San Andres vs. Cartagena | Which Should You Travel To?


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On the extreme north of South America are two of Colombia’s most exciting and emblematic destinations. San Andres Islands and Cartagena are two cities that undoubtedly have some of my country’s best cultural and tourist attractions. 

As a Colombian, born and raised, I can confirm that visiting them is a very satisfying experience for everything that encompasses their art, culture, customs, and tourist destinations. Below you will find my thoughts on the two beauties!

The best plan to spend a pleasant vacation and return recharged to your place of origin is to get lost in the magic of these streets full of life, history, and flavor of the Colombian Caribbean.

San Andres: The Coral Island & Caribbean Biological Reserve

When visiting it for the first time, I realized that San Andres presents its tourists with an emotionally positive experience to enjoy the Caribbean Sea, the wonders of the Colombian Atlantic, and biodiversity in its different reefs, keys, and forests. 

With crystal clear waters, magical corals, and a sea of seven colors, the island of San Andres was first colonized by the English in 1629.

From the beginning, the San Andres archipelago, like many Colombian areas, was inhabited by indigenous tribes from Central America.

For 200 years, various nations fought for possession of the Caribbean islands. In 1822 San Andres was called Colombian territory when it was freed from the colony that invaded the territories of South America.

This island enjoys the Caribbean charm and contains the best beaches, crystal clear waters, and marine experiences that Colombia can offer you.

Cartagena: Colonial Architecture and Multicultural Expression

Cartagena de Indias, or “La Heroica” as it is known within the country, is one of my favorite places in Colombia and the world.

It is a coastal city located on the shores of the Caribbean Sea and declared by UNESCO as a Historical and Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

It was founded in 1533, and its history is divided into several periods; since it was the epicenter of various Spanish divisions, it is classified as the most protected city in South America due to its great fortresses and stone walls that were built in colonial times and served as a shield from attacks by pirates and Spanish enemies.

Currently, it is considered by many the most touristic city in Colombia.

You breathe folklore, history, and joy from walking on its land. Undoubtedly, it is a mystical and dazzling place that offers a variety of possibilities to tourists and forces them to immerse themselves in a welcoming and relaxing world through each stop of interest.

By the way, we have already compared the wonders of Cartagena with Medellin, another great city in my beautiful Colombia.


San Andres Vs. Cartagena: Which City Wins in Each Criterion?

To talk about Cartagena and San Andres Island is to express a wide range of qualities, wonders, and adventures within a journey full of flavor, culture, energy, and extreme experiences that will make you remember these destinations forever and keep the feeling of repeating the trip.

Tourist Spots and Main Attractions: San Andres Wins

Cartagena has a wide variety of tourist attractions. The advantage of this city is that it offers you everything in a single space, far from the concept of a metropolis. 

If you love history, art, and culture, you will feel like me when I visited the city for the first time.

This city surrounds some spaces of historical, artistic, and cultural interest where its history through the years can be visualized without losing its sense of culture and giving tourists an atypical and enviable experience in front of the world’s wonders.

Many will think that because it is a coastal city, the most beautiful thing about the place is its beaches; however, its colonial buildings, such as the La Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City), San Felipe Castle, and the Cerro de la Popa, contain the history of the city, and each space is arranged to enjoy, learn about and admire its beauty.

On the other hand, San Andres contains, within its experience, different tourist spots that can be enjoyed around the island; its most incredible wealth of attraction is the aquatic attractions since the island is capable of living an unforgettable and full maritime experience of colors and visual wonders.

To be dazzled by the Caribbean Sea, you must visit Johnny Cay Island, Morgan’s Cave, and the underwater museum.

If you enjoy snorkeling, try the little pool or Bahía del Cove in the island’s center, you can practice it and dive into the sea of seven colors.

An obligatory stop within San Andres is undoubtedly the Aquarium Island or Rose Cay, surrounded by a coral reef and various species of aquatic fauna.

Gastronomic Experience: San Andres Wins

Due to the biodiversity of its waters and its cultures, San Andres gastronomy is the result of the history and multiculturalism of its unique and exquisite flavors. This island’s mix of flavors is loaded with exotic appetizers and aphrodisiacs that provide the aromas of the tropics.

Snails, lobster, shrimp, crabs, and octopus, among others. They are a bit of the appetizer offered by the luxurious restaurants of the city, the huts of the center of the island, and the local shops of the native islanders.

Nothing better than getting to know Cartagena through its flavors and essence. The fusion of Spanish flavors, the African continent, and the coastal seasoning makes the dishes of La Heroica an appetizer for any palate.

From a slice of Patacón to a Butifarra, the culinary journey of this city allows you to live an adventure of different and exotic flavors that will leave you satisfied and eager to learn more about its gastronomy.

To start the day, you cannot miss an Arepa with Eggs; you can accompany it with natural juices of the most exotic fruits in the Colombian Caribbean. As an appetizer, there are cocadas, ceviche, carimañola, and empanadas; As a main dish, you can choose a Mote de Queso or Sancocho de Pescado, and you should accompany it with Coconut Rice.

Another city worth mentioning when it comes to Gastronomy is Bogota; check this article to plan your visit: Best Time to Visit Bogota for a Vacation.


Climate and Outdoor Tourism: Cartagena Wins

One of Cartagena’s best views is its beaches; the most recognized and central one is Boca Grande, accompanied by the noise of the waves hitting the rocks and the roadside. It’s recognized for its primarily warm climate, although it can become humid in some seasons.

For sightseeing in the open air, there is the city’s historic center, Getsemaní, which perfectly balances local life and tourism. You can learn more about Getsemeni in this article: Is Getsemani, Cartagena Safe?

As a multicultural and tourist city, you can hear all languages spoken, so if you don’t know Spanish, you can visit and enjoy your stay in Cartagena speaking English. This link has some local words you should be aware of.

If the plan for the day is the beach, from Cartagena, there are tours to different beaches that are located at the outsides of the city: 

  • Playa Blanca
  • Isla del Pirata
  • Islas del Rosario
  • Islas del Encanto

In short, the traveler who steps on Cartagena soil will always have a tourist destination to undertake, and the above is undoubtedly one of the many options that the city offers to enjoy.

Check out our top 5 recommended beach clubs in Cartagena here!

In San Andres Islands, the sunset with the view of the sea of seven colors is a majesty that no tourist can miss.

The entrance to the island allows the traveler to visualize the entertainment options and the corners that await him to live an unforgettable island experience full of culture, fun, and visual richness.

Outside the sea and the beach plan, the tour of the tourist sites in the center of the island includes the experience of the island museum or the shopping plan in several showcases for those who prefer not to be there all the time inside the sea.

Here is another comparison of beachy destinations: Cancun vs. Cartagena: Which Caribbean Spot Is Better?

Culture and Artistic Expression: Cartagena Wins

Cartagena is the host house where the FICCI International Film Festival takes place every year, an event that encompasses artistic expression throughout Latin America.

In general, Colombia has many festivals worth checking out, which we list here.

Additionally, there are constant artistic expressions within the city, such as presentations by art groups or local dancers, and multicultural expressions of the different Afro-descendant communities in the town, such as the Palenqueros and Zenú indigenous people and the Ingas, among others.

On the other hand, in the Getsemaní neighborhood, there is a whole cultural tour of the life and work of the great writer Gabriel García Márquez for those readers who ventured into the magical world of Macondo and romanticized the title Love in the Time of Cholera.

San Andres, like Cartagena, is a multicultural city. Therefore, the presence of different cultural groups in strategic points of the island and some shacks on the seashore is very notable. The island handles three languages: Creole and Spanish, and some speak an African dialect.

Graffiti, murals, art, and crafts are more of the mystical part surrounding this island. It is widespread for tourists to buy local art as “souvenirs” to remember their trip.

Plus, they have plenty of shops to buy authentic Colombian Jewelry, which we discuss here: Colombian Jewelry Guide: What Are They Known For?

Local Music and Art: Tie

In Cartagena, the rhythms and dances are a contrast of cultures, an expression of art, and an environment that you will not be able to resist. From Caribbean, folkloric, and jocular rhythms, the dance of La Heroica travels from the champeta and the mapalé to the Caribbean salsa and vallenato.

Each melody is a different expression; each rhythm is a journey into history. The artists from Cartagena are varied; some locals make their art shows through murals and graffiti that adorn the city streets, and some commercials exhibit their works in the different museums of the Heroica.

The sounds of San Andres Island represent characteristics of Colombian folklore and mixtures with African rhythms such as soca and calypso, which predominate in the bars of the islands and cultural corners.

Also, it is common to find street artists who have a strong influence by traditional, urban gospel and reggae.

Many of the local artists of the urban genre in Colombia are influenced by the sounds of the island instruments and rap. Additionally, religion has enormous scope in this art since many melodies and sounds arise from symbolic acts or songs of praise to the mulatto or native american gods.

Parties, Entertainment and Nightlife: Cartagena

The Cartagena nightlife is perhaps one of those experiences for which a tourist would want to revisit the city.

Feeling the cool breeze on your skin, listening to the waves of the sea, and smelling the aroma of the beach are one of Cartagena nights’ most relaxing sensations.

No matter where you are in the city, from that place, you can enjoy the music and the Caribbean flavor, the crazy carnival-type parties, as well as the romantic and bohemian vibes.

The city can offer tourists various experiences, plans, and budgets.

The Caribbean flavor of San Andres takes over the nights, and amid the stars and crystalline beaches accompanied by torches with fire, the night comes alive, and the tropical sounds of the black ancestors of the island join in the dance with the clash of the waves coming to shore.

The island’s tourism is ready to offer the traveler nights of celebration, flavor, adrenaline, and a lot of partying or peaceful and pleasant nights enjoying cocktails with explosive and different flavors to accompany the cold of the night.

Some other Cartagena resources you should read before going:

san andres

Accessibility and Transportation: Cartagena

The Rafael Núñez airport currently offers landings for some international flights; another possibility is to stop at the Bogotá airport. 

If you are from another city in Colombia and you plan to visit Cartagena, the best option is to travel by plane; road trips make you lose more travel time that you can invest in another activity.

Once in the city, you can transport yourself by bus, local taxis, and the most popular transportation apps in the country, InDriver, DiDi, and Uber. (Here is an article explaining the benefits of using Uber in Cartagena)

If your accommodation is in the city’s historic center, another means of mobility and an afternoon plan may be to explore the city center by bicycle.

Check out: Do I Need a Car in Cartagena?

The accesses to enter or leave the city are pretty straightforward, and there are a variety of options so that you can get around when the distances are far.

San Andres, as an island with not-so-large dimensions, is easier to navigate and transport. From the Gustavo Rojas Pinilla Airport, you can get to your accommodation by taxi or urban buses on the island.

Another valuable option for some travelers is the choice of a rental car, but the most appealing is to travel the island’s roads with golf carts.

If you decide to visit nearby islands or keys, on the shore of the island, you will always find different points from where you can pay for the entire round trip by boat according to your preferred location.

Other Aspects to Consider When Choosing Between San Andres and Cartagena

To choose one of these two destinations, there are some aspects that you must take into account. As someone who has already visited both places, I can assure you that these are essential tips to know in advance before visiting Cartagena and San Andres:

  • Tourist Permit: Before boarding the plane to travel to the Island of San Andres, you must acquire a tourist permit to enter the island separately.
  • Weather: The climate of Cartagena is much hotter than that of the San Andres islands, and most of the time, the temperature is over 27 °C (80 °F).
  • Island Prices: In San Andres, some products are more expensive because it is an island that must import certain fruits or food to prepare some dishes.
cartagena 1

Conclusion: Both Cities Offer Great Attractions 

These two cities are undoubtedly the tourist destination that many travelers with an adventurous souls would like to visit because you can find fun, exploration, culture, and diversity in just one corner. 

The context in which each of the buildings emerged, the culture, and artistic expressions permeated these sites with the wonders that today are available and visible to anyone who decides to embark on a multicultural and tropical trip.

I recommend both cities to anyone who is going for the first time to Colombia and isn’t sure which places they will visit. They offer some of the best experiences for tourists within the country.

Check out some more of our Colombian content:

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