The Local Village Tour of Isla Grande

It’s not a secret that Colombia is still a bit third world. Though the economy is getting better after the infamous drug problems of the 1990’s, the country is still in a subpar state. In big cities like Cartagena, economic troubles are well hidden behind clean employee uniforms, high rise hotels, and pricey tourist restaurants. Visitors see what they expect to see on vacation, but asking a local for a tour of his or her home village, like on the small island of Isla Grande, will give you a different perspective that will really have an impact on you.

Isla Grande
The beach at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua in Isla Grande

Las Islas del Rosario

A tour to the Islas del Rosario is a great way to spend a day or two when visiting Cartagena. Again, the hotels give you the facade you want to see when you go to an island paradise. If you want to delve deeper into the culture, go off the hotel premises and see the interior of the islands. When the hotel employees on Isla Grande convinced me to take a boat tour of celebrity houses, I asked them to tack on a tour of their home village as well, and they happily obliged.

Las Islas del Rosario

First, let me say that some people may not find the idea of touring the island village on Isla Grande as safe as they’d like. If you are already hesitant about visiting Colombia in the first place, this may not be a good option for you. If you love the local and cultural side of things and want to get past the touristy veneer, definitely ask for this addition to your tour. I never felt unsafe, especially with a personal guide who was born and raised in this village, although James did get a little nervous when he saw a young girl carrying a long knife around.

Celebrity House Boat Tour on Isla Grande

While sitting outside my thatched roof hut at Hotel San Pedro de Majagua, I saw a very large iguana walk by. I followed it to the forest to take pictures of it and one of the tour salesmen came up to take pictures of the iguana too. We got to talking and I found out he was from the local village.

The iguana on Isla Grande
The little iguana that started it all

He explained that the village was about a 20-minute walk from the hotel through the woods. There were about 1200 people in the village, all with darker hair and skin. The village had a disco, a market, and a few other things. It sounded like a place I wanted to see, especially if they had a market where I could get some good local grub and maybe an ATM where I could take some pesos out. I decided I wanted to bike the island, but the boat tour guides talked me out of it because it was bad mosquito season and you couldn’t see famous houses by bike. I decided to take the boat tour.

Boat tour around Isla Grande
Boat tour around Isla Grande

The boat tour started with a slow boat around Isla Grande. Our guide pointed out the main hotels on the island, a Colombian soccer player’s house, a minister’s house, pop star Shakira’s old vacation home, and infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar’s old vacation house. The guide also pointed out a sunken drug-running plane shot down by the United States in the 1990’s, now in its watery grave on the ocean floor. He offered snorkel masks to get a closer look, and what an impressive sight! If you get the chance, definitely check out that underwater plane.

Pablo Escobar's Isla Grande house
One of Pablo Escobar’s vacation houses on Isla Grande, now inhabited by squatters
Pop star Shakira's old beach house
Pop star Shakira’s old beach house

The people of Isla Grande don’t speak any English. While they didn’t welcome us with open arms, they didn’t reject our presence either. They were mostly indifferent to seeing Americans walking through their village. One man offered to cook us local food, while another boy rattled something off in Spanish about “los Ingleses” (the English people).

The guide showed us the pictures of missionary trips bringing technology to the island, an exotic bird sanctuary with peacocks and tropical birds, the local futbol (soccer) fields, the elementary school, the disco, the market, the local church, an eco-hostel, and even his own house. You probably can’t imagine what the village looked like based on this description. However, I realized hoping for an ATM was a bit unrealistic.

Exotic bird zoo in Isla Grande
Exotic birds in Isla Grande’s village

Understanding where these people grew up, how they live, and what life is like, you can understand why “rich” tourists get hassled so much. I don’t think of myself as anywhere near rich, but I understand now that if you have money to buy a plane ticket, you are rich. If you can rent a hotel room, you are rich. If you can afford to buy your food rather than raise and kill it yourself, you are rich. And if you have windows, electricity, and running water, you are rich. Even though the street peddlers were annoying, I had a new respect for them after seeing where they come from, and I bought 3 soap dishes for $40 USD from a native local.

Isla Grande Village
Our guide leading us into his village in Isla Grande
Disco Corales in Isla Grande
Disco Corales in Isla Grande
Local futbol fields in Isla Grande
Local futbol fields in Isla Grande
Isla Grande elementary school
The elementary school in Isla Grande

The island had no streets, just dirt paths. No one had shoes, which made the broken bottles outside the disco that much more disconcerting. Homes consisted of four concrete walls with square holes for windows and doors. The disco was just a concrete slab with a roof. The market was a shack with one wall lined with soda cans. Livestock was running free around the island; every so often we’d see a young boy carrying a chicken off to somewhere. Locals basked in the shade provided by their homes, sat together sharing stories, and kids played in the fields. The school was closed that Monday, whether due to heat or holiday I couldn’t tell.

"Road" to another part of the village
The “road” to another part of the village

The village was divided into three sections, or three different villages. The first was closest to the port. This was the shantier part of town. The second was inland a little. We never made it to the third section. The second part of the village was where our guide lived. There was a central plaza that all houses, the market, and the disco were built around. The disco here had walls, but still no electricity. This was also the section where our guide lived, and he proudly showed us his house. No one was home at his house: his two children, 11 and 13, were in school in Isla Baru and their mother was with them.

By this time, the mosquitos had gotten so bad we had to make the trek back out to the boat.

Eye Opening Experience

The village tour was not what I had expected. I expected to see a local town with tourist shops, typical businesses you’d expect in a town, maybe an ATM, a local Colombian disco, and a cool island paradise where people live. I thought of them as lucky for growing up on a beautiful Caribbean island.

Village of Isla Grande
The village of Isla Grande

Instead, I found a place where missionary trips take place, where people live as we did 100 years ago. At first, I felt guilty for asking to see the village and for entering it with my shoes, sunglasses, and suntan lotion. These are luxuries the villagers went without.

Missionary trips to Isla Grande
Missionary trips to improve the lives of the people of Isla Grande

The experience really affected me. I immediately came home and looked into ways to send things to Isla Grande. I wanted to at least send a thank you letter to our guide for the time he spent showing us his village, but I realized there are no addresses in that village. I’m not even sure mail gets delivered to that island. I also wanted to send shoes to my guide and his children…or maybe all of the villagers of the island. I found that you can sponsor children in Colombia, although I want to do it on a more personal level. I”d prefer to sponsor someone I’ve actually met in person.

I respect the local culture and I don’t want to do anything to change it. It’s a beautiful thing, even though it was hard for me to understand. The people in the village helped each other, entertained each other, were friendly to us, and overall seemed happy. I imagine the 1800’s America looked very similar to the village of Isla Grande, and people were happy then too. It’s easy not to miss something if you don’t know it exists. But missionary trips have shown the villagers laptop computers, cell phones, and other technology: have they ruined the local culture? Or have they helped them advance into the new age? It’s hard to tell.

So I’m in a weird place now. I want to help these people. They don’t have air conditioning on this hot, humid, buggy island. They don’t have suntan lotion to protect their skin, sunglasses to protect their eyes, or insect repellent to protect against mosquito-transferred viruses. But I don’t want to ruin the beautiful simplicity of what they have. These people haven’t been corrupted by things of the new world yet. They are happy with what they have. They value relationships, children, time spent with each other, and technology-free ways of entertaining themselves.

How do you feel about visiting a village like this? Would you do it, or would you prefer to stay on a resort and leave each to his own? Would you try to give these villagers things they don’t have, or let their culture progress on their own in due time? This is the first time I’ve experienced such an eye-opening tour, and I’m curious who else has seen things like this and how it has affected you. Please let me know in the comments below!

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Asking a local for a tour of his or her home village, like in Isla Grande, will help you get past the touristy facade of any place.

P.S. You might also enjoy Traveling Out of Your Comfort Zone or Don’t Stay at an All-Inclusive Resort