White sand beaches, distinct Afro-Caribbean culture, and a pirate past are just some of the highlights of San Andrés Island in Colombia. Use our Island Travel Guide–including what to do, what to eat, where to sleep, and how to get there–to plan your own trip to Colombia’s Caribbean.
About San Andrés Island
San Andrés Island is part of the San Andrés archipelago in the Caribbean that also includes Providencia Island and Santa Catalina. The archipelago is 395 miles (637 km) from mainland Colombia and just 120 miles (190 km) from Nicaragua which claimed ownership of the archipelago in a dispute that lasted until it was finally resolved (in Colombia’s favor) in 2012.
Though technically part of Colombia, the culture on the island, which is just 7.5 miles (12 km) long and 2 miles (3 km) wide, is heavily influenced by the Europeans and pirates (Henry Morgan used the archipelago extensively) who spent time there. Surnames like Archibold and Livingston are not uncommon.
Many islanders talk about Bogotá—which is their official capital city—as if it were a world away and, in cultural terms, it is. You could spend a week in Bogotá and be able to count the number of black or Caribbean people you saw there on one hand.
The official language of San Andrés Island is Spanish, but you’re more likely to hear islanders speaking English or Creole which is the language of the island’s Afro-Caribbean Raizal population. Though most tourists to the island are Spanish-speaking Colombians, whenever we spoke Spanish to islanders we got the side-eye and answers in English. Though during the past two decades many people from mainland Colombia have moved to San Andrés and many mainlanders now own large businesses on the island. This has caused some resentment between the island’s original afro-Caribbean inhabitants and the Latinos from the mainland.
Things to do on San Andrés Island
San Andrés Island is a duty-free zone which is why duty-free malls across Colombia are called San Andrecitos. There are a lot of duty-free shops on San Andrés selling perfume, booze, luggage, etc. which gives the heart of town an airport-like look and feel. The only real bargain we found was sunscreen which was much cheaper on San Andrés than on the mainland.
Beaches in the main town area are lovely stretches of pure white sand meeting multi-hued clear water which gently laps so you can enjoy the warm shallows. The beaches get pretty packed with locals and visitors, especially on weekends. The waterfront sidewalk is a pleasant place to stroll and there are a handful of restaurants and beer gardens on or near the water.
Many people rent quads or scooters and buzz around the island. The San Luis area of the island is much more relaxed than the heart of town and the center of the island and the entire southern tip are mostly undeveloped and still very wild and beautiful.
The southern tip of the island is home to Geyser Hoyo Splendor. This natural blowhole spouts seawater into the air when conditions and tides are right. But be warned: the area is monitored by locals who will demand that you buy something (a soda or a souvenir) and pay to park your vehicle, none of which is legit. It may not be worth the hassle.
La Loma town is on the island’s only hill. Here you can see some traditional architecture and visit the Mission Hill Baptist Church which was built in 1896 using pine brought from Alabama on a site that was previously used for al fresco preaching (5,000 COP or about US$1.50 per person to enter the church). The prim whitewashed church has two pulpits and can seat 1,000 people. Climb the bell tower, which is the highest point open to the public on the island, for spectacular 360 views of the Caribbean.
Where to eat and drink on San Andrés Island
Inspired by the style of our hotel and its owner (see below), we got Thai food at Mahi Mahi, one of the restaurants in the Casablanca Hotel on the main waterfront road in the heart of town, and it was surprisingly good. The chicken green curry was flavorful and legit, though not quite spicy enough for us.
In the San Luis area of the island, we ate at Donde Francesca, a very popular seafood shack sand-in-your-toes beach restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. We enjoyed very cold beer and some lovely main dishes (from 46,000 COP or about US$13) including octopus in a mustard sauce and a fish and rice dish that was like a baked risotto. The crispy burned bits on the bottom of the pan were the very best part.
Where to sleep on San Andrés Island
There are many, many hotels and hostels on San Andrés Island in all styles and price points including multiple Decameron resorts which is a Colombian chain of mid-range all-inclusive resorts which are a bit like Club Med (if that’s your sort of thing).
By far the most stylish and polished hotel on San AndrésIsland is Casa Harb. Owner Jak Harb worked for years as a flight attendant which allowed him to travel the world and amass an impressive collection of art, furniture, and artifacts with a focus on treasures from Asia.
When Jak decided to turn the family house into a 6-room boutique hotel he used those finds to create a stylish hotel like no other in Colombia. It’s the kind of place where attention to detail is the order of the day from the sheer curtains on the first floor which were handmade in the Philippines using bamboo fiber to the most ornate sterling silver covered monk’s alms bowl we’ve ever seen to a wide range of wood and rattan furniture. There’s a small pool and a lovely breakfast is included.
On the other side of the island in San Luis Village we stayed at Hoteles MS San Luis Village which was like a beach motel after a moderately chic overhaul with 18 rooms, a central pool, and a great beachfront location. Even better? The hotel was within strolling distance of Donde Francesca restaurant.
How to Get to San Andrés Island
You’ll need to fly from mainland Colombia to San Andrés and all arriving non-residents (including Colombians from the mainland) have to pay a visitor tax. For foreigners, that tax was 110,000 COP (about US$30) in cash per person which we paid at the airport in Santa Marta, while waiting in line to check-in for our flight. We were also required to have a return ticket back to the mainland.
Arriving by plane into San Andrés was dramatic. First, the pilot flew past the island, then dipped and turned so sharply and so low that it seemed like a wing was going to skim the water. Then the pilot lined up for the airport, coming in very low over a well-populated beach on the way in ala the famous approach to the airport on Martinique before they changed things around for safety reasons.
Keep the tourist card you get at the airport after you pay the visitor tax. You will need to show it again before your flight back to the mainland from San Andrés and if you travel from San Andrés to Providencia Island which is the main destination on the archipelago for most foreign travelers. See why in our Island Travel Guide to Providencia Island.
Here’s more about travel in Colombia
Here’s more about Island Travel in the Americas