I traveled solo to Colombia’s Caribbean. Here is the story of my four days in San Andres
“Buenos días, where is the bus stop? I want to take the bus to get to San Luis” I ask an old man sitting on a plastic chair outside the airport. The bus stops close to the almond tree”, he answers. “Over there”, he points at a majestic tree. He must have noticed I had no idea which of the many trees could be the almond one.
I’m in San Andres, a small Colombian island off the coast of Nicaragua, in the Caribbean. It is part of an archipelago that includes Providencia and Santa Catalina, and has a mix of cultures with Latin American, English and Creole influences.
On the first day of my four days in San Andres I still don’t know that there is no bus timetable. Buses come randomly and, if you make a sign, they stop wherever you are to pick you. Like a taxi, but cheaper. And a doorway to adventures.
I hadn’t really planned my trip to San Andres – it basically happened. I had recently recovered from covid and needed some warm weather to regain strength. Also, I needed to spend some alone time to think some things through.
So I figured a remote destination could be the right place to do it. When two friends and two strangers mentioned San Andres over the same week, I saw it as a sign.
On Wednesday I booked a ticket and on Friday there I was. Back to the Caribbean.
San Andres is a complicated place. I soon figure this out after I get to San Luis, a local area on the east side of the island. The label of “complicated” has to do also with the intricate history of the island.
San Andres and Providencia have had a schizophrenic history from the time of the first colonizers up through present day. The first settlers in the islands were Dutch colonists who colonized Providencia near the end of the 16th century.
Their stay didn’t last long, as the English booted them in 1632 and took over the islands, bringing in black slaves from Jamaica to work on their tobacco and cotton cultivations.
Located just off the coast of Nicaragua, Nicaragua fought Colombia’s claim to ruling over the San Andres archipelago. In 1928, the Esguerra-Barcenas Treaty was signed by both countries, giving Colombia control of the islands.
Locals (Raizales) don’t feel Colombian though. I understand it on the very first of the four days in San Andres, chatting with them. They belong to the island, to the Caribbean sea. They describe their culture as a kaleidoscopic mix of Jamaican, Colombian and Creole.
Their language itself (the creole, created during the colonisation so that the white invaders would not understand them) sounds like a mix of Jamaican English and Spanish. To me it is not understandable at all.
San Andres is a land of contrasts.
On the one hand, I see the coast with its beautiful beaches, the luxuriant nature, the vibrant local neighborhoods.
On the other hand I notice a lot of garbage in the street. Water scarcity, and a fragmented identity. Locals do not feel Colombian, yet every angle of the island is covered with political billboards for the upcoming elections.
I feel that four days is enough to understand something about San Andres. It is enough to grasp its surface.Or at least it was to me. These are the things I did (and I recommend!) during my stay in San Andres.
Four days in San Andres, starting from what I liked. Ending with what I loved:
8. Chill at playa Rocky Cay
It is located in San Luis, literally 10 minutes walking from the hostel. Rocky Cay is a wide, long beach, with palm trees, white sand, and beautiful crystal clear water. It isn’t calm though – forget about silence.
Groups of Colombian tourists loudly occupy the shore. Every family brings their speaker and listens to different music. It’s a mix of reggaeton, salsa, and vallenato. However, there I felt so connected to nature that in the middle of party music I could still hear my heartbeat.
And the calm sound of the waves.
7. Roam around the city center
The city center is located in the northern part of the island. Here you can find a nice long promenade, restaurants, shops and bars. It’s the touristic part of the island.
I went there first on Friday night to party with my friends from the hostel. We went to Cocoloco, and danced until 5am. Cocoloco is an extremely touristic club, but if like me you want to practice some salsa steps, that’s the place to be. Here you can also dance to the vibes of local music.
We started the night on the promenade, because the beach was already “closed”. Everyday at 6PM, the police come and with megaphones invite visitors to leave the beach.
Tourists occupy the promenade, drinking and dancing with their portable speakers until 10pm. That’s when the police show up again, once again with megaphones, to clear out the promenade.
“Public space” here is a blurry concept.
I also went to the city center the next dat day, with a friend who had to exchange money. We were looking for a bank where she could change USD to pesos.
Instead, we ended up exchanging money in the middle of the street.
Here two big guys got a bunch of notes off their pockets and changed 100USD with a nonchalance which got me speechless. No need for banks when the same service is provided with a smaller fee in the middle of the street.
6. Eat Run Down
Run Down (also known as Rondon) is a delicious local dish. It consists of a soup made up of reduced coconut milk, with different types of seafood (fish, crabs, small lobsters or shellfish), plantain, yam, tomato, onion, and seasonings. Mackerel and salted mackerel are often used in the dish.
Other fish are also used, including locally caught fish, cod, salt cod, shad, other oily fish, red snapper, swordfish, pickled fish, bull pizzle, and cassava. Traditionally, the dish is served with side dishes of dumplings or baked breadfruit.
I am a vegetarian, but when fish is fished locally, I do eat it (at least, this is what I’ve been doing since the beginning of 2022). In this way I can support local businesses, such as the one of fishermen.
I ate Run Down on the beach in the city center. I paid 25 thousands pesos (almost 6 euros) and shared it with my travel companion of the day. It was delicious. You could taste the sea.
5. Explore San Luis
San Luis is a hamlet inhabited by natives. Here, the wooden houses preserve the colorful typical Antillean architecture. These beaches in the southeast are less crowded than others on the rest of the island, such as Sound Bay, where the waves hit hard; and Cocoplum Bay, whose white beaches serve typical island food restaurants.
San Luis felt authentic. In San Luis I learnt about the island’s history, language, and heritage. My host, Johann, had a key role in this process.
I stayed in the amazing Ocean Green Village Hostel, where Johann made me feel at home. He was welcoming and yet careful and respectful. I could see a special light in his eyes.
One night we sat down in the yard and watched the stars. We were a group of 4 people and we looked for the constellations. We could see them shine in the dark sky.
That’s when I remembered how badly I missed watching the stars in Bogotà. I think stars are our noth. They give us perspective. If we don’t see them, perspective gets fuzzy.
4. Watch the sunset from the western shore
From the western side of the island you can see a beautiful sunset. I can’t identify the precise spot. All I can tell is, it was close to Hotel Sunset.
We sat down on a wooden platform over the sea and watched the sun come down. If you are looking for a romantic (and free) activity – that’s the one. In my case it wasn’t romantic, as I was with a friend from the hostel.
But as I as listening to the waves crushing on the rocks, as I was watching the crabs climbing over the shore’s stone surface and being swallowed up by the sea, I felt that sharing that very moment with a (almost perfect) stranger was what I needed.
That’s the beauty of traveling solo.
During my four days in San Andres I Reconnected with myself, and allowed myself to connect with others.
Choosing to share a moment with a stranger. A person you might not see ever again. And yet, the person that in that very instant is the closest to you. And you let them in. While I was sitting there, looking at the red sky, I could feel two lives colliding.
3.The mirador la Loma
I was standing in the sun at 2PM, waiting for the bus in the middle of the street. It was me and a young couple.
It was very hot and the bus wasn’t coming.
I couldn’t wait any longer, my legs were burning in the sun.
I decided to hitchhike – for the third time in 2 days. Three minutes later, a guy stops. He’s driving a golf cart – the most common means of transportation to visit the island. I tell him, in Spanish, that I am going to the mirador. He answers in a pronounced American English: “I don’t know where it is, but if you do, I can give you a ride”.
Five seconds later I’m sitting next to him. The couple is sitting behind us. They were doubting at the beginning, but eventually they decided to join us. It’s four tourists on a golf cart looking for the mirador.
The Mirador is located in the exact center of the island, in the La Loma neighborhood
La Loma is the human settlement of the San Andres natives. It is one of the most cheerful, colorful and richly cultural places on the island. More than 10% of the island’s population lives in this beautiful village, surrounded by fruit trees and colourful gardens.
Here, very close to the main road we could admire picturesque houses with a (pretentious) Anglo-Saxon and Caribbean architectural legacy; neatly painted houses are scattering the landscape we admire from the top of a notorious building. The first Baptist Church of the whole Central American and Caribbean.
Founded in 1847 the church was literally brought from Alabama to be assembled on the island. From the roof you can see the whole island.
2. Rent a scooter
Tired of waiting for the bus and eventually hitchhiking, one day I rented a scooter ( 24 hours for 120.000 pesos = 27 EUR).
Best ideas in my four days in San Andres.
I could finally see the most remote areas of the island and stop everywhere I wanted. I could visit the Casa Museo of San Andres where I could learn a bit more about the local culture.
Nothing very special – it only cost 2.3 Euro – but it was a nice way to support the local cultural industry especially after the devastating Iota hurricane which hit the island in 2020.
Particularly in the western coast of San Andres, roofs were blown off, houses and roads and power lines destroyed by the Iota hurricane.
Today you can still see the disastrous effects of the hurricane almost everywhere in the island.
Seeing the ruins of buildings which were once houses made me feel a chaos of emotions. I was walking on the beach and looking at what used to be a kitchen, a bathroom, a children’s room. Today, the remains of a memory.
I think that traveling to places like San Andres must be done with a strong sense of responsibility. To me it meant that as a tourist, I had the duty to contribute to the island recovery. Not only by suppoorting the local business, but also through respect for nature, and aware consumption.
Eating from the streets, visiting cultural sites and renting a scooter was my way of doing so.
1.Snorkeling in West View
Few hours before the guys from the US stopped to give me a ride to the mirador, I got to the west view, on the western side of the island, to go snorkeling. I bought the equipment, paid 10 thousands pesos to access the shore.
And there I was. Surrounded by tourists from Medellin speaking like they were singing.
First thing I wanted to do before diving in and snorkeling, is jumping from a 10 meters diving board. I lined up and when it was my turn, my hands were shaking. I was scared. However the truth is, I was looking forward to the adrenaline. So I jumped.
When I emerged, full of joy, I swam to the metal ladder and waited for my turn to climb up. The water must be rich in salt, as I was floating with no effort.
As I started approaching the ladder, I felt something touching my legs.
Many things actually. There must be several fishes swimming around here, I think.
I finally climbed up and reached the shore. I waited for a few minutes to dry, while watching a kid on the diving board. He must have been about 7 years old.
At first he didn’t want to jump. His family was encouraging him a but he’s terrified. Then, suddenly he jumped. When he re-emerged from the sea, I could see his smile. from meters away.
It’s time. I wore my snorkelling equipment. I approached the ladder, now to go down in the sea. And finally I dove in.
I felt speechless, astonished. Flocks of fishes of bright colours ere swimming all around me. They were brushing me with their tails, I saw their big eyes – we were looking at each other.
I was chasing them and they were following me, I feel. They were all white and orange, with nuances of blue. They were all different from one another.
I kept swimming behind them. Suddenly, I felt the sun was being covered by clouds. I thought that when this happens off the water, the whole vibe changes. And I soon realised that the same occurs down the water.
I spent four days in San Andres. But that’s when I had an epiphany.
While we are busy in our everyday life, struggling with duties and pain, witnessing a war, injustices, or adversity, while all this is happening to and around us, nature keeps existing.
The Grand Canyon is still in Arizona, breathing its own energy. Iguazu Waterfalls keep falling in Argentina with their strong and powerful stream. And fishes are swimming in the sea.
We are small dots in the universe. And yet, we are not powerless. We can change things. We can and must take a stance in everything we do.
Embracing and respecting nature is taking a stance. Listening to the other is taking a stance. Being kind, trusting and helping someone in need is taking a stance.
I’m thinking about all this while swimming with the fishes. I’m also thinking that, with the fishes, we are not just chasing each other. We are each other.
I am the fishes and they are me. I’m thinking that all is one and one is all.