San Andrés – The Caribbean’s Best-Kept Secret: A Colombian Adventure Part 2 of 3
If you’ve been following Caffeinated Excursions for a while, then you know that one of things that inspired me to start blogging in 2018 was my newfound love of all things Caribbean. In addition to pristine beaches, palm trees, and blue waters, this part of the world has fascinating cultures and histories that tell a lot about how the Americas came to be what they are today.
This is especially true of the tiny Colombian island of San Andrés, which is located about 200 miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Like all small, remote islands, San Andrés has a truly unique blend of cultures that is unlike any other place I’ve visited. Most residents speak Spanish, English, as well as a creole that visitors might be able to understand bits and pieces of. Despite being a part of Colombia, the island reminded me a lot of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands, but it still had its own unique vibe because it’s so far from any other island in the Caribbean Sea.
There are no regular commercial flights between the US and San Andrés, so most of the visitors to the island come from various parts of Colombia. With that in mind, it’s fair to say that the island is not really Americanized. San Andrés could be called touristy, especially its northern side where resorts are clustered, but it isn’t overwhelmingly so.
For all these reasons, if you find yourself in Colombia with a couple of days to spare, San Andrés could be a great place to really unwind and experience an island that most non-Colombians have probably never even heard of! Keep reading to see what you can discover on this little slice of paradise!
Things To Do
San Andrés isn’t the kind of place where you’ll need a set itinerary, but there are a few things you should try to see and do during your trip.
Playa Spratt Bight
The main town on the island (including the airport) is situated on its northern shore, and for good reason: the best beach on the island, Spratt Bight, is located right here. It’s fairly touristy and crowded, but be sure not to miss its pretty blue waters and beautiful white sand.
Bike Around the Island
I talk a little bit about transportation options below, but one activity you can do is bike around the island. As someone who doesn’t normally bike, I was utterly exhausted and it took me about four hours. However, I’m glad I got to see the southern half of the island, which is much less developed than the north.
I ended up arranging a bike rental through my Airbnb who connected me to a local rental guy, but the bike did end up breaking on the road, so I had to wait about half an hour for him to drive over and give me a replacement. If you end up renting a bike, be sure to check it out when you pick it up to make sure it’s sturdy and rides properly.
Things I Missed
Because I biked all the way around San Andrés, I feel like I got a good sense of the island’s different terrains and neighborhoods. With that said, there were two things I missed that you might be interested in.
Johnny Cay (also known in Spanish as Islote Sucre) is a tiny island just off the coast of San Andrés. In fact, it’s visible from Spratt Bight beach, and Johnny Cay is a popular day trip from the main island that gets some pretty great reviews online.
Unfortunately, boat trips to the island were cancelled the entire time I was here! The waters in this part of the Caribbean Sea are known to be pretty choppy, and apparently it was so windy during my visit that the tour companies had to cancel all boats. This is one place I’d love to see if I ever come back someday.
Another attraction I missed was Morgan’s Cave, which is also home to a museum about pirates (I think). I actually rode past it a couple of times on my bike, and decided not to go because it looked like a tourist trap, and it had fairly mediocre reviews online. If you decide to check it out, let me know what it’s like in the comments below!
One Other Thing...The Island of Providencia
As it turns out, there’s actually another Colombian island about 60 miles north of San Andrés called Providencia. This island is even smaller than San Andrés, and my Airbnb host told me that it’s much less developed and has even more natural beauty.
Since I only spent about three days here, I didn’t have time to visit Providencia, which can only be accessed by plane from San Andrés (or reportedly by ferry). San Andrés is already really off the beaten path, so I’m sure Providencia would be an even more fascinating destination. If you plan on traveling to the island for a week or more, it might be worth it to jet over to Providencia for a few days to check it out!
Food and Lodging Options
Cuisine on San Andrés was one of my favorite things about this beautiful island! It’s pretty different from the food I had in Bogotá and Medellín, but it was similar to some of the dishes I had in Cartagena. If you love fresh seafood, then San Andrés is the perfect place for you, but there’s also a bunch of other offerings including a lot of dishes that will be familiar to Americans.
The one thing you should definitely try here is lobster. It’s cheap by American standards, but don’t expect a steal. It’s really good here though, and I actually ended up ordering it twice during my three days here because I enjoyed it so much! Pictured above is a lobster dish from Bocca de Oro, a restaurant located in the main town with an open-air dining room and a stage for live music.
Another thing you have to try on the island is a hole-in-the-wall restaurant! When I came across Tony Restaurant (pictured below) and saw that it was filled with locals, I knew I had to check it out. It may not look fancy, but the fried chicken I had there was truly amazing. Some of the restaurants in town may not look like much, but if they’re filled with locals, they’re bound to have some of the best authentic home-style meals!
Another case in point: this beef wrap from an unassuming stand on the side of the road may not look amazing, but it was actually really good! Don’t be afraid to try some of these places; you won’t regret it!
My favorite restaurant I tried here (which I think is also the fanciest on the island) is La Regatta. I tried making a same-day dinner reservation, but they were already booked, so I put my name on the waiting list and got seated about 20 minutes later. Make a reservation a couple of days in advance (at least) to guarantee a table!
When you walk into the establishment from the street, you’ll be greeted by a long, colorful garden, at the end of which you’ll find the restaurant overlooking the water. It’s a beautifully designed space, and a fitting preview to a delicious meal in a classy yet fun atmosphere.
For an appetizer, I decided to try some salmon poke and one of their house cocktails, both of which ended up being pretty good.
However, my entrée was really the highlight of my dinner at La Regatta. This was the second time I ordered lobster while visiting San Andrés, and what made this dish so memorable was the fact that it was served with three different sauces. They have a large list to choose from, but if I remember correctly, I chose mango, coconut, and butter as my three. Each of the sauces went so well with the lobster, and I left feeling insanely full because this dish was so massive!
If you’re craving something other than seafood, the town area near Spratt Bight Beach has everything from burger joints to Italian and Chinese restaurants. For my last lunch before departing, I tried the seafood pizza at CafeCafé which took a long time but was pretty tasty when it finally arrived. I’d of course recommend trying more local specialties than familiar comfort foods, but they’re here if want them!
Where To Stay
In terms of lodging, you really have two options. You can stay on the north side of the island or you can find a place further south. If you choose to stay north, you’ll be close to the beach, close to the airport, and close to restaurants and nightlife. If you find a place further south, it’ll be easier to explore the entire island, but you won’t have as many options for food (especially at night).
I chose to stay near the town of San Luis, which is located here. A part of me wishes I had stayed closer to town, but I really loved the guest house I stayed in even though it wasn’t in the most convenient location. House of the Sun was such a good place to stay because the host, Martha, was so incredibly welcoming and hospitable. Breakfast each day is included in the cost, and she is an amazing cook! She and her neighbors also raise chickens, so I think the eggs she uses are truly farm fresh.
San Luis also just feels a lot more local, and although there’s a huge resort nearby, this small town just isn’t as popular with tourists. Even if you choose to stay at one of the many resorts near Spratt Bight Beach, try to visit San Luis (or other parts of the island) for an afternoon.
Other Relevant Info
Although there appear to be occasional international flights to San Andrés, the easiest and probably cheapest option is to fly here from a major city in Colombia. LATAM Airlines seemed to offer the best deals, and I flew with them to and from San Andrés without any problem. The flight from the Colombian “mainland” will last between one and two hours depending on which city you’re departing from or heading to.
While checking in at the airport, you’ll be required to buy a tourist card which must be submitted upon arrival to San Andrés. It costs about 40 USD, but it can be purchased with credit card. Even if you’re traveling domestically (e.g. from Bogotá or Medellín), you must bring your passport with you and pass through customs at the arrivals hall of the airport.
Getting Around the Island
You have a number of options to get around the island including buses, bike rentals, or taxis. For those who want to rent a vehicle, I’m sure there are options for that as well. However, you don’t need a rental car to get around, unlike on some other Caribbean islands.
San Andrés has a relatively good bus system, although the vehicles can get pretty crowded since they’re smaller than the typical city bus. Tickets only cost 2,600 COP (less than 1 dollar), and bus routes appeared to cover the whole island.
Buses look like this, and stops aren’t well-defined. If you see one going the direction you want to go on one of the main roads, just gesture for it to stop and it will. There are a couple of routes, so if you’re not sure, just ask the driver if he’s headed where you want to go. Bus service here doesn’t run really late into the night, so if you need to get home after a late dinner or a night on the town, your best bet is to find a…
Taxis are available, especially if you’re departing from somewhere in town on the northern side of the island. However, you should confirm with the driver how much the ride is going to be. From the airport to San Luis cost about 30,000 Colombian pesos (approx. 10 USD), so taxi rides are relatively affordable.
As I mention in a section above, it is possible to bike while visiting the island. It’s not the fastest or most convenient way to get around, but it might be the most scenic. If you don’t normally bike, expect your legs to be sore if this is what you decide to do!
Language and Currency
Although Spanish is the official language of Colombia, English has official status on San Andrés. If you like languages, listen for the local creole language spoken amongst locals. It’s very interesting to hear, and if you’re curious about it you can read more here.
The currency is the Colombian peso (COP). You might be able to use USD, but don’t count on it. If you’re arriving from another city in Colombia, just exchange cash or withdraw local currency before arriving to San Andrés if you can.
You Haven't Seen the Caribbean Until You've Seen San Andrés
Because of the lack of easy access for foreign tourists, San Andrés is probably one of the least-known islands in all the Caribbean. You might think that it’s because so few people live there, but that’s not even true. With an estimated population of about 75,000, San Andrés has more residents than Bermuda! This means that although it’s a perfect place to relax, the island always has enough going on to find something interesting to do or see.
Although it may not be convenient for non-Colombians to visit San Andrés, it’s absolutely worth the effort. The best way to do it is to spend a week or two in the country and schedule three or four days in this tropical paradise. If you love the Caribbean, then San Andrés is one island you can’t miss!
After my visit to the island came to an end, I hopped on a plane and ended up in my third and final destination on this journey through Colombia: Cartagena! Since this city is also located right on the Caribbean Sea, it wasn’t exactly a world apart from San Andrés. However, Cartagena didn’t have that laid-back vibe that only islands can! To read the final installment in this three-part series and see what Cartagena has to offer, click here [coming soon!]. Thanks for reading and let me know in the comments if you’ve been (or want to go) to San Andrés!