The absolute perfect way to end our time in Colombia was on the island of San Andres – for me it was the best place in Colombia! Now, we really had only heard about the island from a couple other backpackers heading there strictly for the scuba diving, but this was enough to entice us to consider a trip to San Andres as we are both PADI certified advanced divers. I started looking into what San Andres island, Colombia was all about, and although my research confirmed that it is has world class scuba diving in crystal clear waters, it also offers a unique culture as a mix of Colombian, Jamaican, and Nicaraguan people live there.
San Andres Island officially belongs to Colombia, so that means cheap flights (with the awful but affordable company VivaColombia) and no immigration hassle. However, San Andres is much closer to Nicaragua and involves a 1.5hour long flight from Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Besides knowing of the location of the island, awesome scuba diving opportunities, and some pretty beaches, we had not much information on what we would do there as there isn’t much current information online. Without much planned, we found cheap enough flights that we decided to go anyways – “Why not” we thought, the flight was cheaper than most buses and we had time before leaving to go to Panama.
Basically, San Andres was magic! Going there was probably one of the best decisions we have made on this trip. In this post I’m going to tell you what is so special about this hidden gem and why it should be your bucket list IMMEDIATELY! I will also give guide information including what to do and the cost of everything.
What does it cost to go to San Andres Island, Colombia?
There is this myth among backpackers that San Andres is “oh, so expensive” and while it is more costly than other major Colombian cities (for good reason, it is literally an island in the middle of nowhere) it is totally affordable if done right. In all my information below I will include prices of everything, and tips on how to stay on budget! There is definitely a market for upscale vacationers on this island who are staying in 5 star resorts so many stores and restaurants cater to this type of tourist, however the locals that live there have to eat and shop too so there is a way to experience San Andres without breaking the bank – live like a local!
Getting to San Andres
Our flights were $70 USD each return from Cartagena – yes, $35 each way! This was a good deal but on average the flights are about $50 USD each way. Now, if you need to check a bag because you need a ton of stuff, expect to pay double. Knowing it was a chilled out island I packed a couple of bikinis and pairs of shorts in my day backpack to save this cost.
There is no other way to get to San Andres other than flying. There are direct flights from Panama and Nicaragua as well but I found the ones from Cartagena in Colombia to be significantly cheaper.
There is also an entrance fee to San Andres. At the airport, before boarding, it is required all foreigners pay COP 105,000 in cash in Colombian pesos. It is a bit steep, but they say it is to hell preserve the island and it’s environment.
Get Orientated on the Island
San Andres Island, Colombia is an oval shaped island with a 26km long ring-road which goes all around the coast (with a couple of roads straight through the middle. The airport is on the Northern end of the island along with the main city. By “city” I really mean small town, but it is where the majority of hotels, restaurants, banks, supermarkets and shops are. There is also a beach here which is quite nice much busier than most of the other ones in the island.
The Eastern side of the island is best know for pretty beaches and the West is better for snorkeling due to the rocks and calm waters.
Transport – How to Get Around San Andres
Our biggest suggestion for getting the most out of the island would be to rent a buggy, golf cart or motorbike. While on the island, San Andres is small but all of the coolest places that aren’t filled with tourists are still a good 15-20 minute drive from the main city. The majority of visitors only rent a vehicle for one day to tour the island, but I really don’t think this is enough time, there are spots on the island that you will want to spend the majority of your day.
There are tourist buses that take people around from spot to spot but the buses are packed and that means there is no chance of having peace and quiet at any beach. With our buggy we were able to skip spots where the buses were at and come back later when there was no people at all.
We rented a buggy for the entire time we were on the island, it was a bit expensive (COP 175,000 per 24 hours) but totally worth it as we had the freedom to go wherever we wanted at any time! Fuel is cheap, we only spend about COP 15,000 a day and we drove all the time!
Besides the buggy being a practical way to get around, it was also just fun to drive around, there isn’t much traffic on the island at all and the speed limit is 30km/h so it is easy driving and not dangerous in the least.
What to Do in San Andres
We were on the island for four full days and were busy the entire time! There is so much to do in San Andres! Here are our suggestions based on the incredible time on the island we had:
Scuba San Andres
Scuba diving on San Andres is world renowned, the waters are crystal clear and the coral is very well preserved. Many backpackers get their scuba diving licenses in Taganga, Colombia and then do fun dives here (as it is slightly more expensive on the island but for good reason, the diving is incredible!)
We did two fun dives each with Blue Life Dive. There are many different dive companies to choose from on the island but we chose Blue Life because of their good reputation, central location, and that they take their divers to spots only accessible by boat (many dive companies on the island focus on shore dives and charge extra for dives from a boat.) We had a fantastic experience with Blue Life as they were professional yet fun – highly recommend.
The diving was really world class. We went to Los Recuerdos and La Rocosa dive spots, both very different from one another but equally as interesting. At La Rocosa there was a cave with an opening at the top to let light in which was really neat!
Spend a Day at Rocky Cay
Rocky Cay is located on the eastern side of the island only about 5-10 minutes driving from town. It is really special as it is not only a gorgeous beach with light turquoise colored waters and white sand, but there is also a tiny island which people can walk to through about chest-deep water on a sand bar – super cool! Bring snorkeling gear and some cash for cocktails and this beach makes for a perfect all day activity. This would have been my favorite beach on San Andres, there were quite a few people there but not so many that it felt crowded and the variety of things to do made it special.
Snorkel at West View
West View is a privately owned area on the western side of the island, perfect for snorkeling as there are literally no waves. At first glance the entrance looks as though it is a restaurant only, but it is so much more! I was a little hesitant to check it out as they wanted COP 4,000 per person just to enter, I thought that was a bit crazy for just a snorkeling spot, but when I got there I realized that it was more than that.
There is an area for snorkeling which is easily accessed by ladders. Snorkel gear is available for rent and life jackets are free of charge (the water is deep and the cliff edge having sea urchins so it is required to swim the entire time.)
Besides snorkeling there is a diving board, waterslide, lounge chairs, and tables all free for use.
For the adventurer, there is a couple of other activities to choose from at an extra cost. There is the thing that you put on your head and allows you to walk underwater, speed boat, or a flyboard!
My only recommendation for visiting West View is do not go if there is a bus parked out the front entrance. The place is not big enough for a bus full of people and it looked absolutely chaotic once when we drove by. If you go later in the afternoon there won’t be any buses and the experience will be much better!
Get a Boat to the Island of Johnny Cay
This is the most popular tourist hot spot! Johnny Cay is a small island about 10 minutes by boat from the city. A boat trip there and back is advertised for about COP 30,000 per person but it can be possible to negotiate to COP 20,000 at the docking area (in the city but on the eastern coast near La Regatta Restaurant.)
Upon arriving to the island everyone is told by their tour company to preorder lunch or you won’t be able to get it later or that you will be waiting for your food for ages…all lies! We didn’t preorder and we got the same price as those who did and were served within 5 minutes of ordering. It costs COP 30,000 for a full fish meal here at every restaurant, it sounds a bit expensive but it is actually cheaper than the restaurants on the mainland and the meals are huge – we shared one dish between the two of us!
Johnny Cay feature a very nice beach, snorkeling areas, and green spaces to walk around and check out iguanas and lizards. It was full of people, but still really neat to check out. It isn’t necessary to spend a full day here so find a boat company that offers multiple times to return to San Andres so you don’t get stuck out there all day long.
Tip, bring water shoes if you have them as there are many sea urchins and this will help protect you if you want to walk on the rocks.
Do some Duty Free Shopping
Avenida Costa Rica is a walking street full of Duty-free shops! I couldn’t do any as I didn’t have a checked bag and my carry on was already full to the brim, but many people take full advantage that San Andres is a duty free zone and load up on booze and perfume.
Watch the Sunset at the Blowhole Spot
On TripAdvisor one of the main things to do is visit the Blowhole, which I would rate as less that outstanding – but the spot itself is great for watching the sunset! Most people go to the “I Love SAI” sign for the sunset, which makes it busy, but just down the road from that is a lookout ramp where people are supposed to check out the blowhole. It is small compared to the ones I have seen in Australia, but it is not a busy spot in the evening and the view of the sunset is perfect. We actually came here every night with wine and watched the sunset, it became a ritual for us while on San Andres and was a good way to start each evening.
Take the Cheesy Photo at the San Andres Sign
To the left of the main beach in the city is the “I love San Andres” sign. No trip to San Andres is complete without a stop here to get a photo!
Where to Stay in San Andres
Most people stay right in the city, the only benefit to this is that there is more food and store options nearby, otherwise the city isn’t very pretty and the beach is busy. We stayed about 10-15 minutes from the city on the eastern side of the island at a hotel called Porta di Mare. I personally think the location is ideal as we were about 10 minutes from everything on the island and with our buggy we could easily and quickly get to wherever we wanted to go while still have the jungle in our backyard and the ocean in our front yard.
The hotel was gorgeous with a pool and Jacuzzi, air conditioning in the rooms, breakfast included, and cocktails available in the evening! We loved our stay here and didn’t want to leave.
Accommodation on San Andres island, Colombia is expensive in comparison to the rest of Colombia, expect to pay COP 60,000 for the most basic large dorm room you can find with no air conditioning and really bad reviews (and only if you book in advance as the affordable hostels book up fast.) For only a slightly bit more you can stay at place like Porta Di Mare, which is luxury, and really enjoy yourself while on the island. We felt like we were on a holiday, not a backpacking trip and it was an awesome break!
To help make San Andres island, Colombia affordable we have a few budget saving tips.
-Book a flight with VivaColombia and don’t bring checked baggage
-Eat Subway. Subway is a great option for food on the go on the island as they have daily deals for COP 7,800 which is the cheapest food we found on the island that wasn’t greasy empanadas (expect to pay at least COP 2,000 for empanadas.)
-Walk to or from the airport. When you arrive taxi drivers will be trying to scoop you up. If your accommodation is in the city you are only a 5 minute walk away! We walked straight to the city to rent our buggy which we used to drive us to our hotel. We never took a taxi the entire time on San Andres.
-Rent a vehicle with some friends. If you meet anyone in your accommodation then see if they want to rent a buggy as well and all share the cost. Some of the buggies hold up six people.
-Bring your own snorkel gear. Since there is a ton of snorkeling make sure to buy snorkel equipment before coming to the island. We bought awesome sets for only COP 40,000 each in Santa Marta.
San Andres was probably the best thing we did in Colombia, and we didn’t even plan on going there originally! I am so glad we did though as it felt like a true vacation. It would be impossible to outdo the experiences on the island, flawless beaches, amazing scuba, cocktails, sun, and snorkeling! It is one place that I can easily say I will be back to one day.
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