When my sister-in-law started planning her visit here, she said she wanted to get in some beach time. Living on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there were options. She and her friends were flying into Cartagena; just outside of the city, there are some lovely beaches. Half a day’s drive north in Santa Marta are even more lovely beaches. Problem: that half a day’s drive. My own site has a beach! Unfortunately, it’s not the sexy beach you see when you look at pictures of Parque Tayrona or Isla Baru. So I made a suggestion for an island getaway to San Andrés.
At an hour away by airplane – a plane which leaves in the evening so you don’t lose precious sunbathing hours travelling – San Andrés is part of an archipelago that, despite belonging to Colombia, is near Nicaragua. It is a place with a far more complex history than I knew or understood until our last day on the island. We were there for three days; we spent the first two on the beach, being obliviously happy, sun-soaked, sandy tourists. On the third day, we rented a golf cart and drove all over the island, seeing and doing the things that would allow us to stay nice and clean for our flight.
After doing almost a full loop of the island, we turned off the coast and headed in and up to a neighborhood called La Loma (which means The Hill). I was nervous our little cart wasn’t going to have enough power to get the four of us up there, but it did, and we made it to the First Baptist Church.
The main attraction of the church is the steeple, the highest point on the island. For a fee of $5mil ($1.70USD at the time of this writing), a nice young man led us up to the choir loft and then up a ladder and then up some spirally staircases, finally getting us up to a little white box on the very top of the building. The views were incredible, especially to the east where the white sand and multi-toned blue sea really showed off for us.
After a few minutes up there, we headed back down and visited the adjacent museum, where they showed a video telling the history of the church. A white dude named Philip Beekman Livingston, Jr. was living in Jamaica when his mother sent him back to San Andrés, where they had previously lived and maintained property, to free his family’s slaves. He did just that, and then continued working towards emancipation for all slaves on the island. More importantly, he began educating the newly free men and women so that they were in a better position to sustain themselves. At the same time, he founded the first Baptist church in Latin America.
You may notice that this guy’s name is very clearly not a name of Spanish origin. And obviously, someone coming in and planting a Protestant church isn’t likely to be of Spanish origin either. That’s because the island was first settled by the British. And pirates. British pirates. And the slaves that they brought over from Jamaica. Because of this, the “native” languages of the island are English and English creole. The archipelago was disputed territory for a long time, but officially became a part of Colombia in 1920 when Panama and Colombian borders were drawn. It was a territory until 1991, when the new constitution was written and the archipelago was officially formed as a department, gaining it representation in the government.
From the church we headed to a place called Big Pond. After a chat with a man wearing a “Secretaria de Turismo de San Andrés” vest for a bit, we agreed to pay $5mil per person for a tour. As he walked us down to the pond and guided us over planks protecting us from the mud, he explained that this was his people’s land. By “his people,” he meant the Raizal people. The descendants of the slaves. These are people who speak English and/or English Creole on the island. Our guide asked me if I could understand when I heard the Creole, and I admitted that I could just pick out a couple words; otherwise they just spoke too fast. (My travel companions hadn’t even really heard it, just assuming anything that sounded foreign to their ears was Spanish.) These are people who are really into Rastafarianism and reggae, things they learned from their Jamaican relatives. These are people from whom the government is taking land to maximize on the touristic potential of the island. Our guide was not at all trusting of the government, reporting that the $100mil (~$35USD) per person tourist fee that we each paid to visit the island went to the pocket of Colombia, and that the people of the island never saw any of it.
He told us this while he had us throw some white bread at small alligators (note: maybe they’re crocodiles; I don’t know really) that live in the pond. He told us about how his people grew up swimming in the pond and washing their clothes there, and that they coexisted just fine with the alligators – they are all used to one another. He pointed out a heron and answered my silly questions about whether or not the dogs and the gators get along. He told us we could touch the gators if we wanted, but when we declined he insisted we each get a photo “touching” them.
After that our guide took us up to this big tree which the termites had eaten from the inside out, forming a cave. He said this tree had lived through storm after storm after storm, but one day it was struck by lightning and finally died. Regardless, within a few years it started growing new life off its base. He pointed out another tree of the same species, a younger tree that was also being eaten by termites, and said, “If we continue to protect our land, that tree will get very old and very large just like this one.
It was a lovely getaway for a few days, but I’m glad that it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows (literally – that last day, besides seeing and hearing about the “real” San Andrés, it rained).
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