Exploring the Colombian island thoroughly: on the surface of the ocean, below it, and on land
In the caribbean, everything is superlative. The colors are vibrant; the flavors are intense; and the locals seem like they’re solar-powered. San Andrés, a Colombian island located 444 miles [715 km] off the coast, but just a short two-hour flight from Bogotá, is no different. Its deep-blue sea is one of the best places for scuba diving and its nature reserves have been declared a Natural Heritage of Humanity. The island even has its own language: San Andrés-Providencia Creole, loaded with history. In order to discover all its attractions, we took a 20-mile [32 km] road that circumvents its territory. A drive that’s guaranteed fun.
As the LATAM plane nears the landing strip at the San Andrés airport, it’s hard to believe the color of the water awaiting below. And you don’t need to travel too far from there to find fun. In this same region, there’s excitement, the shopping district, and the majority of hotels and restaurants. The climate is unpretentious, typically insular.
It’s just a seven-minute walk from the airport to Playa de Spratt Bight, the main beach (and most crowded), and Calle Peatonal, a boardwalk lined with duty-free shops offering fragrances and electronics. In the late afternoon, the classic activity is to wander around the shopping area, have some Juan Valdez coffee, and try some street food, like coconut and tamarind sweets.
From Spratt Bight you can see Johnny Cay, one of the islets that orbit San Andrés and reached by a short, 15-minute boat ride. The best thing is to leave early, around 7 a.m., if you want to find it empty. The white sands with coconut trees and transparent ocean waters look like a mirage, which is why it attracts as many as 643 visitors from 10 a.m. on. An ecological heritage site and residence of iguanas, the island can be toured thoroughly in a pickup truck in just 10 minutes. Find yourself a coveted lounge chair at one of the bars, where you can appreciate the varying coloration in the water around the corals, part of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve established by UNESCO.
Another highly visited islet is Acuario. Shaped like an 8, it is formed by Haynes Cay, the bigger part, and Rose Cay, a sandbar crafted by nature in the image of an oasis. You can cross over from one to the other with the water up to your bellybutton. Acuario didn’t get its name for no reason: it really looks like an aquarium with the amount of marine life that frequents the place. Since the water’s shallow, it’s an ideal spot to enjoy with kids and make friends.
Back on the main island, Rocky Cay is home to a number of beach clubs, and also has its own islet within swimming distance. It’s a narrow and highly coveted strip of sand, unlike the next beach, Sound Bay. Long and broad, it has more waves on the open sea, but less people than the others. It also has two well-known restaurants. Donde Francesca is a bit more formal, but with a no-frills atmosphere. They serve the classic coconut lemonade amidst beach decorations. Just steps away is El Paraíso, which resembles a beach hut. The dishes, like lobster in butter, are served right to the lounge chairs accompanied by a piña colada.
But the best restaurant around is called La Regatta, decorated like an anchored boat filled with odds and ends. The tender octopus and shellfish rice are the stars of the menu. A block away, the restaurant The Gourmet Shop satisfies unawares who don’t care for seafood. The house serves some delicious vegetable lasagna and other Italian dishes with a Caribbean touch. If you feel like going out after, Coco Loco is the liveliest nightclub, packed almost every night. But don’t stay up too late, because San Andrés gets up early to make the most of all the cool activities.
One unique option is a ride on a transparent kayak from the company Ecofiwi. You set sail from the mangroves of Old Point Regional Park and cross the wetlands, viewing the algae below the glass-bottomed canoe. You’ll go through two tree tunnels and come out on the ocean, rowing in the company of herons, until you arrive at a spot for snorkeling. On the way back, a speedboat awaits the explorers with grilled fish with fried breadfruit, a local specialty whose flavor resembles that of manioc.
Looking for some excitement? Head for West View, where a 16-foot [5 meter] diving board directly above the green ocean waters is a big party spot. The people below encourage the less adventurous to jump, and they wear facemasks in order to see the countless fish that gather at the foot of the cliff. It’s also the place where you can take a Jetboat, which does stunts and offers a diving experience with an extra dose of adrenaline, and try Aquanautas, a kind of heavy gear which is placed on your head in order to breathe underwater. It’s not exactly scuba diving; it’s more like a walk on the ocean floor. If you’d like to go diving with a cylinder, contact San Andrés Divers, a company that teaches diving techniques.
This is one of the island’s strong suits: it’s considered one of the best destinations in the world for diving thanks to the coral reefs and visibility that can reach up to almost 300 feet [90 m]. Beginners have to take a quick course to learn the basics. Exercises in the pool build confidence before diving in the sea as deep as 33 feet [10 m]. The 40-minute activity flies right by, swimming among the coral and marine life, as well as a statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. The wettest tourist site on the island, it’s a popular spot for underwater selfies.
Not far from there, the wind has formed a famous hole in the rocks known as Hoyo Soplador. On days when the sea is choppier, the waves enter through a gap between the rocks, penetrating below and shooting like a geyser some 66 feet [20 m] into the air. When the sea is calm, you can only feel the breeze blowing, pushed by the tide. Since it’s very rocky, this area is no good for swimming, but in the late afternoon people like to visit to watch the sun set on the infinite blue of the ocean, while fishermen head home carrying loads of fresh lobster and fish – a romantic scenario for wrapping up a day surrounded by the colors of nature.
A three-hour boat trip from San Andrés will take you to the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina, which are much smaller and more exclusive. These are places for people who dig isolation, connecting with nature, relaxation, trails, and beaches that are virtually private. There are very few options for accommodations and restaurants. Formed of volcanic rock, they’re mountainous and combine rocks with white sands, offering heavenly settings.
When to go
Peak season is from January to September. Things slow down on the island from October on.
Taxis are inexpensive and easy to find. Another option is to rent scooters or golf carts. Or else pay for a roundtrip ride on a chiva, a colorful, windowless bus. To visit the small neighboring islands, you’ll need to hire a tour from a local agency.
What to bring
Pack some shoes that you can get wet, because some of the tours will have you walking in shallow water on stones on your way to natural pools. You also won’t regret investing in a good snorkeling mask before you travel.