We fly early from Bogota to San Andres island. It’s very straightforward, no hitches, so all my worries the day before were unnecessary. Bogota airport is busy but organized with lots of coffee and doughnut kiosks. For some reason someone feels it’s a good idea to stock up on doughnuts before flying, but we resist that particular temptation. There are numerous security checks – my theory is that with a semblance of peace in the country, the government must find something for all the soldiers to do ( many seem to hang around the streets of Bogota, not really appearing to do much, but make tourists like us feel safe) and before the gate, the airline attendants actually collect boarding passes which they then give back to you at boarding time. it’s an odd system but we get off on time.
The plane is full of tourists, all Colombian. It seems most tourism to San Andres comes from Colombians. The whole concept of San Andres is a little odd – it’s closer to Nicaragua than Colombia, and the two countries have apparently squabbled over it for some time. In fact three Colombian battleships patrol the waters off the island just in case Nicaragua decides it’s time to invade. And then there’s the language – Creole English is widely spoken and so there’s a strong feeling of being in the heart of the Caribbean rather than in South America. In fact when we made this booking, I felt we were cheating a little because we would not be getting the authentic Colombian experience, and it would all be too easy, but hey, it’s the Caribbean in July so we’ll move on.
We land, it’s hot, we’re still dressed for Bogota, and we quickly get a taxi to our hotel. We’ll be staying in the town for 2 days and then in a small resort type place for 2 days. I didn’t want to necessarily stay in the town but I felt we needed some shops and restaurants as a diversion. Last year we were on Roatan island for 3 days on a magnificent beach, and we loved it, but having to eat at the beach bar nine meals in a row, and not having anything other than the beach for recreation can get a bit much for our kids (not for me – I can easily stay in the water all day) so we’ll be in town.
We’re staying at the Portobello Plaza. It’s a fancy name for something decidedly unfancy but it’ll do. The taxi ride is a few dollars and takes about 45 seconds. Oh well, we wouldn’t have known. The room is very simple but has good air conditioning. Best of all it’s about a minute from the beach with only a pedestrian walkway between us and the water. Score average for room and exceptional for location. That pleases me because I make all our travel arrangements and you never know until you get there how it’s going to work out.
Outside the hotel is a little market so we buy cheap sunglasses (one of my irresistible travel urges – unfortunately they usually break very quickly) and go to the beach. Now the criticism people have of San Andres, and the reason Providencia is so loved is that there’s a long line of nondescript hotels lining the beachfront, and that’s pretty much the view one gets from the water. But the water is magnificent. It’s got a gorgeous blue caribbean color, and is warm and enticing. Once in, it’s hard to get out.
We do though, so that we can partake in what will be days of ritual failure. We have 2 seemingly simple tasks : one is to mail a postcard to our son at camp in British Colombia, Canada, the other is to phone our daughter on a program in Israel. We set out for the post office. San Andres town is smallish so this should not be difficult. Mostly we find duty free shops selling luggage and perfume. It’s hot, so we may need the perfume soon. We get directions, a few times, but just cannot locate the place. HOW HARD CAN THIS BE ? We walk for what seems an eternity, sweating profusely and thinking longingly of that crystal blue water down the street, or by now, streets. There seem to be two different places and eventually we find one of them. It’s closed. We hang around for it to open at 2pm. At 2.20pm, an employee arrives. Success at last !! No, they can’t do it. We think they can mail it, they just cannot sell stamps. I could draw a stamp quickly, but that probably won’t do. We trudge off defeated, until the next day. We set out for a phone. We find an internet cafe with international phone calling so we go ahead. After a number of fruitless efforts we give up. We can’t tell if the problem is on our side or the other, but it’s not our day, for now.
We give up and go to Sea Watch for tuna sandwiches for lunch. This will soon become one of our favorite hangouts. And then back to the water for hours of lolling about in the water which is just awesome. It’s getting dark by the time we reluctantly get out.
Breakfast is included in the hotel price so we go to another Portobello hotel around the corner where they have their restaurant. Breakfast is mediocre, although a little better than in Bogota. There are some inedible fried dough balls (maybe that doesn’t sound too bad, but they are), and my son orders pancakes. They never come, and the billing becomes complicated because he thinks he’s getting them in place of something he was entitled to; instead we’re charged for another full breakfast. But we’re on vacation, the sun is shining, the water’s alluring so it’s hard to get too irritated.
We get on a small, packed motorboat (capacity about 20) to the Aquarium and Johnny Cay. My worldy wide eleven year old son tells me we’re making a big mistake going to the aquarium and my instincts tell me he’s right, but we do it anyway. The aquarium – aquario to the locals- is a zoo. It’s a tiny island with tourists and little boats everywhere. We can’t go straight into the water as first we have to get an informational lecture. So we stand tight as sardines under a thatch roof with the Caribbean 10 yards away. It seems like a challenge on a reality show. We have to pay to store our bag, water shoes for me and a snorkle. The water is good, although not quite as nice as by our hotel.
After an hour of this, we go to Johnny Cay, further away now because of the diversion. Johnny Cay is busy – many people probably feel too busy – but it is wonderful, with magnificent sand, glorious water and even fun waves. When we inevitably get to the judging part – we like to compare and rate our favorite cities, countries, beaches, anything in fact- this beach is going to be very high on our list of all time best. (It actually ends up being Benjy’s number one; for me in the top three alongside Camps Bay in South Africa and Abel Tasman in New Zealand). It’s very hard to pull ourselves out of the water but after a while we do to go for lunch. The island has about 10 tiny food providers – ‘restaurants’ just would not create the true impression- all serving exactly the same thing – fried chicken and grilled fish. We get one of each, plus two pina coladas ( no alcohol) and then decide to review our financial situation. I am carrying our day’s money supply in a little carrier I ear around my neck, and we realize we’ve been spending quicker than originally budgeted. Water shoes, snorkle, island fee – when we arrived at Johnny Cay some official looking guy told us we had to pay a fee of a couple of dollars each; My son said it was a hoax – it probably was- but I’m a stickler for authority and don’t want to take any chances. This is Colombia, after all. We have no idea how much the food will cost, but even at the lowest possible price, we’re going to struggle. This is not a particularly comfortable position – we are after all stuck on an island and have to still get back (although we believe our boat tickets are return), but it ends well. We are short, but our guy – proprietor, waiter, charmer, whatever – doesn’t seem to care too much. It starts raining so we decide to head back and wander about the town before calling it a day.