are the months when rabbis reconsider all their life’s decision as nearly every day is a Jewish holiday. As I sit and write sermons while playing Green Day’s Wake Me Up When September Ends on loop, my mind often wanders to where I am going to go after the holidays to recharge my batteries. A couple years ago, that place was the northern, Caribbean coast of Colombia. With the Google images of the nightlife of Cartagena, the restaurants of Barranquilla, and the incredible scenery of Tayrona National Park flashing across my screen, my relaxing vacation could not come fast enough. Yet the best place I went, for the most rest and relaxation, was a place off the beaten path that I had not heard of, the Rosario Islands. The Rosario Islands are a 62-mile boat journey away from the port of Cartagena, requiring an almost two-hour, choppy journey not for the faint of heart. We passed the more touristy Isla de Pajarales, with its oceanarium full of dolphins and nurse sharks, ideal for those traveling with children, and made our way eventually to Isla Grande.
Isla Grande and the Rosario Islands are within a national park preserved for Colombia due to its intense coral reefs. Upon arriving to Isla Grande, the first thing we did was toss on our flippers, grab a mask, and go snorkeling among colorful sea sponges and bright fish amidst an array of coral hues. As we splashed around, we came across an incredible seaside mansion that looked abandoned. Our local snorkel guide pointed it out and told us “La Casa de Pablo Escobar” was once one of the party mansions of the world’s one-time leading drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar. He led us a bit further, motioned to us and then dove deep under the water; we followed and looked down to find the wreckage of a small airplane. The guide explained to us that this one of Escobar’s drug planes that did not quite make it to the runway, crashing right in front of the mansion.
Pablo Escobar’s Isla Grande mansion
Despite the association with one of the world’s most notoriously violent criminals, the island serves as a peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world, being one of the most truly isolated places I have been in my life. While Americans may know the two most famous natives of northern Colombia, Shakira and Sofia Vergara, what often escapes American media is the rich Afro-Caribbean culture of Colombia and the other nations in South and Central America. Isla Grande is a place to truly immerse yourself in this rich heritage, as the island has approximately 700 inhabitants, virtually all of whom are black descendants of African slaves. Most of the inhabitants of the island are multigenerational descendants of the original inhabitants of the island. The main other residents of the island are the pigs, chickens, and hundreds of happy, friendly dogs that call the island their home, freely roaming across it. Staying at Isla Grande is not your Club Med-experience; rather, it is likely that you will have no television, no internet, the electricity will be shut off at night, and you will probably sleep in mosquito netting. There are no cars nor any roads on the island either. Likewise, though activities on the island are cheap (a two hour snorkeling trip was about $10 per person), make sure you bring plenty of cash as there are no ATMs and credit cards are not accepted on the island (this could be true as well for paying for your accommodations). We stayed at El Hamaquero, an Airbnb on the water for about $45 per night, which had an onsite bar and restaurant serving up local traditional cuisine. Grab yourself a drink and relax in one of the many hammocks and realize that the outside world cannot get ahold of you no matter how hard they try, and let your problems disappear.
Isolation can be beautiful
When you need to stretch your legs, go for a walk across the island; it takes only about half an hour to cross the entire island, as excited puppies and local children follow you on your journey. If your Spanish is good enough, converse with the locals about their island life. Naively, I assumed that with such little in the way of the everyday sources of communication that I depend on that the young adults on the island yearned to move to the mainland to be able to access all the materialistic items and entertainment that I enjoy daily. Yet the attitude on the island was “less things, less worries.” On Isla Grande, they had their families, friends, and the sea – what more did they need? As they explained, living in paradise was not a bad life at all, and I was privileged to get to enjoy it for a short period. As we crossed the island under the tropical trees, we stopped off at little huts that sold snacks or maybe some handicrafts; we were not sure of the time, but it did not matter as we were truly on island time.
An Isla Grande village
The highlight of the island though was the Enchanted Lagoon. You read that correctly, just when you thought that this place was too good to be true, I threw at you that it has a FREAKING ENCHANTED LAGOON! We walked with a guide to the lagoon and hopped into a canoe as he rowed us through a mangrove swamp, pushing past the thick cluster of trees and roots with his oar. Occasionally, we went by locals sitting and talking, having a drink with one another, gossiping about their fellow islanders. Eventually, we arrived at an opening; we had arrived at the Enchanted Lagoon, yet the magic was just beginning. Try to visit Isla Grande and its lagoon on a night with the least amount of moonlight possible, because the lagoon itself is alive. Within the lagoon are billions of phytoplankton that illuminate a bright blue when they are disturbed. Plunge into the warm water, and it will completely light up around you. Stick your head underwater and start beating your fists rapidly in the water and you will be amazed to see the water completely light up. This natural phenomenon can only be experienced in a few places in the world, but there is nowhere that is a better kept secret than Isla Grande, Colombia. Add this off-the-beaten-path destination to your bucket list as one of the most relaxing, magical couple days you will have in your travel adventures, the only thing to worry about is that by unplugging and destressing here, you might be tempted to not return to your real life!
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