SAN ANDRÉS, Colombia — When it comes to travel, first impressions are everything. For example, when I arrived on the Caribbean island of San Andrés, I faced aggressive swarms of scooters and found myself in a game of human Frogger. When I showed up at my hotel, there was no toilet paper in the room. My requests for a roll went unheeded by the staff for days. I thought “OK, not a big deal. This isn’t 2020. I’ll just go to the store.” But when I went to the biggest beach on the island and it was more crowded than a Hong Kong high-rise, I began to fret.
“Son of a nutcracker! What have I done?,” were the exact words that entered my brain. My first impression of San Andrés was that I made a big mistake. The scooters tormented me all week and there were streets lined with ticky-tacky shops selling knock-off Tommy Hilfiger polos and thin beach towels. The crowds seemed relentless.
I had been keen to go to San Andrés because it sounded unique among Caribbean offerings. It’s a coral island less than 150 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, but it belongs to Colombia. San Andrés is like a cultural fondue pot. Pirates plundered it in the 16th century as the Dutch checked it out. The English colonized it in the 1600s and brought enslaved people from Jamaica. The Spanish tried to take it, and then retreated. Eventually England handed over San Andrés to the Spanish. Some Brits stayed behind, the enslaved people were freed, and the Spaniards swept in.
Fast forward to 2022, and there is now a Creole population, an English-speaking minority, and a Spanish-speaking majority. Colombia and Nicaragua have been playing a game of tug-of-war for control of the island in recent decades.
But I was swayed by more than history. I saw a lot of pretty pictures of San Andrés beaches when I was planning the trip. Travel writers were fawning over San Andrés as if it were Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” That seemed like enough of a push as the Northeast began its painful January decline into winter.
Perhaps I should have listened more carefully when a representative from a local tour company told me “It’s not perfect, but we have our natural charm.” Probably not a good advertising slogan. She added that people come to San Andrés to do nothing, which is the last thing a travel writer wants to hear.
The good news is that the trip was not a bust, I just didn’t plan properly. Most travel writers won’t admit when things go wrong on the road (I’m looking at you, Rick Steves), but you should learn from my mistakes. San Andrés is a lovely place with fantastic people, great food, and long, sandy stretches surrounded by nearly every shade of blue ocean imaginable. The island and I just got off on the wrong foot.
Some COVID-related things to know before we get started: There were no testing requirements when I went earlier this month, but Colombia allows only fully vaccinated travelers, which they consider to be those who have received at least two shots. When I booked my trip in December, the island was averaging four COVID cases a week, so some days there were none reported, and that relatively low rate was definitely part of the appeal. (The seven-day average is now 60 cases.)
There is now a direct flight from Miami to San Andrés that runs weekly on Saturdays, but that’s not the route I took, and it took me a long time to get there: I went from Boston to Atlanta, Atlanta to Bogota, and then Bogota to San Andrés.
Sadly, when I finally arrived, it was not love at first, or even second, sight. Shortly after I got there, I took an excursion to a pair of tiny islands just off the coast, Cayo Acuario (Aquarium Cay) and Johnny Cay. There were more people than palm trees at each spot. At Aquarium Cay, a natural aquarium where you can snorkel and fish are everywhere, I could barely get through the crowds. I put on my snorkel gear, but I was not in a peaceful underwater paradise. If you enjoy getting hammered on drinks served in coconuts, and then having an iguana eat out of your hand, then nearby Johnny Cay is your place. In its defense, it has one of the nicest beaches in San Andrés. But there are plenty of nice beaches (and booze) back on the main island. So if you come to San Andrés, I would cross these hot spots off your list, unless you’re on the island and it’s preternaturally quiet. You see, I’m giving you valuable life lessons.
The crowds were due to the fact that Colombia runs two school schedules and one of them has students on break in January, which is prime vacation time. I made the lazy assumption that all students would be back to school in January and that San Andrés would be mine. But Colombians flock to San Andrés because it’s their Caribbean. This explained the clogged beach promenade, the full restaurants, and the complete lack of Americans (although I enjoyed the lack of Americans). Thankfully almost everyone here wears a mask. Even outside on a breezy days, everyone was masked. It was pretty astounding.
I was told by a woman who grew up coming here for family vacations that the island normally isn’t as busy as what I was experiencing. I just happened to arrive on a loco week. The city beach, called Spratt Bight, usually doesn’t feel like a Tetris puzzle. I was the problem, not San Andrés. Also, I often forget that there are families and couples who seek out these sort of bustling holiday escapes.
After all that, it was time for me to push the reset button on San Andrés, and also get my attitude in check. I booked an open air tour to get the lay of the land, and once I saw the gorgeous and far less crowded beaches outside of the city (which is also called San Andrés) I was already feeling better. I bought toilet paper and purchased the strongest hair gel I could find to keep my head of humidity-driven frizz under control. I highly recommend the product. It’s called Gorilla Ear Wax, with a hold factor classification of “Gorilla Snot.” That snot really did the trick.
My first order of business was extracting the broomstick from my behind and just going with the flow. When I stopped to smell the conch balls and immersed myself in the crowd, the adventures began. I lingered to watch the spontaneous dance parties that occurred all over the city. While watching, I was pulled into one by a woman who demanded “¡Vamos a bailar!” My rudimentary Spanish was enough to help me understand, and suddenly I was attempting salsa steps on the sidewalk. Thankfully the Gorilla Ear Wax hair gel with the Snot-level hold kept me looking sharp.
I also put myself on island time. I had a leisurely lunch at a beachfront restaurant called the Islander, I tried patacones (eaten like one giant plantain pizza with chicken, beef, or fish on top) at Kronch Patacones y Arepas. I barhopped with one of the few Colombians I met who spoke English. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you work on your Spanish before you get here. English is generally not spoken. I enjoyed pushing my Spanish to its creaky limits. As opposed to the gringo-fication of Cartagena, San Andrés is a far more authentic, albeit touristy, Colombian destination.
Now back to the key component of the trip: If you stay in the city, you’ll need to get out of the city. Some people love a bustling beach town, others seek a little more space. When you’re ready to explore, don’t rent a scooter, rent a golf cart. I know it sounds ridiculous to traverse an island in a golf cart, but its less than 10 square miles and there’s one main loop road that hugs the coastline. You can rent a golf cart for about $30 a day and see the whole island. This allows you to lollygag at any spot that catches your SPF-50-smeared fancy. I rented a golf cart for two full days so I could see beaches, the beautiful botanical garden, and also linger as much as I liked.
My top beach choice was San Luis. This isn’t a favorite for some because the water can be choppy, but that also keeps the crowd a little thinner, and after my experience at the city beach, I really wanted to stretch out.
If you rent the golf cart (learn from my mistake and just do it!), I encourage self-exploration, but with some essential stops. Head to the First Baptist Church. It lives up to its name because it really was the first Baptist church in Latin America. The main attraction is the view from the steeple, which lets you see the ocean colors from above. Your next stop should be Big Pond, which is the island’s only source of freshwater. You can visit with the domesticated caimans, which are reptiles similar to alligators (hard pass). I took a break from the beaches with some paddling at Mangrove National Park and a visit to the Botanical Garden. You can rent a clear kayak and see what is swimming under you in the mangroves. You don’t need a long time at either location, but it’s a nice change of scenery.
Beaches! Yes, obviously you’re here for beaches. Steer your golf cart in the direction of Rocky Cay beach. It’s another cay (which is essentially a tiny island). There are boats parked along the shore that will take you over for about $3 each way. It’s worth it.
End your golf cart getaway at Hoya Soplador, which is known by English speakers as the Blow Hole. It’s a geyser that’s created by the ocean hitting the coral below. The water then shoots up a hole in the coral, creating a fun natural water feature. But unlike most geysers, you can let yourself stand in it and get soaking wet as water comes up, sometimes reaching heights of 20 feet.
It’s important to time your arrival to the sunset. The light is beautiful as it shines through the salty spray of the geyser. I watched tourists stand over the Blow Hole and get soaked. Laughing and posing for pictures. Not knowing when I would encounter another salt water blow hole, I stood next to it. At first, getting drenched was a shock, but then, like San Andrés itself, I just let it all wash over me.
After sunset, and a mojito, at the Blow Hole, I’ve since decided that first impressions are highly overrated.
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.