San Andres is island fucking paradise!
I’d never been to the Caribbean, which in retrospect was strange given I’d lived in Colombia almost three years. And even stranger for an American who’s traveled to nine countries on four continents.
I can’t explain why I waited so long. I’d always seen the pics of Caribbean island paradises, with white sand and teal waters, but it’s different to actually be there. It was absolute paradise. My previous article has over 300 pictures of San Andres, and this is the low-down on tourism.
San Andres was a British colony way back in the day, and since became a part of Colombia. They have no aspirations to separate, despite their being a completely distinct culture from Colombia’s. The people of San Andres are black, English-speaking Protestants called Raizals. I became aware of this tiny population almost as soon as I moved to Bogota in 2009, from the basketball courts. The “isleños” are common on public courts and the university leagues. They speak English, and they seem to be of more an athleticism you see in African-Americans – more hops and explosiveness than what I’d expect from Afro-Colombians who’ve played soccer all their lives.
The guys I met on basketball courts could speak proper English if they wanted to, but they spoke an unintelligible patois English with each other. And I suspected the San Andres patois to be mixed with Spanish. Over the years I met other San Andres isleños who spoke English with a Spanish accent. On the island it seemed the older and blacker the isleño, the better their English. The younger the isleño or the more racially mixed, the less likely it was they’d speak at all. It seemed to me that Spanish is taking over the native culture of San Andres.
Fallo de Haya
The day before we were set to fly to San Andres, CNN en Español was going nuts with news from San Andres under the headline, “Fallo de Haya.” I had no idea what what ‘haya‘ meant if not the subjunctive form of haber, which wouldn’t make sense. A failure or fault of haya - what is that? I almost panicked, worried this was some horrible storm or political instability or something else that would ruin our trip.
But I quickly learned “Haya” is also the Hague, and the Fallo was not a failure but a decision. The International Court of Justice had just ruled on a decade-old case that a group of islets were to remain property of Colombia, but redrew the maritime border which turned over significant area of sea to Nicaragua.
My Facebook feed was rife with Colombians vetting their frustration, but I was relieved. With no weather problems or drug gang violence, my honeymoon could go ahead with no hitches.
See more about the ruling.
Food in San Andres
San Andres has its own cuisine, which fortunately had almost nothing I’d call Colombian.
Colombian ceviche, which I’d never had prior to San Andres, was the worst of the food I had on San Andres. It’s shellfish in ketchup, served with crackers.
Rondon – the signature plate of San Andres. Its a Spanglish name taken from “rundown” – this is the rundown. I ate one at the bottom of San Andres, where the locals live, and it came out really homemade. It was the best meal I had on the island. All stewed in the same sauce: fish, snail, pigs tail, platano, yuca, and potato. I didn’t order it until the last day because I was skeptical of pig’s tail, but it was amazing. The highlight of the dish!
Snail – ‘Caracol’ is sea snail. Caracol guisado is stewed snails. You’d never guess if you ate it first, it tastes just like any shellfish.
Turtle – I saw this on a menu is a rather ghetto spot. I learned that sea turtle is a San Andres specialty, but it’s illegal to serve. The place I saw it didn’t have it that day. I asked around all over the island, but never found it available.
Lobster – We had a giant lobster feast on Johnny Cay (below), and even found lobster empanadas.
Crab – Stewed crab, fried crab meat.
Salpicon de pescado – fish salad.
Italian food – There were a handful of Italian restaurants that didn’t suck, with homemade sauces and everything. Plus, these places generally had Campari for 8,000 pesos. So I was drinking Club Colombias and Camparis with pepperoni pizzas the first couple days, before I discovered the San Andres seafood.
This is ranked #3 on TripAdvisor’s Things to Do in San Andres, but for me it was the best. It’s an island visible from the main tourist beach, a 15 minute boat ride away. Its waters are even clearer, sand even whiter, and it’s only purpose is tourist leisure.
Reading one TripAdvisor review of Johnny Cay explained why those gringo morons could have it ranked at 3 instead of 1. It’s too “touristy.” You’re in San Andres, morons. It’s for tourists! You want authentic Colombia? Go to Santa Fe in Bogota. For gringos who live in Colombia, and enjoy all Colombia’s greatness but also its less-than-greatness, Johnny Cay is a welcome day off.
When we arrived we got a personal waiter who wanted to get our food order right away. He brought us the raw options to “reserve” before they cook it.
The lobster options were 95,000 pesos or 180,000 pesos ($50 and $100 USD), so not a competitively priced destination.
We shared a giant lobster platter and drank Miller Genuine Drafts while listening to reggae. It was the only $50 plate I’ve ever ordered that came with plastic silverware, but the lobster was good. They also forgot the coconut rice, but the lobster was good enough to ignore that.
The lobster we got doesn’t look anything like the smaller one. So either they gave us the bigger one for what they quoted for the smaller one, or they gave us a third one that they never showed us. I don’t know.
The best argument for Johnny Cay, was NO vallenato! This was largely the case on the entire island, because of the locals, but occasionally you’d find a tienda overrun by rolo or paisa or whatever Colombians who’d play that shit. But not on Johnny Cay. Nothing but pure dub reggae.
The #1 activity according to TripAdvisor (as well as 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) was scuba diving. I love to swim, and every time I’ve seen scuba diving on television I thought it’d be perfect for me, seeing as I love to swim. Swimming with no time limit underwater so you can explore coral reefs and fishes and maybe shipwrecked boats – that sounds just right for me.
So we went scuba diving and I’ll never do it again. Scuba diving sucks!
One detail you don’t think about when seeing it on television – you can’t breathe through your nose. Only your mouth. That can make you a little nauseous.
What you maybe would’ve guessed from TV is how heavy those tanks are. They’re heavy enough to sink you. To go back to the surface of the water, you have to inflate air into a vest. Going up or down is nothing like swimming. And swimming sideways is slow and difficult because the tank is heavy.
The place where we went had generally no fish or plant life. I didn’t know how much time we had, so I didn’t take many pictures with the underwater camera I’d bought. Before I knew it we were finished. But I was happy to take the damn tank off my back and stand on land. Then we lost the underwater camera, so I can’t develop the few worthless pictures I took.
Scuba diving sucks.
Acuario: Snorkeling and Playing with Manta Rays
Luckily, everything I thought scuba diving could be was found in snorkeling. You take a boat ride to this shallow ‘aquarium’ section, which features bars and music, as well as manta rays.
There are loads of big fish playing in this shallow coral reef. You don’t have to dick around with the heavy ass tank or breathing only through the mouth, just a snorkel tube and surface swimming to see all the fishes. I couldn’t believe they’re always around you in the sea but you’d never know because they don’t get close enough to touch. You can try to catch one with your hands but you have no chance.
They also have a manta ray with its stinger cut off. There’s one guy whose job it is not to let it get away while they let all the tourists touch it and hold it. Wifey indulged, I did not.
See pics of Johnny Cay, Acuario, and other beach fun on my San Andres beach photo album.
Golf Cart Rental
One activity that gets no TripAdvisor love, which I would put way higher than scuba diving, is renting a golf cart and exploring the island. It’s 70,000 soles for the whole day, and you can drive on the streets with the cars. Get off the beaten path – there are like 4 streets on the whole island, so it’s impossible to get lost!
We did this twice – once on our last day – and the second time I rented the cart with a big ass bottle of whiskey in my hand.
The cart is how I got so many pictures of areas far away from the central tourist district.
Casa Museo Isleña
On the golf cart we passed this tourist museum. It was super cheap so we hung out a minute. It’s a traditional San Andres house from the British colony days. Here are some pictures:
The tour guides at the Island House Museum were really nice – as were all the San Andres people working in tourism – and it was clear they enjoyed their jobs. One fun little feature they do there is dance. They gave wifey a brief tutorial on the electric slide, and they did this dance together:
The biggest error I made was not bringing empty suitcases. I didn’t know that San Andres is a free trade zone, like one big duty free. The entire center is designer clothes and top brand booze, which is why I was drinking Campari at restaurants and Johnny Walker whiskey in the hotel room. You can see pictures of what the shopping is like in my urban San Andres photo album.
Given our Colombian trip was for six weeks, I tried to cut corners wherever I could. Instead of a full seven days, I cut the honeymoon to six. Then I booked the first three nights at a cheapest hotel that wasn’t a hostel or something with small beds, Noblehouse. My plan was to stay there a couple nights, then move to some obscenely expensive place with all inclusive drinks and a pool, etc.
However, I ran into staunch opposition from wifey when it was time to upgrade. She didn’t want to leave. Noblehouse was inexpensive and didn’t have a pool, but it was impressively elegant and quiet. The interior was pleasant, our (two) big beds were soft and comfortable, and we had a terrace overlooking the street. The complimentary breakfast was great, and she didn’t want to leave. That was fine with me!
The only complaint I could possibly register is that a maid took a little half joint I had. I bought one for a marijuana lovemaking session. We smoked half of it and I left the other half on the terrace. We did something in the morning and when I came back it was gone. That was probably their way of asking us not to stink the place up, so not too much of a complaint as an inconvenience.
Overall highly recommended, elegant but economic hotel!
I’d add that San Andres was the most decent place I’ve visited in Colombia. I was never offered cocaine. It was hard to find weed. There were no indigentes begging at every turn. I didn’t see any prostitutes. The tourism vendors didn’t seem like sketchy hucksters. It was almost like not even being in Colombia!