Located in the Caribbean Sea, the island of San Andrés is closer to Nicaragua than it is to Colombia, but it’s still the perfect vacation from the mainland. An UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, this archipelago features beaches, cays, islets, and coral reefs filled with native flora and fauna. From mangrove trees to the waterfront promenade to the popular Johnny Cay Park, you’ll spot crabs, birds, and iguanas.
It’s a great destination for lovers of Scuba diving and snorkeling, plus you can take day trips out to explore nearby islands and fish for your lunch. Straight out of a postcard, the brilliant blue-green water here has been given the nickname “the sea of seven colors.” The island was first explored by English Puritans, and some of their legacy remains to this day in the island’s houses, language, and neighborhood names.
Let’s explore the best things to do in San Andrés:
1. Johnny Cay Natural Regional Park
Take a boat from the main beach in San Andrés out to this island of white sand beaches and coconut groves.
Inhabited by lots of iguanas, the protected coral islet is wildly beautiful but it can get packed with tourists, especially on the weekends.
Lounge in the shade under a palm tree or head out to snorkel over the surrounding reef.
There are tons of little food and drink stalls here playing reggae music – try the Caribbean lobster, fried fish, or the coco loco (a fresh coconut with rum). Explore the interior of the island a bit or take a stroll around the whole thing in about 15 minutes.
2. Scuba Diving
Scuba diving is one of the main reasons people venture all the way to the island of San Andrés.
With incredible visibility and water warm enough that you don’t even need a wetsuit, it’s the perfect place to learn to dive or get in a couple of fun dives.
There are colorful coral reefs, rock formations, tons of fish, sharks, and even bioluminescent plankton.
You can arrange shore dives, wreck dives, and even night dives.
There are several professional dive shops in the area with patient instructors and divemasters who speak English and Spanish – check out Scuba San Andrés Dive Shop and Blue Life Centro de Buceo.
3. El Acuario and Haynes Cay
Hire a boat from the docks to Cayo El Acuario for some of the most gorgeous blue water you’ve ever seen.
This is another one of these places that can get packed with crowds and boats, so it’s best avoided during the weekends.
It’s a popular sandbank where you can rent snorkeling gear and lockers, but there’s not quite as much to see underwater as in other areas.
Walk or swim from El Acuario to the nearby Haynes Cay for a much more secluded and relaxing experience.
It’s tiny – with very little actual beach – but it’s one of the most beautiful cays in San Andrés.
You’ll only find clear waters, wild iguanas, and two tiny little restaurants, one of which (Bibi’s Place) is delicious.
4. Kayak Through the Mangroves
For a different sort of tropical island experience, book a tour with EcoFiwi to explore the Old Point Regional Mangrove Park.
This family-owned company can lead you through tunnels of mangrove trees in “transparent” sea kayaks so that you can see the aquatic life beneath you.
Learn more about this unique and essential ecosystem that serves as a hatchery for many fish.
You’ll stop for snorkeling sessions and see the juvenile versions of many newly-hatched fish as well as corals, rays, anemones, and starfish.
This company is working to bring environmental awareness to the island and prevent overdevelopment, and snacks and juice are provided at the end of the tour.
5. Go Snorkeling
At all of the beaches and islands around San Andrés, it’s likely you’ll find touts and shops offering snorkeling gear for hire.
However, some spots are better than others, so be sure to grab a mask at the good beaches like La Piscinita.
Of course, a boat tour can take you to the best offshore snorkeling spots around reefs and shipwrecks located in deeper waters (where you won’t be surrounded other tourists). On a good day, you can see tons of fish, bright corals, rays, and even sea turtles and sharks if you’re lucky.
Check out Caribe Extremo or San Andres Diving & Fishing to book something!
6. Visit Providencia
If San Andrés gets a little too hectic or crowded for you, visit its remote little sister island of Providencia just 56 miles (90 kilometers) north.
Take a flight or book the three-hour catamaran trip to this unspoiled land where the pace of life is shower.
Because it’s tough to get here, there are fewer tourists and the traditional way of life remains in tact, with English creole still spoken in the villages.
Travelers come for incredible Scuba diving, snorkeling, and hiking.
Visit Crab Cay and McBean Lagoon National Park for beaches and then Peak Forestry Reserve for walking when you’ve had enough water-based activities.
You’ll want to spend a couple of nights here in paradise, so check out the local posadas and B&Bs available in the villages of Bahía Suroeste and Aguadulce.
7. Try the Island Cuisine
Since you’re in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, you’ll be able to get the freshest seafood around, from red snapper and sauteed conch to lobster and crab.
Along the beaches and cays, you’ll find little restaurants selling whole fried fish with coconut rice and patacones (smashed and fried plantains), but some also do fresh ceviche well.
Lots of island kitchens specialize in snails or caracoles served up as salads, stews, and even meatballs.
Be sure to try rondon, an Afro-Caribbean soup of fish, yams, crab, snail, pigtail, and plantains, all cooked in coconut milk with pepper.
Try it at Fisherman Place or Miss Celia, or anywhere else you find it on the menu!
8. Day Trip to Cayo Bolívar
With some of the best beaches around, take a tour or hire a boat to this tiny little island encircled with palm trees and white sand.
While it’ll take a whole day to make this trip – it’s about 15 miles (25 kilometers) away – a tour usually includes drinks and lunch as well as plenty of time to lounge in the sun.
Because it’s tough to get to, the island remains unspoiled with clear turquoise waters and plenty of fish, coral, and even baby sharks swimming about.
Be sure to check with local authorities because sometimes they close off the island for months to halt environmental impacts, and note that the ride out can be a bit bumpy.
9. Hire a Golf Cart or Bike
Tour the island at your own pace by renting a golf cart, or get a little exercise and do it on a bicycle.
The island isn’t huge but it is hot, so this will speed things along if you want to hop from the main town to the beach to the little villages around San Andrés.
You should be able to hire golf carts from your hotel for half days, full days, or even three hours if you like – that’s enough time to travel around the island with stops along the way.
They’re pretty affordable and it’ll give you a chance to see the less-touristed side of things, like little mom and pop shops, small restaurants, and quieter neighborhoods.
10. The Villages of San Luis and La Loma
A peaceful alternative to the busy downtown of San Andrés, the two little villages of San Luis and La Loma make a great day of exploring.
San Luis is not much more than a bunch of colorful rustic houses and posadas along the east coast, but Rocky Cay is home to a beautiful beach that’s great for snorkeling.
La Loma is located in the interior of the island just south of the center and it retains a traditional charm.
Climb up to the Hill, a great lookout point and the highest spot on the island, and check out the old Baptist church, established in 1847 and rebuilt from Alabama pine.
11. La Piscinita
One of the best places for snorkeling from the shore on San Andrés, La Piscinita (also known as West View) is a popular spot with tourists for good reason.
For a small entrance fee, you’ll receive a piece of bread to feed the fish swimming about in the crystal clear waters.
Grab your mask or rent one there, jump in from the diving board they’ve built over the sea, and watch as fish eat directly from your hand! There are other water activities that you can pay extra for like jet boat rides and aquanaut gear.
Nearby there’s a pretty great restaurant, a house made of coconuts, and guys selling coconut water, cocktails, and beers – it’s a great place to spend the day even if it is a bit touristy.
12. Explore the History of the Island
After you’ve seen the smaller villages and spent plenty of time beaching it, head to the west coast of the island for a glimpse at its interesting history.
La Cueva de Morgan is a cave where the Welsh pirate Henry Morgan supposedly buried his treasure.
You can’t exactly enter the cave because it’s filled with water, but there are tours that take you to see the entrance.
Swing by just to see the traditional dancers, artwork, and coconut museum nearby.
Just down the street, check out the Island House Museum, the lovely former home of an English family where some old relics from island life have been preserved.
You can take a tour of the house and there’s even a little dance studio outside where they offer traditional dance lessons.
13. Jardin Botanico de San Andrés
For plant, flower, and gardening lovers, this is a must-visit attraction in San Andrés.
The botanical gardens here are well maintained and tours are available to learn about the nature and history of the island – they last about an hour.
Take a cool stroll through the trees, learn about the most important native plants of the island, and head to the top of the building for a view of the greenery of San Andrés and the ocean beyond.
The facilities are modern, the paths and signage are clear, and you may even see some animals roaming around.
14. Fishing Tours
If you want to get out on the water for some adventure, try your hand at fishing in the Caribbean Sea.
Most fishing tours can be combined with a meal, stops for snorkeling and beaching, and lots of music on board.
If you’re lucky, you’ll catch fish like bonito, wahoo, and mahi mahi and then take them to a nearby island to grill for lunch. Local fishing guides are super friendly and helpful at taking you to the best spots around the island.
Check out San Andrés Diving & Fishing to book a morning or afternoon tour with a guide and captain who has more than 25 years of experience.
15. Stroll the Waterfront Promenade
El Centro, known as the North End, is the main commercial center of the island, and while most of it isn’t too attractive, the waterfront promenade is probably the nicest part of San Andrés town.
From the Parque Ecologico San Andrés and the “I Love San Andrés” sign, stroll along the paved walkway next to the beach for a plethora of hotels, bars, and restaurants.
You’ll find some of the nicest (and most expensive) places in town but also some plastic chairs and cocktail stalls.
It’s great for a walk at sunset, finding that perfect place for waterfront ambience, and even hitting the casino.