We loved our short visit to San Andres, Colombia a couple of weeks ago.
We’ve been on a bit of a Caribbean kick lately. With the coronavirus pandemic still limiting our ability to travel far and wide, we’ve been focusing on destinations that are fast and easy to get to. In early November, we journeyed to Aruba and Bonaire – two fantastic islands that are just off the coast of Venezuela.
For our latest Caribbean adventure, we didn’t even have to leave Colombia – but we did go further afield. San Andres and its sister island, Providencia, are part of a Colombian archipelago situated at the same latitude as Nicaragua.
We had been on the fence about visiting San Andres because we’d heard mixed reviews from friends. But throughout our travel careers we have always been determined to experience a place first before forming an opinion. And we’re so glad we visited this lush, green island paradise.
Fun Facts about San Andres, Colombia
- It’s a long way from mainland Colombia – almost 500 miles to the northwest – but easy to reach by plane. Or by sailboat, if you’re so inclined (see Flashback to 2004 below).
- Since San Andres lies about 125 east of Nicaragua, the two countries have been in a dispute about the island and its surrounding waters for more than a century. The matter was partially settled in 2012, when the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Colombia for the island. (The maritime rights are still in dispute.)
- The Afro-Caribbean natives of San Andres, known as the Raizal, speak a Creole dialect of English. Most folks know some Spanish from the Colombian influence, but they seem to prefer English. It was a bit of a switch for us, programmed as we are to try and speak Spanish out of respect!
- Want to move to San Andres? Good luck. You need special permission to live permanently on the island, and you must be a resident of Colombia first. You then must either be married to an Islander or start an improved business with an investment of $100,000.00 US dollars or more.
- San Andres might be little-known to outsiders, but it’s a vacation playground for Colombians. In fact, it’s best to avoid the island during high season (including December, when we were there!).
- It’s still a bargain. Prices of food, beverage, and lodging are slightly higher than mainland Colombia. But for a Caribbean beach destination, San Andres is really reasonable.
Usual notice: A lot of our pictures are in galleries. Just click on the first one to go through a larger version of each.
Things to do on San Andres
Take a Ride on a Mule. San Andres isn’t a big island, and it’s encircled by a well-paved road that makes it easy to explore. The best way to see the island is to rent a scooter or a “Mule,” a gas-powered, ruggedized golf cart that can go just about anywhere (although we stayed on the main road).
Take our advice and avoid the congested urban center to the north and explore the much less-developed eastern, western, and southern sides. There you’ll find beautiful hidden beaches and coves, quaint villages with excellent local eateries, and much more. The best sandy beaches are on the eastern side of the island , while the western side has mostly coral beaches and a wilder and more jungle-y feel.
Get a steeple’s eye view at the First Baptist Church, the oldest church on San Andres. Perched high on the ridge road that bisects the island from north to south, the church was first organized in 1847. The current structure was shipped, timber by timber, from Alabama and built in 1898. The climb to the bell tower up the steep wooden stairs (more like a ladder) is well worth it – you’ll be afforded the best views of the island.
For the second-best views, visit the San Andres Botanical Garden operated by the National University of Colombia. The garden itself is a little underwhelming, but there’s a lookout tower that offers a whole different set of panoramic vistas.
Beach It. The most popular beach on San Andres is Spratt Bight, on the northern (downtown) end smack in the middle of the highly developed hotel zone. Spratt Bight is a beautiful, long, white sand beach, but it gets super-crowded during high season.
For a calmer and less crowded beach experience, head south down the eastern coast to the small beachside village of San Luis. Our chosen hotel is ideally situated here, on the long stretch of white sand beach that runs south from Rocky Cay. Here, you’ll find numerous inviting restaurants, boutique hotels, and reggae bars and overall a more tranquil, laid-back feel. If you’re just visiting Rocky Cay for the day, you can inexpensively rent a lounge chair and a locker from one of the beach clubs.
Rocky Cay itself is a small islet that you can easily walk to at low tide, adjacent to a rusting hulk of an old shipwreck. It’s a key landmark for this area, and the waters surrounding it offer ideal snorkeling. Make sure you pack water shoes, especially if you plan on walking out to the cay.
Get Your Dive On. The reefs encircling San Andres offer excellent diving, with over 40 designated dive sites reachable by boat and dozens of dive shops to choose from. Here we encountered the most economical diving we have ever experienced – only $59 for both of us for a two-tank dive at the Banda Dive Shop, including all equipment and boat transport. That’s a fraction of what we paid for the shore dives we did on Bonaire, where we used our own gear! For that reason, San Andres is a great place for new divers to get their training and PADI certification. We really enjoyed the dives, including the second site exploring a creepy old sunken ship that was only about 10 meters down.
Would we recommend Banda Dive Shop? Well . . . the staff is super-friendly and helpful, the rental gear is excellent, and the boat is large and clean. However, the shop lacked a working restroom (seriously, who DOESN’T need to pee after diving?) and a place to rinse our wet suits. Plus, communication was pretty lacking on the boat; we didn’t get a dive briefing at either site, for instance. For the price these were minor inconveniences. But as I said, there are lots of other fish in the sea (sorry) when you’re choosing a San Andres dive outfit.
Not a Diver? You Can Still get Wet.
There are plenty of other water activities on offer at San Andres: snorkeling, parasailing, stand-up paddle-boarding, sailing, kayaking, and windsurfing, to name a few. One activity we’ll try next time is kayaking through the Old Point Mangroves, a national park dedicated to preserving the rich ecology of the mangrove forest. There, you can rent transparent boats that give you a view of the undersea world below.
Two of San Andres’ most popular tourist attractions are El Acuario and Johnny Cay, a pair of islets just off the northern tip of the main island (and easily visible from Spratt Bight). We took a pass on these because of their reputation for being mobbed by visitors, especially in December. We’d also heard some disturbing things about the “swimming with the manta rays” activities at El Acuario. We tend to run away as fast as we can from any “swimming with (fill in the blank with some poor exploited marine creature)” attractions. We’re not saying you should skip Johnny Cay, and we may visit at a less-crowded time. Just be aware that it has a less-than-steller reputation among other travelers.
Other Travel Tips
- Avoid high season, including December, January and April! Did we mention that San Andres is a favored beach getaway for Colombians? We went in December knowing that we’d encounter mobs of vacationers, but also knowing we’d be back at a slower time – San Andres being so easy to get to from Medellin. This was our recon visit!
- San Andres is easy to reach from Medellin or other Colombian cities. On a random check for December, 22, we counted 40 flights arriving on the island from Colombia. American Airlines has also just added three weekly flights from Miami. The word is getting out! NOTE: Everyone visiting San Andres must purchase a $32 tourist card (supporting the island infrastructure) before boarding their flight.
- Avoid San Andres town, also known as El Centro. Unless you like mobs of tourists, blaring music, and too many perfume/duty free shops, casinos, and tacky souvenir stands to count! El Centro is the main commercial hub of the island and the location of the airport and larger high-rise hotels. But the island has so much more to offer than this dense, tacky, over-crowded area. Which leads us to . . .
- Lodging. On the recommendation of friends, we stayed at the Hotel Cocoplum, located just south of Rocky Point and just before the main part of San Luis town. For a very reasonable price, the Cocoplum offers a clean and spacious room and unlimited beach access, with a small pool and a sumptuous breakfast included. The sunrises and sunsets from the beach are to die for! Plus, the Cocoplum has an excellent restaurant and beach-served margaritas that will chill you out, fast! The hotel is a bit funky and showing its age, but as a beach-front hotel it’s a great value for the price. NOTE: For all of our travel accommodations, we use Booking.com and Airbnb, and then double-check reviews on Google and Trip Advisor.
- Restaurants. There’s really only one word here: seafood. Our favorite restaurant meal was at El Paraiso, a little seaside joint south of San Luis with a panoramic view of the beach and a fish special to die for! We also enjoyed our lunch on the waterfront at PerúWok. We were hoping to try La Regatta, the highest-rated restaurant on the island, but we were told it books out weeks in advance for December (oh well, next time). Another must-try: the gelato with bubble waffle cone at Artigiani.
- Taxis are unmetered, so make sure you ask the price before you get in the cab. You should expect to pay $25,000-$30,000 COP (about $6-7 US) for a cab ride from the airport to San Luis town.
- Don’t drink the tap water! Seriously, don’t. And you’ll get reminded of it practically everywhere; our hotel told us to use bottled water even to brush our teeth. If you stay at the Cocoplum, you can go across the street and buy a large 5-liter jug to refill your smaller containers (we took our collapsable bottles) to cut down on plastic waste. The little tiendas also have just about any adult beverage you crave, and some of them have a few barstools out front for enjoying a cold Club Colombia and watching the local scene.
Providencia: Paradise Lost
Providencia is San Andres’ sister island, located about 60 miles northwest. Until Nov. 18, 2020, Providencia was another top tourist destination for Colombians, billed as the wilder and less developed version of San Andres. On that day, Hurricane Iota struck and annihilated up to 98% of the island’s infrastructure including the hospital. Up to 2,000 houses were destroyed, and large number of residents relocated to San Andres. Of the ones that stayed, many are still living in tents over a year later. It goes without saying that Providencia is closed to tourists.
It’s clear that far too little has been done to help the islanders recover, although we remember the Colombian government talking a big game about rebuilding homes as soon as possible after the hurricane. We smell a rat, as implied by this sobering video:
Flashback to 2004
We called in to Providencia back in 2004 when we were making our way north from Panama aboard our sailboat, Compañia. (A lot of our readers know that we spent three years traveling aboard Compañia back in the early ‘oughts, another whole story!). In our imaginations, Providencia seemed like Hawaii must have been in the late 1950s or early 1960s, before it was overrun by tourists. The island was a relatively unspoiled jewel, with lush jungle and incredibly clear turquoise water. We hope to return one day, but we’re not expecting that things will ever be quite the same post-Iota. For us, Providencia will always be a sort of “paradise lost.”
Here are a few old pics from our visit to Providencia almost 18 years ago (yikes!).
The Bottom Line
If you’re craving a Caribbean island getaway for a fraction of the price of more well-known destinations (any of the ABC islands, for instance), check out San Andres. It’s a must-visit for travelers to Colombia.