San Andres… The Caribbean pearl that moved something in us.
Facts about San Andres
San Andres is an island close to the East coast of Nicaragua, is 27 sq km big, and has a little sister Providencia 90 km up north. The two islands used to be an English colony and it were the English that brought with them the Jamaican people and culture. Out of the mix of British people and their Jamaican slaves, the Raizal people sprouted, speaking their proper language ‘Creole’. But after Colombia became independent, it claimed those two Caribbean pearls. The Raizal culture was kept in tact for a very long time up until Colombia was connected with San Andres by plane and the island was turned into a touristic, duty-free, holiday destination. (Lonely Planet Colombia, p171-172)
Experiences on San Andres
When you read about San Andres in the Lonely Planet, you are immediately warned for the many tourists. They say you are better off going to Providencia if you like less touristy and more authentic places. Yes we do! But we didn’t have enough time to spent an additional 6h traveling because we only had 3 days of vacation. So we decided to keep it with San Andres.
We arrived late night, so we took a cab to our B&B and went straight to bed. Our B&B was located in the south of the island. We had to drive for 30 minutes and already could take in a glimpse of San Andres by night. The houses looked very English with a huge touch of Colombian nonchalance surrounded by palm tree woods. Mathias immediately noticed the amounts of beer cans and other trash lying around the gutters. Something we really don’t like, but unfortunately experience in Cartagena as well. It was a good indicator of what we would experience the following three days.
After a good night sleep, we got to meet San Andres by daylight. We didn’t have a scooter or golf car (like most tourists). So we walked, on advice of our B&B owner, to La Piscinita. A place where “the water is crystal clear and a thousand fish swim through your legs and tickle your toes”. It appeared to be, in our opinion, a tourist trap. A concrete platform with plastic chairs where you can feet bread to the fishes. No wonder they are swimming there..
No thanks! We walked further to West View, another point where swimming and snorkeling should be great. Again, in our opinion, a tourist trap. We are not interested in places where 50 tourists are packed on a concrete platform waiting to jump into the water using the springboard or water slide, to then be packed together in the water taking pictures with the fishes that they are feeding bread to stay close.
So we decided to walk a 100 meters back to a Reggae-style restaurant we saw next to the water. It was still closed, but they were so kind to open up for us. We really enjoyed hanging out there, snorkeling around, eating the delicious fish that chef Majuana cooked for us, soaking up the sun, and talking to the nephew of the owner about living on the island and where to find the good spots (meaning, the ones without tourists).
He advised us to go to Sound Bay, on the other side (East) of the island. He said it is the most clean beach of the island and less touristy. So off we went!
We took a cab to the other side of the island and let us drop of at Sound Bay, of which the name refers to the sound of the waves cracking on the coral reefs. They say that at that point of the island, the reefs are located the closest to the island, which makes the place typified by the sound of the waves. Here we found a very nice quiet beach, where the water had different shades of blue, the sand was so soft you could not get it off of your feet, and the palm trees provided the perfect amount of shade. It was so quiet and beautiful.. we loved it.
After a very relaxing day on the beach and in the water, we decided to take the risk and head to the city center of the island, where all the restaurants are located, to have some dinner. Bad idea, it was an artificial tourist center, with bad service restaurants (at least ours), where little beautiful or cosy places could be found. We ended up going home hungry because we had to wait an hour for a cold, half-baked pizza to arrive. Just awful.
The next day, we celebrated Mathias’ birthday and our B&B owner took us with his boat to the 2 small Haynes Cay islands. Where we “HAD to swim in the natural swimming pool where you can see big, beautiful fishes swimming close by and can walk from one island to the other”. So we did.. and hated it. Though the islands are absolutely beautiful, the moment we arrived it became clear.. This was another stupid tourist trap. The first 10 minutes the island was still un-crowded. But then boat after boat came rolling in, packed with tourists, dying to take their picture on the white beach with 7-shades-of-blue water background and preferable holding stingray “Lola”, who is being caught by a local Raizal and kept in his hands the whole day to persuade tourists to pay for a picture with her, after which they can go snorkeling in the natural swimming pool where the fish again are in abundance tickling your toes and hands, while they feed them bread, which makes the fish not eat the coral, and makes the coral die… Well isn’t that paradise. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves now..
I’m sorry to sound a little harsh. It just really hurts my heart to see things like that. A beautiful piece of nature that is being over consumed by people without respect for its wildlife and their habitats..
When we got back we made an attempt to find a nice spot on the beach (still by foot, not the best idea) but soon returned to our spot of the day before because we didn’t find anything better. Back on our beach in Sound Bay, we enjoyed a delicious lunch at the cute beach bistro, Star’s Kitchen. Star is a great cook, using local products to prepare traditional dishes that taste so fresh an honest!
When the sun set, we started looking for a nice restaurant to eat because it was (still) Mathias’ birthday. We asked Star whether she had some recommendations (because she seems to know what’s good, obviously), but she actually had little recommendations (which says a lot about San Andres culinary level). She did had one, Niko’s Restaurant. So we went there with a tiny heart. It is not the type of restaurant we would go. Nevertheless, it was good. The service was great, the location was nice and the food was yummy. Pfiuw!
Our last day we were very lucky to be receiving an awesome birthday gift from the B&B owner, his scooter! So we could spend the entire day discovering the island and hopefully finding some other cool spots! It’s not possible there’s nothing more to this island than cheap, unsustainable tourism (and Star’s kitchen), right? So we did an island tour on the scooter, which is really the best way to discover the island. We loved it. I tried to take some pictures while sitting on the back of the scooter, with on the one hand the white beaches and blue see, and on the other hand the English/Caribbean houses and palm tree woods, to capture the correct image of the island.
Though we got a good image of the island and the different barrio’s and people, we didn’t find a better place to relax and enjoy the island. I am sure there are other nice spots, but we just didn’t find them. So we went back to Star’s Kitchen and her beautiful beach and delicious food (try her freshly made empanadas)!
Fun fact: There, I found out that Star is the sister of Heaven (I love their names ^^), the manager of my favorite coffee bar in Cartagena, La Presentación! What a crazy coincidence! These sisters know how to create the good stuff.
Conclusion about San Andres
I am glad we went to San Andres to witness its beauty and its friendly people. But I am not happy to have witnessed its mass tourism. We feel like the tourism will not have positive effects on the San Andres community on the long-term. It is such a small island with way to many tourists, killing the original culture and the coral reefs. It made me think about the importance of sustainable tourism. Also in Cartagena and its Rosario Islands there’s still a long way to go to reach a level of sustainable tourism. In my opinion, this is something that is reached with the willingness of the government to create or change regulations and with the willingness of travelers to travel with respect for the people and places they visit.
I hope this post will bring more awareness to travelers. It is such a luxury to be able to travel around the world and experience other cultures to the fullest. Life is about giving and taking. When we are traveling we are taking as much as we can. Taking pictures, tasting food, buying stuff, taking in their culture,.. We should also be thinking about what we are giving back to the community. I know yes, we are paying money. But does that money go to the community, or does it go to already rich citizens or foreigners who do not care about the community and sustainability? Therefor, I like booking at eco-Ho(s)tels or doing activities with eco-tours that work with locals, with respect for their community and nature.
I hope to go to Providencia soon to check out how different it is from San Andres.
But first, next up is Minca, Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas! Very curious about these top destinations!