San Andres Island, Colombia – Visitors Guide
August 20, 2017
San Andres Island
San Andres was amazing! We loved every minute we spent on the island – and think most other people would too! Before we left for the island I tried to research details on costs, what to do there, how to get around, etc, but there was almost nothing available online! So, I have written this detailed guide on San Andres Island for anyone who is considering traveling there.
Topics included in this San Andres Island guide are:
- How much things cost
- Getting to the island
- Where everything is located
- How to get around the island
- Things to do
- Where to stay
- Budget tips
- Where to go next
But first…a little bit about San Andres Island
Not many people know about San Andres Island, in fact, we only heard about the island from a couple of other backpackers heading there strictly for the scuba diving, but this was enough to entice us to consider a trip to San Andres Island.
I started looking into what San Andres Island was all about, and although my research confirmed that it offers world-class scuba diving in crystal clear waters, the island 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 the city of Cartagena located on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
Basically, San Andres Island 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.
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 Island without breaking the bank – live like a local!
To make it easier, I’ve summarized an estimate of how much things cost for me on San Andres Island:
- Buggy Rental – COP 175,000 per 24 hours
- Fuel for buggy – COP 15,000 per day
- Return flights – COP 200,000 per person
- Foreigner entrance fee – COP 105,000 per person
- Accommodation – COP 60,000 – 100,000 per night per person
- Daily activities (boats, entrance fees, parking) – COP 20,000 per person per day
- Food – COP 5,000 – 30,000 per person per meal (depending on street food or restaurant)
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. 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 Island other than flying. There are direct flights from Panama and Nicaragua as well but I found that the ones from Cartagena in Colombia to be significantly cheaper.
There is also an entrance fee for San Andres. At the airport, before boarding, it is required that all foreigners pay COP 105,000 in cash in Colombian pesos. It is a bit steep, but it is to help preserve the island and its environment.
San Andres Island 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 located. There is also a beach here which is quite nice but much busier than most of the other ones on the island.
The eastern side of the island is best known for pretty beaches and the west is better for snorkeling due to the rocks and calm waters.
Our biggest suggestion for getting the most out of the island would be to rent a buggy, golf cart, or scooter.
While San Andres Island is small, it isn’t THAT small. All of the coolest places are still a good 15-20 minute drive from the main city. Many 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!
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 30 km/h so it is easy driving and not dangerous in the least.
How much the buggy cost
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!
Golf Carts and motorbikes are cheaper. It is possible to get Golf Cart for around COP 120,000 per 24 hours, and a scooter goes for about COP 100,000. Just remember that Golf Carts cannot be driven after 6pm which is annoying! Scooters are harder to drive and obviously more dangerous, but it is easier to find parking (although we never struggled with our buggy and only had to pay for parking once or twice.)
Where to rent the buggy
In the main town where the airport is, there are many different places that rent buggies, motorbikes, or golf carts. By the beach, men stand on the side of the road offering to rent them to you. However, I wouldn’t suggest renting from there. I recommend going to a legitimate rental shop where you will be given a proper receipt for your deposit (your passport!)
On Avenida Francisco Newball there are various rental shops across from the GHL Sunrise Hotel. Here you might pay a little bit more than from the solo rental guys on the streets, but at least you are renting from a proper location and some peice of mind.
Other ways to get around the island
There are tourist buses that take people around from spot to spot but the buses are packed and that means that 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 were no people at all.
Taxis are also available but are VERY expensive. I don’t recommend using taxis at all if you can avoid it.
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 Diving on 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 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 sandbar – super cool!
Bring snorkeling gear and some cash for cocktails and this beach makes for a perfect all day activity. This would be my favorite beach on San Andres Island, 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 has 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, a speedboat, or a fly-board!
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 at Johnny Cay everyone is told by their tour company to pre-order 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 cost 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 features 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 Island duty-free free zone and load up on booze and perfume.
Watch the sunset at the Blowhole
On TripAdvisor, one of the main things to do is visit the Blowhole, which I would rate as less than 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. The blowhole itself 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 Island 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!
Most people stay right in the city, the only benefit to this is that there are 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. 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.
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 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.) I personally think most of the hostels on San Andres seem extremely overpriced for what you get.
A lot of Pousadas have been popping up all over the island. This could be a great option for an affordable place to stay while getting a taste of the local culture! Pousadas are usually rooms in peoples homes, like small hotels or Bed and Breakfasts.
Otherwise, consider booking an Air Bnb instead, I find them to generally be a better value! If you use this link, you will save on your first Air Bnb booking!
To help make San Andres Island 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 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 Island.
- 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.
Once you have experienced San Andres Island there is still so much more to see in Colombia. Consider checking out some of my other fav spots:
San Andres Island 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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