Isla San Andrés, Colombia: One week in “the sea of seven colors”

After my first few busy days in Bogotá filled with meetings, lunches, dinners, new friends, endless questions to ever-patient Bogotanos about how taxis work [answer: pretty great] or what food/fruit/vegetable I am eating [answer: once they identify it I still have no idea what it is], and the struggle of only having 74% of the oxygen available that I am used to, I was feeling excited about my new home but also not opposed to the idea of returning to sea level for a bit.

Luckily we had arrived a couple weeks before I’d be starting work, and had some time to travel. Our initial plan was to head to the coast for the world-famous Carnaval de Barranquilla since it would fall perfectly into our schedule in mid-February (and I have a fantastic history of carnavales), but our research quickly showed that to book any sort of decent accommodations at a reasonable price, we would have had to do so not in early January, but probably in early January of the previous year. Yikes!

So what could possibly compare to one of the biggest carnavales in the world?

20150220-131241.jpgI suppose a stunning Caribbean island would suffice.

san andres and providencia map

San Andrés is a small coral island about 140 miles east of the coast of Nicaragua, forming the largest part of the three-island archipelago and Colombian department of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. It is considered a national gem of the country, and any mention to a Colombian of your trip to San Andrés is sure to be met with a heartfelt “que delicia!”

The history of San Andrés is a fascinating thread in the story of the colonial Caribbean. The story as first recorded by Europeans (though undoubtedly not the beginning of the story of the island itself) starts with the arrival of a handful of English Puritans in 1628, around the same time that the new Massachusetts Bay Colony was being established. Much like myself, these folks wondered why in the name of God anyone would attempt to sustain human life in such a freezing and inhospitable North American climate, and headed down to this fertile, tropical paradise instead.

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If you were part of a religious minority in 17th century England, you would be ready for some fun in the sun too.

The similarities between me and the Puritans end there, though, because they then proceeded to import enslaved people from other Caribbean islands, build a slave labor-based plantation economy of cotton and tobacco, and get themselves involved with the tough crowd of privateering, after which they would end up getting invaded by the Spanish and Henry Morgan consecutively. I did nothing of the sort; I just ate fried fish, laid on the beach, and went scuba diving.

From then on, San Andrés and its sister islands spent the next couple of centuries being tossed back and forth between Spain, pirates, the British, and Gran Colombia. Even the US tried to get its hands on this commercially strategic archipelago in the early 20th century, by requesting that it become part of Panama (where they thought that it might be a nice addition to their ownership over the new Canal) but despite Teddy Roosevelt’s heartwarming visit to the island by boat, and a thoughtful follow-up visit by a nice US warship, the islanders, historically loyal to the Republic of Colombia, refused to join Panama or the US. By 1928 the archipelago was officially recognized as being exclusively under the sovereignty of Colombia.

Decades later in 2001, Nicaragua would contest this, claiming that that 1928 treaty conceding the archipelago to Colombia was invalid due to unfair pressure at the time from the US occupation. The International Court of Justice upheld Colombian jurisdiction over the islands, but the marine boundaries were adjusted, conceding some strategic fishing zones to the Nicaraguans. This provoked an outcry by native Raizal islanders, the livelihoods of many of whom revolve around fishing. This is still a bit of a sensitive issue, so if you see signs around the island proclaiming San Andrés as “100% Colombiano”, this is why.

Anyway, I digress. I just find the history of the Caribbean so fascinating, and after all, if you don’t understand the history of the place you’re visiting, you could be just about anywhere.

Nowadays, San Andrés is very proudly Colombian, and there are no longer any pirates there (though you can visit a tourist trap called Morgan’s Cave, however it seems rather dubious as to whether this cave was actually frequented by Mr. Henry Morgan himself). The British influence on the island is quite noticeable, particularly in many of the English place names, and the architecture of the wooden houses, more reminiscent of Jamaica than of the Spanish colonial architecture of the hispanophone Caribbean.

Above all, though, these days San Andrés is a top tourist destination for South American tourists–overwhelmingly Colombians, Argentinians, and Brazilians–with just a handful of assorted Europeans and French Canadians thrown in the mix. A big attraction is that the island is duty-free, meaning that there is lots of luxury shopping to be done without the high taxes imposed in some countries.

Besides the diverse Spanish accents and boisterous Brazilian Portuguese that you’ll hear, there are three main languages spoken on the island: English, Spanish, and an English-derived Creole (considered a local dialect of Jamaican Patois that is specific to San Andrés and Providencia). Most of the folks from the island speak all three (similar to other politically Latin American / culturally Caribbean islands, like Roatán in Honduras). And if you were left with any doubts about the impressive cultural melting pot that is San Andrés, just take a listen to the music playing at any given street corner/store/car/business/cell phone–you’ll hear with equal frequency Colombian vallenatos, Jamaican dancehall, Top 40 reggaeton, Caribbean soca, reggae old and new, salsa, merengue, and everything in between.

One day during a surface break between dives, we were hanging out on the dock, watching some local fisherman gutting their catches from the morning and listening to them yelling in Creole to each other across their boats. With influences from various colonial languages including English and Spanish as well as West African roots, I am always enchanted by the way that this particular Anglo-Latin Creole seems to sound slightly, mysteriously familiar and yet simultaneously completely unintelligible to my ears.

One fisherman bent over and hauled a fat, four-plus foot kingfish out of his boat, to the admiration of his colleagues and to the fascination of a French Canadian woman on our dive crew. The size of the fish being quite impressive to us landlubbers, a shriek of “Oh my God!” erupted from her lungs.

The old, leathery skinned fisherman turned to look at her.

“That’s not your God,” he said in perfect English. “That’s a fish!”

We all laughed our asses off, and even the French Canadian woman managed a chuckle at herself.

IMG_20150214_112533

The main purpose of our visit to the island was for me to get my PADI Open Water scuba certification. Mariano worked for years as an instructor, so needless to say he is lightyears ahead of me, but you have to start somewhere! I had already begun the first part of the course elsewhere, so I got a great deal to finish the rest of it and obtain my certification, at a German dive shop called Karibik Diver. You can read our full review of the dive shop on TripAdvisor here, but we had a great experience, and I ended up doing a total of seven dives!

The highlights for me included seeing some of the amazing coral gardens of the reef surrounding the island, and all the flora and fauna that come with them. On the first few dives I struggled with maintaining neutral buoyancy, and thus was paying less attention to the underwater sights and more to not falling into the coral and also not flailing my arms and legs like a total n00b in order to do so, but by the last few dives I was able to engage more with the environment around me and stop and smell the roses…or…float and…look at the coral? Whatever. I saw fishies!!!!

I also saw giant Caribbean spiny lobsters, a spotted snake eel, a big ass barracuda, lots of schools of brightly colored and/or shiny fish, many solitary lionfish with their weird feathers, weird little wormies that stick their heads out of the sandy bottom and suck themselves back into the sand when you get close (and gave me terrible flashbacks of when I watched Star Wars when I was little and that creepy eyeball-on-a-stalk creature in the garbage compactor scene scarred me for life), and several pleasantly amusing pufferfish, who were unpuffed of course but one of my favorite things on this earth are improbable-looking animals (don’t get me started on sea lions), and pufferfish have these silly chunky little bodies that seem like there’s no way they should be hydrodynamic.

^^ I have always had a problem with run-on sentences, but I think it might be time for me to get help.

Apart from the amazing underwater coral-scapes, the highlight of this trip for me was diving wrecks–one airplane and one ship. The airplane had crashed over 20 years ago just 200m off the end of the runway, and it was torn apart into several large pieces on the sandy bottom. Parts of it were just barely recognizable as an airplane, but just knowing that the accident was destructive enough to tear a plane into pieces is enough to give you goosebumps under your wetsuit.

And finally, our very last dive was at the wreck of the Blue Diamond, a 60m (197ft) freighter that was impounded by the Colombian government in the early 1990s and sunk. The wreck sits at just 12m (39ft), making it a relatively easy dive but quite fascinating. Though the ship is ripped in half and pretty torn up, its enormous engine and other parts are still nearly perfectly preserved, allowing you to get up close and personal with pistons, pipes, torn cables, winches, gears, and portholes, all frozen in time as coral, flora, and fauna slowly but patiently take over.

We took lots of video of all the dives, and once it is done being meticulously edited, I will post a link here!

So what else is there to do in San Andrés?

You guessed it–beaches.

The main beach along the “Centro”–the main town on the island, on the northeast corner–is quite nice, though usually relatively busy. Be prepared to patiently and politely excuse yourself from the constant stream of beach vendors who want to sell you “natural pearls”, jewelry, hair braiding, and massages.

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Fake yoga poses. Do ’em for the Instagram likes.

Also, feel free to wear your tiniest bikini. In the land of South American tourists, the cheekier, the better. My normal American string bikini felt like the equivalent of granny panties, and I wished that I too had a bathing suit that better maximized sun-to-skin ratio. Sigh. Looks like another year of the full moon for me.

The other beautiful beach that we visited on the island was just south of El Centro, on the eastern coast, in the smaller pueblo of San Luis. This beach is referred to as Rocky Cay, and it is paired with a mini island (more like a rocky coral formation standing just above the water) about 200m off the beach–and you can walk there through the shallow chest-deep water! Just beyond this, there lies one of the multiple above-water shipwrecks visible off the coast of the island, victims over the years to the vicious coral barrier encircling the island that tears through ships like butter. These shipwrecks are visible all over the eastern coast of the island, some impressively large, others no more than skeletons on the horizon. Their chillingly ghostly figures provide a constant reminder of the enormous power of the ocean and the tininess of both your presence and the island itself.

View of the small rocky coral formation island (seen to the left), and just beyond it (appearing slightly to the right) are the remains of a shipwreck.

View from the beach at Rocky Cay: the small rocky coral formation island (seen to the right), and just beyond it (appearing slightly to the left) are the remains of a shipwreck.

View of the shipwreck from the mini-island.

View of the shipwreck from the mini-island.

The only things relatively cheap on the island were beer ($1-2) and scuba diving (we paid COP $143,000, or around USD $60, for a double dive, which is relatively cheap compared to many scuba destinations). Other than that, we found accommodations to be surprisingly (relatively) expensive, as well as food (depending on where you eat).

Cheers.

Cheers.

We stayed at Coco’s Place, whose highly efficient and straightforward slogan, “habitaciones para turistas“, quite succinctly describes exactly what they offer: “rooms for tourists”–no more, no less. If you’re looking for ambiance, or hotel facilities like a gym, restaurant, or maybe even a front desk or lobby, you’ll want to choose somewhere else. If you, like us, came to San Andrés for the wonders of its natural environment and not to hang out at the hotel, and you just want a clean, simple, comfortable room with well-functioning AC to come back to at night, you could consider Coco’s Place. We paid COP $130,000 (USD $53) per night for a double room, which although it seemed relatively high for what it was, we found it was one of the best options that was a) not a dump, and b) walking distance to the Centro.

If you’re looking for a scene with more energy, ambiance, and people to meet, you could consider El Viajero Hostel, which is around USD $21 per night for the dorm. We checked it out and liked the vibe a lot, but were already locked in to our reservation at Coco’s Place. We ended up hearing varied reviews of El Viajero–some folks loved it for the atmosphere and the parties, but others (it seemed like the ones who preferred a good, quiet night’s sleep) had some complaints about the noise level. But that is the hostel life for you!

The restaurant scene in and around the Centro seemed to fall into one of two extremes: either a super touristy seafood, pseudo-Italian, or pseudo-American-chain-restaurant type of place, with entrees anywhere from COP $20,000-40,000 (around USD $8-16), or a super “local” hole in the wall, and not necessarily the good kind, but rather the kind that with one look at the creepy film of grease over the glass case of empanadas, my stomach is already turning. As a person with a weak stomach, I have developed a sort of sixth sense about the hygiene of particular restaurants, and although I much prefer to eat cheaper, more delicious local food, I know my limits.

(Well at least I usually do. Our first night there I woke up around 4am to someone stabbing me in the intestines, and subsequently missed a day of diving. The most likely suspect was a bowl of fish stew I had for dinner. I won’t let my guard down again like that anytime soon.)

We never ended up eating at "McFlaco's". I still can't decide if this was for better or for worse.

We never ended up eating at “McFlaco’s”. I still can’t decide if this was for better or for worse.

However, we found two great restaurants that perfectly fit our preference for clean, simple, delicious, authentic, affordable food. Tico Tico (Vía Peatonal No. 3-11, next to Hotel Calypso – phone 512 6978) is an unpretentious hidden gem sandwiched between nicer hotels and souvenir shops on the main beach strip. They make a mean ceviche, and the filete apanado (fried breaded fish) with a serving of coconut rice and patacones is the definition of “panza llena, corazón contento”. 

Somehow ceviche always tastes better with a view of the ocean.

Somehow ceviche always tastes better with an ocean view.

Restaurante Miss Celia is just a couple blocks east at Avenida Newball con Avenida Colón, in front of el Club Nautico. They serve a variety of typical food, ranging from Jamaican “rondon” to traditional Colombian plates like bandeja paisa or típico montañero. For the latter two, for COP $20,000-22,000 (USD $8-9), we got an enormous plate of food that we were able to share and both be nicely full.

Lunch at the beachside restaurant at Johnny Cay. Happiness on plates.

Lunch at the beachside restaurant at Johnny Cay. Happiness on plates.

Now, this should be the part where I report on the nightlife of San Andrés, but I am not ashamed to admit that I am a complete grandma at heart, and that I went to bed around 9-10pm every night. Thus I have no information about nightlife, except for that I read in the guide book that the hot spots include two places called “Extasis” (I read this in my head in a sexy, breathy whisper, and you should too) and “Coco Loco” (I am 96% sure a venue of this name must exist in nearly every Caribbean tourism destination, Spanish-speaking or not). As undeniably appealing as the names of these venues are, at the end of the day I am just not a big partier, and from what I had seen of the cheesy touristy restaurants and the endless duty-free luxury shopping stores, there was probably not too much there to attract me away from a wholesome night’s sleep, and the promise of no hangover in the morning.

Overall, the trip was a great success. The Caribbean sun never tasted so sweet after just barely escaping a brutal New England winter, and now with my Open Water certification I can dive just about anywhere of reasonable depth where I can rent a tank. San Andrés certainly has its own unique and pervasive brand of touristiness, for better or for worse, but it is a fascinating place that is slightly more accessible from South America, and so for me the ability to travel there directly from Colombia represented a very unique (and convenient) opportunity. It was a trip that was just asking to be taken!

I’ll go ahead and mark this one Mission Accomplished. 🙂

Hasta la próxima, San Andrés.

Sunrise on San Andrés. Hasta la próxima, islita linda.

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One thought on “Isla San Andrés, Colombia: One week in “the sea of seven colors”

  1. Pingback: Why Taking a Giant Risk Might Be the Safest Thing You Can Do | run run rebecca

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