Mis Viajes Salvajes a San Andrés Isla, Colombia
It’s 10:00 am on a Sunday at the Bohemian Paradise Hostel, a dilapidated building with thin walls and exposed concrete, but not in the industrial chic kind of way; the outdoor pool looks eerily abandoned, there is a leashed monkey in the lobby, and groggy travelers are looking for the closest iced cocktail. An exciting twist to the scene was that every room comes fixed with a high-powered AC unit for a necessary comfort in this offensive humidity—and the only real amenity I could easily point out. Today marks my 8th day on San Andrés Isla, a Colombian territory located off the coast of Nicaragua, with waters bluer than the glacial runoff in the high-altitude Rockies, giving it the nickname ‘the sea of seven colors,’ and defining this corner of the Caribbean Sea by its surreal blend of aquamarine and sparkling green. But that’s not what I’m thinking about as I bury my head beneath these skinny pillows to hide my hearing from the barrage of stimuli; the stray cats scream, homeless dogs bark with hunger in the hostel lobby two floors down and I breathe in the artificial AC pumping into the room. Compile that with the weekend construction that ensues next door and you have a symphony of drilled sheetrock and animalistic cries for my very own third-world alarm clock. I guess it’s time to wake up. Shake the daiquiri’s off from last night and see what other adventures I can sucker from this wildly cacophonous and irrationally gorgeous island.
This place exhausts and excites me.
I lay here alone now, but I started this journey off with a roommate I had in Medellín. Emma is a ravishing woman from Mexico who barely comes up to my chest in height and with a megawatt smile that invites you right in. She peeked in my room one morning to ask me if I wanted to take a spontaneous trip to the island, and without hesitation, I said yes. The next thing you know we are piling off a plane with crowds of Colombianos to spend a long four days in the SAI paradise we saw painted on the internet.
Emma turned out to be a fantastic travel partner. We shared enriching dialogue during our strolls under the sun as a camaraderie was building between these two solo travelers. But when we first arrived to SAI we struggled with this island brimming with consumerism, incomplete construction sites, chaotic streets of motorbikes and four-wheelers, and aggressive men with thick Creole accents and sparkling dark eyes. We ate some pretty disappointing meals for high prices and had tour guides that seemed to operate on a time-zone all their own. The images of paradise we drooled over just a week before were shot to the ground when we couldn’t find public beach access and the fervent heat licked us with sloppy tongues. I was so ready to complain, to do my dance of poetic groaning and roll my big eyes at the next passersby selling overpriced coco locos. But Emma showed me how to make these micro adjustments that would help lead us to an overall acceptance of this new land. She taught me how to flow.
The next few days would take us into the warm waters for a sunset swim that would wash all my worries right away, right into the arms of the off-duty policemen and boat captains for an evening of learning to move like the islanders while dancehall music bumped and hips moved in ways I honestly didn’t know they could. What I know for sure, is that gringos can’t dance like this. Emma’s Spanish and aptitude for planning and organizing paired with my eager spontaneity and readiness to engage with locals brought us to the smaller islands off the coast to touch the silky skin of the manta rays and swim above sharks while chasing tropical fish between chunks of coral. We finally found some damn good seafood we could actually write home about and I learned that the incessant heat was just making room for more space where I needed it most. Although we are separated in age, career, and culture, Emma and I fell into a familiar footwork that led us to some brilliant conversations, emotional outpourings and spiritual sentiments that only two familiar souls could understand. This little lesson, led by Emma, was teaching me to embrace the discomforts because the unrefined beauty around us was worth the itch of sand in all the wrong places.
On any given day in San Andrés you may see coconuts being cracked in two, kite surfers and parasailers gracing the skin of the sea that flashes every shade of blue and underneath marine life traces the bottom of the seafloor where rising belts of sand weave in between the bay, just beyond the Caribbean Sea. Strong winds carry humidity through the center of town where crumbling infrastructure is home to the locals donning every shade of black and brown, girls with tight braids and tighter jeans. The men are chiseled, some with squishy belly’s, some sporting gold chains and Rasta bracelets, and I find them all handsome in their island forms. Their eyes shake you down and their swagger weakens your walk; the older men whistle the loudest as competition is stiff. Many work laborious jobs, building and repairing their own homes that are aged with salt air and generations of families moving in and out. There are men lounging on street corners, slicing mangoes and casually chatting with their amigos that whiz by on motorbikes; a community wound closely together, bound by the confines of the island.
On our second to last night, I met a guy who was the equivalent of a skater boy-meets punk rocker-meets wilderness junkie, a combo of my high school and college boyfriends packed into one tan, athletic, and edgy islander. I was interested. So, we did what any new friends do on an island…we chased the sunset on his motorboat clad with a pirate flag and his little dog, named Black Peppa, and then chased the melting daylight with cans of Cupa Libre and fresh squeezed limes. We snorkeled out to the reef and partied on the sandbar with a hub of locals blaring reggaetón from their speedboats as we all kept our eyes out for the coastguard. He was taking me on a whirlwind date that was fulfilling all of my American fantasies about what an island romance should look like. We took the boat through the tranquil mangroves, got bitten alive by mosquitos and kissed hard under the rising moon while fisherman canoed by and Peppa the pup licked our toes.
Emma’s cool and fluid rhythms had snuck their way over to me. After she had showed me what it looks like to adjust to new encounters, to those rapid realizations and unexpected shifts in the wind, I was ready to apply it with the island boy. The next day I missed my flight and moved in to his two-bedroom apartment instead of facing my realities back on the mainland. This was me flowing. I lingered on the island for five more days, getting some work done, gathering new tan lines while I swam with dread-locked men out to abandoned ships to jump from the rusty hull, and learning the ropes of kitesurfing to understand that the power of nature is one gust I can’t fight no matter the efforts. In between the action of these long sunny jaunts, I people-watched from my outpost on the boardwalk.
I spotted a young boy painting the sky with his own handmade kite from a plastic grocery bag and recycled wood from a nearby construction site. A Jamaican mother and daughter bathed in the turquoise sea at dusk then wrapped each other’s hair in long silky scarves while a young man gazed from his post on a piece driftwood, me watching him while he watched the world pass by—I was so eager to know what passed through his own prevailing lines of thought. I finished each day meditating on the shoreline while the smoke from the boys’ joints circled me like a halo as I invited the heat of the island to make space around my rigid expectations.
I was reaching towards being unbound to what was and forgiving of what would come to be.
And then those unexpected winds of change came…as quickly as I was invited in to the rapture of a stranger’s touch, so was the reality of following my impulse. My lovely encounter with the island boy shifted from adoring lover to stand-offish stranger as I learned that his own impulse was a bit short-sighted. His tone of voice and disregard for my presence seemed to shift overnight and I was left wondering what impact my own voice had. I searched for clarity while we clinked our icy beers together and I looked into his dark-as-night irises, but his absence of presence persisted. As he left for work that day, I was left to decide what my next moves would be.
This encounter had me feeling the most alone I had felt since departing home. Although this theme of duplicity with men is not new for me, it still rocked me where I wade on the shoreline. Because being a solo female traveler, a curious and optimistic spirit in the grit of another culture was toughening my sparkly edges. I could feel the change like a chill across my skin as a few tears rolled down my face behind mirrored lenses.
The island wore down the tread on my rather delicate spirit, cutting through the glossy exterior straight for the bone.
As I sat with this fluster of emotion, I let the sand fall between my hands, grain by grain. An hour later, I packed up my bags, left a handful of pesos on the kitchen counter along with his house key and set up camp at the Bohemian Paradise Hostel down the road.
Waking up on my last day on SAI, my mind was half-way back to Medellin, but I trusted there was more here for me. Outside, familiar Rasta voices played on a loop, which could be heard from every corner no matter where I stood on the boardwalk or crouched behind the partition of a cafe. Families rushed triumphantly to the shoreline to savor every minute of their hard-earned vacation and men and women sold cheap souvenirs; Hawaiian shirts that looked like they were made from polyester, a nightmare in this climate. Heavy beads and seashell adornments that just felt overplayed. Every time I felt annoyed and judgy though, I looked out to the sea, the seven-colored lagoon wrapping her turquoise mouth around the sandy rim of the island and I was given a sensual reprieve from the bitter elements that were quick to offend me. A reminder to keep finding my flow.
With each passing hour, I shifted anew with less fucks and a little more swagger in my step. And I guess that’s when the beautiful face of Andres appeared—a twenty-something baseball player from Venezuela whose slang-fueled Spanish left me aching to understand just a fraction of his verbiage. On the island, if you want to find a dance partner or just a soul to share stories with on the beach, all you have to do is walk outside. It was intimidating at first, but I realized it was the difference between saying no and yes to these intriguing strangers. And with Andres, it was an easy yes. Within a few hours, he was cooking me hand-made maiz arepas in his shabby dormitory-style home he shared with other athletes. I sipped a Costenitas beer in front of the fan under the hot fluorescent lights while he prepared dinner, wearing nothing but a bath towel tied tight around his narrow waist. He showered outside beneath a palm tree using only a plastic bucket of cold water. I peeked a glance from my seat inside as I bit into my arepa sanducha he had topped with my favorite agauacate, just as he moved the sudsy bar of soap across his muscular torso. Afterwards he took me dancing until 3am. We swung arm-in-arm, hip-to-hip under black-lights, chugging Aguila beers and laughing wildly at our mutual appreciation for reggaetón music. His aptitude for dancing was partnered with my EDM-inspired moves coagulated with the island grind. As the locals all sang in unison to their Spanish anthems, I threw my head back and chanted my own version of the music. I went home alone that night, covered in sweat and the scent of Andres’ cologne.
Since arriving here, I have seen, felt, and tasted a range of this landscape; her culture and her inhabitants that has left a salty sting on my lips. Salty like a dirty martini, like the kiss from strangers in the slick heat of a nightclub. It’s the kind of salt that puckers the mouth but leaves you wanting more. This feeling of being satiated yet still craving is why I could never live here, it’s too much temptation and tranquilo for one solo traveler to handle. But this loosened attitude and carefree movements after an intense two months of yoga, a heartbreaking death, and a move overseas were exactly what I needed. The chance to let my vision blur against loud lights and dark bodies that would take me into stranger’s homes and down the naked beaches of the island. I fed my curiosity by sitting with the unfamiliar, studying my smooth freckled hands next to the hardened hands of the locals who worked through the abrasive sun and into the set. The island shook my stiff parts loose, taught me that strangers can be unequivocally kind and equally frustrating. And I learned that dating on the island, even for a few days, came with its own set of lessons.
I left with a Nikon camera stacked with underwater footage and video captures, handmade linen beach ensembles and a peeling golden tan. But my unexpected souvenir from San Andrés was the confidence to walk barefoot in my own skin, curves and all, without fear that the male gaze could knock me. If you can survive a week on the island living with and near the local heartbeat, the scent of spicy rum pervading the senses, and the abrasive stares from the islanders…surely I can handle the big city with this new callused independence.
Watch my short video of the stunning San Andrés and Johnny Cay Islas in Colombia.