For my nth birthday we went to San Andrés, a Caribbean island far away from Colombia, but still belonging to Colombia. It is on the same level as Nicaragua.
We spotted it by looking at the airplane trips from Medellín. The weather forecast announces rain during our 4 days of escapade (it is mid-September) but we cross our fingers to have some sunshine anyway. This trip was entirely planned by JB (thank you!)
Part 1: Travel Diary Part
2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel Diary
Medellin => San Andrés by plane
Before entering the plane, we are asked to buy a tourist card. Bad surprise! We did not know that the access to the island was paying. Fortunately the card can be bought at the time of the boarding and we can pay by credit card (112 500 COP per person).
The trip from Medellín to San Andrés takes 1 hour and 47 minutes (98€ return with LATAM). Tickets are cheaper from Cartagena (54€ return with LATAM). Despite the location of the island, we are in the same time zone as Colombia
I am placed on the left, next to the window and as I approach San Andrés, I see, gawking, two small islands surrounded by a coral reef, it’s magnificent! They are the Corn Islands (Corn Islands) belonging to Nicaragua. Contrary to San Andrés, these islands are more difficult to access (very expensive plane, or a 6h30 boat where half of the passengers get sick during the trip).
Day 1: Discovery of the island
JB repeated in advance a scooter rental at unbeatable rates (200,000 COP for 72 hours). He contacts him on Whatsapp, and the scooter is delivered directly to us at the airport. Well, with a small scooter like this, it isn’t possible to have 2 big backpacks. Luckily we come with two small bags between 10L and 15L, the first one fits very well in the trunk, and the second one between JB’s legs.
We are one of the few (non-Colombian) tourists to choose the scooter. Most of them rent this type of car (with gasoline), for 2 to 6 people. It takes about 200,000COP per day.
View from the hotel
We first go to the hotel to drop off our stuff and change. The hotel is on the 3rd floor and we see for the first timethe famous “ocean of 7 colors”. Our hotel, super clean, full of light, is in the city center, but far from the hotels for tourists, in a quiet street. It is however necessary to have a scooter because on foot, it is far from everything.
Tour of the island
One of the favorite activities of tourists in San Andrés is shopping in the city center. You will find plenty of duty-free stores (perfumes, electronics, suitcases…)
We are starving and choose the 2nd most touristic location on the island to land and have lunch. It is Playa Zarpada.
We really have a lot of trouble to find the access to the beach. Everything is privatized. We decide to opt for the easy and tourist solution: to park free at the Aqua Beach Club restaurant and to have lunch there. I recommend you the Arroz Thai, rice sautéed with seafood, very good and consistent. Count 35000COP minimum per dish + 9000COP/drink + 10% tip. We are on an island I remind you. Credit card accepted.
What’s so special about this beach? From Playa Zarpada, you can walk on a sandbank (and swim a little bit) to reach the tiny islet Rocky Kay, and do some snorkeling. The “path” is secured via a line of buoys. Very good swimmers can swim to the wreck next door.
Note: the sky is getting darker, hence the sad colors on the pictures, but when the weather is nice, the part near the island is all blue, it’s very nice.
This beach isn’t my favorite, it is full of algae and does not smell like roses. The water remains however very clean, transparent, even super blue in some places… we will come back another time.
We decide to make a complete tour of the island and on our way we see a very famous bar/restaurant on the beach. It became famous because the owner listens to Bob Marley all day long.
Always on the way, this type of beach is very popular with tourists. Because the rocks form a natural swimming pool, where children can sit and enjoy the beach quietly, watching big waves on the other side.
The more we drive, the more we see coconut trees, trees, hills..
If the waves are strong enough on the East side of the island, on the West side, it looks like another world. It is so calm, so peaceful. On the other hand, the large sandy beaches are replaced by creeks with rocky walls, very deep. Theoretically, one can stop anywhere and do snorkeling. There are some stairs reserved for divers, accessible to all, but it is dangerous. We still prefer that there is a small structure, just in case…
That’s why when we saw the sign La Piscinita, we stopped straight away. For 6000COP/person, someone watches over our scooter and gives each of us a piece of bread to feed (and thus attract) the fish.
You can see the fish from above, they are very numerous and are all waiting here because they know they will be fed. When they aren’t fed, we are surrounded by about twenty fish “only”.
On the other hand, when someone throws them a piece of bread, it’s chaos, about fifty of them surround us (without touching us, they move super fast). They are enormous moreover, at least 30cm! I was completely overwhelmed the 1st time I found myself among them, but I learned to love this “panic movement” 😀 Here is a video to illustrate my point. The video isn’t accelerated!
There are plenty of other points of interest on the road but we’ll come back to them another day.
This is the ideal location to watch the sunset. We are unfortunately very tired from snorkeling and driving, and don’t have the patience to wait until 6:30 pm. We just go home, go out to eat quickly and then go to sleep.
As soon as we get back to the hotel, a person from the hotel proposes us an outing at sea the next day. The hotel has a private boat and since we are 11 guests in all, we can share the costs. After discussion with another person of the hotel (who speaks Spanish super slowly so that we understand), we agree on the program for the next day.
Day 2: Island hopping
This is where things get complicated. The person who explained the program to us isn’t an organizer, and the Arabic phone makes her mistake on some details (what is included/not included). As a result, we feel a bit stupid to have to ask every time we go, what we have to do at time T (we are the only non-Hispanics in the group). But the two guides who accompany us are very patient and don’t take us for idiots. On the contrary, they appreciate our efforts to speak and try to understand Spanish. And that’s really great! One of the guides speaks English if needed.
After division, the tour costs us 66,000COP per person (including the 8,000COP for access to Johnny Cay Island).
We are with 6 Colombian, 3 Spanish and 2 Colombian guides. The atmosphere is super relaxed, it seems that we leave between friends. We pay cabs to go to the port (cab called by the guide fortunately, we wouldn’t have known what to say) then we buy drinks before getting on the boat. The other customers seem more interested in the rum than in the water ahahha. We are the only ones to drink only soft drinks 😉
Here is the program of the day (save the picture on your phone/computer to be able to zoom in)
- Johnny Cay
- We pass in front of a wreck (photo stop only)
- Acuario for snorkeling
- Haynes Cay for lunch
- Off Haynes Cay for snorkeling
- Estrella de Mar
- Manglares (no stop, we just pass by)
- White Watta (floating bar)
Our boat is smaller than the others, so it moves a little more. Strong sensations guaranteed.
Stop 1: Johnny Cay
The first stop sign is already dazzling us. It would have been a shame to miss it! This island is a marvel. The water is so blue that we can’t believe our eyes (the photo isn’t retouched I would like to point out). I think that it has nothing to envy in the Bahamas
The main beach, in spite of its blue color that makes you want to go there too much, has a lot of waves and rocks. The sand makes the visibility less good, impossible to snorkel. JB having forgotten his sandals in the boat, found himself with a few scratches. By walking a little, we have access to these “natural pools”, calmer, protected by a barrier of rocks, with lots of small fish.
Here, the water is so shallow (10 to 20cm) that it is difficult to observe them with a mask, but I put my sports camera down and saw a wonderful world (afterwards, on the computer). The fish are very small (only 5cm) but are beautiful, varied and colorful.
We continue a little and see lots of iguanas. They are huge, and they aren’t afraid of us, they seem to be used to being fed. As soon as a tourist takes out a sandwich, he is surrounded by iguanas.
In the middle of the island are the toilets, picnic areas… while the main beach is full of restaurants. It’s too quiet around here.
Stop 2 : Wreck
There are many wrecks in San Andrés, and this one isn’t worth visiting because it is in a very deep area with many waves. We passed in front of it by boat only.
In San Andrés, you just have to go a little further and you are between 15 and 50 meters deep, to very quickly reach 1000m of depth!
Stop 3 : Acuario
The magic continues with this incredible stop. Acuario = Aquarium, is a long sandbank named like this because you can see a lot of fish, just next to it. There are bars installed on the sandbank itself. Continuing on foot, we will arrive on Haynes Island. It is one of the best stops of the day.
Despite a cloudy sky, the color of the water is worthy of a postcard so imagine a sunny day!
We are raving in front of the sandbank when the guide encourages us to put on our snorkeling masks and go further, where there is a small barrier of rocks. I follow him reluctantly, preferring to walk on the sandbank, but follow the movement, the place is called “Acuario” anyway.
And my efforts were largely rewarded, it is indeed an aquarium but in the middle of nature. Most of the tourists enjoy the sandbank, so there are only 6 of us around here. We saw fish of all colors, they are huge like yesterday, but of another species.
The guide tells us that it is a species close to Dory in The World of Nemo. Here, we have absolutely no need to feed them, they are there naturally, eating corals. JB shows me sea urchins, which are fortunately hidden (they must be fed up with being stepped on). Some of them have spikes of 20cm, it’s incredible!
And then the guide tells us “there is a shark here”. By reflex, I shout out of fear, whereas I know, since we swam freely with them in French Polynesia, that sharks do not attack man (unless he has a dead fish in his hand, or hooked on a harpoon). It is a nurse shark, which prefers to be closer to the sand than to the surface. He is hiding under the rocks, quietly. Schools of blue fish surround him, looking like saying “all right, shark? Are you afraid of humans? we’ll distract them, don’t worry”.
It is quite small (1m50) but larger than sharks in French Polynesia and has a nicer head. After 30 minutes, he gets tired of being photographed and runs away between JB’s legs. We try to follow him but he distances us quickly.
Stop 4: Haynes Cay
We take again the boat just to make 30 meters, direction Haynes Cay for lunch. I opt for a portion of fish, fortunately because the whole fish would have finished me. 35 000COP/flat, it is possible to take one’s own drink. Payment in cash only.
Stop 5 : Meeting the stingrays
We move away a little bit from the island, in the middle of nowhere and the guides show us, enthusiastic, the big black shadows which surround us. They are rays! Wouaaahhh, since French Polynesia, we saw some only in the aquarium. And we are going to be able to swim with them, ONCE A TIME !!!
I think we’re very lucky because most boats (especially the hyper-loaded ones) only stop there to see the shadows pass. Only a guide goes down, brings up a ray and explains to the customers.
But we were able to stay there for 20 minutes. At one point I am surrounded by a family of rays, the largest of which must be half my size. It’s very impressive to see something so big go by. But they are all very graceful, respectful.
I ask the guides why we find them here, specifically. They answer me that they are used to being fed by the other boats, and wait wisely. I think that it would have been difficult to cross them at random. Even in Polynesia, the rays were fed at the observation spot.
The pictures are blurred because of the stripes, they stir the sand too much 🙂
Stop 6 : Estrella de Mar
It is a stop in the middle of the ocean, with submerged wood, surely to attract fish. They are small but very varied and numerous.
We also saw a starfish (hence the name of the stop sign), a holothurian and a polar sea urchin (with smaller spikes than black sea urchins). I was able to touch the polar sea urchin and his spikes moved slowly… to get into my finger. Ouch! you have to know how to recognize it because from far away, it looks like corals (or some kind of cactus).
Stop 7 : Mangroves
Mangroves, we have seen many (too many) in the Keys, but here there are very flat mussels clinging to the mangrove roots. The guide explained a lot more things but it was in Spanish so I didn’t understand much 😀
Stop 8 : Floating bar
Because of the rain, the floating bar is no longer active but we go anyway because the girls have to finish their bottle of rum. On our side, we are a little cold (because we do not drink alcohol), and it has been raining for a while. The sea water is warmer, so it’s nicer for us to go there anyway and swim non-stop.
We hail cabs and few accept to take us because we are all soaked. Finally, the guide falls on a friend of his and the driver gives us each one a garbage bag to sit on 😀 We are soaked, we are cold, but we are all super happy of this beautiful day.
Day 3: re-Tour of the island
The day begins with an early morning visit to Rocky Cay, which I told you about at the beginning of the article. This time, we don’t pass by the restaurant anymore but by a small road (look for the “ice cream” sign), the lady who sells it proposes to keep the scooters for 5000COP.
From here you can reach an island by walking (and swimming a little). The water is low in the morning, and except for a few meters where the water is really deep (even JB who is 1m85 tall has no more foot), the rest is done on foot, or we can hang on the buoys.
We entrust our bag to one of the many lockers available on site (7000COP) and begin the crossing.
The island itself isn’thing exceptional. There is a bar on the island (closed), and if you don’t have money, it doesn’t matter, you can pay later to the owner’s buddies on the beach.
Around the islet, the water reaches the belly. On the other hand, if we want to go to the wreck, it looks very deep and the current is quite strong. I saw someone jumping from the wreck, and he wouldn’t have done it with 50cm deep.
On the right side of the islet, where there are other buoys, the locals tell us that there is an “acuario” i.e. there are fish. They are very small, super colorful, they aren’t afraid, they let themselves be carried by the waves, in super relax mode. We haven’t seen any of them like that in the last few days. Near the rocks, we can see thousands of plankton.
It’s 10am and the crowd starts to come (the crowd tends to cling to the buoys, to chill). It’s time to get out of here. We stop at a beach on the way to buy a coconut (7000COP). In spite of the very gray sky, the water remains very beautiful.
We take back the scooter. As we liked the experience at La Piscinita, we are looking for a similar place. Google Maps indicates West View (5000COP/person), but we change our mind quite quickly when we see about 20 scooters and several tourist buses parked in front.
Right next to it is a bar/restaurant at the Bob marley(Reggae Roots), empty house, with a diving board too and deckchairs. We do not hesitate two seconds and enjoy the place, alone. At 10m from there, we watch with amusement the crowd of West View queuing just to jump off the diving board.
Here, they don’t give us bread to feed the fish. Whereas at Piscinita and West View, the fish are fed, so they are much more numerous. Having seen the frenzy of the fed fish, it still makes us feel good to be in a 100% natural place. There are less fish, but they are more varied, very colorful, we saw polar sea urchins too, and two fish that look like a flute.
At one point, a fish tries to communicate with me, I don’t know if it’s annoyed by my camera, or if it’s posing for me with a smile on its face. What do you think about it?
We feel so good here that we will return the same afternoon. Admission is free, in exchange for one drink. The natural limonada is to fall, even if it is a little expensive (10000COP). It is the ideal place to watch the sunset because it is open later than the other places.
In short, we went around the island twice today, stopping regularly for photo stops and to eat. We chose to ignore the other tourist stops such as: the blower hole, the visit of a cellar, the I-don’t-know-what museum..
We came across a lot of policemen, some hiding behind a tree. The speed is limited to 30km/h and with our small scooter, we are already at 25km/h. So the golf-type cars that go around the island regularly exceed the speed limit and are frequently stopped by the police. So be careful!
We had lunch in the best seafood restaurant on the island: Regatta, recommended by the locals. If you go there in the evening, it is better to book. I opted for their lobster (caught on the island, so fresh) and it was too good and consistent. JB took a paella, which he found good, but nothing more.
Day 4 :
We have RDV at 11H to return the scooter in front of the airport (our plane leaves at 12h30). We return the room and as the weather is nice, we go to the main beach to enjoy one last time the beautiful landscapes of the island. We did not swim there once because there are too many waves for us, making the snorkeling not very interesting.
Everybody piles up where the coconut trees are, but by following the pedestrian path to the bar The Islander, you can be almost alone in the world.
This is how our unforgettable stay in San Andrés ends. Sorry for the quality of the pictures taken with our sports camera, the colors are a little duller than in real life. To see real colors, you will have to come to San Andrés 😀
In the plane, I am placed on the right side and for my greatest happiness, the view is breathtaking. Thanks to JB for this nice birthday gift!
Part 2: Practical Tips
A guide dedicated to San Andrés has been put online here. In the meantime, I give you the global budget:
September 2019 rate: 1000COP = 0,27€
- Transport airport => Medellin and vice versa: 25000COP per person (by public transport)
- Tourist card (mandatory): 112 500COP
- Hotel: 40€/night, double room
- Airplane: 98€/person round trip from Medellin, without hold luggage
- Meals: between 20000COP and 35 000COP/person in tourist restaurants
- At Regatta: 62€ for two, dish + dessert + drink
- Scooter rental for 72 hours: 200 000COP (payment in cash)
- Limonada at the diving board: 10000COP
- Entrance to Piscinata: 6000COP/person
- Boat tour: 66000COP/person
- Cab to go to the port: 10000COP for two
TOTAL: 618€ for two people, 4 days ALL INCLUDED
325 500COP to be paid in cash (for two) and 530€ payable by credit card or online