If you're planning a trip to San Andres, there's a very very good chance that you're dreaming of blissful beach days on powdery white sand by a sea coloured seven shades of brilliant blue, preferably with coconut cocktails aplenty at hand.
The good news is that this scenario is very much possible on this small Colombian island in the Caribbean. In fact, days like that are what San Andres does incredibly well; this is a straight-up holiday island that doesn't claim to be anything else.
It’s also home to the best water we’ve swum in. Ever.
However, for travellers considering whether to add the island to your Colombia itinerary, it's important to know that finding your perfect beach day and island experience on San Andres requires a little planning and a little preparation.
In fact, due to its unrivalled popularity with Colombians, several beaches and day-trips islands here become incredibly and unenjoyably crowded in high season. Further, short-term trips which don't leave the confines of San Andres' northern urban centre will only lead to real disappointment.
But don't worry, we've got your back.
These are our favourite things to do in San Andres for travellers.
Find the Best Beaches in San Andres
Half-way through a great week going a little deeper into the Colombian coffee triangle, we decided to book our trip to San Andres.
On our first visit to Colombia a couple of years before, the flights to the island were well out of our budget. However, after travellers chats and a few too many bottles of Aguila around the hostel kitchen table in Buenavista on our second trip, we decided to take a closer look at our options. With last minute return flights at under £100 each, we're unashamed to say that a desire to kick back and sunbathe in paradise for a few days before hitting the Lost City trek in northern Colombia grew pretty strong, pretty quickly!
The thing is though, across our five days on the island, we discovered that all beaches are not created equal on San Andres. This is what you need to know about each of them:
Spratt Bight Beach + Playa Principal
As town beaches go, both of these are admittedly pretty great. White sand, nice calm swimming water, and really convenient access.
However, due to their prime urban, commercial location in the northern tip of the island - in front of the malecon's restaurants, hotels, shops, and bars - they're the default beach for most visitors and therefore always popular.
Spratt Bight is the smaller of the two so feels a little more crowded, whilst Playa Principal is wider, longer, and more spacious. They're just a couple of minutes walk from one another though, so you can easily spend time at both on your beach day. Whichever one you're lying on, keep an eye out for the low-flying planes departing and approaching right above you - it’s pretty wild.
We spent our first full day in San Andres at these two beaches and were perfectly happy. Note that the best places to eat or grab a drink were closest to Spratts.
Tip | Both these beaches are a 20 minute walk from the Almendras neighbourhood, where most travellers will be based in San Andres, and this post has an overview of the best hostels in San Andres for your budget.
Rocky Caye Beach
Although the sea is never far away from you in San Andres town, you have to get on the bus (or your rented motorbike), to find your next beach at Rocky Caye. Also known as Playa Zarpada or Cocoplum beach, this perfect stretch of white sand 6 kms out of town quickly became our favourite San Andres beach to relax on.
Lined by a number of beach clubs and hotels, when accessing the beach for the first time it can be a little confusing which part of the sand you can use for free - especially with places such Aqua Beach Club heckling you for your custom. As a rule of thumb however, anywhere there isn’t a sun lounger is fair game.
Despite the presence of of these private beach clubs, they actually don’t detract from the paradise-like experience of Rocky Caye, and whilst the numbers of people visiting here grew quite significantly throughout the day, we were both quite happy alternating our time between reclining chairs in the nearby cocktail shack (damn good Piña coladas by the way!) and the soft white sand nearby.
We loved this place so much, we chose to make our way back here by bus for some pre-flight beach time!
In case you care about semantics, Rocky Caye is actually the small island which you can easily swim to - or walk at low tide - from the beach. We were advised that this is best done with sea-shoes however, because of all the coral in the water.
Top tip | If you’re feeling a little fancy, you can use the facilities and sun loungers etc of one of the beach clubs for free, providing you buy food or drink from them. This includes use of the lockers, and parking (although we parked in the Aqua Beach Club car park, didn’t pay any money to them, and never got checked).
Playa San Luis
Stretching down the eastern coast, San Luis beach was a little windswept and not as pristine as others, but it's the beach that instantly felt most like a backpacker-friendly gem. There are a couple of coco-loco cocktail shacks run by locals (don’t miss Arnold’s) and a smattering of decent seafood restaurants for lunch. We highly recommend ‘Star’s Kitchen’, not so much for the food, but more so the excellent hammock situation it has going on!
Do note that we did find the food options here a little pricier than other places on the island.
The only downside during our day at San Luis was that the sea just wasn't as calm as everywhere else on the island, but a lot of you will still absolutely love the vibe here - especially if you’ve found the city centre beaches a little overwhelming. Parking can be found on the road alongside the beach.
Tip | If you’d prefer to stay out of San Andres town, there are some excellent value Airbnbs based here including this one.
The Unknown Ones
The four beaches above are the most popular and best beaches in San Andres. However, as you explore the island’s eastern coast of the island, you will also come across isolated patches of sand hidden amongst the trees with no name and no people - which are wonderful for a romantic sunset or secluded sunbathing. We liked this one (Google Maps) and this one (Google Maps).
You will also find a few spots right by the road like Playa Charquitos, which are perfectly suitable for you to lay a towel down and hang out at, but we didn’t feel were the best the island had to offer if you want a proper beach day.
Rent a Motorbike and Explore the Island
San Andres town - el Centro - is home to most of the population, the accommodation options, and various duty-free shopping centres.
It's also responsible for many travellers leaving San Andres disappointed.
As we mentioned in13 Things to Know Before You Visit San Andres, this part of the island is more developed, more traffic-jammed, and more built-up than most people would expect for a tiny island in the Caribbean. If you don't go beyond this before or after a trip to Providencia, like a lot of backpackers, then you will never really understand why people come to San Andres.
The absolute best way to avoid this outcome and have a fuller, more enjoyable experience of the island, is to rent a scooter and head out on the open road.
Ok, we mean the single open road that's only 19 miles long and just goes round and round in a circle around the island...but you get the picture! Our scooter not only brought us to all of the best beaches on the island, but also delivered our best day by far in San Andres.
We rented our wee scooter from one of the many rental outlets in and around San Andres town for 70,000 COP (£16 GBP / $20 USD ) for the day.
Getting your own wheels here is by no means an original or novel suggestion, but you'll quickly notice that most Colombian groups and couples opt for a more expensive golf buggy or golf cart. You get your fancy fancy Batmobile-esque carts, and you get smaller, more worn-out ones too, with prices ranging from 90,000 - 120,000 COP per day (£20-27 / $26-35).
Note that you will have to pay more if you're renting the bike or golf cart for a 24-hour period (renting for the day generally means until 6 p.m.). If you're renting for 2+ days, you should negotiate an overall discount.
A number of hostels and guesthouses will offer or arrange a scooter or car rentals, but you can easily find rental companies all along Carrera 1 and Avenida Colombia near the ports. It's not unusual for random guys to offer your their own bike for rental, but it's a safer bet to just go somewhere more official. As always, ask around to get a fair gauge on price. As with our tips for car rental abroad, you should check the bike thoroughly, take photos and notify of any bumps or scrapes, and confirm all costs and return times before leaving the office. You will have to return it with a full tank (or at the same level you rented - also take a photo of that).
We brought our driving licence as proof of ID, and left a security deposit of 40,000 COP, which then went towards the final bill we paid when dropping off the bike. Never ever leave your passport or ID as a deposit.
Once you get out of the town centre traffic-jams, driving around the San Andres sunshine is pretty simple and should put a big ol' smile on your face. The single ring road will bring you all around the coast in under an hour - whilst driving into the island interior to get views or gain a different perspective on life here is clearly sign-posted. Note that golf carts can't drive after 6 p.m. on the island and there are police checks in place - and watch out for Insta-photo takers on one stretch of road!
Drive safely, drive responsibly, and don't drink and drive.
Alternative | If you wish to see more of San Andres, but can’t or don’t wish to drive, then there is this short private guided tour of the island.
Take An Island Hopping Boat Trip (Or Not)
After beach days, the most popular activity in San Andres is a boat trip to one or several of the surrounding little islands.
Most tour companies will offer a combined boat tour to Johnny Cay, El Acuario, Haynes Cay, and Mantarrayas for the day - sometimes including a stop at Manglares (the Mangroves) - for around 40,000 COP per person (£9 / $11).
Sounds like an absolute bargain right? Especially once you do any Google Image search and find that each of these islands look like utter paradise.
We initially planned to do this combined multi-island trip and were particularly excited to go to Johnny Cay, a "protected" natural coral island just 20 minutes from San Andres.
However, the more research we did, the less we wanted to go.
Everything we read then and since, alongside the crowds we saw being herded into boats that sunny morning, has made it abundantly clear that a visit to Johnny Cay is not something which should be promoted or done by any responsible traveller in San Andres. Despite an 8,000 COP 'conservation' entry fee, it is clearly suffering from horrendous levels of overtourism.
Even if you didn't care about this and went ahead with a visit, we are 99% certain that you would't enjoy it. Just read the Trip Advisor reviews!
So, we have absolutely no regrets about our decision. Additionally, we had zero fucking desire to do what far too many people do here and on other Caribbean islands i.e. manhandle, sorry, 'swim' with stingrays and mantarays which are fed the wrong diet every day and whose migratory cycles are completely fucked just so your fat kid can get a shit photo holding and poking and prodding one.
So yeah, we also do not recommend that you not go on any boat tour in San Andres which involves or encourages swimming with stingrays or mantarays.
But please do not despair - we have a (sort of) solution!
After all this, we did actually decide to go out on a boat trip in San Andres. From our research, we opted to find a tour company located around Tonino’s Marina (Google Maps) which would only bring us to Haynes Cay, which sounded more chilled out, and leave us there for the day to sunbathe and get drunk on coco locos from 10 a.m. onward.
This plan actually worked out pretty well, as Haynes Cay is a one minute easy swim / walk / wade through the sea to the sliver of beach known as Rose Cay and El Acuario (you don't need to rent the sea shoes for this by the way). Despite thousands of people coming on and off the two Cays throughout the day, with overcrowding unbearable at some points, we did manage to have a good day.
Not perfect, but good.
How To Find a Boat Tour in San Andres
There's an easy way and a convoluted cheapskate way to do this.
The easy way is to arrange it via your hostel the day before you want to go - prices should be in the range of 30,000 COP for Johnny Cay (with the 8,000 'conservation' tax in addition). If you want to do a multi-island boat tour, then this will cost 40,000 - 45,000 COP depending on the number of islands visited.
The other way to find a boat tour is to simply turn up at Tonino's Marina early, which is where most of the boat tours leave each morning. There are several guys all along this road who are trying to drum up business for the various boat tour operators, and you can either feel them out or go into the port to speak directly to a company. Based on our experience, you need to take certain promises from these guys with a pinch of salt, but we did eventually find a guy who found a boat tour which would take us to Haynes Cay, drop us off, and then collect us on their way back in the afternoon for 25,000 COP each - a price we were very happy with.
Boat tours tend to leave from 8.30 am - 9.30 a.m.
Read Next | Where to stay in san andres
Useful Things to Know
Your lunch, snorkel equipment, and drinks are not included in the tour price - on Acuario, for example, a snorkel was 10,000 COP, sea shoes 10,000 COP, a locker 10,000 COP. See the trend? Ironically, the snorkelling here has gone to shit because so many people are there snorkelling.
You will be asked if you’d like to pre-order your lunch in the morning - we didn’t, but then had to wait about 45 minutes for it to be cooked - but remember that these lunches cost more than some people expect (i.e. 30,000 - 50,000 COP) and booze is also pricier (15,000-20,000 COP for a very hit-and-miss cocktail) on the islands.
Unless you plan on being lifted down off the boat by a strong partner and not moving from Rose Cay (which would be stupid), then at some point you will get wet. If you have a dry bag, then that’s perfect to bring, otherwise prepare something to keep important stuff dry.
So, the main advice for any boat tour in San Andres is that you should bring more money than you think you'll need, expect to get wet, expect overcrowding, expect to pay extra for something at some point during the day, expect a crap sugary cocktail, expect to hate what humans do to ruin special places, and expect everything to become a little chaotic, crowded, and disorganised due to so many tours visiting each island.
It's simply not sustainable.
Top Tip | Whilst we didn’t have time to give this a go ourselves, we have heard that if you head out to Bolivar Cay on a day trip, it’s possible to avoid the worst of the crowds. It’s a two-hour round trip to get there, and tours can be found for around 60,000 COP per person, including lunch.
Snorkelling and Diving
Ok, rant over. However, if you've followed or read Along Dusty Roads for a while, you'll know that we don't like to pretend something is brilliant if we don't think it is. Because if we do, you'll only go and have a crap experience and think we're tw*ts.
Due to the fantastic clear waters all around the island, and particularly on the south-western side, snorkelling and scuba diving are a really popular thing to in San Andres. For English speakers, Sharky Dive Shop is the best option for diving courses and excursions. San Andres Divers is an alternative, but caters primarily to Spanish speakers.
We don't dive, but loved snorkelling around the little cove known as La Piscinita and the Reggae Bar (again, they're practically next door) with a rented mask. If you are going to be snorkelling a lot on the islands and in Colombia, then it makes sense to buy your own equipment (just pass it on to another traveller though if you’re not going to take it home from Colombia).
The Reggae Bar
Our fondest Caribbean island vibe in San Andres actually came nowhere near a beach, but rather on the concrete and plastic chairs of a rasta bar called ‘Reggae Roots’. Drawn in by its slightly ramshackle nature and a sweaty thirst, it was a spontaneous decision to stop here for a road beer.
We left, reluctantly, four hours later just as the party was getting started.
This unassuming red, yellow, and green shack bar at the side of the road (Google Maps) has only a few chairs and a handful of tables, but its popular dive board and access to the most wonderful swimming area - seriously, that water was absolute heaven and amongst the clearest we've ever swum in - mean it’s unmissable.
We paid 30,000 COP for a decent fresh fish lunch and 5,000 COP to rent a snorkel, whilst beers were 6,000 COP a pop. Chairs/tables and access to the water is free for customers.
A little further down the road from the bar lies West View EcoPark which has more water jumps, diving boards, and slides, as well as a company which offers very bizarre Roger Moore-era Bond full-cover astronaut snorkelling masks that allow you to walk under the sea for 30 minutes. This park was very popular with Colombian tour groups and families, and costs 5,000 COP to enter.
Both the reggae bar and West View are also close to the popular and more crowded swimming hole known as as La Piscinita ('little swimming pool'), which has a 5,000 COP entry charge too. We were actually on our way there when we pulled in at the Reggae bar, and never once regretted our decision to skip it!
Go To Providencia
Now, we know how annoying it is when you've made the decision to go to one island - and then everyone starts to tell you that you should actually only use it as a stepping stone to another island next door. And then, once you get to the island, that you should actually go to another little island next door to it.
It's like, how many bloody Caribbean islands do I have to go through before you're happy that I've gone to the best or most impressive one!?
However, as soon as you mention that you're planning on adding San Andres to your Colombia itinerary, some other traveller is guaran-damn-teed to ask whether you're going to go to Providencia too OR tell you to skip San Andres entirely and just go to Providencia.
The whole San Andres vs. Providencia debate, for us, is a little over-egged and disingenuous. If you want some great beaches, sunshine, and a few days of relaxation, you will absolutely be able to find it in San Andres. Is Providencia more special and more aligned with what most people dream about when thinking about a little-visited Caribbean island? Absolutely (and we’ll tell you all about it in our upcoming guide!).
But that doesn't mean San Andres won't make you happy.
Whichever side of the fence you fall on - and your decision may be influenced by your travel time and travel budget - what is totally irrefutable is that the only way to get to the island of Providencia is via San Andres. If you’re planning on making that trip, then take a look at ‘How To Get From San Andres to Providencia’ for full details on the various transport options, costs, and key information for booking your tickets in advance.