Sunday, June 16

The Blue Waters of San Andres, an Island Belonging to Colombia, Are Stunning

On San Andres, a small Colombian island in an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, counting the blues in the famous “Sea of Seven Colors” is on every visitor’s to-do list. It’s a midday activity done en route as you cruise among the cays, or keys, dotting San Andres’s eastern side: low-lying (mostly) uninhabited specks that aren’t much more than coral topped with palm trees and circled by sandbars.

From my bobbing perch, I counted six: a deep sapphire, a dusky azure, stripes of teal, turquoise and cerulean and, in the distance, a swath of brilliant cyan against the edge of a tiny, palm-fringed island.

“Do you see seven?” the boat’s captain asked.

When I told him my tally, he laughed. “Six?” he said. “That means you can still relax a little more.”

San Andres is not on the radar of many U.S. travelers, but in Latin America, and especially among Colombians, it is a coveted honeymoon destination or a long-weekend retreat — a spot in the middle of the ocean to disconnect from whatever weighed you down on the mainland.

The archipelago of San Andres and Providencia is more than 400 miles north of the mainland of Colombia, and closer to 100 miles east of Nicaragua, but thanks to a historical wrinkle that is still being ironed out, it is part of Colombia.

Kent Francis James, 73, was the archipelago’s governor during the 1990s and advised the current local and national government on boundary issues with Nicaragua. But his passion, he said when I met him on San Andres, is helping tourists connect more deeply with the island’s history.

“We want you to come here not just to get your skin burned, but to bring home a better understanding of Caribbean history,” he said, as we sat on his home’s balcony and enjoyed the view of the water in the distance, framed by bougainvillea and palm trees.

Mr. James scanned the horizon and pointed out the shipwrecks that litter the island’s waters. “We were geographically on the route of the Spanish going up the coast with gold, so this is the place the pirates used to be on watch,” he explained, describing how voyagers often underestimated the shallow waters surrounding the islands’ many cays and ran aground — to the delight of pirates like the Welsh-born Sir Henry Morgan, who is believed to have used San Andres as a base of operations.

We were technically in Colombia, but Mr. James spoke in clipped English — his accent itself a nod to the island’s history.

Although it is believed that the Dutch and Christopher Columbus landed on the archipelago, it was the British who settled San Andres around 1630. English was the island’s first language, and still today it’s spoken by the native islanders.

Unlike most places in Latin America, San Andres has no record of Indigenous peoples on the island. It was seemingly uninhabited when the Europeans arrived. And that’s why when locals refer to “native” islanders, they are referring to the descendants of the original British settlers or, more frequently, the descendants of the once-enslaved Africans those settlers brought over.

This Afro-Caribbean ethnic group is called Raizal, a takeoff of the Spanish word for “roots.”

Cleotilde Henry, 75, is one of the island’s Raizal leaders. Her family traces back to the African slave trade, she explained, as she set out crunchy slices of fried breadfruit and balls of sweet coconut on her dining room table. She didn’t make the treats just for me — she sets them out every day for the tourists who rent rooms in the upstairs of her home through the island’s posadas nativas, or native inns program.

“I was born in this house,” she said, pointing around the small living room to yellowed family portraits in wooden frames and crocheted table coverings. “So when I thought about what I could do to make money from tourism, the only thing I had was this house.”

Today Ms. Henry, who is also the president of the archipelago’s Posadas Nativas Association, rents 12 rooms, which can be found under the name “Cli’s Place” on travel-booking websites like Booking.com.

Across the archipelago, around 200 homes have been designated “posadas nativas,” offering an opportunity for tourists to stay with a local family — usually under the watchful eye of the matriarch — in their home, and to eat local, Raizal foods.

It’s the local solution to a universal challenge: how to retain the unique identity of a place when tourism starts booming. Less than 20 years ago, Raizal people accounted for 57 percent of the population of San Andres, but each year that number gets smaller, as Colombians from the mainland are lured to the blue waters of island life.

Although the beaches of San Andres are not among the most beautiful in the world, the water a short distance offshore is, thanks to the sunken reefs, and so many visitors skip exploring the interior of the island in favor of getting wet.

Each cay differs from the next. Johnny Cay, which sits across the water from the more populated northern part of San Andres, looks like the dictionary entry for “deserted island”: a clump of palm trees ringed by white sand. Rocky Cay is not much more than its namesake rock, with a lean-to beach bar and a rusty shipwreck sticking out of the water beside it. You reach Haynes Cay by wading through waist-deep water, holding a wobbly rope connecting the cay to a no-frills restaurant built on a sandbar. A typical day vacationing in San Andres includes bopping among the cays, pausing to doze against their palm trees or swim in the water around them, and, along the way, counting blues.

Like the pirates of the past, today’s snorkelers and scuba divers are delighted by the sunken ships dotting the waters, as they get to explore the underwater ecosystems created by those wrecks. In 2000, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization established the massive Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a vast protected marine area surrounding the islands.

“It’s like a mountain range under the water here, and that’s why we have deep spots but also these sandbars and cays,” explained Jorge Sanchez, 68, a former dive instructor on the island who invited me to his home one afternoon to view topological maps of the area’s ocean floor. Waving his hand across one map, he added, “The ocean species don’t know where the border is between Colombia and Nicaragua, so this is a great place to see all kinds of animals from different places.”

Even if you don’t enjoy the waves, San Andres is a gorgeous setting to enjoy the seven shades of blue from afar. And the not-too-steep hills and smooth-enough roads mean that the breeziest, most fun way to do that is by renting a mule (pronounced moo-LAY), a little golf cart, the typical way visitors get around the island.

I’d never driven a golf cart any significant distance, so when Ms. Henry suggested that I put on my bathing suit and take one around the island, I balked. But about an hour later, I was smiling like a fool, the ocean wind blowing back my hair as I chugged down the road ringing the coast at about 25 m.p.h., with motorcycles zipping around me. I cruised past the cays, hopping in the water when it called to me, making my way down to the island’s less populated southern end. I stopped for lunch at the Raizal restaurant Miss Janice Place for fried fish and coconut rice.

On the way back, I planned to swing by Mr. James’s house, to tell him about my day. Without a good cell signal on the island, the only way I could do this was by popping in, so I headed toward his place, until the chugs of my mule became less frequent, and I finally realized the engine had shut off. My trusty mule was sliding backward down the hill. I slammed on the brake, slowing the slide, but couldn’t get the engine to turn over again. Fortunately, some utility workers witnessed the scene, suppressed their laughter and came to my rescue. They improvised a solution and hauled the golf cart to the top of the hill using long wires. I told them I was visiting Mr. James, and one of the workers turned and shouted over a wall of bushes — “Mister Kent! We found an American!”

Grinning, Mr. James emerged from his property to greet me, and as I waved a thank you to my utility-worker heroes, he explained he wasn’t surprised to see me.

“Because a tourist can spend their days on the beach, and fill their stomach with our food and rum, and then go home and never return,” he said. “But once you start to talk to locals about our history, you will always want to come back.”

Gustavo Rojas Pinilla International Airport has direct connections to Panama City, Panama, and multiple cities in Colombia, and from San Andres it’s possible to get a flight to the neighboring island of Providencia.

Once on the island, the best way to get around is either by taxi, easily found in downtown San Andres or arranged in advance, or by mule, which can be rented for around 200,000 Colombian pesos, or about $51, per day.

Staying at a posada nativa, or locally owned inn, is the maximum immersion experience on the island, and often will be the most affordable lodging option; expect to pay about 235,000 Colombian pesos a night with breakfast. Cli’s Place Posada Nativa, Posada Nativa Licy and Miss Trinie’s Posada Nativa are some of the most popular.

For a more upscale experience, Decameron operates many hotels on the island, including the Decameron Isleno at Spratt Bight beach, a centrally located, all-inclusive option for about one million Colombian pesos per night. Hotel Casablanca offers rooms with a view of Johnny Cay for about 1.1 million Colombian pesos per night. Short-term rental options are also available through Airbnb. Many are within condominium developments and have amenities like pools, doormen and gyms.

Niko’s Seafood is a midrange restaurant near the center of San Andres serving fresh-caught fish cooked for around 50,000 Colombian pesos.

La Regatta is perhaps the fanciest restaurant in San Andres, specializing in seafood like ceviche for 75,000 Colombian pesos a or grilled lobster with coconut rice (215,000 Colombian pesos) served on a patio over the water near central San Andres. Reservations required, request the patio.

Miss Janice Place on the southern end of San Andres in San Luis offers typical Raizal food for 40,000 Colombian pesos for mains accompanied by coconut rice and jars of natural fruit juice.

Namasté Beach Club San Andres is near Rocky Cay with chic lounge chairs and a menu ranging from beach snacks like empanadas (around 30,000 Colombian pesos) to proper dinner like fried local fish (50,000 Colombian pesos).


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