When it comes to tranquil Caribbean islands, it's fair to say there's a good bit of competition out there. Thus, for such places to stand out from the crowd so to put it, they generally have to offer something different.
In this regard, the Colombian-administered San Andrés island isn't usually top of the priority list for those considering visiting the region. It has a reputation for being somewhat overcrowded and not exactly well kept.
It's also widely agreed that the 'neighbouring' sister island of Providencia (part of the same administrative department albeit) is the better option, with San Andrés just used as a necessary stopover to get there.
Yet all that is being a little unfair this particular isle.
For sure, and lamentably so 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 rather 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.
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 postcard-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.
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 what you'll find 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. 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.
LatinAmerican Post | Brendan Corrigan