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Introducing San Andrés

Just 150km east of Nicaragua and some 800km northwest of Colombia, the seahorse-shaped island of San Andrés counts 27 sq km of cultural tug-of-war as both its asset and its handicap. Covered in coconut palms, San Andrés, the largest island in the archipelago, is indeed paradisiacal Caribbean, but not everything here is quite so crystal clear.

Take the downtown area, for instance, at the northern end of the island. Colombians call it El Centro, but the island's English-speaking Raizal people refer to it as North End. The cultural elbowing escalates from there. What's not up for debate, however, is that the commercialized area of town won't be splashed across any postcards anytime soon – it's a monstrosity of ferro-concrete blocks housing one duty-free shop after another, only broken up by the occasional hotel or restaurant.

All is not lost on San Andrés, however. A charming brick promenade lines the waterfront, and it's a lovely spot to enjoy a drink or take an evening stroll. And paradise is just slightly more than a canoe paddle away: the endlessly idyllic Johnny Cay sits off in the distance, just 1.5km from shore. In high season it can feel as crowded as the Mediterranean, but otherwise Johnny Cay is the archipelago's finest moment.

San Andrés is best appreciated outside of the downtown hubbub. A 30km scenic paved road circles the island, and several minor roads cross inland. There are two other small towns: La Loma (The Hill) in the central hilly region and San Luis on the eastern coast, both far less tourist-oriented than San Andrés Town and boasting some fine English-Caribbean wooden architecture. Excellent scuba-diving and snorkeling opportunities abound all around the island – visibility and temperature here are nearly unrivaled in the Caribbean.

It only takes a day or two to suss out the Raizal from the Colombians. At just one-third of the island's population, Raizals are now an ethnic minority, but their fading Creole culture – descended from English settlers, African slaves and West Indians from other islands – is what gives San Andrés its unique character, different from that of mainland Colombia.