Cartagena v. San Andres Island — A Comparison
If you’re in a cold, winter climate right now and you’re looking to escape the frigid temperatures and snowy weather for a little while, you should consider the following two destinations for a vacation. Recently, I was lucky enough to take two, separate trips in December to the San Andres Island in Colombia and then to the coastal, colonial city of Cartagena, which is also located in Colombia. While these destinations are similar in many respects, they are still unique in a number of ways. Depending on what you’re looking for in a tropical destination, both San Andres and Cartagena have a lot to offer for the average traveler.
San Andres Island
After visiting the San Andres Island in early December, I consider it to be a hidden gem of the Caribbean. I write this because I find it to be much less of a tourist destination than other tropical islands such as the Bahamas, Bermuda, U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, etc. and small countries such as Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. What it lacks in notoriety and sheer size, San Andres is just as much of a Caribbean destination than other more popular islands.
The island is rich in both biodiversity and sheer crystal blue beaches that you can swim in, go snorkeling, or go riding around in a boat or Jet Ski. San Andres is blessed with vibrant coral reefs, sand banks, and outer cays, which are easy to explore by foot or by boat. You can snorkel with the fishes or go scuba diving with them depending upon your personal preference. The island is smaller than most tropical destinations at only 26 square kilometers in total area but I consider it an advantage to be able to see a good amount of the island in only a week if that’s how long you plan to stay.
There are a number of ways to get around the island including local buses, which will do a circular loop around the island and can be hailed from anywhere you are in the main street. You can also rent your own scooter or golf buggy cart to get around the island for a day or more. Taxis are also plentiful in most areas but tend to be more expensive depending on where you’re going on the island.
Most restaurants, hotels are located in the northern part of the island and tend to be a little bit cheaper than Cartagena in terms of pricing. The great thing about San Andres is that there is a number of bed and breakfast places available, which are cheaper than the major hotel chains if you’re looking to save some money. The smaller hotel chains and the bed and breakfasts are usually located closer to the island’s less popular but still very beautiful beaches, which are also less touristy overall.
During the low season for San Andres’s tourism, it’s possible to find a beach where there are few tourists around and where there’s still white sand and crystal blue waters. All you would have to do is make sure you do your research and find out where these lesser-known beaches are and take public transportation or your own scooter there for the day. You won’t find these beaches in El Centro or in the north of the island.
Luckily, I was able to find a beach like that ten minutes south of where I was staying by bus, which was the highlight of my trip. If you’re looking to visit San Andres, make sure you visit during the low season and be ready to explore the island beyond just the touristy areas. In addition to being accessible by plane from Colombia, which is the owner of the island, you can also get to San Andres from the countries of Panama and Costa Rica. With the right planning and set-up, you’ll be able to walk to the nearest tropical beach when you stay in San Andres for your visit.
A city with an interesting mixture of colorful, colonial buildings and modern, towering skyscrapers, Cartagena is the most popular tourist destination in all of Colombia and has been growing in popularity in recent years. Known most for being the location of the oldest Spanish colony in the Americas, Cartagena offers a lot of history, culture, and diversity to those tourists who visit its’ colonial streets, coastal beaches, or plentiful hotels. Cartagena is very easy to get to by bus, by boat, or by plane with its’ modern international airport named after former President of Colombia, Rafael Nunez who was a Cartagenero.
If you’re short on time, it would not be a complete trip to Cartagena without visiting sites like the Felipe de San Barajas Castle, which was a Spanish fortress designed to protect the city from foreign invaders and from scheming pirates. There’s also the walled colonial city with its’ colorful buildings, which have been somewhat transformed to offer restaurants, boutique hotels, and artisanal shopping to its many tourists. In my opinion, the walled colonial city still has a lot of character and its architecture is really pleasing to the eye. Costenas are among the friendliest people in Colombia and are truly welcoming to the sheer amount of tourists that come to the city each year.
While I was not able to go there during my recent trip, the La Popa hill has great views of Cartagena and you can take a tour of a monastery there with a history dating back to the 17th century. While Cartagena has a number of beaches, the best ones take some effort to get to, which can take a whole day trip back and forth. The most famous beach in the area is La Playa Blanca located on the Baru Island, where you can find white sand beaches and the crystal blue water that can’t be easily found elsewhere in Cartagena. Lastly, Cartagena is a big city with over a million residents and thousands of tourists. If you don’t get to do everything in one trip, you can rest assured knowing that it’s a city that is worth more than one visit.
Overall, I had an excellent time during my two separate visits to Cartagena and San Andres Island. Both of these destinations have a lot to offer to the average tourist and are relatively affordable and easy to get to from other parts of the Americas. If you’re looking for a warm destination with friendly and open people, these two locations should be high on your list.
If I were to give recommendations based on what each place can offer as its’ specialty, you’ll want to give San Andres the edge in terms of its’ beaches and its’ water sports activities. The manageable size of the island to navigate along with its various modes of transportation makes it easy for the traveler to explore different beaches, coral reefs, and outer cays without having to go very far. San Andres is also a bit cheaper of a destination in terms of average lodging and food costs compared with Cartagena.
While San Andres has the advantage with its’ beaches and its’ overall costs, Cartagena shines when it comes to the history of the city, its’ open and friendly people along with the numerous options for dining and lodging. In all of the cities of Colombia, the walled colonial city of Cartagena is very special along with the San Felipe de Barajas Castle. The restaurant and nightlife scene is also much more vibrant giving the average tourist a lot to do, see, and explore at nighttime compared with San Andres.
I would suggest that while Cartagena has a number of accessible beaches, the special ones like Playa Blanca take some time to get to and are not located within the city. When it comes to crystal blue waters and white sand beaches, San Andres Island is a destination that offers that in a number of locations without too much effort needed.
The beauty of these two destinations is that they each have something special to offer the tourist, the traveler, or the backpacker. If you’re looking for beautiful beaches and water sports activities, head to San Andres Island but if you’re looking to learn more about history, culture and to experience good restaurants and nightlife, head to the city of Cartagena. Either destination has its’ own specialties and advantages. You won’t regret your time in either destination and it will be a good travel experience that you’ll have fond memories about.