Tuesday, 2 May 2017

San Andrés' quieter side

Being brutally honest, of the few remaining Colombian departments we've yet to visit, San Andrés rated as the least important.

OK, there are worse things you could do than chill out on a small tropical island in the Caribbean, but we've been there before in the shape of Barbados, as well as being well-acquainted with Colombia's Atlantic coast. Seen one Caribbean hotspot, seen them all, right?
San Andrés from its highest point, San Andrés, Colombia.
The view from the highest point on San Andrés ...

What's more, from speaking to others who visited San Andrés, the common refrain has been 'sure it's nice, but it's somewhat overcrowded and dirty'. (Throw in a relatively steep tourist tax to be paid before visiting and its appeal weakens further.) It's also widely agreed that the 'neighbouring' sister island of Providencia (the same department albeit) is the better option, with San Andrés just used as a necessary stopover to get there.

Yet when opportunity knocks in these straightened times, it would be foolish to turn it away. Thus, with a subsidised flight and a few free nights board on the table (it's a tough life at times), the decision to check out San Andrés was a no-brainer.

For sure, and lamentably in a not-too-untypical Colombian fashion, it's certainly not pristine clean. You don't have to look hard at all to find plastic bottles and drinks cans scattered around, normally within metres of a rubbish bin.

Interestingly enough, those with the strongest links to the island, the Raizals who speak Creole and seem to prefer using English than Spanish when given the choice, blame this spoiling of the land on the Colombian continentals who have made the place their home in big numbers over the last number of decades.

Indeed, the Creole types ill-feeling towards their 'administrators' seems to run much deeper than just the environmental pollution. Let's just say there appears little love lost between Raizals with deep roots to the place and some more recent arrivals; a feeling that the former are being systematically drowned out by the latter (something we'll leave for discussion in another post).
Some great diving & snorkelling waters on San Andrés' west side, San Andrés, Colombia.
Ideal diving & snorkelling waters on the west side.
That, what some may view as colonialism aside, one of the most visually spectacular features are the clear and colourful majestic waters, home to corals bursting with marine life -- snorkelling and/or diving is highly recommended on this front. Thankfully these appear to be well-maintained and long may it continue.

As regards where to stay, the more popular side of the island is the commercial centre in the north, around the airport and its environs. Here you have the big hotel names and a host of other accommodation options, as well as picture-perfect, golden-sand beaches. It has that recognisable holiday island vibe to it, nothing terribly original in that.

Further south down the east side of the island, around the San Luis area, there are more beaches, ones that tend to be less frequented.

Things are far quieter on the south and west sides of the island, the latter being the prime spot for diving and snorkelling. Here you'll find a host of homelier accommodation options in the likes of Cove and West View.*

For those looking for a more chilled-out stay and a visit not solely focused on sun, sea and sand, this part of the island is the best place to look. In any case, there are frequent buses to the centre from early morning up until 8.30 pm if you want to check out the livelier side of things -- the public transport also doubles up as a cheap way to get an island tour.

First Baptist Church, San Andrés, Colombia.
First Baptist Church: More English than Colombian ...
Most visitors rent their own transport to explore the island. Scooters are a good way to go for individuals or couples, with big quad-type vehicles, or mules as they're called, a handy option for three or more people.

The tried and trusted push bike for about 30,000 COP (10 euros) per day is another alternative, if you can stick the heat that is (if an Irishman can do it and survive, it's doable for most who are in any way active; the total area is just 26 square kilometres with the highest point standing at 84 metres).

A spin up Orange Hill to the landmark First Baptist Church allows for nice views of both the east and west sides of the island, and it also gives a flair to San Andrés' former British colonial past (note the church service board written in English).

In terms of expenses, standard accommodation and meals are costlier than what you'll find on the Colombian mainland, understandable for a rather remote, tourism-focused Caribbean island. On the flip side, beers and other alcohol products retail at prices similar to those in Bogotá's cheaper barrios.

The rubbish black spots aside -- a pan-Colombian problem that -- our four-night visit to San Andrés certainly didn't disappoint. Whether it's seen as a poor man's Providencia or not, it still has plenty to offer in its own right.

* Two recommended accommodation options on the west side are Siloé Cove Hospedaje Boutique and Royal Palm Inn (+57 3164957522). The Caleño-owned and administered Siloé offers bikes and a scooter to rent for guests, as well as snorkelling equipment (snorkelling can be done with the administrators, who do it on a daily basis.)
Royal Palm Inn is family-ran by a very friendly local couple and provides an airport pick-up and drop-off service. The owner also drops off and picks up guests wishing to go to the commercial centre.

Viva Colombia operates two daily return flights to San Andrés from Bogotá. The outbound flights depart El Dorado at 09.20 and 19.50. The return flights leave at 12.10 and 22.40. Visit vivacolombia.co for all Viva Colombia's latest routes and prices.
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  1. Interesting post.
    Could you tell me if you traveled using your cedula? I am going to san andres next week but I have sent my passport back to England to be renewed and I only have my cedula extraneria. I don't know if I have to show my passport or visa to get onto the island.
    I'm reading through your blog now. So many things I agree with here.
    Keep it up.

    1. Hi Scot,

      Cheers for reading and getting in touch!
      You should have no problems travelling on your cédula extranjería, that's how I did it.
      Enjoy the trip!
      (By the way, this was my original blog. These days I tend to promote more the El Tiempo version I have, http://blogs.eltiempo.com/wrong-way-corrigan/. The same stories are on both in any case! Cheers!)

  2. Cheers for the reply. Ive just been speaking to vivacolombia and they have told me it is at the discretion of the checkin staff if I can travel on the cedula. Impossible to get a straight answer sometimes in this country, eh.
    Thanks again. Keep up the good work.

    1. Um, I guess as my flight was subsidised by them and I gave them my cédula for the booking, I had no issues. I really think you'll be fine though. I know of other foreigners who have flown there on just the cédula ...

  3. Interesting post.
    Could you tell me if you traveled using your cedula? I am going to san andres next week but I have sent my passport back to England to be renewed and I only have my cedula extraneria. I don't know if I have to show my passport or visa to get onto the island.


  4. You should be fine with just your cédula, that's all I had and there were no problems ...