If you're planning your route through Colombia right now, and pondering whether San Andres island is good for your budget and a worthwhile addition to your itinerary, then this post will hopefully give you the answers and advice you're looking for.
On our first trip to Colombia, we simply couldn't afford San Andres. However, as that was part of a much longer adventure through Latin America, we had plenty other things to occupy us and give us that hit of vitamin sea.
Fast forward a couple of years to our most recent South America, and we were both really keen to visit the Caribbean island which is much closer to Nicaragua than Colombia. After finding cheap last-minute flights, we were fortunate to enough to spend five nights on the island in total (plus a couple on Providencia), and wanted to share some advice and tips to help you make the decision and plan your own trip.
Here are 13 essential things to know before you visit San Andres.
It’s Pretty Far From Colombia
480 miles in fact.
Due to its foundations being built on colonial power plays in the Caribbean, slavery, and a longstanding unresolved maritime dispute, things are a more complicated for this little island than you may necessarily think.
Colombia and Nicaragua have been in disagreement about San Andres, and the waters which surround it, for well over a century. A 1928 treaty was eventually annulled and reneged upon in 1980, and Nicaragua has continued to protest that the Caribbean waters should belong to them.
Tensions flared dramatically in 2012 following a ruling by the International Court of Justice. It determined that the three-island archipelago (composed of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina) would remain Colombian, but that “most of the sea around it would become Nicaragua’s economic zone”.
This article by The Economist gives a good overview of the dispute and the ruling.
Colombia has steadfastly refused to accept the judgement however, which effectively transferred over 75,000 square kilometres of resource-rich sea to Nicaragua, and the dispute continues.
So, what does all this mean for your trip? Probably not very much - any confrontation is very very unlikely - but it does explain why an island much closer to Nicaragua and Central America, is in fact part of Colombia and South America!
How To Get To San Andres
Cheap and direct flights to San Andres depart daily from every major Colombian city, and for most travellers, are the only means of accessing the island. Flight time is 1h 48 mins from Medellin, 2h 20 mins from Bogota, 2h from Cali, and only 1h 29 mins from Cartagena.
Airlines include Avianca, VivaAir, LAN, wingo, and Copa, and prices generally range from 100,000 COP (£23 GBP / $30 USD) to 200,000 COP (£45 / $59) per person one-way - note that checked-in luggage is charged in addition. If you fly on Fridays and weekends, or around the Christmas and Easter holidays (Colombians take these very seriously), expect increased prices and demand. If you really want to cut down on cost, then consider leaving your main backpack at your hostel in the mainland!
Check flight prices and availability on Skyscanner, as well as on the airline websites for the full picture before booking. Travellers should have no issue booking and paying for flights on the airline websites with non-Colombian bank cards.
When we were planning our own trip, it became apparent that the budget airlines (specifically Wingo and Viva) are known to make a little extra cash off of unorganised travellers, so it’s super important that if you choose to fly with them, you ensure you check-in online, print out your boarding pass and really pay attention to your luggage allowance and weight.
Unfortunately, there seem to be no boats running from the Colombian mainland to San Andres, or from Nicaragua.
Lastly, proof of a return journey is mandatory for San Andres visitors. We and several others were called up to the boarding desk to show our return tickets (probably because they were booked with a different airline), and this is a common requirement.
Tip | We flew from Bogota to San Andres with Avianca, and then San Andres to Cartagena with Wingo. If you are planning on including San Andres in your Colombia itinerary, then it’s a good idea to think about flying one-way from a city in the south / centre (like Bogota, Medellin, or Cali) and then flying the return leg to a city in the north (i.e Cartagena or Barranquilla). Doing it this way, or vice versa, will save you travel time and help you to cover more of Colombia at no extra cost.
You Have to Pay An Entry Tax
There's a non-Colombian visitor tax of 112,500 COP (£26 / $34) for San Andres, and it’s only payable at your departure airport; this fee is correct as of October 2019.
Before our trip, we were a little confused by the information available online as it seems like every airline and airport has a slightly different process or practice. Therefore, we wanted to share our own experience of paying the San Andres visitor tax in Bogota airport to make things as clear as possible for you.
Once we had checked in with Avianca and passed security, we made our way to the boarding gate. Everything was a little disorganised, but they made an announcement about paying for tourists cards in Spanish (tarjeta de turismo), and we joined the newly formed queue on one side of the two desks. The queue went down very slowly and, as we got closer to the flight departure time, people turning up who had missed the previous muffled announcements about the cards assumed that we were all queuing to board, and so would skip ahead to the front of the line in a panic to ask where to pay the entry tax! As we inched to the front of the queue, this process repeated itself about a dozen times.
Anyway, we were able to pay for the visitor tax without any issues by bank card and received a receipt and our two tourist cards. These have to be kept safe until you’re back on the mainland, and they’ll be checked when you leave the island.
For your own trip, our advice is to ask when checking-in to your flight about where and when you can buy the tourism card, and hopefully you’ll receive a definitive answer! We also highly recommend that you are carrying enough pesos with you to pay in cash in case the machine isn't available on that day or at your departure desk or with your airline, and that you try to get to the boarding gate desk in good time.
Whatever happens, do NOT get on that plane without having paid and received your San Andres tourist card!
Let us know your own experience in the comments with paying the San Andres visitor tax.
Colombians Bloody Love It
For Colombians, San Andres offers a way to visit a holiday island in the Caribbean Sea via a relatively affordable flight and without any visa, money, or language concerns, because it's still Colombia (no matter what a Nicaraguan tells you).
It’s therefore understandable they they love it and it’s incredibly popular all-inclusive holiday and long weekend break destination for them.
Can you imagine if there was an island in the Mediterranean that Brits could go to without having to speak a foreign language, worry about visas (thanks Brexit) and eat egg, chips and cups of tea in the sunshine? Yeah, San Andres is like that, but for Colombians.
You Can’t Drink The Water
Unfortunately the tap water is not suitable for consumption on San Andres. We write this not as hyper-paranoid travellers who will never drink from the tap anywhere, but as people who have travelled in Latin America for three years and have regularly used tap water as our main water source.
However, in San Andres all the tap water comes from desalinisation stations or well reservoirs, and every bathroom and accommodation has signs up saying that it isn’t safe to consume. Locals don’t do it, and neither should you.
Obviously, this is a real pain as it means that everyone’s consumption of single-use plastic goes through the roof - which causes a bunch of additional issues on a small island. To cut down on unnecessary plastic as much as possible, we recommend that you stock up on the really large bottles of drinking water from the supermarket and use these to fill up smaller bottles to take out for the day.
Tip | All travellers should try to minimise their plastic usage and footprint. We travelled in South America with a travel filter water bottle which provided safe drinking water in 99% of locations, and it’s one of the best ways to cut down. This article has more advice and tips - how to travel with less plastic.
It Isn’t Paradise Undiscovered, Sorry
On this little tropical island, there are wonderful beaches and secluded bays - of that we are in no doubt. HOWEVER, many travellers arrive thinking that this is going to be some sort of undiscovered rustic Caribbean island only to discover....traffic, petrol fumes, lots of urban development, and a whole bunch of Colombian tourists with neon swimwear and selfie sticks.
This is where your experience of San Andres - the island - really depends upon you getting out of San Andres - the town on the island. Many travellers we've spoken to, and misinformed blogs we read before visiting, completely wrote off San Andres based on what they saw on that first afternoon between the airport and when they took the boat out to Providencia.
And we TOTALLY get that. If we hadn't taken a full day with a scooter to explore the rest of the island outside the surprisingly built-up, polluted, and congested centre, then we would have left with the very same impressions.
But It Still Has Great Beaches
That being said, there are most definitely still some great traveller spots in San Andres where it does look and feel like a little island in the Caribbean - you just have to get out of the centre and find them!
You can read more about our favourites beaches in this Best Things To Do in San Andres guide.
Spanish > English
Due to its place in the history of British colonialism and the slave trade, the Raizal people of San Andres speak English and / or San Andrés-Providencia Creole. This Afro-Colombian ethnic group were long the majority on the San Andres Archipelago, and it’s due to this group that many people arrive in San Andres thinking that English is widely spoken.
However, increased migration to and from the Colombian mainland is thought to have changed this in the last decade - and our limited experience very much confirmed this. On the island, we spoke Spanish primarily and it definitely felt like the dominant language. In Providencia, the neighbouring island, we spoke English with almost everyone.
Given so many Colombian tourists arrive in San Andres, it's not a surprise that it has become the lingua franca.
It Is More Expensive Than Mainland Colombia
If you've come from south or central Colombia, then elements of San Andres will definitely feel pricey.
The basic seafood lunches we had out cost 25,000 - 30,000 COP and our private room was 190,000 COP night (£44 / $57) - very much at the thick end of our budget. By comparison, excellent private doubles in hostels in the Coffee Triangle and Bogota were in the 70,000 - 95,000 COP range.
So, San Andres is more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia for some things - particularly accommodation - but is not an entirely unaffordable destination for travellers if you do it right.
Due to this, we'd strongly recommend budget backpackers have a good look at what their overall costs are likely going to be for a trip to San Andres & Providencia (including flights + the tourist entry card) before they finalise their itinerary - focussing particularly on accommodation costs. The good news is that there are a few hostels in San Andres with fairly priced dorms and private rooms, they just sell out fast!
For various other day-to-day costs, like beers and groceries, San Andres is little more expensive than the mainland but not too much to be concerned about. You can absolutely still have a great time here on a bit of a budget, just make sure you get the big ticket items sorted and budgeted for in advance.
Did You Know | San Andres is actually a duty free zone, and that’s another reason why Colombians love it. There are large shopping centres all over town and many take the opportunity to stock up on booze and other goods. We didn’t actually find the prices to be that cheap on sunglasses, watches, perfumes etc, but some things definitely have to be a bargain given the amount of shopping we saw going on!
We’ve shared our personal recommendations on the best hostels and Airbnb apartments in San Andres here.
The Internet is pretty crappy
The internet is pretty bad across San Andres. Of course, on an island like this one shouldn’t be glued to their phone, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re a digital nomad or someone who requires a decent connection. At high usage periods, it can take 5 minutes or so to open a new page (and that’s when you can actually get a connection).
We found that if we really, really needed to use the internet (even we had a few days off), we were much better giving up on the painfully slow connection at our guest house and instead using the 3G on our phone with a local Claro SIM card, which had a strong reception right across the island.
Should I Go to Providencia Too?
The biggest question for most travellers planning their trip to San Andres is, unfortunately, whether they should leave it straight away and go onward to Providencia.
As we mentioned earlier, we think that San Andres has earned a little bit of a bad reputation amongst South America backpackers. It is definitely not the island paradise which we found on Providencia, but it's still a really accessible island in the middle of the Caribbean with a few excellent beaches, several spots of perfect clear water, and sunshine.
And so, like we were, you may be faced with the dilemma of whether your travel budget can extend to visiting one or both of these islands. Indeed, you may be wandering if you should only come to San Andres in order to go straight to Providencia.
So, to save you some of the trouble, we'll talk you through some of the conversations and research that you'll inevitably come across:
Providencia is so much better than San Andres | Not entirely wrong, because Providencia is so uniquely special, but that unfortunately means San Andres is given a hard deal by virtue of an impossible comparison. Chocolate cake isn't as good as sticky toffee pudding, but give me chocolate cake when I want a dessert and I'll still be pretty damn happy.
Will you prefer Providencia to San Andres? Very likely yes, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like only few days on San Andres!
Providencia is damn expensive to get to | We really stretched our budget to go to Providencia for just two nights, and we have absolutely no regrets in doing so. However, there's no doubt that those two nights were way more expensive to secure due to the pricey transport between the two islands - 378,000 COP (£86 / $110) per person for the boat journey there and back - and every backpacker's budget simply won't be able to stretch to include the Providencia flight or the boat. This supply/demand ratio helps to keep Providencia so special, therefore we would never complain about it, but the reality is that some budgets just won’t be able to make it happen.
And so, if you want a few nights affordable instead on a Caribbean island, San Andres will become the only (and best) option.
At the end of the day, the choice really is yours and yours alone. Either way, you are going to be able to make it to a lovely Colombian island on your trip for a cheap, short flight - so there’s nothing to be despondent about either way!
If you are planning on visiting both San Andres and Providencia, then read our Providencia guide (coming soon!) for inspiration and ideas, and our How To Get from San Andres to Providencia post (coming soon!) for full details on transport options between the two islands.
Anytime is The Best Time to Visit San Andres
Rainy season is from June to November, but that usually only entails a few hours of rain each day. Outside of that, San Andres tends to receive pretty great weather all year round, with an average temperature 26 - 27 degrees celsius. We visited in February, during the December - May dry season, and had perfect weather throughout.
However, dry season also coincides with the busiest two holiday periods for Colombians (Christmas and early January, and then Easter / Semana Santa), so you may have to be a little more flexible on your flight times and dates to get the cheaper fares.
San Andres is pretty small and, as we mentioned, to enjoy it fully you’ve really got to get out of the clogged centre and its nice, but busy, beaches. This is really easy to do on your own, as it’s just a single ring road which goes around the island.
The most popular way to do this is with a rented golf cart. These hold 4 or 6 people and some of them are like little pimped-out mini Batmobiles - they’re really really popular with Colombian couples and groups. You can rent them all over the city centre from rental companies, with prices starting at 100,000 COP per day.
We opted to rent a scooter instead for 70,000 COP. Much more fun - just check that you’re covered by your travel insurance and know the risks before you head out.
Alternatively, there is a very regular public bus which circumnavigates the island. It will bring you into and out of the town centre, plus directly to some of the best beaches in San Andres. Just hop on and hop off - but be aware that it can get really packed at certain times of day, so if you want to get on at a popular beach, you may have to wait for a few to pass. Tickets cost 2,600 COP, and correct change is always preferable.
There are taxis in San Andres, and they’re the best option for getting to / from the airport. However, do bear in mind that they are more expensive than elsewhere in Colombia and any price should be discussed before you agree on the journey. From the airport to our guesthouse in Almendras, we paid $15,000 COP, which seems to be the standard price from the airport to most places in the town.
Read our guide to San Andres for more advice on renting, and for ideas on the best beaches to visit with your rented wheels.