Trail of the unexpected: Colombia’s Caribbean

El Cliff is just one attraction of Colombia's islands – which deserve a better press, says Simon Calder

San Andres and its little sister, Providencia, have much to recommend them: neither is overburdened with tourists, yet they offer a winning combination of cheap and cheerful Caribbean life (in San Andres) and breezy isolation (on Providencia). So it is surprising that this corner of the Caribbean was the destination for the most misconceived "new" package holiday of the 1990s.

"A tranquil paradise", promised the brochure. San Andres was "a magic place that time has forgotten". Better still, the £585 all-inclusive holiday was so all-inclusive that even unlimited cigarettes were provided.

In 1994, Brenda Wall and her husband watched an episode of the ITV travel show Wish you were here...?, which featured San Andres. They decided to book a holiday there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. But the trip was so bad, it spawned a website devoted to "holidays from hell", HolidayTravelWatch.net.

"Many thousands of holidaymakers returned home very ill with serious gastric illnesses," reports the site. "Nine highly infectious notifiable diseases were diagnosed from many of the holidaymakers who went to the Caribbean island of San Andres." You may, if you wish, scrutinise the Nasty Nine from cholera to Vibrio parahaemolyticus. But your time would be better spent planning your own trip.

San Andres and Providencia are located off the coast of Nicaragua, but owe their national allegiance elsewhere. The brochure barely hinted at it, but eagle-eyed holidaymakers could have deduced from the small print on page 9 ("Currency: Colombian pesos") that the pair are the Caribbean jewels of Colombia. A little tarnished, perhaps, but still worth exploring.

Mainland Colombia offers exquisite colonial architecture in Cartagena and awesome Andean scenery around Medellín. It already has an impressive collection of Caribbean beaches, but these are augmented by San Andres – starting at the airport (which made the world press last month when a plane broke up on landing, killing one passenger).

Perched on the seashore at the top end of the runway is a rambling shack called the Fisherman's Place. The speciality – indeed, the only choice – when I was there was red snapper, sold by the kilogram and cooked as you sipped your Aguila beer. This is where you begin to discover that while Colombia is a solidly Hispanic nation, most of the 85,000 residents of San Andres and Providencia are English-speaking – descendants of the slaves brought in from elsewhere in the Caribbean. They call their home territories St Andrew's and Old Providence.

The Spanish first encountered the islands in 1527, but abandoned them because of the absence of precious metals. After a brief occupation by the Dutch, a band of British pirates took over with the connivance of the Crown. San Andres made a perfect base for raids against Spanish galleons carrying treasure from Panama. Captain Henry Morgan – as in the rum – attacked anything that moved eastwards, on the unerringly accurate basis that it was sure to contain a high-value cargo. His plunder is said still to be hidden in an underwater cave on San Andres.

The island's main sights can be surveyed in a day. The north of the island is dominated by El Cliff, a great slab of rock towering over the capital. Halfway down the island is the Big Pond (place names in San Andres are uncomplicated), where a fearsome collection of crocodiles resides. Completing the onshore attractions is the Blow Hole, a crevasse on the shore at the southern tip of the island from which, in anything stronger than a gentle swell, water ejaculates. This being Colombia, someone has built a beer shed around it. Spectators swig Aguila while the Blow Hole obliges with periodic drenchings. Every stay is imbued with the high-spirited verve of Colombia, a country pervaded by a ramshackle air and a faint hint of impending catastrophe.

Half-an-hour north by 19-seater plane, Providencia is an island of triumphant greenery. An old school bus circles the 11 damp miles around the only road on this tear-shaped island. The four modest centres of population are placed neatly at the compass points. Due north is the capital, Santa Isabel, whose haphazard wooden houses and chapels merge casually with the encroaching jungle.

The airport – a patch of bumpy asphalt like a long, thin car park – clings to the eastern edge of the island. A few Colombian servicemen, grateful for this prime posting, occupy a navy base towards the south. And a modest tourist enclave occupies the western coast around the hamlet of Lazy Hill, where a string of villas cohabits with older infrastructure such as Taylor & Son's Variety.

As ends of the world go, this is one of the more delicious. A shame that Mrs Wall – who died in 2005 – did not enjoy such pleasures in Colombia, on what I guess must these days be called her MayDayCation.

Travel essentials: San Andres and Providencia

Getting there

* Simon Calder travelled to Bogotá on Avianca via Paris, which has connections from a range of British airports. (Direct air links between the UK and Colombian airports have now all ended.) A return flight from London City via Paris and Bogotá to San Andres costs £740 through Expedia.co.uk. Adding a week in the all-inclusive Decameron Maryland (close to the airport) increases the total to £1,104 per person based on two sharing.

Other routings, for example via Miami and Panama City, are available from the UK for around £800 return on combinations such as Virgin Atlantic, Continental and Copa of Panama. Providencia is connected to San Andres by Satena (00 57 1 605 2222; satena.com), which has two flights a day, taking 35 minutes, for a return fare of US$139 (£92).

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