About a year ago, I was aimlessly scrolling through Facebook (my favorite pastime) and saw a video about an island hostel. “Sasha, you have to come see this!” I exclaimed. Our jaws dropped further and further as the video played. The video showed people gleefully jumping off the porch of a hostel called Casa en el Agua straight into the ocean, along with snorkeling, kayaking, and other water sports. “Where is this? We have to go!” A quick Google search showed that it was in the Caribbean just off the coast of Colombia. How perfect was it that we were in the midst of making our South American pipe dream come to life? It quickly put Colombia at the top of our list as our starting point for this adventure.
What is the Casa en el Agua?
Casa en el Agua is an eco-hostel located in the San Bernardo Islands. The archipelago has ten tiny islands dotted with white sand beaches and surrounded by crystal clear water. The hostel itself is actually an island, as in you can literally jump into the ocean (and we did, many times). It’s part of the Rosario and San Bernardo Corals National Natural Park (a mouthful of a name).
The Casa isn’t that big. It’s two stories – the bottom floor is an open, common space with tables, chairs, and sun loungers, as well as the kitchen and bar. The second floor is just the private rooms and dorms. They separate all the garbage for easy recycling. There’s no running water so you take a shower by using a bucket of fresh water. Each person is only allowed one bucket which can make things tricky. I had to forgo using conditioner to make sure I had enough water to rinse off the shampoo and body wash.
They have composting toilets, with separate holes for #1 and #2. If you’re confused, there’s a hilarious picture on the door that shows you how it’s done. You’ll just have to go and see for yourself, though. Here’s the science behind it, according to their website:
Number 1s are filtered in a tank under the house, breaks down fast and is then swallowed up by the big blue sea. Number 2s on the other hand contain phosphor. Yes, even the floral lady ones made up of unicorns and fairy dust. Phosphor isn’t popular with the big blue and its inhabitants, therefore, we collect your creations in a big tank and take it to Tintipan Island. There we have space for compost. This system doesn’t flush the conventional way so we ask you to throw some chalk and saw dust mixture into the tank once you’re done. Chalk has a ‘drying’ effect and in combination with phosphor encourages plant growth. The saw dust is simply there to protect your nose and creates a nicer environment.
Prices N Such
Food and Drink
It’s comparatively more expensive than other hostels in Colombia but still cheaper than hostels in the USA or other developed countries. Breakfast is included but lunch and dinner are extra. You’ll need to sign up an hour or more in advance if you want either. They have a few different options. The normal lunch and dinner are whatever they’re cooking on a particular day. It usually consists of fish or other seafood, rice, plantains or arepas, plus a vegetable. Although one night we had crab pasta. Delicious! Lunch always comes with a bowl of soup as well. We were never disappointed with the normal options. It costs 30,000 COP per person (currently $1 USD = 2,900 COP).
If you’re in the mood for something a bit more exotic, you can get ceviche or other seafood such as octopus, crab, or lobster. They actually have a lobster “conservation” tank, if you will. Rather than fishing for lobster on a daily basis, they built a little tank under the house where they put a pregnant lobster. Now they always have fresh lobster.
These special meals cost between 50,000 and 80,000 COP (~$17 – $27 USD). For you non-animal eaters, don’t worry. They have a vegetarian option, too. We saved a little on the food cost by sharing a normal lunch and then getting one normal and one special meal for dinner.
The Bar en el Agua is open all day with an all-day happy hour. Score! Cocktails are 2 for 1 for 30k COP. Beers start at 6k COP. In addition to booze, they also have fresh juices and snacks if you’re feeling hungry in between meal times. You could save some money by bringing your own bottle of booze and snacks. However, you won’t have access to a fridge or the kitchen.
Beds and Hammocks
Have you ever been to a hostel where you can rent a hammock? This was a first for us! While the idea of sleeping in a hammock is rather novel, it’s not something I really want to do at this point in my life (I know, getting old is lame). Perhaps five years ago, I would have been all about it, but now my back is really happy I didn’t.
Bookings can only be made from their website (see prices below) and they open 60 days in advance. Other blogs will tell you 30 days. That was the case until very recently. I had an alarm set on my phone for exactly 30 days before we wanted to go to remind me to get online and book our room. One day, Sasha got on their website to see how much we would need to budget for the boat to get there and back. He found that they had just changed their bookings to open up 60 days before. This is new as of July 2017. We had to change our plans a little, but we were still able to get the room we wanted.
Hammocks are 70k COP (~$25 USD) per night. A bed in the 8-bed dorm room is 80k COP (~$27 USD) per night. The private rooms range from 180k – 380k COP (~$62 – $130 USD) per night depending on the number of people as some of the private rooms have two double beds. We paid 200k per night for the Alegria Double room.
There are a few ways to get there. The fastest and easiest way is to come from Cartagena. Their boat picks up at the harbor at 9 am every day. They just recently got a new boat that is quite big. The ride was comfortable and only took two hours. It costs 200k COP per person for a round-trip ticket. The boat is operated by their sister company and that is how they’re able to guarantee the price and safety.
If you’re coming from other parts of Colombia, it might be easier for you to come from Tolu or Rincon del Mar. However, the prices and boat sizes fluctuate depending on the time of year and your bargaining skills. Some other travelers we met there came from Tolu, which they said was fine. Getting to Cartagena via Tolu, however, was a long journey as it takes two buses once you’re back on land.
Things To Do
If you’re already feeling anxious about being stranded with nothing to do, never fear! They can arrange a boat for you to do just about anything. Here are just a few of the options:
- A day trip to Tintipan beach
- An island tour of the three biggest islands
- A tour of Islote – the most crowded island in the world
- A nighttime snorkeling trip to see the glowing plankton
- A daytime snorkeling trip in the surrounding mangroves
They do not have wifi at the Casa. Take the opportunity to sit in a hammock and read a book or make new friends with the other travelers. We really needed that digital detox. It was very relaxing and nice to disconnect for a few days. The only time we got a phone out was to play with our new drone, which as you can see from the pictures and video, is pretty sweet.
A Few Tips
The vibe of the Casa depends on the crowd currently inhabiting it. If you’re there with partyin’ peeps, the staff is more than happy to facilitate a club-like atmosphere. They have a huge loudspeaker that will blast reggaeton until the wee hours of the morning if it’s what the people want. As the entire house is made of wood, come prepared with a good pair of earplugs or simply join in the fun!
Personally, I don’t think you should decide to not come because of the possibility of loud music. Come with an open mind and plan to stay two nights. This will give you enough time to do any activities and not lose too much sleep due to loud music or bad weather.
What To Bring
Be sure to bring lots of cash! They do not take credit cards. Everything you order is written down on a sign-up sheet. They keep track by adding up everyone’s spending at the end of each day and you pay when you check out. It’s best to keep your own record of what you eat and drink so there are no surprises at the end. This will also ensure that you don’t accidentally pay for someone else’s drinks.
You don’t need a lot of clothing. You spend most of the day in your swimsuit. You’ll just need to bring comfy clothes for the evenings. Depending on the time of year, it might be wise to bring some warmer clothes as it can get a little chilly on windy nights. We were there during rainy season and I was very happy to have my rain jacket. It did rain each day but only for about an hour. Most importantly don’t forget, you should always bring a towel! Towely would be proud.
Leave your big bags on the mainland, if you’re coming from and returning to Cartagena. We stayed at Patio Getsamani because they have luggage storage. They assured us our electronics would remain safely locked in one of the rooms. The staff there were so friendly and helpful. Our stuff was even waiting for us in our new room when we returned.
A Snapshot of Our Costs
Alegra Double Room – 400k COP for two nights
Food/Drink/Activities – 4 normal meals, 2 special seafood meals, several beers and micheladas, 2 tours to Islote; 380k COP total.
Boat – 200k COP each for a round-trip ticket
Total – 1,180,000 COP ($406 USD)