Colombia's San Andres island offers visitors turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and boatloads of beach bars.
I first learned about this small Caribbean island in 2009 from my Lonely Planet guidebook, which I bought in Madrid days before flying to Colombia.
San Andres has long been a popular vacation destination for Colombians as the beaches, and crystal-clear waters are among the best in the country.
In recent years, as tourism to the country has grown, so too have the number of foreigners adding San Andres to their Colombia travel plans.
In February 2015, while still living in Medellin, I finally went for myself and thought it similar to Cancun, Mexico for many reasons:
- Pretty waters
- Sandy beaches
- Developed infrastructure and tourism services
- Watersports, snorkeling, and diving
- Easily accessible by air from within Colombia
- Relatively inexpensive (by Caribbean standards)
- Cheap shopping
- Lots of alcohol and beach bars
- Mass tourism appeal
But, please, don't let this comparison scare you off.
I've had some great experiences in Cancun, such as snorkeling with whale sharks, and I had fun in San Andres, too.
San Andres Travel Guide
What follows is my San Andres island travel guide, including frequently asked questions, what to expect once you arrive, things to do, onward travel to Providencia Island, and more.
FAQ: Planning Your Trip
Where is San Andres, Colombia?
San Andres is the largest island of a 22-square mile archipelago located 480 miles north of the Colombian mainland.
The north end of San Andres is the capital of the department, which includes the other islands, namely Providencia and Santa Catalina.
Geographically, San Andres is closer to the coast of Nicaragua (140 miles) than Colombia.
This reality has led to a long-time dispute between the two nations.
As it stands today, San Andres remains Colombian; however, in 2012, Nicaragua was granted increased rights over the resource-rich waters surrounding the islands.
Is it safe to visit?
Yes, San Andres is one of the safer places to visit in Colombia as the island relies on tourists.
I still recommend taking common-sense precautions to protect your belongings against theft and yourself when out at night.
I didn't lock up a pair of sneakers in my hostel dorm, and someone took them. Whether it was another guest or staff, I'll never know.
When's the best time of year to go?
The best months to visit San Andres are February, March, and April during the dry season when rainfall is at its lowest.
The average temperature is relatively steady throughout the year, ranging from a high of 85 F to a low of 78 F.
How do you get to San Andres?
San Andres (airport code: ADZ) is easily accessible from all major Colombian cities, including:
- Bogota (direct, 2 h 15 min)
- Medellin (direct, 1 h 47 min)
- Cartagena (direct, 1 h 24 min)
- Cali (direct, 1 h 58 min)
Plus, Copa Airlines flies direct from Panama City (1 hr 13 min)
Carriers with regular flights include Avianca, Copa, LATAM, Viva Air, and Wingo.
Viva and Wingo are discount Colombian airlines that usually offer the cheapest base fare, though additional fees can raise prices closer to those offered by larger carriers like Avianca.
One way flights can be extremely cheap, as in $30, plus fees.
Use Skyscanner to see what's available for your preferred dates.
Note: non-Colombian visitors to San Andres must buy a tourist card before boarding their flight to the island. This is essentially an entry tax that can be paid at the airport. The current cost is 112,500 pesos ($30). Hold onto the tourist card until you return to the mainland.
Where should you stay?
There's a variety of options on San Andres, from hostels to B&Bs, and hotels.
When I took my solo trip in 2015, I stayed in a dorm room at Viajero San Andres Hostel because of its convenient location at the north end of the island and low cost.
I looked at hotels, which would've offered more privacy and comfort, but felt like the prices were too high for what I'd get.
Today, there are many more options to choose from on Hostelworld.
See also: The Best Hostels in Colombia
How do you get around?
Glad you asked! The island of San Andres has a paved road encircling it. It's just 19 miles to go all the way around the island.
I recommend renting a golf cart to comfortably and safely cruise around. Motorbikes and bicycle rentals are also available.
Taxis are available, but not necessary given the small size of the island.
How much does a trip to San Andres cost?
It's hard to put a specific price on a trip as there are so many variables, including your preference for accommodation, dining, and tours.
Let's say you want to take a 3-day, 2-night trip from Medellin.
- Airfare: $100 roundtrip
- Hostel dorm (including breakfast): $30
- Lunch, dinner, drinks: $80
- Visitor tax (required): $30
- Acuario and Johnny Cay tour: $5
- Golf cart rental: $50
This quick trip would cost you about $295 total, or about $100 per day.
You could stay a few more nights, and the average price per day would come down. Not bad for a Caribbean getaway!
Things to Do in San Andres
Spratt Bright Beach
The main beach on San Andres is called Spratt Bright, and it runs for a few miles along the northern edge of the island.
When the sun is out, the water sparkles in various shades of blue. The sand is soft and comfortable for walking.
Looking due north, you'll see Johnny Cay, which is a small island accessible by boat taxi throughout the day or as a part of a multi-stop tour.
Restaurants, bars, and shopping are easily accessible from the beach.
My first meal in San Andres was a fish filet and mojito at The Islander restaurant across the boardwalk from Spratt Bright beach.
Cayo El Acuario
Haynes Cay and Rose Cay off the east side of San Andres make up Cayo El Acuario (“The Aquarium”).
On my second full day in San Andres, I paid $5 for a boat tour to visit El Acuario, followed by Johnny Cay.
Combine clear waters with cheap boat rides, and you have the recipe for a lot of people.
It was hard to fully appreciate the natural beauty of the location given the crowds. The spectacle reminded me of Cancun, but I get the appeal.
Most Colombians will never travel internationally, so an opportunity to see such pretty waters in their country is a legit cause for excitement.
In addition to snorkeling, it's also possible to feed manta rays here, which I do not recommend as it creates a dependency on humans — not good.
Johnny Cay is a tiny island, a short boat ride north of San Andres island.
This was the second stop of my boat tour, and much more enjoyable than El Acuario (if you want to choose between the two).
The sandy beach facing south toward San Andres is perfect for swimming and lounging in the sun. Covered seating is available to rent.
The other sides of Johnny Cay are rockier, though still worth seeing.
It only takes about 15 minutes to leisurely walk around the entire island.
The interior has grass and palm trees, making it a wonderful place to sit back in the shade, relax, and enjoy the Caribbean breezes.
I paid $13 for a lunch of fried red snapper with rice, fried plantains, and salad. Fresh lobster was also available.
Rent a golf cart for a self-driving tour
I spent my first full day on San Andres cruising around the island in a rented golf cart. The full-day rental cost me $50, and it was well worth it.
I have a fear of motorbikes, and a bicycle would've taken too long. The golf cart was user-friendly and zero-stress.
I visited several beaches, including Playa San Luis (above), the First Baptist Church (below), West View (swimming spot and restaurant), a blowhole, and a pirate cave.
It was nice to get out of the north end for a day.
Old Baptist Church
The Old Baptist Church is in La Loma (“the hill”) neighborhood in the island's interior.
For a dollar, you can climb up the steeple for scenic views.
Visit El Hoyo Soplador (Blowhole)
It's not a Caribbean island experience without a few tourist traps.
El Hoyo Soplador fits the bill. This blowhole sprays water up in the air to the delight of all around it.
Beach bars are there to serve visitors with tropical drinks while they watch.
It worked, too. I paid about $4 for agua de coco (coconut water) with rum.
Cueva de Morgan (Pirate Cave)
After a peaceful lunch at West View restaurant, I paid $6 to tour an old pirate cave called Cueva de Morgan (“Morgan's Cave”).
Here, a handful of locals put on a little show. A small exhibition features a collection of old guns and swords.
The cave itself was filled with murky blue water. I forget the backstory.
And while it didn't seem worth my time, there was no harm done, and my entrance fee went to support the local economy.
Food and Drink
Seafood is typical on San Andres island, as it should be.
The cuisine is similar to the Colombian food you'll find on the mainland's Caribbean coast.
Lobster fans will delight in the plentiful supply.
Fried snapper (known in Spanish as “pargo”) is my favorite.
It's traditionally served with coconut rice, fried plantains, side salad, and a lime wedge.
Other common dishes include:
- shrimp in _____ sauce (such as garlic)
- shrimp rice
- crab rice
- seafood casserole
Rondon is a typical island meal made with coconut milk, seasonings, yucca, and fish or conch.
Restaurants are a little more expensive than you'd find on the mainland, but that's to be expected. Still, it's budget-friendly.
I splurged on one nice meal, a lunch at La Regatta, during my five-day stay in San Andres.
I chose La Regatta in the north end as it's set on the water with views of boats all around.
It must get a larger dinner crowd as there were only a handful of other diners there for lunch. I was given a corner table (above), which I loved.
I ordered grilled fish with rice and salad. It was served with three colorful sauces. For dessert, I went with a decadent coconut pie.
My lunch, including tax and tip, was $50, which I considered a good value given the setting and quality of food.
This is a romantic dinner spot for couples, and it's undoubtedly family-friendly, too.
Since you're at the beach, there's no shortage of options for ice cream.
I was impressed by the variety of flavors at the ice cream shop above. These artisanal pops are known in Spanish as “paletas” and go for a few bucks.
Last, but certainly not least, there are the ubiquitous beach bars which offer visitors freshly made tropical cocktails.
The “Coco Loco” is a signature San Andres island drink, and while I can't recall what's in it, the name alone (“crazy coconut”) suggests a lot of alcohol!
Caipirinhas, mojitos, Cuba Libres, and coconut water with rum are a few more standard options. Expect to pay $4 to $5 per cocktail.
Getting to Providencia
Providencia is San Andres' sister island, and the two are often referred to together as San Andres and Providencia.
It's a smaller island with less development, fewer tourists, and a more laidback vibe.
Unlike San Andres, which is accessible via direct flights from the Colombian mainland, Providencia is only accessible from San Andres.
Most travelers to San Andres stop there due to budget, lack of time, or lack of awareness.
Based on my pre-trip research, Providencia seemed more my speed, and I expected to spend the majority of my nights there.
Unfortunately, I hadn't planned everything out ahead of time. It wasn't until I arrived on San Andres that I got a handle on the ferry and flight schedules.
By then, it only made sense to spend two nights on Providencia, so I splurged on the island's only boutique hotel to compensate.
I paid $107 for roundtrip airfare from San Andres to Providencia with Satena.
The flight was about 20 minutes each way, versus the ferry which can take 2.5+ hours and is subject to potentially rough seas.
Since I was only going to have two days and nights on Providencia, I justified the flights as affording me more time on the island.
The extra cost versus the ferry was well worth it for the time and energy saved.
Plus, it was fun to approach and depart Providencia from the air!