The small Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia are laid back retreats, boasting white sand beaches, turquoise waters and dramatic corral formations. San Andres is the larger of the two islands, has a wider range of accommodation and receives a greater number of visitors. Providencia is more rustic, but also more picturesque and relaxing than its larger neighbor.
San Andres and Providencia both form part of a small archipelago located deep in the Caribbean sea, just under 800km off Colombia’s northern coast (and approximately 200km from Nicaragua). The population of the islands is predominately mestizo and creole; a legacy of the archipelago’s history, which was variously controlled by the British, Dutch and Spanish. This ethnic diversity is reflected in the islands’ linguistic make-up: islanders are trilingual, speaking English, Spanish and a creole dialect unique to the area.
What to see and do in San Andres
San Andres is a relatively small island, but is surprisingly the most densely populated part of Colombia. Approximately 80,000 people inhabitant a space a little over at just 44km².
The main beach on San Andres is Bahia Sardina or Spratt Bight, where the overwhelmingly majority of hotels, tourist shops and restaurants are located. The beach itself, and particularly the view out over the famous ‘seven-colored sea’ surrounding the island, is very impressive. The pristine natural environmental visible off the island is, however, slightly damaged onshore by the excessive and/or unfinished concrete constructions within a few meters of the edge of the beach.
Johnny Key is a more relaxed spot from which to enjoy the idyllic white sand beach
From Spratt Bight you can see the small islet of Johnny Key, which is accessed by a 10-15 minute boat trip from the end of the strip. This is a more relaxed spot from which to enjoy the idyllic white sand beach, as well as the famous Coco Loco cocktails sold along the seafront. Slightly further away, approximately 20 minutes, are Haynes Key and the outdoor aquarium, a popular snorkeling spot.
San Andres is a big destination for divers, with a number of operators offering full courses, as well as day and night dives. One famous site is Morgan’s Cave, a cavernous corral formation, rumored to contain the treasure of a pirate who formerly inhabited and controlled the islands.
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Punta Sur, at the south end of the island, is also a popular spot for surfing but only between November to February and June to September. Outside of these periods, when offshore storms are more likely, the shelter provided by the coral reef around the island means waves are very small and not suitable for surfing.
Eating and drinking options are surprisingly limited given the size of the place
If considering a trip to San Andres, bear in mind that most people coming to the island do so on package holidays organised from the mainland. These resorts are all inclusive, meaning that outside eating and drinking options are surprisingly limited. San Andres is also expensive when compared to mainland Colombia, with meals costing between two and three times what they do elsewhere. The exception to this rule is alcohol, which is cheaper on the islands as a result of a tax loophole.
What to see and do in Providencia
Though located just a short hop away from San Andres, Providencia feels like another world entirely. The differences start in the geology and geography of the two places. Whereas San Andres was formed from comparatively recent sediment build ups, Providencia is a more mountainous and rocky place, which was created by volcanic activity.
Though located just a short hop away from San Andres, Providencia feels like another world entirely
Building is strictly controlled in Providencia (according to locals, this is to ensure that the island does not go the same way as San Andres). As a result, there are no large buildings or grand resorts in Providencia, meaning the place retains a virgin feel. Beaches remained lined with trees and small, local restaurants selling fresh seafood. With a population of only 5,000 and but a handful of hotels, there is plenty of opportunity to explore the island and discover its beautiful beaches.
Providencia offers a number of beaches, the most impressive of which is called Manzanillo. Again the water here is extremely clear and the beach, about 300m in length, is very pleasant. There is only one restaurant here, as well as a couple of small bars, which sells tasty seafood dishes. The longest beach on the island is Southeast Bay, where two small hotels are also located. The most development is located around Fresh Water Bay, where there is a 180m long beach and a handful of restaurants and hotels. Maracaibo Bay has great views of the surrounding area, including McBean lake, the national park and Cayo Cangrejo. A number of smaller beaches dotted along this part of the coast can be reached by kayak, or more comfortably, by motor boat.
At Cayo Cangrejo you can enjoy panoramic views of the spectacular colored waters
Boat trips can be arranged from Providencia. These tend to call in at the neighboring island of Santa Catalina, connected to Providencia by a wooden bridge known as the Lovers Bridge. The waters here are beautifully transparent and visibility is excellent for snorkeling. Santa Catalina is home to a number of small fortifications, used by the various erstwhile colonial powers while fighting for control of the area. Afterwards the trip continues onto a rock formation, known as Morgan’s head, before reaching the highly impressive Cayo Cangrejo. Here you can enjoy panoramic views of the spectacular colored waters, which were created by the different sand composition and corral formations.
Just off the coast of Providencia is the world’s third largest corral barrier reef, covering an area of more than 250km². As such, it is a huge attraction for those wishing to dive or snorkel. Those looking for land-based activities can also scale the highest peak on the island (360m), which is reached through a narrow trail traversing the forest.
Getting to and from San Andres and Providencia
There are no ferries from mainland Colombia to the islands, but a number of domestic airlines operate routes from San Andres to Medellin, Bogota and Cartagena. There is also one international flight which runs between the island and Panama City.
There is essentially no viable way of getting directly to Providencia from the mainland
There is essentially no viable way of getting directly to Providencia from the mainland, so visitors wishing to get there will have to first travel to San Andres. To get to Providencia from San Andres, there are two main options: in Catamaran or by plane. Planes leave approximately twice-a-day for the 20 minute journey and are run by state carrier Satena. Catamarans leave San Andres for Providencia about 3-4 times a week and the journey takes about 3 hours. Though slightly cheaper, the boat journey is not recommended for those who suffer from sea sickness, as the waters can often be rough. Moreover, journeys may be cancelled at the last minute because of adverse weather conditions. If planning on travel by boat, ensure you have plenty of time to make any onward travel connections from San Andres.
It is worth checking the offerings of travel companies, such as DeCameron, which have package deals from San Andres to Providencia (including return flights, accommodation and transfers). These may well be cheaper than buying all components individually. A large proportion of the (albeit limited numbers of) guest houses and small hotels available in Providencia are associated with DeCameron, so if you prefer to travel independently you may well end up in the same accommodation anyway. There is also little concern of being stuck in a resort with large crowds – very few tourists make it as far as Providencia and there will likely be only a handful of people staying in your hotel.
Getting around San Andres and Providencia
The principal way to get around San Andres is via local taxi or on foot. There is a bus service which runs through the town center, but this is designed principally with residents in mind and does not serve all the major tourist spots.
Providencia is fairly small (17 km²), but many of the distances between attractions are still large enough to prevent you easily arriving by foot. To get around the island, you can hire a golf buggy for about 120,000 COP a day, or a bicycle for around half this amount. Taxis are available, as are horse rides round the island. Finally, some of the guest houses rent kayaks which you can use to explore the nearby seas, lakes and snorkeling sites.
For further information about transport, attractions and accommodation in San Andres please click here [external site].