San Andres is island paradise!
I’d always seen the pics of Caribbean island paradises, but I’d never been. I can’t explain why I waited so long. My previous article has over 300 pictures of San Andres, and this is the low-down on tourism.
San Andres was a British colony that became a part of Colombia. They have no aspirations to separate, despite their being a distinct culture. The people of San Andres are black, English-speaking Protestants called Raizals. I met a lot of these guys as soon as I moved to Bogota on the basketball courts. They speak English and are usually of an athleticism you see in African-Americans – more hops and explosiveness than what you see from Afro-Colombians who’ve played soccer all their lives.
The guys I knew from 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 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. Spanish seemed to be taking over the native culture.
Fallo de Haya
The day before we were set to go, CNN en Español went nuts with news from San Andres under the headline, “Fallo de Haya.” I didn’t know what ‘haya‘ meant if not the subjunctive form of haber, which wouldn’t make sense. I didn’t know what it meant and almost panicked, worried this was some horrible storm or political instability or something else that would ruin our trip.
I quickly learned “Haya” also means the Hague, and “Fallo” in this sense 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 gave significant sea territory 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.
Rondon – the signature plate of San Andres. Its a Spanglish name taken from “rundown.” I ate one at the bottom of San Andres, where the locals live. It was the best meal I had on the island. All stewed in the same sauce were 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. It tastes 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 with the pictured menu 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 lot of good Italian restaurants. These places also had Campari for 8,000 pesos. Score!
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 moron! You want the real Colombia? Go to Popayan, donde los burros se mueren de tristeza.
When we arrived we got a personal waiter who took our food order right away. He brought us the raw options to “reserve” before they’re cooked.
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 the price 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, but occasionally you’d find a tienda overrun by Colombian tourists who’d request it. But not on Johnny Cay. Nothing but pure dub reggae.
TripAdvisor’s #1 activity in San Andres was scuba diving. I love to swim, and every time I’ve seen scuba diving on television I thought it’d be perfect. Swimming with no time limit underwater so you can explore coral reefs and fishes and maybe shipwrecked boats – awesome!
So we went scuba diving and I’ll never do it again.
One detail television never tells you – you can only breathe through your mouth. That can make you a little nauseous.
The oxygen tank is heavy enough to sink you. To swim up or go back to the surface of the water, you inflate air into a vest. It’s nothing like swimming.
Where we dived there was no fish or plant life. After a short time diving I was happy to take the tank off my back and stand on land. Scuba diving sucks.
Acuario: Snorkeling and Playing with Manta Rays
Everything I wanted in scuba diving was found in snorkeling. We took a boat to Acuario, a shallow ‘aquarium’ area of the sea with a homemade island of bars and music. Big fish swim in a shallow coral reef. You don’t have to use a heavy oxygen tank or get nauseous, just a snorkel tube and surface swimming to see all the fish.
They also have a manta ray with its stinger cut off. There’s a guy whose job is not to let it get away while they let tourists touch and hold the de-tailed manta ray. 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’d 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 four streets on the whole island, so it’s impossible to get lost. We did this twice, and the second time I rented a car with a big bottle of whiskey in hand.
Casa Museo Isleña
On the golf cart we passed this museum. It’s a traditional San Andres house from the British colonial days:
The tour guides at the Island House Museum were very nice, as were all the isleños. 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 big duty free trade zone. The entire city center is designer clothes and top brand booze, which is why I was drinking Campari at restaurants and Johnny Walker 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. I booked the first three nights at an economic hotel, Noblehouse. My plan was to stay there a couple nights, then move to some obscenely expensive place with all inclused drinks and a pool, etc.
When I mentioned upgrading hotels, I ran into staunch opposition from wifey. She didn’t want to leave. Noblehouse was 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!
The only complaint I could possibly register is that a maid took a little half joint we smoked and left on the terrace. We left in the morning and when I came back it was gone. That was probably their way of asking us not to stink the hotel up, so not too much of a complaint as an inconvenience.
Overall highly recommended, elegant but economic hotel!