Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017

© Brad Bowins

San Andrés is a quiet island off the coast of Colombia that serves as a family vacation destination for mainlanders.

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A Colombian gem

A psychiatrist discovers a secluded isle beloved of local families and scuba divers

An island that is safe, warm and inviting to visitors, and floating isolated in the ocean, naturally touches the soul. San Andrés Island off the coast of Central America is such a place. When people learn that it is part of Colombia, they often think of drug dealers, based on how this country is portrayed in the media.

But San Andrés is a quiet island that serves as a family vacation destination for mainlanders. The archipelago of San Andrés and Providence is located 750 kilometres northwest of Colombia, and isn’t even close to the mother country.

Having travelled throughout most of the Caribbean, I was struck by how unique this island is. In some destinations the warmth doesn’t extend much beyond the locals and safety is a concern. Not on San Andrés. The atmosphere is very family oriented. Frequently, we noticed fathers out alone with their small children, actively engaging the kids in play.

We found walking through the main town and waterfront safe at all hours of the day and night. The most eyebrow-raising person we encountered was a colourful young man, probably with a less than ideally treated mental illness, who by day shouted to himself, and by night transformed into a reggae singer entertaining tourists. Could there be a new treatment for schizophrenia somewhere in this story?

The local police were ever present, and didn’t tolerate any behaviour that put tourists at risk. Although the local language is Spanish, we found that most shop owners knew some English, and if that failed someone would help out spontaneously. English speaking guests are almost always Canadians, given that most Americans have written the country off due to its reputation.

The waterfront in the main town is well thought out, with a long and leisurely walkway, palm trees and a public beach. Extending from the waterfront is a pedestrian-only section containing appealing shops. The town itself is unique in that transportation is almost exclusively by motorcycle. We saw parents with one or two children commuting on a single motorbike.


Who moved the beach?

Beach lovers might be disappointed to hear that due to its rocky coast, San Andrés Island lacks natural beaches. But the cays inside the lagoon more than make up for that. They have all the fine white sand you ever dreamed of, and the very short boat ride across the sheltered lagoon is free from most Decameron Hotels. Being more adventurous, as well as experienced kayakers, we opted to provide our own transportation.

On our first outing we headed relatively far to the Acuario and Haynes Cays, linked by a barely submerged sandbar. Kayaking over the relatively calm aquamarine waters of the lagoon, looking down at the shallow sandy bottom and schools of small fish was an exhilarating experience. We had Acuario to ourselves until the afternoon tourist shuttles arrived.

On Haynes Cay, small stingrays came to shore, and guests on special snorkelling tours can observe and even feed these incredible creatures. The very unfortunate passing of Steve Irwin from a stingray barb to the heart has created the impression that these animals are dangerous. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I can say this from personal experience diving with them and feeding them on numerous occasions. In one instance, I untangled a fishing line from a large ray, and it could easily have stabbed me but let itself be freed from the line wrapped around its head.

The greatest risk occurs when swimmers accidentally step on a ray. To save itself from what it perceives as a shark attack, the ray will thrust its barb into the swimmer’s leg. A nasty injury for sure, but not fatal. And if you look before you step or sweep your foot across the bottom, it won’t occur. Using a snorkel mask ensures that stingrays are clearly seen. And watching the ray’s huge pectoral fins rippling to propel it ever so gracefully through the water is an experience not to be missed. And here, the rays were in a mere metre of water!


Lost at Sea

Our excursion inadvertently tested our hotel staff’s attention to safety. We were on our way back from the cays when a jet ski approached. Two water sports staff thought we had gone missing, since very few guests take the kayaks for more than an hour or so, and they were searching for us.

On our next excursion to Johnny Cay we informed them not to check for us until just before sunset. Given that kayaking is within the lagoon it would be hard to get lost. But it’s great that they are so safety conscious.

Johnny Cay was an experience of a different type. It was filled with crowds of day-trippers and some intense sun-worshipping. Despite the Roman Catholic culture and no-topless policy on beaches, thongs are very much in style and leave nothing worth mentioning to the imagination. The bathing suit shops in town carry all types of thongs, ranging from no material to barely any.

Away from the hot display of flesh on the beach, the coconut- and palm-tree-shaded interior of the isle had food and drink available for purchase, including fresh coconut milk you savour right from the shell. The coconut vendor was a colourful Rastafarian who left Africa several years ago and fell in love with San Andrés. That is the charm of the island and surrounding cays. Johnny Cay, although perhaps the largest, is so small that it only takes 15 minutes to walk around — maybe a little more if you include the time to navigate between tanning bodies.

San Andrés is a watery paradise with relatively little to see on land. It is on and below the water where it all happens. There is sailing, jet skiing, windsurfing, and other options available, most free of charge. However, the real draw is scuba diving, as the archipelago of San Andrés and Providence is part of one of the largest reef systems in the world.

The islands and cays are all low islands, derived from exposed coral. On San Andrés, there is great diving on the protected west side where there is virtually no wave action. The reefs extend right from the shore and gradually slope down, other than a few sections where mini-walls drop straight down for tens of metres.

The gentle underwater topography and surface conditions of San Andrés are ideal for novice divers, providing a safe and easy-to-navigate environment for learning scuba. My partner completed her entire PADI scuba course during the week we were there. Before leaving for our trip, we had selected Karibik Diver, run by Werner Koester.

A German running a scuba operation in San Andrés sounded unusual and, true to form, Koester turned out to be quite a character. He surprised us by showing up at the airport to meet us. Other than fairly limited numbers of European visitors, Canadians are his primary business and he appreciates us. He provided very thorough, safe and relaxing instruction.

When learning something completely new, such as scuba diving, some nervousness is understandable and healthy. But I have seen scuba instructors create more tension, worsening the nerves felt by the newbie. My partner found Koester to be very reassuring and calming. His sense of humour, including putting on white Elton John-style sunglasses found floating underwater, was also an asset. He went through the required skills and let her progress at the pace that was right for her, while distracting her by showing the many sea creatures.

Having marine biology as a hobby and having completed over a thousand dives, many of them in the Caribbean, I have witnessed firsthand the steady demise of our reefs due to global warning, and problems such as excess nitrogen which promotes algae growth.

Throughout the entire Caribbean, previously healthy hard corals are over-run by algae, and it is rare to see large stands of boulder, pillar, and brain coral, named for its contours that resemble the surface structure of a brain. San Andrés does have algae overgrowth, but a lot less than I have witnessed elsewhere in the Caribbean.

I encountered large stands of intact hard coral and took photographs that unfortunately might prove to be archival in a few years. Perhaps it is the remote location of the San Andrés and Providence Archipelago, or the limited agriculture with nitrogen runoff that accounts for the difference. I suggest that people visit in the next few years while the hard corals are still in good shape.

The reefs beyond San Andrés Island are largely unexplored. Koester offers an interesting option when the seas are calmer, usually starting in March, where he takes a limited number of guests to spend the night on Providence and dive the reefs. This would certainly be an interesting trip for the more adventurous.

San Andrés Island has much to recommend it for an incredible price. From my perspective as an avid diver, the island is well worth seeing for its healthy Caribbean hard corals. The stingrays and tropical fish are present in sizable numbers given the island’s relatively large population of locals and visitors. In many ways, though, the most exceptional aspect was the friendly and safe feel of the island. Considering all the unique aspects of San Andrés, you can see why it truly touches and invigorates the soul.

 

Brad Bowins is a psychiatrist working in private practice as well as at the University of Toronto Health Service. He began scuba diving when he was 15 and has completed over 1000 dives, most devoted to underwater photography. In addition to his Caribbean trips, he has explored the undersea riches of the Maldives, Egypt, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

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