Cartagena v. San Andres Island – A Comparison

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“San Andres Island: Located Northwest of mainland Colombia and closest to the coast of Nicaragua. Very small island as you can see from this map.

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.

Cartagena

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.

Comparison

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.

San Andres Island

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CameraiPod Touch, 6th Generation

Location: San Andres Island, Colombia

The City of Eternal Spring

Medellin, a bustling metropolis of over three million people, has a popular and well-known nickname, “The City of Eternal Spring.” I can say for certain that this particular nickname is well warranted and appropriate given the moderate temperatures and humidity that make up the day and night here. Among the cities and towns I’ve visited in Colombia thus far, Medellin is special in that its’ climate is hospitable and agreeable.

Luckily, after a long day’s work at my new school, I can come back home without sweating through my shirt and dress pants. When it does rain here, it’s refreshing and cool. Sometimes, it can pour really hard but usually only for short periods of time and despite July and August being the prime months for the rainy season, it hasn’t been that frequent of an occurrence.

In addition to its’ great climate, there are other qualities that make Medellin a unique city. Its’ transportation is well organized and runs smoothly. The metro system here is one of the few in South America and is clean, affordable, and has frequent trains. I’ve been impressed at how easy it is to get around the city without breaking the bank. In addition to the metro, there are also the ‘Colectivo’ buses, the Metro Plus bus system, the Metro Cable car system, plentiful taxis, and Uber if you really need to get around in a hurry. Motorcycles, which I noticed to be quite popular on the Atlantic coast, are also another great way to get around especially if you’re not patient with the traffic here.

Caution is necessary, as ‘right of way’ does not exist for the pedestrian so you have to be an eye out for both cars, taxis, motorcycles, and large buses. Everything seems to run efficiently when it comes to getting people to and from their jobs whether they are in the north, south, or central part of the city. While I haven’t spent much time in Bogota or Cali, I would say that Medellin is the most interconnected city in Colombia when it comes to transportation.

Residents of Medellin and the Antioquia region in general are commonly known as ‘Paisas.’ This nickname is also spot on given the fact that these people are really born and raised here in the countryside. Compared with Costenos, Paisas are accustomed to the mountains and hills that surround their fair city. It’s been an adjustment for me given my past experience of living near the Atlantic coast of the country. It’s a unique opportunity to be able to see Colombia through a different lens.

While the food is similar to what you would find in other parts of Colombia, Paisa cuisine is unique in offering hearty dishes like ‘La Bandeja Paisa’ and ‘Cazuela Antioquia.’ Rather than seafood, Antioquia pride itself on its’ offerings of different kinds of meat served with potatoes, avocado, tomatoes, etc. Each region of Colombia including Antioquia are known for its’ cuisine offerings which may be unique to the particular region.

To put it bluntly, Medellin is a city which contrasts its’ natural surroundings of mountains and rivers with its’ skyscrapers, bridges, and freeways. In any view of the city, you get a mix of pure nature and urban settings. Tucked below the valley, the city rises with its’ buildings and elevated metro to contend with the nearby green mountains that surround the city. The most special sight to me occurs at night when the lights of the city flicker brightly across the valley and off the side of the mountains. Each white and orange light that shines in the valley at night signifies one of the homes, apartments, and buildings that house a few of the city’s overall three million residents.

I have only been in Medellin for two weeks so far but I can tell that this is a special place. In addition to the great climate, good public transportation, tasty local cuisine, and stunning views of nature, the city’s inhabitants are friendly and helpful. Sometimes, to me, it doesn’t feel like a big city but a cluster of small towns that make up an urban area. Part of the fun of living here is discovering new neighborhoods that each has something different to offer. There are cool museums and botanical gardens to see at the University of Antioquia, trendy restaurants and bars that make up most of the Laureles / Estadio neighborhood, and the heart of the nightlife scene in El Poblado. It’s also cool to check out the more suburban neighborhoods that are within a metro ride of Medellin such as Envigado and Sabaneta.

Even if one were to get bored with Medellin, there are a lot of things to do, and places to see in the Antioquia region. In addition, there’s also a number of day trips out there to explore the local nature scene and to experience more traditional villages. It would be unrealistic for me to say that you can get bored living in Medellin because it really is a vibrant cultural capital and I believe that a lot of tourists and residents from other Colombian cities now acknowledge that fact. Having had an unfortunate negative reputation in the international news media for many decades, Medellin is a city on the rise with a deep culture, cool neighborhoods, and hard-working, friendly people who want to show you the best of what their home city and region have to offer. I am very happy with my decision to have come back here to Colombia and to make my current residence here in ‘The City of Eternal Spring.’ Hopefully, as a reader of my blog and website, you’ll come down to visit Medellin sometime to find out just what all the hype is about.

The Heat Is On

One undeniable fact about life here on the Atlantic coastal area of Colombia is the constant heat and humidity. For me, this has been the biggest adjustment that I have had to get used to over the past month or so. Considering it was 20 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely cold when I left New York in mid-January, it was quite the shock to my senses to be experiencing 90 degree weather and 70% humidity on a daily basis here in Colombia especially during the months of January and February, which I have always associated with the Winter season. However, one of the great things about human beings is that we are very adaptable to our environment and our bodies can adjust to different climates without too much trouble. For example: Instead of bundling up in layers, you wear light clothing and show more skin.

Especially in this day and age, it is much easier to deal with the climate then in decades or centuries past. Due to modern technology, it’s much easier to deal both with the heat and humidity than ever before. For my fellow Peace Corps trainees and for those of you out there who want to visit the Atlantic coast of Colombia in the future, I have listed some tips and advice on how to beat the heat:

  • Wear light shirts and pants, preferably of cotton material. Heavy clothing is heavily discouraged and it will give you a chance to upgrade your fashion choices by wearing what the locals wear. Jeans are common here culturally and because it is also much harder for the mosquitos to bite you if you cover your legs as well.
  • Before you leave the house or apartment, wear sunscreen that is strong and reliable. If you’re not careful, you can get a severe case of sunburn and heat stroke. Also, it’s important to put on mosquito repellant in the exposed parts of your body not covered by clothing when you’re walking or running outside in the heat.
  • Wear a hat and put on sunglasses to reduce the sun’s impact on your face and eyes. This has been great for me in protecting myself from any skin problems or eyesight issues because the sun is quite strong.
  • Make sure that you drink plenty of water and hydrate continuously throughout the day. Bags of water are commonly sold here and are great for re-hydration. I would avoid sodas, sports drinks because they are not the best for hydrating yourself. If you need some sugar, then they are good options but Water is king when it comes to keeping your body temperature in line. Lack of hydration can be a real problem here so make sure you’re drinking a couple of liters of water each day.
  • Try to reduce your activities, movements outside during the hours of 2 to 4 PM. In my own experiences here, the heat is strongest and the humidity most oppressive during the mid-day. I would recommend staying inside during those hours and keeping cool at the local café or library. Strenuous physical activity during these hours could be detrimental to your health. It’s also a good opportunity for a nice descanso (rest) if you have some free time after school is over.
  • Besides water, indulge in some ice cream and natural fruit juices to keep your energy levels up. This is my favorite item for this list as I am a sucker for ice cream and cool beverages. It cools you down and it’s a nice reward for yourself after a hard day or week on the job.
  • Travel and time permitting, going to a local villa for some time at the pool and indulging in some cool refreshments is an afternoon well spent on the weekend. Going to the pool is one of my favorite ways to beat the heat and it’s nice to swim, lounge around and relax with friends.
  • Take advantage of the mornings and evenings when it is much less hot and humid out. I’ve heard from my fellow trainees that running in the early morning or exercising in the evening is preferable. I would agree completely that you have to be flexible and try to pick the times of the day where the heat isn’t as extreme and you can exercise without sweating puddles.
  • Hanging out at the library or the local Internet cafe where you can read a good book, catch up on work, and/or use the Wi-Fi is another great option. These places usually have air conditioning and/or strong fans too to help keep you cool.
  • If you’re feeling adventurous, heading to the beach for a day trip or to the local mall, Movie Theater are other great ways to keep cool and round out the ‘Top Ten.’

Finally, do not forget to invest in having a big fan ready to use for those humid nights in your bedroom. Sleeping in 90-degree weather is not easy so make sure you have a fan at your disposal to rest more comfortably. I hope this list is useful for those reading who are thinking of visiting hot and humid places. Despite the challenges that warm climates present to the human body, I still prefer it to the cold and snowy weather that I grew up with in New York. In addition to that, shoveling two feet of snow can be a real pain in the butt.