San Andrés is one of the two principal islands of San Andrés and Providencia. It is located 200 Kilometres east of Nicaragua. San Andres and Providence belong to Colombia and are located in Colombian waters.
San Andrés is a tourist destination but not as slick and modern as others in the Caribbean. The island specializes in all-inclusive budget vacations that cater towards Colombian tourists. Outside of the downtown area there is a rural feeling, with small houses close to the main circle road, small sidewalks with some areas without any sidewalks at all, and many people hanging out on the streets, even at night. The people are extremely friendly and generally speaking the island is safe.
The sea surrounding the area is known by Colombians as the "Mar de siete colores" (seven-coloured sea), due to the variations of depth. To fully appreciate this, it is needed to go to the highest place in the island, around 70 meters high. Any locals will give directions to that precise spot, which is a normal stop for the island tours.
The neighboring island of Providencia, accessible by flights or a 2.5 hour boat journey, is less developed and more peaceful.
There are domestic flights from Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Barranquilla and Providencia operated by Avianca, LAN Colombia, Copa Colombia, VivaColombia and Satena (Providencia). VivaColombia require that you have a return flight off the island (maybe the other airlines do as well), it is possible to book one on Copa's website without paying - you can get 48 hours to confirm and pay. You also have to buy a tourist card at the airport, they cost 109,000 COP.
Internationally, you can fly to San Andrés from San Jose de Costa Rica (Avianca) and Panama City (Copa Airlines), and there are charter flights from Canada (via Air Transat).
Colombian customs need to be cleared upon arrival to the island. Check with your local travel agency to see what documents you need to travel to Colombia. For many passengers, a tourist card has to be presented on arrival. Airlines flying to San Andrés sell them on the counter for the official price of 25 USD.
If arriving from outside Colombia, exchange currency at the airport as the rates are similar to downtown, if not better. Any foreign exchange in Colombia is very formal and a passport is required and a big official receipt handed with the passport details on it, before returning local currency.
Hire a golf buggy or a scooter. Golf Buggies can cost around $100000pesos ($50US) a full day. Police does not let Golf buggies pass towards the south side of the island (away from downtown) after a certain time... usually 4pm.
Use public transportation. It is very convenient, safe and cheap (3,000 COP per journey, January 2021). Ask about the times though, buses may not go around the island (or outside downtown) after a certain hour of the evening.
Take taxis. They will take you anywhere. You can also talk a taxi driver to pick you up other days and move you around. They are very friendly.
Be careful with the motorcycles! Most of the locals move around in them, and besides the noise they make, they appear everywhere at relatively high speeds.
Beautiful beaches and an underwater coral reef.
Beaches - the beaches are very nice. All are open to the public, but the hotels outside of the downtown area have direct access to a number of them.
Scuba diving - there are many scuba shops in town and to the south of the island. Most of the dive sites are very close to shore, so no boat is required - this keeps costs down. 2-tank dives for certified divers cost just 165,000 COP from some operators (April 2016). A single try dive is around 140,000COP. Bargain for the best prices and shop around. The most reputed scuba diving center is Caribe Azul in Calle 2.
Snorkelling - there is excellent snorkelling, especially to the southwest of the island. Popular sites include the large shipwreck Blue Diamond which can be found 200m offshore at KM8.3, just north of the Hotel Playa Tranquilo (KM8.5). El Faro (in front of a small lighthouse) is south of Piscinita. A little bit further south from the lighthouse, in front of Bucono's dive shop, is also an excellent area for snorkelling - swim out a bit and there is a small drop-off to about 10-12m, perfect for freediving. Many "discover scuba" dives happen here, as well as beginner dives part of open water courses. There is also an underwater statue of Neptune, the Roman God of the sea, at West View (KM11), it is located in approx. 8m of water - there is a charge of 4,000 COP to enter through the restaurant/to use a waterslide & 4-5m diving board, but you can swim around to see the statue without paying if you enter the water 100m to the north, there is an entry point in front of the dive shop.
The official languages of the archipelago are Spanish, San Andrés–Providencia Creole (an English-based creole language), and the British variety of English.
As the islands form a department of Colombia, Spanish is the most spoken language. However, the Raizal people, the mixed-race descendants of English Puritans and African slaves who comprise approximately 30% of the local population, speak San Andrés-Providencia Creole as their native language. Virtually all Raizals also speak English and Spanish fluently. There is also a minority of white English-speaking Protestants of British descent.
There are plenty of ATMs on the island, but they only seem to give out a max of 300,000 COP per transaction - except the BanColombia ATM.
San Andrés is a tax free zone - so prices are often cheaper than on the Colombian mainland. There's lots of shops in the town centre, many of which specialise in perfumes.
You can purchase alcoholic beverages at very competitive prices; bargain as much as possible, you may cross the street and find the same object cheaper. Check the bottles for rust around the cap, some bottles may have come by ship and may have spent many days in humid containers/warehouses.
Clothing is very cheap too and you can find famous brands as well as good quality local clothing. Beware of counterfeit merchandise, shop only in reputable stores and boutiques. Ask for warranty (in written).
Do not purchase marine souvenirs (artifacts and handcrafts made of coral). Commercialisation of these products contribute to the deforestation of the marine ecosystem.
You can visit the San Andrés native village, and Morgan Cave and know more about the history, culture, language and a lot of information. Check out www.7colorstours.com for more information.
Most travellers to San Andres have meal plans included with their hotel packages. The variety and quality of the food varies with the hotel choice, but it is in general acceptable. Downtown in San Andres there are plenty of restaurant that serve what they call "almuerzo ejecutivo" (Executive Lunch) or "corrientazo" (meaning "corriente", common in english) which is the local term for an economic lunch which may include soup, meat/fish, rice, vegetables, etc. There are also many street spots that sell smaller snacks like "arepas" (thick tortillas) and other local fast foods.
Native cuisine is found downtown, though many foreign travelers enjoy typical islander cuisine found around the "El Cove" bay and San Luis, where the typical dish of the island can be enjoyed: RONDON, which is a soup of Crab, Fish, PigTail, Plantain, Potato, BreadFruit, etc.
Outside of downtown there are small shops selling everything from produce to beer and liquour. Ask at the hotel desk for the nearest one.
Tap water in San Andres is not suited for consumption. It comes from wells and/or desalinization stations.
Tap water on the island is not suitable for human consumption; it comes from wells and/or desalinization stations.
Alcoholic beverages are sold to adults (18 years of age) and are found everywhere around the island; they are very cheap so feel free to bargain and ask around in several shops. Check the caps though, some bottles may have stayed long periods in humid containers and warehouses and develop rust. Beware of counterfeit liquors by purchasing from a reputable store.
Try Coconut Water, or local beverages served in conocut shells: Cocofresa, Cocoloco...
Various large all inclusive chain hotels can be found.
The largest chain is Decameron, with 6 hotels and a beach club: Marazul, MaryLand, SanLuis, Aquarium, Los Delfines, El Isleño.
Other hotels are:
Sol Caribe centro, Sol Caribe campo, Lord Pierre, Bahia Sardina, Casa Dorada, Casa Blanca, Cocoplum, El Dorado, Tiuna, Toné, Sunrise, Sunset and Calipso
You can also rent apartments for as cheap as $130000 pesos a night ($70US). Search for them online, there are plenty.
Travel onwards, by plane or boat, to neighbouring Providencia. A catamaran leaves at 8:00am 5days a week (every day except Tuesdays and Saturdays), takes around 3hours and costs 140,000 COP each way (April 2016 prices and schedule). The flight costs 211,000 COP (as of April 2016), the carrier is Satena.
Get a boat tour to visit small uninhabited islands near by such as Cayo Bolivar, located a couple hours by boat from San Andres. This is usually a full day trip.
While things on the island are generally much safer than most mainland Colombian cities, there are still things to watch out for. The neighbourhood adjacent to the airport used to be unsafe when dark. Armed robberies, while not as frequent as in mainland Colombia, DO occur, and often around the airport at night. The local police claim that a mugging occurs about once a week. Tourists are nearly always targeted as opposed to locals, usually when dark, and on the stretch of road leading to the downtown area from the airport. While it may be a very short walk to your hotel from the airport, if you arrive at night it is highly recommended to take a taxi (and visa versa).
If touts on the island begin to annoy you with constant solicitations, always be courteous and polite and they will usually leave you alone. Aggressive behaviour will beget aggressive behaviour in turn.