As Colombia continues to grow in popularity/urgency on the backpacker trail, new hostels are opening every month. Yet none are quite as unique in concept as Paraiso Secreto, a collection of seven wonderfully colourful hostels, which have taken over a group of abandoned mansions on Isla Grande, less than an hour off the coast of Cartagena.
As the story goes, the island was the 1970s holiday destination of choice for families of the then-prominent emerald mafia. They constructed the seven, near-identical grand mansions for themselves, along with two pools, a bar, restaurant and private beach. For reasons unknown, the buildings have spent the last decade untouched, gradually becoming engulfed by the jungle. It wasn’t until last year that Juan Carlos Román, equipped with his machete, hacked away at the overgrown greenery, and reclaimed the architectural masterpieces from the island.
His idea, and a remarkable one at that, was to set up a community of individual hostels that are managed overall by his business, Paraiso Secreto. Along with his own Casa Nativa, the project has since welcomed the arrival of six new hostels, most of which have a bigger, long-standing hostel in one of Colombia’s major cities. They are: Golden Frog; Galeria and Samán from Medellin, Fulano and Alegria’s from Bogotá, and The Local House from Cali.
I chose to stay at Galeria, which was the first of the hostels to open, and one of the most popular ever since. My host, Amalia, was extremely kind and welcoming. She advised me on what to do around the island and had relaxing music playing in the house all day long. Its high-ceilinged rooms are full of gorgeous white furniture, comfortable bunks with inbuilt fans and mosquito nets, plus there is a sunny deck outdoors, perfect for spending the afternoon lazing away.
Boats depart from Cartagena’s marina Muelle De La Bodeguita between 8:00 and 9:00am every day, and cost 30,000 – 60,000 COP depending on your bartering skills. You also have to pay taxes of 13,500 to be permitted into what is a natural reservation. Make sure you confirm with the captain that you need to be dropped at the Paraiso Secreto jetty.
Upon arrival, guests are welcomed and checked in by Paraiso Secreto staff, then brought to their hostel of choice and introduced to their respective host. While nearly identical in layout, each of the houses have distinctive décor, resulting in them all having a completely unique feel about them. Dorms for most of the properties cost 50,000 cop per night, while private rooms (most with huge king-size beds) are around 150,000 cop. Electricity is limited to a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then from 6pm-9am, and they don’t have Wi-Fi, which I found a welcome break from the real world.
Each house has two bathrooms and a well-equipped kitchen. It would be best to bring groceries from the mainland, as there are only several small tiendas on the island. If you don’t feel like cooking, a big breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at the onsite restaurant, you just have to sign up several hours beforehand, and have it added to your bill. All the houses share this common facility, plus access to the idyllic beach, two pools, and bar. Depending on whether there are instructors staying, there are sometimes morning poolside yoga classes, or evening dance workshops.
All the guests also have the opportunity to partake in the numerous activities on offer, which make for a wonderful few days outdoors. There are thrice-daily snorkelling boat-trips for 40,000 cop, that first stop at a coral reef, full of eye-catching fish and shells to dive down for; and then go to a very impressive ‘plane-wreck’ where a small plane once crashed and its carcass still lies deep beneath the water. You can also hire kayaks for 40,000 cop per hour, which you can take from the lagoon behind the houses, and paddle through quiet, calm mangrove tunnels, that connect three separate lakes, only to burst through to the turquoise water of the Caribbean.
The island itself is full of natural beauty, and numerous trails lead adventurers to isolated beaches and viewpoints, like to Playa Cocotera that boasts spectacular sunsets on the north shore, and Playa Bonita with it’s white sand on the east of the island. If the night-sky isn’t too bright to spoil it, around 9pm, a guide also puts on tours to an ‘Enchanted Lagoon’ which is full of magical fluorescent plankton that light up as you move through the water.
It’s a thriving little hostel community – you can see how all the hostel owners and volunteers have become friends and are committed to making this real little alliance work. No doubt this is a hostel model that will take off in other locations in the future. It felt like a summer camp for adults, with everyone heading back to their dorms after an exciting day scattered around the island.
Spending time on Isla Grande was so recuperating – being surrounded by like-minded people enjoying themselves in the sunshine, away from the bustling Old Town in Cartagena and the nagging vendors on Playa Blanca. It’s exceptionally beautiful and well-run, so, while still a work-in-progress, it can’t expect to stay a ‘secret’ paradise for much longer.
Guest Author: Emily Mulligan – @happily.travelling