San Andres – Stressed Out In Paradise

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or Jimmy Buffet didn’t prepare me for this.

(Skip the story, tips… pics here.)

My life was flashing before my eyes. Or perhaps it was the Caribbean Sun reflecting off the chrome bumper of the truck I nearly crashed our “carto de golfo” into that was doing the flashing.  Forget “I blew out my flip flop”, I nearly blew up my diesel-powered golf cart. Our second close call in less time than it takes Sr. Buffet to sing about looking for his lost pitcher of salt. 

Our golf cart wasn’t some timid electric-powered device designed to leisurely navigate scenic greens, but as noted, a diesel-powered beast designed more for off-roading. Further rather than gas and brake being positioned neatly adjacent to one another, instead there was a significant gap of just the perfect size to make the adjustment form “Go! Go! Go!” to “STOP!” incredibly awkward to anyone who has ever driven any form of motor vehicle. Finally, swap out the leisurely ride around the links looking for the beer cart with a white-knuckle terror ride through traffic on a tiny island whose concept of traffic laws can best be summed up as Vehicular Darwinism. Chaos.

Does that look like a golf cart? Serious Business.

All this while trying to figure out how to stretch our remaining 80,000 pesos (about $25 and change) to cover lunch, gas and dinner in a place where credit cards were about as effective as traffic laws.

So how did we find ourselves in such a state on the beautiful Colombian island paradise of San Andres?


The island is part of an archipelago that sits some 400 miles off the Colombian coast and much closer to Nicaragua. That’d be three countries up the Central American chain if not up to speed on your Latin American geography. Allegedly Columbus set foot on San Andres during his 4th voyage to the Americas. The Dutch used it as a safe-haven from pirates. British Puritans who wanted to find wealth and adventure in the New World without the cold Massachusetts winters set up the first settlements. They then imported some slaves via Jamaica. Henry Morgan, the famed pirate, used San Andres as a base to raid the Spanish and English. Supposedly he’s even left some buried treasure on the island. Eventually the Spanish took it over in the 18th Century and it ended up going to Colombia once Simon Bolivar helped South Americans gain their independence.

And it was the first answer out of every Colombian we approached with the question, “where should we go if we visit your country?”

Phew. A lot of history for tiny plot of land you can lap in a diesel-powered carto de golfo in a couple hours’ time.

As a result of its unique history, while part of Spanish-speaking and predominately Catholic Colombia, the Raizal, the ancestors of the British and former slaves, are Protestant and speak English. Well, Creole English, making it difficult at times to understand. It’s about as removed from “Standard American English” as San Andres is geographically from Colombia. And much like Robert Burns wrote his poetry in a Scots dialect, here you can find beachside street art instructing you to “put di trash inna di can”.

Oh, and thanks to the number of Colombians who have moved to the island, it’s a coin flip what any person you are going to address speaks. The internet meme featuring the USB port – “50% chance of getting it right, wrong 90% of the time” holds true. 9 times out of 10, whatever language I addressed someone in was the wrong one.

So yeah, brief history and cultural lessons aside, now back to near death experiences. Or at least moments of potential grievous bodily harm.

 Truth be told, perhaps only the first 15 minutes or so of the ride were that terrible. The task of simultaneously acclimatizing myself to the power and odd controls of this roided-up golf cart and the pandemonium of the island traffic was fairly nerve wracking. It’s not LA bumper-to-bumper traffic, so much as a mix of cars, motos (motorcycles), carts all doing what cars, motos and carts ought not to do. Park in the middle of a lane blocking it up entirely? Sure!? Zoom up the wrong side of the road? Tranquilo. Factor in adults, kids and even animals jutting out into what was once a two-lane street now reduced to one because someone decided to take a siesta in their truck and couldn’t be bothered to find a proper parking spot. Add a splash of guy going wrong way and a dash of moto trying to pass you while all while you have only but one lane to work with and you can see how palpable the terror is.

Kid runs into street without looking… car in front of me slams on brakes suddenly, and my reactions are slowed as my foot desperately stomped in vain searching for that elusive, yet all important brake pedal as my mind zoomed at 1000 miles an hour trying to chart a plan b course that wouldn’t end up with me being a pasty gringo hood ornament on someone else’s vehicle. I honestly believe the experience shaved not a year off my life, but at least a couple days. But I guess that’s better than scraping me off the street, eh?

Fortunately, after the last ‘town’ – rather a collection of more than a few homes and businesses on the side of the road the other half of the island opened up. Far less inhabited, far less traversed and, correspondingly, far less chaos on the road. We met up with our friends, Mono and Colleen, who were more daring and opted for a moto and spent the better part of the day with the breeze at our front, the sun on our back.

The quest to find a working atm would end in abject failure as we explored the less populated half of the island, though we would be successful in finding a place with a stellar view and mojitos served in coconut husks. (One bevvy perhaps calmed the frazzled nerves and made the trip far less tense.) We got to enjoy watching a couple local spear fisherman at work, diving off the rocky outcroppings into the sea, returning minutes later with the latest catch in hand, tossed into the pile and repeat the process anew.

We were also successful in meeting up with two of our other friends who had just arrived on the island that morning for a lunch with a view. With this the full expectations of this trip were realized.  Six of us, plus two kids, enjoying ceviche and catch of the day while sitting on a beautiful and largely empty beach with a blue sky as Hollywood-movie aquamarine water lapped up on the shore. Now this, this is what we signed up for.

Smell those shrimp, they’re beginning to boil

Of course, reality set in when, naturally, the restaurant was unable to process our card – the connection was down – leading us to part with the vast bulk of our remaining holdings. And with most of the remainder needed to refuel our carto, we’d have just enough for the cab to get us from our beachside hotel back to “town” the following morning. And refueling the cart meant driving it back into the busier parts of the island, now with MORE traffic and 25% bonus chaos… Oh joy.

The trip as a whole was much like our experience that day. A fabulous disaster. Moments of sublime wonder on an unbelievably beautiful island, fun with friends, and perhaps enough chaos that threatened to derail the entire affair to keep us on our toes.

Less Story, More Brass Tacks

Where To Stay                   

We split our trip between two places.

First we spent three nights at the Cocoplum Resort/Hotel right on the beach and about halfway down the island. Cost was around $120 a night, breakfast included. Rooms were small, tv didn’t like us but fortunately the AC worked. The hotel was literally right on the beach, complete with own “private” beach (not really) right near Rocky Cay.

So the immediacy of the beach was great. Was really enjoyable.

Additionally you are right near one of the rental places where you can rent jet skis, other stuff… and where we got our Kawasaki Mule/”Carto de Golfo”. Got a half day (well, from 10am or so until 5pm) for 200mil, or just under $80US. We did have to fill ‘er up at the end of the day. Only gas station was like 8km up the road back towards “town” and cost about $7 for the fill-up. Our cart rental was cash only.

Biggest problems were the entire area sort of closes down around 6:00-6:30pm. Our hotel restaurant wasn’t that great compared to other places, but the only one open after maybe 7pm.

We also spent two nights at an AirBNB “in town” on the north end of the island. A lot more crowded, had a supermarket, near enough the aeropuerto to get cash courtesy of BVBA, the only ATM on the island that liked us. Cost was much less. We had about 10 minute walk to reach the San Andres sign signaling the start of the biggest beach on the island along with a boardwalk with lots of stores, restaurants, beer stations and excursion points, including Johnny Cay. The place had a supermarket a short walk away, and a lot of ‘local’ places to eat, both sit down restaurants and less expensive street food.

Internet was absolutely terrible in both. Forget Netflix, even posting a couple pics on Facebook took about an hour. Left my phone plugged in and running while I went off for more cerveza a half KM away, and they were still not even remotely done uploading by the time I got back.

Money

Bring money. Lots of it.

Colombian pesos are about 3000 to $1, so it’s easy math, 50mil is $17, round up to $20.  A lot of stuff is still fairly cheap.

You’ll need to pay a fee of something like 20-30,000 pesos per person just to enter the island.

ATMs – iffy. Our “local” (Colombian) bank card didn’t work on the nearest one to us, Another didn’t like my US Well Fargo card. I had to hike from our AirBNB to the airport to hit up a BVBA machine. They have bailed us out in Amsterdam, Argentina and now Andres, San., so thanks BVBA. We were literally down to about 25mil/$8 with a couple days to go before you came through.

Credit Cards – Lots of places couldn’t take credit cards. Our hotel didn’t like her local/Colombian card, fortunately my US-based card bailed us out. Other places could have theoretically accepted payment in credit cards, but even with the bluest of skies they had zero connectivity.

I think we brought $300 for six days, would have been better off bringing $400 for the two of us.  

You can get beers on the beach for about 5mil (under $2), water can go from 2mil to 4mil. You’ll want to buy a lot of water, as you will sweat. Mixed drinks (Cocolocos, etc) cost around 15mil on average on the beach, some might be more. Drinks are of varying quality and clout, and in the case of Cocoloco’s, even flavor depending upon vendor, so we mostly drank beer.

(Protip: avoid Caipirinhas. They don’t have casaca and instead use the Colombian firewater aguardiente… it doesn’t work.)

Meals – good seafood, though it seems a lot cost around the 30-40mil range, so plan on $10-15 per dish.  This was in our hotel (though for some reason Fish & Chips were listed as an appetizer and only $7).  Food, even that freshly caught earlier in the morning ran a bit more than here in Bogota. Almost US pricing, so a little costly compared to our normal, but might be a screaming deal if you’re coming from NYC or Chicago.  

Johnny Cay

Is a smaller island/beach was 20mil each for a boat ride (don’t do a tour), spent another 45mil to rent or own “tent” thing with beach chairs. Was tough to keep them entirely shaded, but doable. Lots of cool rasta bars (the local culture is very Jamaican, the languages there will make your head spin… weird mix of “English” or Spanish) … both Aguila and Club Colombia run 5mil there, so go for the gold. Well, the Club Colombia Dorado, it’s not too bad and sits well on a hot & humid beach day.

The tent fee was worth it, though we got our tent off to the very far end of the beach area… and had it cool for maybe 45 minutes until families upon families showed up, then was just busy busy busy.

Protip: Get matching bathing suits. Was a lot of that going ‘round. Couples on romantic holidays to entire families were rocking matching beachwear Note the first and third person in that line. They weren’t the only ones rocking the “Twins” look.

The Mule rental was worth it as well. Got to check out the less crowded side of the island, see a lot more beaches, far less crowded, was fun driving. Really scenic. And the place is hot (well, compared to Bogota, not Asuncion) so the cool breeze of the ride made it nice.

Restaurants we liked:

Rocky Cay beach has a restaurant, Rocky Cay Restaurant that’s a little offset from the beach. Really good fish of the day in a great garlic sauce.

Star’s Kitchen was a a KM or so farther down the island from our hotel and thus a ways “further” from the main part of town, right on the beach and was really, really good. Fish (lots of that there), ceviche.   

Pretty much everywhere gives you the Colombian Special, so you’ll get coco rice, some ensalata and maybe a patacone with each dish, so they are pretty filling.


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