San Andrés Island: Colombia’s Little Secret

A little guide, for a little island…

As my extended stay in Colombia edged towards a close, I found myself in the same position I had found myself in all too often; desperately trying to squeeze six months worth of activities into two hectic weeks. I had wanted to visit San Andrés Island ever since I’d first heard it mentioned over the clinking of cocktail glasses in a chic Medellin courtyard.

An island closer geographically to Nicaragua and Jamaica, but yet a part of Colombia. The island’s population is made up of Spanish-speaking Colombians and English-speaking islanders of Jamaican heritage. With no time to lose, I jumped on the next flight out of Medellin, just $30 and two hours later, I found myself basking in the Caribbean sunshine.

San Andrés once was a land of pirates. First visited by the Dutch, then colonised by the English; revered for its fertile soil and tropical climate. Today, San Andrés is an island of two halves. The busy downtown area, which plays host to an array of duty-free liquor, big brand fashion and an unfathomable amount of American candy. You would be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly wandered into an airport lounge if it wasn’t for the unforgiving Caribbean sun beating overhead.

San Andrés – where vodka really is cheaper than water

The far side of San Andrés, away from commerce, is the calm to downtown’s chaos. Sparse white beaches line the eastern coast, cementing the fact that big business has yet to make it this far along this weathered shoreline. The most to be found is the odd rickety beach hut, painted proudly in Jamaican colours, whimsically serving up Pina Coladas in hollowed coconuts, as a Reggae beat carries softly over the sand.

The best way to tour this small island is to rent a scooter or golf cart and follow the meandering island roads around the coast. Ride through the centre of the forested interior and up, up, up to the highest point – The First Baptist Church. And when they say first, they really mean it. This church was, in fact, the first church of its kind in all of Latin America. A favourite thrill for tourists is to climb up through the well-worn eves and stand out on the very top of the building in the bell tower, where you can get an almost 360-degree view of the island below.

From the bell tower, you can see your next stop; one of the islands best beaches named Rocky Caye, a small island just off the shore that can be walked to through chest-high water. As this is one of the more touristic areas of the island, there’s plenty of music, cocktails and pristine white sand to go around. Beach boys sit on gaudy plastic chairs willing to relieve you of your cash for various services, such as looking after your bag, parking your moped and possibly even a hand in marriage, if you asked nicely. It’s evident that there aren’t a whole lot of opportunities for young people on the island, so although it may seem cheeky, the guys are friendly, and I think the tips are all but necessary for them.

On the eastern half you can see what life really looks like in San Andres; scattered wooden houses, their panels bleached by sun and seawater. Empty roads that twist around the island’s coastline peppered with small pockets of tourism. As there aren’t many activities on this small island, it seems everyone tends to end up in the same place one way or another. There are plentiful snorkelling opportunities which can be accessed for free, or for yet another “small tip.” Cosy down on one of many half-broken docks; the perfect place to sit and lament as you watch the sun melt into a colourful haze.

Where to stay? 

Blue Almond Hostel, without question. This small, but extremely friendly hostel is run by a super-sweet local couple, who will make you feel right at home. Ideal for a relaxed vibe and perfect for solo ladies, Blue Almond is located conveniently in downtown close to restaurants and markets. You can even walk there from the airport! Dorm beds are around $15 a night, and they also have some bargain private rooms, ideal for anyone wanting a bit of extra comfort. Alternately, there are many homestay-style guest houses for those wishing to exercise their Spanish tongue.

What to eat?

If you only eat one thing on San Andres let it be La Costilla de Juan. Located in a quiet street in downtown, this unassuming barbecue joint is top of TripAdvisor for a reason. The food is awesome, the staff are awesome, and quite frankly, you should go there. But maybe leave your vegan friends home for this one, as it hosts an unapologetically carnivorous menu. 

pic via Sea Watch Caffé

For a yummy lunch while checking out downtown’s beach – Playa Spratt Bight – stop by for some seriously tasty pizza at chic eatery Sea Watch Caffé. The pizza there was somehow one of the best I’ve ever had, and I had to laugh to myself that here on a tiny island in the middle of the sea, that most people don’t even know exists, eating the best pizza of my life so far, all while staring out into the deep blue. For extreme budgets, the island also has plenty of typical “menu del dia” places too serving basic Colombian meals. And – they even have Subway!

Fun day trips:

Take a boat tour from the harbour, located at the eastern end of Playa Spratt Bight. A multitude of boats offer pretty much the same exact tour – a half day visiting Johnny Caye – a picture-perfect tropical island that can be seen from the beach. This tour usually includes a short trip to the “aquarium” – another little island where you can view lots of pretty fishies. For those with cash to burn there are further flung boat trips to uninhabited islands way off the coast.

Make it extra special:

If San Andrés is little known, then its sister-island Provencia is purely a whisper on hushed lips. This amazingly beautiful little island can only be accessed from San Andrés, via small plane or ferry. But serenity comes at a price and either way will cost you! However, once on the island, which is vastly less developed than San Andrés, where time has seemingly stood still, prices remain reasonable. If you have the extra cash to splurge this is a unique opportunity to visit a largely undeveloped Caribbean island before it falls foul to extensive tourism. Take it.

These two islands also offer some of the best diving to be found in this part of the world, and many tourists travel to the island solely for what lays offshore. There are many dive companies, and single dives run from about $20 and up. Coral, shipwrecks, teeny tiny islands and disappearing sandbanks, as well as the third largest reef in the world. For those who don’t dive, there’s also snorkelling a-plenty, off these beautiful shores. Team that with kite surfing, fishing, jet-skiing and some good-old-fashioned sun-worshipping, you’ve got yourself a recipe for island fun. All you need now is an ice cold cerveza in hand to salute the sky as it sets on another day in paradise.

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