San Andrés is a Colombian island located near to Nicaragua that we visited in January 2017. The island is small coral island and it is surrounded by a beautiful crystal clear ocean known as the “Sea of Seven Colors” and various little sandbanks called “Cays” with stunning white sand and breathtakingly blue water, but quite heavily populated with a lot of traffic, noise and crazy motor scooters. The typical scooter style of the locals is diving along one handed, no helmet with cell phone pushed to the other ear engaged in animated conversation. We were here during the first half of January and it rained a lot, although people said it was unusual for it to rain so much. At this time of year the island is also packed with Colombian tourists who all congregate around the main beach and ugly downtown city center ( San Andrés is a duty free shopping zone). The food around here was pretty average, however we did discover the top restaurant on the island called “La Regatta”. La Regatta is located right on a pier, is surrounded by water and the decor is all nautical themed and just incredible. I think this is probably the most beautiful restaurant I have ever seen, they have created all kinds of beautiful pyramids and mobiles out of wine bottles and then have big lights shining through them at night. There are also lights pointed at the shallow water right next to the restaurant. We saw large stingrays, green eels and some interesting orange sand sharks swimming around and it feels like you are looking into an Aquarium. You generally have to book for La Regatta. We called and could not book, but we took a chance and just showed up anyway a little later and we got seated. It’s a seafood restaurant and the dishes are quite interesting with a variety of unusual flavor combinations and spices. Do not miss La Regatta if you are visiting the island.
The biggest draw to San Andrés is probably the price as it is aimed at Colombians and much cheaper than many other Caribbean destinations. Expect to pay typical South American prices, $10 – 15 for a simple plate of food for lunch and about $30 – 40 per night for a guest house room. There is generally no hot water at any of the guest houses on San Andrés, it just doesn’t exist and this does take a bit of getting used to. The island is fairly rundown and the heavy traffic and dirty streets can be a bit of a drag, it’s not exactly what I would call a picture perfect paradise but it does have interesting character. If you are looking for something unspoiled by tourism and migration it’s best to visit the nearby sister island of San Andrés called Providencia, but I will write a separate story about it. To appreciate real beauty of San Andrés you have to get out on the water and also visit some of the white sandy keys like “El Acuario”. Boat trips here and to Johnny Cay are cheap and easily arranged at the little port in front of the center. There are also stingray viewing trips, but unfortunately the guides handling the stingrays and other marine life like starfish so tourists can take pictures. It is easy to spot stingrays by yourself with a snorkel at El Acurio and you can also walk or swim across to another cay called “Heinz Cay”, which has palm trees, seafood restaurants and a nice grassy lawn to relax on. There are also lockers which you can hire for a small fee to keep your stuff in at these little islands and return boat trips out here can cost as little as $7 just to get taken there and back. The water is incredibly clear and blue at El Acurio and there are quite a few fish to see, but no coral. Be careful here as there are some strong tidal currents and small but strong waves which can knock you right off your feet and also create a rip over the rocks.
The West side of San Andrés seems less built up and more beautiful with a rocky coast and some good dive sites, the most famous been Westview with it’s Neptune/Poseidon statue. The waters here are calmer and you can see the obnoxious “Aquanauts” here, which can be quite funny. Aquanauts(Aquanautas) is one of those companies that does an undersea walk about in weighted clogs and space helmets, luckily the bottom here is pretty sandy. They jostle around the statue for pics and fight for space with other divers all looking for that perfect holiday snapshot and the whole situation is both hilarious and annoying at the same time.
And the diving?
The best part about the diving around San Andrés is the contrast of the clear, shockingly blue water and the brilliant white coral sand. The coral formations are also quite impressive and I thought they were in pretty good condition, however we did not see a lot of fish and this is quite a common complaint from other people who been diving here. We went diving with “The dive team”, which is located in the grounds of the Aquarium hotel. The first thing I have to mention about diving in San Andrés is that it’s not very comfortable. They use these small hard motorboats which are really just a hard bench and a motor. These boats bounce like crazy and the sea’s were often rough so if you get sea sick easily this may not be the place for you. The boat rides could be long as well and we were caught in a lot of heavy rain showers while on the boat which made one quite cold after a dive. The water was temperature was 27C in January and I found it quite chilly sometimes if you are not wearing at least a short suit. We did two days of diving with “The Dive Team”, it’s an ok operation, on the first day a divemaster took us out and while the dive itself was ok the leader seemed not very friendly or engaging. I also felt people staying at the hotel where the dive center was located were given preferencial treatment over the divers who were just there for the day. There was a complete idiot on the boat from who was complaining about everyone and everything, despite been a fairly lousy diver himself and the guide would then voice the complaints to us, “oh he didn’t like that you were swimming up and down” etc and I just felt the whole thing could have been handled better. This annoying diver also had a habit of screaming out orders of like, “you with the camera, keep at the back!, Cameras at the back!” before we would descend. Suffice it to stay when his wife’s cylinder came loose I didn’t stick around to wait or help. Another thing he did was tell the same story about how he went down with his snorkel the day before, over and over, laughing like crazy each time, until I was thinking, “ok, you’re a crappy diver, we get it already”. The second day was a bit better, as Nelson Ramos the owner of Dive Team accompanied us and the complainer was doing a round the island tour. The ocean was pretty rough on this day with large swells and heavy rain, Nelson had to take control of the boat to get us to the site, the famous “Blue Wall” and to tell you the truth I was a little bit nervous at first from the large swells. Under the water things were ok though. Nelson is a bit of a cowboy who dives in a purple speedo and a rash vest, he also has a super long alternate hose that he gave to a dive who ran out of air and then just continued the dive with this guy sucking off his Octo like it was the most natural thing in the world. One of the other divers ran out of air towards the end of the dive, so Nelson put him on the Octo came up to about 10 meters and finished the dive. Afterwards when I spoke to the diver he told me,”oh, that always happens so I stick close to the guide.” , which I found a bit disturbing. I just commented that it was lucky Nelson had that extra long hose. “Yeah, that hose is great.”, he replied without a hint of irony. I was also very impressed by the corals at the Blue Wall, although once again we did not see many fish. The second site we went to was called Pyramid and was a nice shallow reef where we finally saw some big schools of fish and a few stingrays. Once again I would have to say the best thing about the diving in San Andrés is the price, we were paying about $50 US for two dives with our own gear, which is pretty cheap as Caribbean diving goes. The diving is pleasant, with warm clear tropical water, but the lack of fish and abundance of sand are common complaints and the boats are really uncomfortable.
Our plan was to leave San Andrés and go to nearby Providencia on the catamaran and then return to stay a few more days further down the island at San Luiz to check out the beaches here and maybe do a bit of shore diving at Westview. However this was not to be as we ended up getting stuck for a few extra days on Providencia due to high sea’s (Never take the catamaran but more on that in the next post) and missed most of the time we were going to spend here. The weather was also terrible with strong wind and almost constant heavy rain. I really wanted to check out Johnny cay on the last day, but the boats weren’t running due to the waves so we went to El Acuario again and managed to get a bit of sun between the rain showers. Another problem was that we really struggled to find restaurants and food around San Luis. Everything always seemed to be private for hotels or shut during the day, although we did find one local shack, with a pleasant owner where I had some pork chops and Natalia had a whole grilled fish. Most local plates like this are served with rice, a bit of carrot and tomato salad and a few wedges of the local bread fruit. I would really have liked to explored this part of the island more and see what it had to offer but it just didn’t work out. There are some pretty cool looking shipwrecks that can be seen from the beach in San Luis sitting high out of the water on the reefs and the area has good kayaking potential in better weather.
If you are looking for a Caribbean destination on a tighter budget, or something with a bit more of a South American flavor then San Andrés could be an interesting destination, especially if you are a diver. The people are generally and friendly but the vibe of the islands original inhabitants has been somewhat corrupted by the recent waves of economic immigration from the mainland and the crass commercialism of mass tourism and package holidays. It’s a nice place to visit, but if I had to come back to the region in the future I would probably go straight to Providencia…..unless you really love duty free shopping!