After having our fill of culture and history and picking up enough barnacles to sink a containership, we searched for cleaner and quieter places. Our idea of travel bears a focus on the areas that are hard to get to and off the beaten track. Weather and sea conditions taken into account, we decided on an extended stay in the Parque Nacional Los Corales del Rosarios y San Bernardo. As the long name presupposes, the park spans a large 1200 km² area, starting 3 miles from the Boca Chica entrance to Cartagena. It incorporates the Rosario island group, San Bernardo island group and anything in between.
We found out pretty quickly why they add ‘los corales’ to the name of this conservation area. The whole place is resplendent with corals, forming one big coral reef with depths ranging from 1m to 60m. Underneath the turquoise water lurks a highly sculptured landscape with cliffs and crevices. The depth sounder climbs from 60m to 5m or from 18m to 3m in a jiff. Evidently, such steep ascent is the exact moment where your depth sounder gets capricious and stalls, making initial navigation quite tricky. A lot of the area has not been charted properly, so you can’t really rely on the available maps. We often went on survey missions, hunting for new dive spots, safe anchorage, and so forth. Many places looked extremely interesting to dip into, but were not immediately within reach. The biggest challenge remained to find a large enough place, free of corals, to anchor safely without damaging the reef or Exodus.
Free diving in Isla Grande
In the Rosario islands, we spent most of our time around Isla Grande. There are about 12 settlements in the park, with Isla Grande being the one central to the Rosario island group. A friendly AfroCaribbean community, mostly descendants from African slaves, calls this island home. They stay in the small Orika village. The park’s board laid out several pleasant, clean foot paths that guide you around the various must-sees.
They preserve the dry tropical rainforest where lizards, snakes and iguanas meet up with the free roaming pigs, dogs and chickens from the village. They take you past small-scale eco-friendly hostels and tiny tiendas selling local fruit and vegetables and basic supplies (cans of sardines, tuna, rice, pasta, bread, …) to laid back beaches where locals serve freshly caught crabs or crayfish and offer massages.
The bulk of the daytrippers are dropped off in the northern zone of the island, and are therefore easy to avoid. On Isla Grande, there is an enchanted lagoon, which is a breeding ground for birds and some very specific type of bioluminescent algae. The latter makes for some spectacular evenings when the ‘enchanted’ luminescence drift out to the anchorage.
Over 60 species of birds have been registered as typical for the area. Not just ibis, heron, cormorants, seagulls, frigate birds and pelicans but also black vultures, eagles, hawks, parrots, hummingbirds, and kingfisher. It was quite remarkable to see pelicans, which we presumed were solitary birds, fly in full battle formation high in the sky, or as swift bomber pilots in sets of threes soaring at a height of 15 centimeters over the water. After seeing so many of them in Bocas, we were quite used to the awkwardness, the plumb noisiness with which pelicans plonk in the water to catch fish. Clearly there is more to these big guys than meets the eye!
Gitane called Isla Grande ‘butterfly island’ as each time we crossed the island to go to the beach, we would encounter various species fluttering by. It is only when you see butterflies in such great abundance and diversity that you realise what has been lost in most European countries which have been saturated in pesticides for decades.
Apart from strolling on the island, purchasing fresh fruit and veg, and going to the beach, our main activities consisted of snorkeling and free diving.
As we had a full boat of visitors most of the time, we often took Exodus out for exploration and tied up on the dive buoys on calm days.
The park’s board has put out dive buoys and anchor buoys for visiting boats to moor onto, as well as channel markers where vessels should pass at reduced speed. No commercial shipping is allowed in the whole area, and only subsistence fishing for the locals. The anchoring buoys were too shallow for us. We could only anchor safely on one side of the island, although not due to lack of trying. We tried approaching from different angles, crawling in at a snail’s pace in order to afford the depth sounder and the spotters sufficient time to find deep enough channels through the corals.
In the end the easiest was to tie up on some of the dive buoys after verifying the mooring could hold our 10ton boat and provided the conditions were calm (little wind, no chop, no current).
One of our favorite snorkel spots was close to our anchorage. It had reef at 6.5m to 30m, which provided good training for all of us. It was great to see how comfortable the kids are in and under water. They made some serious efforts to improve their depth records, with Yoren settling on 14,5m, Arno on 11m and Gitane on 4m. The fact that the water temperature was absolutely perfect (just like Panama) certainly helped and gave all of us the feeling we could snorkel forever.
We also checked out all the other dive buoys around Isla Grande, where there were shallower spots. The great thing is that now the whole family is involved in breath hold diving. Every dive down was rewarded by some pretty sights.
Over 53 species of reef building corals are found in the park area, constituting 83% of the coral reefs of the Columbian Caribbean sea. What stood out is that corals had much higher structures, resembling at certain spots an underwater forest with gnome and fairy houses, or a small village with simple one storey houses, up to a large town with intricate edifices, many inhabitants of all walks of life, busy traffic and high rise buildings… The usual suspects around Isla Grande were trigger fish, queen angel fish, cow fish family, parrot fish, and lots of small reef fish.
For the kids, living on Exodus is like having a huge tropical swimming pool at your fingertips, only the views are better… So when they are tired of jumping off the bow or stern, trying out different jumps and saltos, you can find them goofing around, inventing new games like underwater bubble blowing (works best if you swim down to the rudder and position your stomach under the blade, the aim is to blow perfectly round bubbles with lots of side effects), chasing fish, swimming under the keel, going down the anchor chain and so on. After a stroll on the land, they ‘ll get back to the boat as quick as they can and you’ll catch them in some sort of spontaneous under water ballet testifying their sheer pleasure of moving around in this medium…