Colombia’s little gem of the Caribbean, San Andres, is a jumble of contradictions – a blissful paradise which to this day is the object of a jealous struggle between nations.
The tiny island, a mere 10 square miles in area, is a melting pot of people and cultures, having changed hands many times since it first appeared on maps in the 16th century. Even today it is the cause of bitter tension between Colombia and Nicaragua in a dispute over ownership of the surrounding waters.
Originally claimed by the Dutch – then the British, the Spanish, the British again, Guatemala, New Granada, Gran Colombia, and eventually Colombia – the little island has had its fair share of owners profiting from its fertile volcanic land.
West African slaves came with the first British settlers to farm cotton, tobacco and lumber, so the people and culture are brimming with their influence. The main language of the island is Spanish, but Creole and English are also spoken. They dance to all the typical island rhythms and more: reggaeton, reggae, salsa, calypso and vallenato can be heard all over, at all times of the day.
San Andres is mostly hotels and all-inclusive packages, with much of the clientele consisting of couples and families. However, El Viajero hostel offers good prices and has many common areas for meeting fellow travelers.
For such a tiny place, there is plenty to do. Indeed, the island boasts pristine beaches and countless daytime activities. However, don’t expect San Andres to be the sweaty sex-pool of thumping discos and sleazy beaches that is often found in other resort-towns, as the island has a somewhat sleepier atmosphere. That is not to say there isn’t a nightlife here, it’s just confined to a couple of places, and doesn’t happen every night.
“El Centro,” the main hub of activity on the island, is a run-down pile of beach stores and duty-free shops offering cheap alcohol, perfumes, bags and sunglasses, all at duty-free prices and with discounts and deals to boot.
There are some good restaurants to the east of the town, including a great Lebanese cabaña by the water. Although a burger truck may not be your first choice for fine dining, in San Andres the burgers they serve up are excellent. The piece de resistance however is the fish. Fresh and generally cooked to perfection, the traveler can happily survive on nothing but seafood and plantains on San Andres. Be warned however, the ceviche is not Peruvian style, but more prawn-cocktail in ketchup.
The best way to get around the island is to hire a golf-cart for around $40 for the whole day. It is “necessary” to have a drivers’ license but the rule hardly seems enforced.
The savvy tourist can rent a souped-up golf-cart for only a few dollars more, but the budget traveler will get through the short drive around the island – approximately 2 hours – with only a few bumps and rattles.
The drive along the shore is incredible, taking you past what Colombians claim is a sea of “seven colors,” deserted white beaches, coconut palm plantations, and dilapidated little hamlets.
Some of the beaches outside El Centro offer water-sports like windsurfing, kite-surfing and sailing with equipment that, like everything else on the island, is disheveled, saggy and sun-bleached.
The locals claim that San Andres’ coral reef is the third largest in the world, and there are around 30 diving spots, many reachable from the shore. A couple of shipwrecks, lots of coral and an impressive underwater wall, where the sea floor just falls away into the depths, all make for a stunning diving experience. A double dive costs around $70, while beginners can train in the swimming pool and have one dive for $60.
Further round the island the golf-cart will trundle past Captain Morgan’s cave. The notorious British privateer made the island his base of operations in the 1670s, from where he carried out raids on Spanish galleons laden with gold and other precious metals. His loot is rumored to still be hidden deep in an underwater cave nearby…
The island has a delightfully shady past, replete with pirates and privateers, and is still the site for a modern kind of black-guarding, serving as a prime drop-off point for drug-traffickers making shipments to the United States, Europe and the Gulf of Mexico.
For this reason, the sea surrounding San Andres is a literal graveyard for drug-boats seized and scuttled by the Colombian navy. One of the biggest wrecks, a local tells us, was the ship that used to bring Postobon-branded drinks to the island, until it was found to also be laden with heaps of drugs.
The crumbling shipwrecks are easily seen from the shore, but there are plenty of boat-trips to take between the cays to get a better view.
Johnny Cay is a small horse-shoe shaped islet about a mile from the main island. The white sandy cove curves around embracing a warm lagoon where huge, tame manta-rays swim.
The rays are bred on the island, and in the lagoon the islanders lure them with dead sardines so the tourist can touch them. It is a bit of a stretch to call this responsible, or indeed ecotourism, but the rays are very, very soft to touch. In an even further stretch of the term, the boys will put manta-rays on tourists keen to sport an enormous fish on their heads.
It is a relatively painless trip to San Andres, and a one and three-quarter hour plane ride from Medellin with new budget airline VivaColombia can be picked up for as little as $100 return. You must also buy a tourist card, for around $22, to set foot on the island.
The temperature for March and April is good and hot, keeping steady in the 80s, but thankfully cooled somewhat by the winds. The rainy season is September to December and May to June.