While San Andrés is located 50 km south of Providencia, the Colombian archipelago is approximately 750 km north of the Colombian mainland. This archipelago encompasses a total area of 57 km2, including the outer cays, reefs, atolls and sand banks, with the area of the islands being 45 km2. In 2000, it was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, named “Seaflower Biosphere Reserve”, which not only includes the islands but also about 10% of the Caribbean Sea, amounting to a vast marine area of 300,000 km2. The purpose of this declaration is to ensure that the ecosystem, which is rich in biodiversity, is well preserved and conserved.
The department's capital is located on the northern end of the island. Named San Andrés but nicknamed El Centro, it is the department's main urban center. Along the 30 km road that circles the island there are many picturesque beaches, coral reefs, cays, blowholes, and coves. Also of note are La Loma, the town of San Andrés, the Baptist Church, Seaquarium, the large pond of La Laguna, and a freshwater lake amidst mangrove forests. There are coconut palm plantations, lush pastures, and tall native trees reaching 20 meters. Surrounded by the warm Caribbean Sea, all of these features have made the island an "exotic holiday destination".
The history of both San Andrés and Providence is replete with adventures of pirates, their invasions and occupation of the islands. The first appearance of San Andrés on Spanish maps was in 1527. The Dutch are reported to have come to these islands at the end of the 16th century and British settlers arrived there in 1628. It is also mentioned that Columbus discovered these islands during his fourth exploration voyage.
The English Puritans were the first to arrive; they hailed from Barbados and also from England. Between 1627 and 1629 they came to settle in the salubrious climate and take advantage of the fertile land of the islands.
The Anglo Puritans evicted the Dutch settlers in 1631. Settlers also came from Wales. All colonists first came to San Andrés and later moved to the Providence Island colony on what is now Providencia Island as its mountain terrain provided fresh water resources and safety from invaders. Enslaved people of West African birth or descent were brought in by British shipowners in 1633 from Jamaica. They were initially brought to work in lumbering, as well as to grow cotton and tobacco.
In 1635, the Spaniards, realizing the economic importance of the island, attacked the archipelago. However the Spaniards were driven out soon after they occupied the islands.
Pirates also operated from here, including Welsh privateer Sir Henry Morgan, who used it in 1670 as one of the centers of his operations. The pirates attacked Spanish ships carrying gold and other precious material that sailed in the Caribbean waters. They also attacked Panama and Santa Maria. The bounty looted by the pirates is still believed to be hidden in some underwater cave in the area.
After the temporary Spanish occupation of the islands, they were controlled by the British from 1740 until 1787, when they agreed to respect the Creole (and maybe the Indigenous American, more sources are needed to better distinguish this point) population. In the year 1792, by royal warrant on 20 May, the Spanish informed the Captain General of Guatemala, Don Bernardo Troncoso, to recognize the archipelago. The Catholic religion was spread on the island and a church was built and run by its own priest. San Andres gave exemption from import and export taxes.
On November 25, 1802, the inhabitants of the archipelago requested that they depend on the Viceroyalty of New Granada with the Mosquito Coast, and not on the Captaincy of Guatemala. The document was signed by Mr. Roberto Clark, procurator, Isaac Brooks, Solomon Taylor, Jorge Olis, and Juan Taylor. As early as 1803, reports suggest that it was for political and economic reasons that San Andrés became a dependent Viceroyalty of New Granada.
In 1810, factions in New Granada declared independence from Spain. Councils were established in San Andrés and Providencia in this year. The government of Tomás Oneille granted land titles to Anglo and Latino families of the two islands assuring people the ownership of the land. In July 1818, Luis Aury, and the independent forces of Simón Bolívar occupied the islands, and it became part of Gran Colombia on June 23, 1822.
In 1821, the issuing of the Constitution of Cúcuta determined that every child born in Colombia, was born as a free citizen. This at a minimum meant the eventual abolition of slavery in San Andrés.
On March 5, 1825 a League and Confederation Treaty with the United Provinces of Central America was signed and on June 15, 1826 the Treaty of Union, League and Confederation, between the Republics of Colombia, Central America, Peru and Mexico was signed in Panama in that "Contracting Parties shall ensure the integrity of its territories, then, under special conventions and to hold each other, have been demarcated and set their respective limits, the protection will then be placed under the protection of the confederation."
After independence was recognized by the coastal territories of the Caribbean Sea, the British proclaimed an independent territory in disregard of treaties and agreements of the time but the island remained free from British autonomy (sources needed, the wording here makes no sense). In 1848, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera declared San Andrés as a Free port. In 1851, slavery was abolished by the constitution of Colombia, which led to a successful literacy movement led by pastor Philip Beekman Livingston.
In September 1900, France issued a ruling in which it recognized all of the islands of the archipelago as belonging to Colombia. In 1902, two commissioners of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt came to San Andrés by boat and requested that the islands become part of Panama, but American proposals were rejected outright as unpatriotic, proving local loyalty to the Republic of Colombia. In 1903, the Colombian Department of Panama became an independent nation. The islanders again refused to join the United States or Panama when they were visited by a U.S. warship in the same year. On 26 October 1912, the Municipality of San Andres and Providencia was established by Law 52, giving administrative independence. In August 1920, a boundary treaty was signed between Colombia and Panama in Bogota. On 24 March 1928, the Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty was signed, in which Nicaragua recognized Colombia's sovereignty over the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina.
In November 1943, Colombia joined World War II, because a German submarine sank one of their boats that had to transport British troops to San Andrés. In 1953, at the request of several representatives of the island community, President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla reaffirmed the San Andres Island and the free port. In 1972, the archipelago was declared as a Special Municipality. In the Colombian Constitution of 1991, the Department Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina was established as one of the Departments of Colombia. In 2000, the archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina became a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve as per of the five biosphere reserves listed with the UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere programme.
In 2001, Nicaragua National Assembly declared the Barcenas-Esguerra Treaty null because it claimed that it was signed under pressure of US army occupation (1928–1933). Nicaragua now have signed a treaty of limits with Colombia, and it disputed the limits alleged by Colombia at 82 degrees longitude. In 2007, International Court of Justice said the Treaty signed in 1928 (and the 1930 Protocol of Exchange of Ratifications) are not a Treatry of limits between both nations. Nicaragua filed a formal complaint before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, claiming territory east of longitude 82, because their continental marine platform including sovereignty over the archipelago of San Andrés. On December 13, 2007, the International Court of Justice recognized the full sovereignty of Colombia over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, but left open the question about the demarcation of the maritime boundary and the sovereignty of one of the two nations over the cays of Serranilla, Quitasueño, Serrana, Roncador and Bajo Nuevos. The ICJ also ruled it "upheld preliminary objections of Colombia to its jurisdiction only insofar as they concerned sovereignty over the islands of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina".
San Andrés is the largest of the island group in the Department of the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina. San Andrés is located in the Caribbean Sea, about 750 km (470 mi) northwest of the coast of Colombia. The island is 12.5 km (7.8 mi) (11 km is also mentioned here) in length and 3 km (1.9 mi) in width. It has an area of 26 km2 (10 sq mi) within the total area of the group of islands of 45 square kilometres (17 sq mi) (27 km2 (10 sq mi) is also mentioned in this reference for San Andrés), making it the largest island in the archipelago. Providencia, the next largest in size, is located 80 km (50 mi) to the northeast. San Andrés has a fairly flat topography with the highest point in the island reported at an elevation of 55 m (180 ft) above sea level. San Andrés is crossed from south to north by a small mountain range whose highest peak is Cerro La Loma, also known as El Cliff. San Andrés' soils indicate that their formation is due to the eruption of a volcano which threw rocks older than the seafloor to the surface, creating the islands. Despite this, there is fertile soil and the soil is mostly red clay. It is easy to find small deposits of quartz on the island, especially in the neighborhood of Loma Cove. Aside from the main settlements, the island is almost entirely covered in grass, trees and other vegetation, as well as sand along the coastline rather than rocks. The central area is marked by a chain of hills (Flowers, Orange, Shingle and Lion's Hill). The island has only small, ephemeral streams draining the land area, but no major rivers.
On the southwest coast of the island are some features, namely (from north to south) Bobby Rock, Boobie Rock, Fisher Rock and Tyler Rock. A feature named Rock Point is located on the southeastern coast. Suky Bay lies in the central western part of the island near Cove Sea Side. The northern part of the island has a beach, while the western part of the island has no beaches.
The island is surrounded on its northwest side by a small coral reef (arrecifex) and several keys that are home to varied fauna and flora, and are visited by many tourists every year. The small cay in the San Andres Bay is said to be the most visited place in the archipelago. Johnny Cay is a small coral islet that is located 1.5 km (0.93 mi) to the north of San Andres Town. It is a scenic place with white-sand beaches surrounded by coconut plantations. The sea here is not suitable for swimming as the current of flow could be risky. A natural park was also created here in 2001. Haynes Cay is the place where cruise ships are docked. There are a number of large coral farms here with variety of species. The place is also popular for water sports activities like snorkeling and diving. Diving here with a mask and sandals (protection against sea urchins) colorful fish species can be seen. El Acuario (Aquarium) Cay is off to the east coast of San Andres, adjoins the Haynes Cay. It is a popular center for snorkeling since the sea here has shallow and calm waters.
The island experiences a tropical wet and dry climate that borders on a tropical monsoon climate. Average temperatures range from 24 °C (75 °F) to 30 °C (86 °F) in two periods dominated by dry and rainy spells. The rainy season is from September to December and also from May to June, when humidity is also high here. The trade winds from the north begin to blow in late October and during November and December until mid-January, the wind usually blows from the east, when there are storms in the northeastern Caribbean.
The island's last reported population is 75,000; it was 72,912 in 2007, 55,000 in 1993, and 20,000 in 1973. The continuous growth and influx of people from the mainland of Colombia means that they now form about two thirds of the island's population. The native islanders are the descendants of the African and European settlers that first inhabited the islands.
The economy of the island, which was largely dependent on fishery resources and meager agricultural produces, underwent a change with the opening of air services from Colombia, followed by a 1954 declaration of the island as a duty-free zone. This brought about a large influx of tourists to the island apart from immigrants from the mainland. This also resulted in the local government imposing restrictions in the 1990s to control the influx of people from the mainland, with intent to preserve local culture. However, there are no industries in the island.
The three years from 2003 to 2006 saw a greater than 10 percent increase in the number of tourists to San Andres. Tourists increased from 341,293 in 2003 to 377,619 in 2006, of which 292,741 were foreign nationals and 84,878 were from elsewhere in Colombia.
In July 2011, the archipelago received 23,000 tourists more than the previous year, in the same period. Furthermore, it has invested in hotel infrastructure 27,000 million.
Among the tourist attractions of the island are:
The island has rich floral diversity in its vast mangrove swamps, the largest mangrove forest on the island being the Old Mangrove Point Regional Park. There are 12 mangrove forests in red, black and white colors, rich with many species of flora and fauna revitalizing the ecosystem. There are also coconut palm trees, breadfruit trees, tall growth of local trees, green and lush pastoral lands and farm lands.
The bird species named San Andres vireo or St. Andrew vireo (Vireo caribaeus), which can also be found at Providencia and Santa Catalina Islands, favors mangrove and scrub bush habitat. It is a small, innocuous, but delicate bird, green in color, in the Aves class of Passeriformes of the Vireonidae family. It is about 5 inches (130 mm) in length, weighs about 16–20 g, found in clutch size of 2, and feeds on insects and fruits. IUCN has listed this bird species under the critically endangered list. Its habitat has been threatened due to large-scale expansion of the island lands for development of the capital city in the last few decades. It is reported that habitat of these birds is now confined to about 18 km2 (6.9 sq mi) area in the southern part of the island. Its distinguishing noise feature (song feature) is a single note repeated 2–20 times. In order to protect this local species, it has been suggested that the mangrove swamps of the island be declared as a protected area. Another bird found in abundance on the island is the white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica).
A number of sub-species of birds are endemic to the island. These include
The aqua faunal species found here are oysters and crabs. The coral species found in the island’s shores are: cuerno de Venado, cuervo de Arce, coral columna, brain coral, coral Látigo, star coral, fan coral, finger coral and coral pluma.
The only wild mammal that has been recorded from San Andrés is the bat Artibeus jamaicensis.
The population is grouped around a few residential areas. San Andrés, known locally as El Centro, is the largest town, as well as the most developed commercial and tourist hub of the island. It is located at the northern end and is the capital of the department. The departmental administration, commerce, banks, several hotels and the airport are located in this area.
A smaller village, La Loma, is inhabited by the native islander population and is at the centre of the island. Its traditional fame is due to the Baptist Church that was established in 1847. This church was rebuilt with pine wood imported from Alabama. The Baptist church was built along the central road to La Loma, which functioned as a beacon for shipping. Located at the top of the hill, La Loma provides lovely views of the “seven coloured sea” (Caribbean Sea).
On the eastern coast of the island is San Luis, which is a small tourist town. It is notable both as a tourist establishment and for its impressive stretch of white-sand beach. Traditional wooden houses are also located on the shores of the beach, spread over a 3 km (1.9 mi) stretch. Here also, in view of generally calm sea water (only occasionally rough), snorkeling is a popular sporting activity. It used to be port for export of coconuts.
Spanish is the main language. However, till the 1970s, the English language, architecture and religion were very much part of the island's culture with the Creole-speaking locals. This culture was called the Raizal culture of the Afro-Caribbean ethnic group. It is now more a blend of Latin American and English-Caribbean culture that is witnessed in the island. Other minority groups living in the island are the Chinese and the Middle Eastern people.
San Andres is also famous for its local version of music that includes calypso, soca, reggae and church music. Concerts are held yearly in May at the Old Coliseum during the "Green Festival". Other celebrations and events held in the island are the independence day celebrations on 20 July and the "Coconut Queen" (Reinado del Coco) festival held in November.
The islanders are majority Protestant, with Baptists being the most common. Other religious groups, including Seventh Day Adventists, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Jews are also present on the island.
The San Andrés Island, which attracts a large number of visitors, has many places of interest. Some of the important ones are: La Loma with its Baptist Church, a small blowhole at Hoyo Soplador, the snorkeling site at La Piscinita, white beaches of San Luis, the coral islet of Johnny Cay, the Pond, Haynes Cay, Morgan's Cave, West View and Acuaro of the coast known for its diving center. The small cay in the San Andres Bay is said to be the most visited place in the Archipelago. El Cove ("the cove") provides the deepest anchorage facilities on the island. Diving is a popular water sport in the island. The depth of water which varies in the range 3–30 meters (9.8–98.4 ft) has a visibility of 10–30 meters (33–98 ft) are favorable conditions for diving. The underwater formations seen during the diving are of three types namely, walls of seaweed and minor coral reefs, large groups of different types of coral, and underwater plateaus with much marine life. Diving lessons are provided by several sports agencies.
La Piscinita, located in the western part of the island has a calm sea which permits snorkeling activity. The site has abundant fish resources. Hoyo Soplador is situated at the southern end of the island. A geyser emerging from the sea shoots up to a height of 20 meters (66 ft), emerging from a hole in the coral rock. This phenomenon is noticed only at certain times of the year when tide and wind direction favor such an action. It is also the center of an International Surf Competition held once a year. The Pond, also called La Laguna ("Big Pond"), situated on top of the hill, is 400 meters (1,300 ft) long and 250 meters (820 ft) wide. Its fresh water source is from rainfall and the lake is 30 meters (98 ft) deep. It has rich biodiversity of white heron, pigeon, palm trees and fruit trees. A little alligator species is also seen here. Morgan's Cave, named after the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan, was the location where he allegedly hid his treasures. The cave is approached through an underwater passage. There is also a museum here. A seawater aquarium here has good display of Caribbean marine life. West View, as the name suggests, has 3–10 meters (9.8–32.8 ft) depth of water and is a favorite place for snorkeling, swimming and diving.
Held on Saturdays, horse racing is a weekly event, even if only two horses race. Cockfighting, more popular on the island than football is in England, is considered to be a traditional sporting event rather than animal cruelty. Also, there are three small capacity stadiums in the town centre, each one for a different sport: softball, football and baseball. These sports are also practiced widely by the islanders in many areas of the island, especially in the southern part. Football teams participate in the Copa Claro.
With the establishment of an airport in the island in the northern part, transport services from the mainland of Colombia ushered economic development in the island, particularly in the San Andres town. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla International Airport has flight services offered by Avianca, LAN Colombia, Copa Colombia, Viva Colombia, TACA and Satena to Bogotá, Medellín, Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena, San José (Costa Rica) and Providencia; Copa offers flights from Panama City. There are also charter flights offered by Air Transat from Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport during winter months.
However, the sea route to visit the island is by cruise ships only (3–4 days journey). There are no passenger services to the island, though some cargo ships do carry a few passengers. The island also has a good network of paved lateral roads connecting the main circular road, which is of 30 kilometres (19 mi) length. A tourist train (improvised tractor with coaches) also operates within the island. Boat services are also available within the island to visit various small towns and other locations of tourist interest along the coast line.