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).

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
Voices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
News
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
news
News
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
news
News
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
news
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?