San Andres is the perfect destination if you love a beach holiday in the tropics. Where you can snorkel, explore the island by buggy and relax on white sandy beaches. Because San Andres is a popular destination for both Colombians and foreign tourists, there are a lot of things to consider if you don’t want to leave disappointed. In addition, it is useful anyway to know the best travel tips for an enjoyable holiday on San Andres. In this mini-guide I will therefore give you many tips, as well as a realistic picture of this tropical island.
San Andres Colombia | What and Where?
Coral Island of San Andres belongs to the archipelago and department of the same name, San Andres and Providencia. Although San Andres belongs to Colombia, it is located at the coast of Nicaragua. 775 Kilometers north of the Colombian mainland, to be exact.
The island is only 12 kilometers long and 3 kilometers wide. Perfect to see a lot in a short time.
On the northern tip of the island you will find the capital. The town shares the name of the island, but is called by locals El Centro (the center). The estimated population of San Andres Island is over 55 thousand.
The sea around San Andres is called ‘the sea of the 7 colors’. If you’re lucky, you’ll see why from the plane. It is not only bright blue, but has different shades of blue. Even from the beach you can see this, stunningly beautiful.
Climate & best travel time San Andres
Although San Andres is a true beach and sun destination, it rains quite a lot. From May to December, it is rainy season and you can expect frequent showers. And when cyclones occur in the Caribbean, this archipelago is often on the route as well.
However, as in all of Colombia, “lots of rain” does not mean you have to sit under your umbrella in the rain all day. These are often heavy showers lasting an hour in the afternoon. We came in early June and had quite a lot of rain, but also a lot of sunshine. Now, I am used to rain in Colombia, and it did not bother me at all. What I want to say: if you expect 100% sun then you may see your holiday fall into the water.
I would not skip a trip to San Andres because there can be occasional showers. The temperature remains high and there is still plenty of time to spend on the beach.
Therefore, the best travel time is year-round. If you want the best chance of dry weather, come from January to May.
No undiscovered paradise
Sorry if I pierce your bubble, but San Andres is not exactly an (undiscovered) paradise. Not like a few years ago. Something that needs to be said briefly to avoid false expectations. Yes you have beautiful beaches, extraordinary white sand, beautiful coral and super blue and clear water, but there are a lot of downsides to that.
For years, San Andres has been a top vacation destination for both Colombians and foreign tourists. And you can see that. There are hotels everywhere, more and more construction on the island and, literally, people everywhere. Perhaps if you come in the middle of the rainy season, in November for example, it will be quieter. But above all, expect lots of people. Full beaches, lots of music, lots of noise and lots of drunk Colombians. Even the small islands surrounding San Andres are full.
Colombians love to make noise, but San Andres is still a level above. Here you not only have the very noisy drunk Colombians (also locals), who don’t make things any more sociable, but also the water scooters, motors and the countless number of golf carts that cross the island. Real peace and quiet is pretty hard to find here, but if you stay outside El Centro or a village it is quite manageable.
There is a lot of trash on the island. Outside the towns and villages a bit less, but you still find trash everywhere. This is the work of both (Colombian) tourists and locals.
I frequently hear travelers say that they think there is so much poverty on San Andres. Altough that this is probably the case, I personally don’t find it very different from the rest of Colombia. Perhaps this is because on the mainland of Colombia you don’t see poverty very clearly, but on san Andres you do. So it looks like there is more poverty. But in reality it’s about the same in all Colombia.
I would say that with that huge tax every tourist has to pay to get onto the island (see below practical information), the local government should be doing a good job. But that’s not the case at all. Of course we are in a fairly corrupt country where this money mostly ends up in the pockets of local politicians, but on San Andres the money also seems to be used to make all of the above even worse. Building more, attracting more tourists, more hotels, more buggies…. More of everything. This is when the local government should be doing everything possible to get and keep the island clean, pay more attention to nature, reduce noise and promote ecotourism more.
Lack of environmental protection
Everything above, of course, already indicates that environmental protection is not very high on this islands priority. On top of that, in some places near small islands and near coral, fish are fed to show them to tourists. Who are snorkeling there by the dozens to spot lured fish. Boats with loud music also lie near that coral, disturbing nature and peace. I really did not see anything that indicates responsible treatment of nature and animals. Not by locals, not by tourists and not generally regulated by the local government.
As you have been able to read, there are quite a few problems on San Andres. And you as a tourist can help to at least not make those problems worse. Namely, like this:
- Try to recycle as much as possible, i.e. reuse plastic bags and bottles instead of throwing them away;
- Never throw trash on the street;
- Stay in smaller local hotels and hostels, instead of in big resorts;
- Check carefully where you book a tour to see if they take into account coral conservation, and the peace and quietness of the island;
- Do not / as few activities as possible that disturb the coral or animals;
- Do not buy souvenirs made from animal products, such as crabs or a turtle shell.
Where to stay on San Andres?
Now that you know all this, you may understand that where you stay on San Andres is very important to have a good experience. Right in the middle of the busy and noisy downtown area or more in nature, are the options. In either case, you will have a very different experience. We stayed both 3 nights downtown and 3 nights outside. Personally, I would recommend staying outside the center, but if you want everything close by and don’t mind the noise and lack of a tropical island feeling, the center is fine.
If you are staying outside the center, I recommend the west coast or south coast.
My 2 top hotel tips:
What to do and see on San Andres?
Rent a buggy and drive around the island
The main road on San Andres is about 30 kilometers long and perfect for a mini road trip. This can be done by scooter or buggy (golf cart). We opted for a buggy. Frankly, this was the most enjoyable experience during the entire vacation. I’ts nice driving around, away from all the mass tourism. Stopping at paradise spots where there are no hundreds of people. Definitely recommended. Read all about a buggy rental on San Andres here.
To the beach
San Andres is known for the extraordinary sand on its beaches. It is different from what you are used to, whiter and it has a different texture. There are three popular beaches in the center: Playa Spratt Bight, Playa Principal and Playa Grande. These beaches are enormously crowded and you don’t really get an exotic island feeling from them. But if you just want to sunbathe and swim in the beautiful blue sea, these beaches are fine.
A somewhat quieter beach can be found about 6 kilometers to the south on the east coast, called Rocky Caye Beach. Again, you certainly don’t have the beach to yourself, but a bit more paradisiacal it definitely is.
Then you have Playa San Luis. A little less pretty, but nice for variety.
If you want to get really far away from crowded beaches, move all the way to the southern tip of the island. There are a few small and quiet beaches, such as Playa de Sebastian, Charquitos and Mateo Beach.
To one of the nearby islets (or not)
There are a few islets around San Andres that you can visit. The most popular is Johnny Cay. You can book a tour just about anywhere. This is a very popular day trip and terribly crowded. We therefore chose not to do this tour. There is absolutely no respect for nature, so if you would just like to help the environment a little, it is best to skip this.
Instead, we opted for a tour by catamaran to the islets of Rose Cay, also called Acuario. Here you can snorkel well and enjoy exotic fish, underwater shipwrecks and coral. Unfortunately, this place is also full of motorboats with loud music and dancing people. And fish are fed in some places to lure them. We did not know this in advance, if we did I would not have done the tour. The snorkeling was beautiful, but it didn’t feel very good with hundreds of people around us and dozens of boats disturbing the experience and the underwater world.
You can snorkel just about anywhere on San Andres. The water is beautiful and there are fish everywhere. Popular spots include Acuario and also La Piscinita.
A popular small “pool” in the sea near the rocks on the west coast of the island. Here you can also snorkel well. We also skipped this due to extreme crowds, but if you are there at a quiet time it seems to be very beautiful.
San Andres is a good destination for scuba diving and this is a popular activity. No wonder since the water here is clear blue. So beautiful, you see everything. Book a tour to go diving on San Andres here.
The interior of San Andres
Besides the coastal route, you can also explore inland. Here you drive up a hill where you can find beautiful views. There are also botanical gardens on the island that you can visit. On the hill you will also find Laguna Big Pond. We did not visit this, but it houses more than 100 alligators which should be quite impressive.
If you go a bit out of the tourist center and walk through El Centro you will come across several beautiful murals. Just like the original wooden houses on the island.
And there is more to do on the island. For example, visit the Island House Museum and El Hoyo Soplador (a natural blowhole). You’ll find that second one all the way south of San Andres. Then there is Morgan’s Cave (fun for kids) and First Baptist Church.
Admire the beautiful sunset
On the west coast of San Andres, you can admire a beautiful sunset. The sun sets a little later here than on the mainland, around 7 PM. From 6:15 PM you can enjoy this natural wonder and I would really recommend doing this at least once. The sunset is truly spectacularly beautiful.
Where to eat and drink?
There are countless restaurants, bars and nightclubs on San Andres. For nightlife, the Coco Loco bar seems to be fun. Here we have not been. We did eat in many restaurants and had some drinks, but frankly I thought the food was far from good. Only one restaurant really stood out and this one I can sincerely recommend: The Islander. Delicious food, nice and quiet location, good atmosphere, downtown and delicious cocktails. A little more expensive, but it’s worth it.
You can also just walk through the center, you will come across lots of places to eat or drink. Not top quality like the food on the Colombian mainland, but good enough to get through the day.
San Andres packing list
What do you put in your suitcase when you go on holiday to San Andres? Although you can buy quite a lot on the island, there are some things convenient (and a lot cheaper) to bring your own.
- A water bottle with filter. On San Andres, you cannot drink water from the tap, so a water filter may come in handy.
- Sunscreen. Available on the island, but more expensive. So be sure to buy it in advance.
- Anti-mosquito cream or spray. There are a lot of mosquitoes on San Andres, especially when it rains a bit, and those bumps are terribly annoying. That said, they also give a risk of Dengue. I myself used this only in the evening, during the day was not necessary.
- Water shoes. Very convenient if you are going to one of the surrounding islets or doing a catamaran tour, for example.
- A snorkel set. You can also rent on San Andres, but bringing your own might be more comfortable.
- A shirt with UV protection. I did not have these with me and bought them in one of the sporting goods stores. Very handy to avoid getting burned during a boat ride or hike.
- Cash. You can’t withdraw money or pay by card everywhere on San Andres, so cash comes in handy.
San Andres practical travel tips
How do you get to San Andres?
By plane is the only option. There are direct flights from Bogotá and other major cities in Colombia. How much you pay for the flight depends on the airline, how many suitcases you take and the month you go. The flight Bogotá – San Andres takes about 2 hours.
To fly to San Andres, it is essential that you have a return ticket. So you have to be able to show that you are leaving the island again. So don’t book a one-way ticket.
Here’s what you MUST consider if you want to go to San Andres: the tourist card
A trip to San Andres is not free. In fact, you must pay a tax before arrival to enter the island: the tourist card(tarjeta de turismo). Supposedly they use this money for maintenance and improvements, but you don’t see any of that. This card is a pretty expensive thing to take into account if you want to travel to San Andres.
You buy the tourist card at check-in at the airport of departure. Cost: 124,000 pesos per person (this amount will increase each year).
Don’t forget to buy this card, without it you won’t enter the island! Can’t find where to buy the tourist card? Then ask when checking in at the airport.
San Andres is not a destination for digital nomads
Yes there is WiFi, but it is not very good. We did not suffer from bad internet at all, as we used our data bundles. So if you buy a local sim card from, say, Tigo (I have) somewhere in Colombia, you will have good Internet on San Andres.
Are you going to San Andres to work online? Buy a local Colombian sim card in advance and make sure you have enough data, and there will be no problem. If you don’t have this, then better choose another destination as a digital nomad.
What languages are spoken?
On San Andres, Spanish, English and Creole are spoken. English not by everyone, but much more than on the Colombian mainland. At least you can get by without Spanish here.
More expensive than in mainland Colombia
Island life is almost always more expensive than on the mainland, and San Andres is no exception. Expect higher prices for everything. Hotels, transportation, food and drinks. If you are used to Europe or USA, you won’t fall flat on your face, but if you live in Colombia you suddenly have quite higher expenses here.
How do you move around the island?
You can rent a buggy, but there is also a bus that runs on the main road around the island. It costs 3,600 pesos and runs all day. In addition, you can also ask a cab to take you somewhere.
How many days do you need?
This is different for everyone, depending on how much time you have and how much time you want to spend on an island beach vacation. We were here for 7 days and that seems more than enough. Even if you only go for 3 days, it’s fun and enough to rest a bit. So it doesn’t really matter that much.
Is San Andres really worth a trip?
I am happy to have finally been there after almost 8 years of living in Colombia, but I don’t need to go back again. Providencia I would like to see someday, but once in San Andres is enough for now. It’s definitely beautiful and I really enjoyed it, but don’t expect a nearly uninhabited tropical island. Especially the totally uncontrolled (Colombian) tourism bothered me, but this is unfortunately true in more places on the Caribbean coast. If you like tropical islands, beautiful blue water, snorkeling or scuba diving, and want a change of pace, San Andres is definitely worth a visit. If you are looking for a place to really rest and enjoy beautiful nature, stay as far away from the center as possible.
I loved the sunset and the buggy tour. Really incredibly beautiful the island if you go outside the crowds.
If you are traveling through Colombia with children, San Andres is a good destination. There is much to do and see with children, they will really enjoy it.
Is San Andres Colombia on your travel list?
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