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Colombia's String Bean of an Island

January 25, 1987|JACK McGUIRE | McGuire is travel editor of North Shore magazine in Chicago and a travel radio broadcaster.

JOHNNY CAY, Colombia — This cay sounds like the name of the main character in one of those B-class gangster films of the '30s.

It's a dash of sand that barely manages to keep its head above the waters of the Caribbean.

It's virtually impossible to find this tiny island until you find San Andres, itself little more than a dot in the Caribbean, about 500 miles northwest of the Colombia mainland.

A legend says the buccaneer Henry Morgan stashed more than a billion dollars in gold bullion somewhere in the vicinity. Visitors are welcome to hunt for the booty, but most are content to seek out more obvious treasure: sun and surf and great waves of peace and tranquillity.

Unlike most of the other sunny islands of this area overrun by hordes of tourists, San Andres gets only a comparative trickle of visitors.

Duty-Free Shopping

Colombians come to San Andres from the South American mainland, lured by good buys on duty-free TV sets, VCRs, microwave ovens and other electronic goods.

And once in awhile, a cruise ship anchors offshore. That's how I got here, aboard the luxury liner Royal Viking Sky. That was the only ship from an American port making a call here, and now even the Sky has stopped coming, at least for this year.

The tourists that do make San Andres their primary destination are easily absorbed by the handful of better hotels along a strip of beach fronting one side of the island. Don't expect to find any dazzling high-rise hotels gleaming in the tropical sun.

But you can find bargains. For the truly economy-minded, a room can be had at a daily rate of as little as $5 plus 5% tax. Even the best accommodations will only set you back $40 a day.

As for things to do, there aren't many. Water sports of all kinds, of course, including excellent scuba diving in the luminous waters, with always the chance you could stumble upon Morgan's fabled treasure in some hidden underwater cave.

Island Handicrafts

You won't find any organized sightseeing tours of the island, although there are taxis for hire or you can rent a mini-Jeep, a motorbike or a bicycle for an easy excursion along the paved road that skirts the 8-by-2-mile island.

Unless you're in the market for a good deal on a toaster or hi-fi set, you can better spend your shopping time checking out good buys on island handicrafts fashioned from coconut, coral and palm.

Then there's Johnny Cay, the captivating little string bean of an island stuck out in the middle of nowhere. Even getting here is fun.

A small fleet of water taxis, wooden craft rigged with oversize outboard motors, makes the bouncy 1 1/2-mile trip through the choppy waters of the channel on a regular basis. The round-trip voyage is $4. There's no pier, so you have to jump into the water and climb aboard a bobbing, slippery, wave-slapping boat.

Once on Johnny Cay's beach, it's a matter of leaping into the surf again and wading ashore Gen. MacArthur style.

This island is loaded with natural charm, a sandy beach and turquoise waters fringed with swaying coconut palms. Drifting across the tropical breeze is the delicious aroma of fish cooking on an open-pit charcoal fire.

Lunch a Big Event

To get things started, there are the usual tropical drinks, pina coladas and coco-locos, but the big event is lunch. It's served on picnic tables set up along the beach.

Your choice of fish pulled from the surrounding waters--bonito, red snapper, alewife or other fresh catch--is grilled to a blackened, crusty goodness. Accompanying the main dish is fried breadfruit and rice, all of which you eat with your fingers and all for $10, including two drinks.

An impromptu barefoot dance is inspired by the surroundings and the musical encouragement of a band of native musicians led by a beguiling leader called simply Banana. Be sure that you negotiate the price of a few tunes in advance from this slippery pirate, or you may be in for a shock.

"Five dollar for music," Banana said. I gladly handed over the amount for our party of five. "No, $5 each person," he demanded. After a bit of dickering he reluctantly settled for the original amount offered.

In spite of the price of the musical accompaniment, as you sway to the rhythms of the calypso and reggae it's easy to understand why old-time sailors jumped ship.

For further information, contact the Colombian Government Tourist Office, 140 East 57th St., New York 10022, phone (212) 688-0151.

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