San Andrés is the largest of three islands in the Colombian archipelago located in the Caribbean Sea. The islands first appeared on the Spanish map in 1527. Over the next 350-400 years, the islands were inhabited by the English, Dutch and Spanish and changed hands many times. In 1900, the islands were declared Colombia’s. The USA requested that the archipelago be given to Panama by which it is closely located, but the request was rejected proving the local’s loyalty to Colombia. In 2000, the islands became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
- San Andrés Island is closer to Panama than Colombia. As such, anyone with limited vacation time might consider combining a visit to San Andres Island with a trip to Panama City and the Panama Canal and save the main land of Colombia for a different trip.
- Panama City Airport provides free wi-fi for only 30 minutes, and thereafter payment is necessary. The wi-fi worked for one of my two layovers in Panama City.
- Cartagena Airport provides excellent free wi-fi
- All people traveling to San Andrés must buy a tourist card at the current price of 109,000 pesos. If flying Viva Colombia, the card must be purchased in cash.
- ATM cards from the USA did not work at all cash machines. Mine was consistently declined by Bank of Colombia, but was accepted by BBVA. Keep that in mind for #4 above. Also, bring two credit cards as my Visa was sporadically declined?!?
- Paper money with the same value look different. Both of these bills are 20 mil pesos.
- Viva Colombia is a budget airline that charges for everything including printing a boarding pass. Any services purchased at the airport (bag check, carry-on charges, etc.) cost three times more than paying beforehand online! It cost me $100 one way (more than the plane ticket to check a bag and print a boarding pass). I’m only 5’6” and knees hit the seat in front of me. I am thin and could hardly fit in the rows. Ads are printed on the overhead bins! If flying baggage free, perhaps the airline is worth it, otherwise, I would do my best to avoid it and try Avianca.
- Travelers must wait outside security until about 30-45 minutes before departure time when travelers may go to the gate area which includes some small shops (both in San Andrés and Cartagena)
- San Andrés airport provides excellent wi-fi in the open air waiting area prior to going through security, however, once entering the enclosed air-conditioned area, the wi-fi is not available. It’s a choice!
- Look for FREE Wi-Fi signs. Wi-Fi was available on the main tourist pedestrian only street, Calle 1.
- Don’t be afraid to walk the town alone, and say hi to the locals. They were very friendly.
Where to Stay
After much internet research on Trip Advisor and scanning a travel book on Colombia, I finally settled on staying in San Andrés City on San Andrés Island. I tend to prefer quiet areas and was originally inclined to go to Providencia which I hear (from the internet and other divers on the boat) is very quaint and wonderful with better diving than San Andrés Island. The challenge became getting there which requires multiple flights from the USA too much time. As such, I turned my focus to San Andrés Island and limited my choice to San Luis or San Andrés.
San Luis looked extremely appealing for a quiet stay, though the limited selection of hotels and restaurants seemed almost too quiet especially for having to rely on taxis or a golf cart rental for transportation around the island.
San Andrés City seemed a little hectic to me, but it seemed like an easier place to meet all my needs which included:
- Easy transportation from the airport
- A variety of hotels
- A variety of restaurants
- A choice of Dive Shops
- Easy access to other tours and water sports
In choosing my hotel, I wanted some place nice, not too expensive, on the beach and walking distance to the dive shop and restaurants. I finally picked Hotel Casablanca.
Hotel Casablanca is located across the pedestrian street, Calle 1, from the beach, has several of its own restaurants as well as a nice pool, and is about a five-minute walk from Banda Dive Shop, the number one ranked SCUBA Diving Shop in San Andrés on Trip Advisor.
Hotel Casablanca was a bit pricey compared to other places to stay on the island, but also got some of the better reviews that I read with compared to similar options. Had my friend joined me, it would have been only about $100pp/night which is reasonable to me, but she ended up not having enough money to go, so I bore the whole cost.
My breakfast was included in my reservation, so that is the only time I ate at the hotel aside from the first night when I arrived after 24 hours of sleepless travel. The Restaurante Tropical was buffet style and located on the second floor of the hotel overlooking the beach.
Other restaurant options at the hotel are Sea Watch Caffe, Restaurante Casablanca, Restaurante Mahi-Mahi and Restaurante La Barcarola.
The pool is enclosed in the middle of the hotel and is surrounded by hotel rooms. My room overlooked the hot tub that the Colombians really enjoyed around Happy Hour time. Many seats were available in the morning, however, none were available in the afternoon, at least on weekend.
My room was nice, and the bed was comfortable, though it came with a handful of idiosyncricies. First, the room key is used to turn on the lights and the A/C unit, so upon departure, the room warms without the A/C blowing. In addition, the key moved after inputting it into the slot, so I had to wedge a piece of paper into the slot as well to keep the electricity from turning off. The toilet generally took three flushes to succeed. And finally, the shower was tricky! It took a good five minutes for the water to warm up. Soon I soaped up only to enjoy the warm water briefly before it turned SCALDING HOT. At this time, I had to run only the cold water while I waited in the corner of the shower for it to cool. After about five minutes, I could rinse off in the warm water for a minute or two before it turned cold. I thought I finally got the water combination right on my third try, but not so. The plumbing just seemed to work however it felt like it that day! I also had a few friendly ants join me as my roommates, but they were tiny and not bothersome.
The male staff was extremely friendly, always smiling and trying to help. Many knew English and didn’t mind speaking it when necessary, though I liked practicing my Spanish when possible. I found the females weren’t quite as helpful, in particularly at the restaurant. I usually finished my breakfast by the time I got my coffee! And one time, when a hostess rather than a host was seating, I wasn’t allowed to sit at a four-top table by the window because, “They didn’t have enough space” despite the giant restaurant being three-quarters empty. In the fifteen minutes, that it took me to eat my breakfast, only one couple came in for breakfast!
Wi-Fi was sporadic for international users.
Overall I was pleased with my choice, though I think the Apartamentos Turísticos Doña Flor would also be a good choice for certain people.
Other Hotels I Considered
Hotel Lord Pierre
The Dive Shop was located at this hotel, so I considered staying here, but it was a little farther from the center of town and the main pedestrian strip and just off the beach. The reviews were also not quite as good and it cost more. Having said that, the lobby seemed nice and did its exclusive pier though the pool was small and we as divers were constantly walking through the lobby and restaurant. I liked my choice better, though the restaurants nearby this hotel (Juan Valdez Café, Beer Station, Café Café, Margherita e Carbonara) were very popular and busy day and night.
This hotel was also more expensive with lesser reviews than Hotel Casablanca. From the outside looking in, it seemed like a decent choice for those wishing for an all-inclusive. It was also conveniently located relatively close to the port from which many excursions left to other islands, so it would be a well situated choice for those wishing to visit Johnny Cay and other beaches by boat.
Apartamentos Turísticos Doña Flor
I didn’t stumble across this place on the internet, but Eric, a guy I met on the dive boat did. This place included a nice court yard and was decorated quite well. It was located away from the tourist strip and was a ten-minute walk to the dive shop which was a bit far for carrying dive gear, but otherwise was not a bad spot. His apartment included two rooms; one with a couch, refrigerator and dining table and one with two beds. He enjoyed a nice porch with rocking chairs though the enclosed view wasn’t the best. The lady who manages it was extremely friendly! His two complaints is while the internet was good, he had to stand outside around the corner from his porch to use it, and his showers weren’t warm. If I were to return to San Andres, I’d strongly consider this place. ETB