Thinking about traveling to San Andrés Island in Colombia? Good, because not a lot of visitors to Colombia go there and it’s definitely worth a visit. This guide for eight things to do in San Andrés will help you design your own Gilligan’s Island experience. It includes where to find soft white sand beaches, how to properly lounge on the offshore islands, why you need to twerk in their quirky museums, where to find the only decent cup of coffee on the island and how to find lodging that doesn’t look like a Soviet prison.
A Short History of San Andrés Island Colombia
“Why are you going to San Andrés Island? It’s not really part of Colombia”
I read this multiple times during the course of my trip planning. Just because San Andrés is parked in the Caribbean 400 miles from Cartagena doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of Colombia.
The island was founded by British settlers in the 17th century. Over time, the agricultural and timber economy grew and the culture was further diversified by the Jamaican slaves. Dread pirate Henry Morgan used San Andres as a base of operation for attacking Spanish and English ships.
In a game of Caribbean tug-of-war, the Spanish briefly occupied the island followed by a 19th century Colombian effort led by Simon Bolivar. In 1826, the tug-of-war ended with Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Panama signing a peace treaty promising to respect one another’s borders and San Andrés became an official part of Colombia.
So, technically San Andrés is part of Colombia, but the culture is distinctly Afro-Caribbean in nature. Which, in my opinion, adds to the cultural diversity of the country and a good reason to visit. Well, that, and the impossibly soft white sand beaches that even Gilligan would love.
How to Get to San Andrés Island
You can get to San Andrés Island pretty inexpensively from a number of popular Colombian tourist gateways including; Cartagena, Medellín, Calí and Bogota. One-way flights range from $80-$120. However, if you check pricing on Google Flights, be aware that their lowest flight price is only for Colombian citizens. If you are not from there, expect to pay 25-30% more when you book.
Latam, Avianca and Viva Air all fly to San Andrés island. Viva is the lowest cost carrier and a good budget choice. However, I was booking a complicated routing (Cartagena-San Andres-Armenia-Bogota) and it was much easier (if a bit more expensive) for me to book it on Avianca through the United Airlines booking portal. Avianca is a fine carrier but their reservation site is a hot mess. You can also get to San Andrés from Panama City (on Latam), but it’s much more expensive.
Once on the island, you’ll find that the airport is ridiculously close to downtown. If you are staying centrally and don’t have too much stuff, you can simply walk from the terminal to your lodging.
8 Things to Do in San Andrés Colombia
For convenience, when I mention pricing, I will first list the price in Colombian pesos and then US dollars, ie: $30mil ($10). It’s also worth noting that San Andrés is far more popular with vacationing Colombians than it is with North Americans or Europeans. This means that you’ll want to brush up on your Spanish before going.
1. Lounge Around on Johnny Cay, Haynes Cay & Acuario Islands
My husband and I fancy ourselves Thurston Howell III and Lovey from Gilligan’s Island. We are the older couple who love strolling around small islands with a sense of entitlement and an umbrella in our drinks. So Johnny Cay was perfect for us. It’s just offshore from San Andrés town and it’s Colombia’s version of Gilligan’s Island, complete with palm trees. Further south and east are two even smaller sand bars; Acuario and Haynes Cay. You can easily do all three as a day trip.
Johnny Cay is a protected regional park with a well-developed tourism infrastructure. You load into a small boat, which deposits you on the island into the arms of a “fixer”. You don’t need to use the fixer, but they will help you acquire a lounge chair with shade, order lunch for you, fetch you drinks and remind you when the boat is leaving for Acuario. Just the kind of service that Thurston and I love. In addition to lounging and snapping your fingers for more beer, I also recommend that you take the short stroll around the circumference of the island as there is some nice tide pooling on the windward side.
After lunch, you’ll get back into your boat and get shuttled down to Acuario and Haynes Cay. Both of them are hardly more than sandbars and you can easily wade or swim between the two, depending upon the tide. There is allegedly a snorkel area at Acuario, however, the coral is dead from too much human activity and there aren’t many fish. But, the water is heavenly.
On the way back to town, they will offer to drop you in the water near where a bunch of rays hang out. Please think carefully about petting wild animals. You are swimming in their house.
Tickets for the day cost ~$30mil pesos (or $10). Food and drink can run another $40mil (or $11). You can pay a little extra and pre-purchase tickets from your lodgings or just go to the marina and have someone hustle you some tickets on the spot.
Read More: You can also make like Thurston and Lovey on Bonaire with this island guide.
2. Lounge on Playa Principal
San Andrés Town has a remarkably nice stretch of beach. The sand is just as soft as the offshore islands, the water entry isn’t rocky and you can purchase a Thurston Howell III level of comfort by renting a set of loungers and shade for $30mil ($10). There are plenty of vendors selling Coco Loco drinks which are comprised of jet fuel and a splash of Kool-Aid served in a coconut. If you want to retain your wits and your eyesight, I don’t recommend more than one.
Even if you don’t make it to the beach during the day, walking the promenade from the airport to downtown is great entertainment after dinner in San Andrés.
Taking the Slow, Crazy Tour Around the Island
I’m all about the alternative itineraries here at Wayfaring Views and there are definitely a few offbeat spots on the island, but you have to get out of town to see them. What follows are a series of things to do in San Andrés Island via a self-guided Gilligan’s Island golf cart tour.
Renting a golf cart costs $90-130mil ($28-40), depending upon who you rent from. If you walk downtown and negotiate with one of the larger rental lots, you will pay less. If you rent through your lodgings and have the golf cart delivered, you will pay more.
This golf cart tour takes a counter-clockwise spin around the island.
3. History & Twerking at the Casa Isleño Museum
The Casa Isleño Museum is a small, family owned museum that demonstrates how life was like on San Andrés 100 years ago. Twenty people would have lived in and around the house pictured above.
A local person will take you on a tour of the home. The main house is a classic elevated clapboard furnished with period pieces. But the decor takes a slightly weird turn when more modern “artifacts” like 1970’s era typewriters are mixed in with older items.
Our tour guide shared that they feel more Caribbean than Colombian on San Andrés because the mother country doesn’t “share the love” with them. I think that she was talking about economic wealth but then, Colombia isn’t exactly rolling it it, so perhaps she meant actual love?
As the tour perambulated around the garden, it took yet another weird turn when we were instructed to stand up on an elevated stage for our “Caribbean dance” lessons. It was eight minutes of loud, decidedly modern music and a 101-level lesson on what I’m pretty sure was twerking. I was laughing too hard to care and I think Thurston pulled a muscle.
4 Turn Up the Kitsch at Cueva Captain Morgan
The pirate Henry Morgan used San Andrés Colombia as a base of operations and he allegedly buried some treasure in a cave along what is now the golf cart trail.
You can go into the cave itself, but not until you run a gauntlet of quirky exhibits, like a hut with dusty pirate-y objects. There is also the coconut hut, which has row upon row of carved coconuts with a distinctly creepy Bride of Chucky vibe. You then flow into a cool gallery with works from local artists. But then your hopes will be dashed when you are ushered onto yet another raised stage for more twerking lessons.
As this point, Thurston and I mutinied and went looking for the cave. It keeps the kitsch vibe going with an Indiana Jones scary skull, a pirate and a box of treasure.
Don’t mistake my cheeky attitude for disdain. You should absolutely go all in and visit both the Casa and the cave, but don’t forget to pack your sense of humor.
5. Swim at La Piscinita and Reggae Roots
Read some of other blog posts and guide books on San Andrés Colombia and they will all tell you to snorkel at La Piscinita. It’s even marked off in Google Maps.
But good luck finding it because there is no road signage for it. And once found, the snorkeling isn’t great. But you should go there anyway.
In the La Piscinita area is the West World Eco Park. It’s the place where all of the organized tours stop. They have restaurants, seating, water slides and swimming areas. Which is fine…except that it’s very crowded. If you want something quieter, go a little further down the road to the Reggae Roots bar.
As long as you purchase a drink or snacks, you can use their loungers and diving board. You can jump off the cliff into the beautiful water. You can also snorkel around and see a few fish but don’t expect a coral reef.
The next thing that the blogs and guide books recommend is Hoyo Soplador. I don’t understand how this became a thing, but it did. This little blow hole by the side of the of the road is so hemmed in by trinket shops and Coco Loco vendors you have to run a gauntlet to get to it. The hole doesn’t blow very often and certainly not in at medium or low tide. Sure, stop there for a minute or two but don’t plan your day around it.
6. Find a Spot of Beach Around San Luis
After Hoyo Soplador, you will round the bottom of the island and start heading north again. All along the coast around San Luis you will find tons of little bar/restaurants with a patch of sand, lounger chairs and cold beer.
Stop a while.
7. First Baptist Church
After San Luis, take the high road to the center of the island and visit the First Baptist Church. This tidy little church was founded in 1844. It’s pretty on the outside but what makes it special is the view from the top. For a small fee, you can climb the steeple and get a 360′ view of the island.
You can also further feed your need for kitsch by touring the church’s “museum”. It has a series of displays that look like leftovers from the church’s garage sale. And yes, it also features a 1970’s typewriter.
8. Get a Decent Cup of Coffee in San Andrés
The Colombian mainland grows some spectacular coffee but San Andrés doesn’t have a coffee culture. Thurston threw a revolt after one too many cups of instant so we headed over to the Coffee Break. They open early and brew up a nice, strong cup. They also have a great breakfast menu featuring eggs, fruit and yogurt.
Where to Stay on Colombia’s San Andrés Island
Finding lodging on San Andrés is tricky, they don’t have anything nearly as cute as Thurston and Lovey’s glamping hut.
The full service hotels have amenities like pools, but their food and/or service can be “meh” and the architecture is Soviet inspired. The hostels are cheap but basic, often lacking windows, air conditioning or both. The hostals (guesthouses) have some charm and amenities but often lack English speaking staff and are a bit outside of town. I chose the latter because I’m a big fan of the modestly priced guesthouse and walking into town along the promenade was delightful.
Friendly Guesthouse: Hostal Mar y Mar. It’s inexpensive with a good room size, air conditioning, secure fencing, a lovely porch and friendly dog. Some of the reviews complain of airplane noise but the planes don’t fly at night and the noise never bothered me. Check reviews at Trip Advisor or get competitive pricing from Hotels Combined.
Full Service Hotel: Hotel Arena Blanca. They offer a large breakfast buffet, convenient downtown location, live entertainment and a pool. Check reviews at Trip Advisor or get competitive pricing from Hotels Combined.
Cheap and Convenient Hostel: Viajero San Andres Hostel. They have a nice 5th floor bar with views, a convenient location and good reviews. Check availability and get competitive pricing at Hotels Combined.
Has all of this talk of Gilligan made you wonder more about the show? If so, you can find 15 interesting facts about Gilligan’s Island here.
Gilligan’s Island San Andrés has everything you want from a quirky Caribbean island, with chill beaches, swimming holes, pirate lore and 1970’s typewriters. All of these things to do in San Andrés can be done in a three day getaway that will get you off the typical Colombia tourist trail and onto some soft white beaches. Buen Viaje!
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