Yesterday, on my last day on the island of San Andres, I was sharing a snorkeling spot with two Brazilian guys. We got to chatting and I asked them if they had been to Providencia. “No” they explained “Because we heard that it is more or less what you have here in San Andres, but it’s very expensive to get to and far away and… why? Why do that when you have the same thing here?”
I just laughed to myself and kept my mouth shut, thinking Wow, you have no idea! While the two islands are part of the same archipelago, they have nothing to do with each other. But… was I about to begin enlightening these guys right then and there? Naaaaah. No, I didn’t feel too bad about leaving them in the dark about this one. Not everyone needs to know this little secret, or Providencia wouldn’t be what it is. That being said, you, lucky readers, are in!I’m sharing with you my honest experience of the two islands with you, and why those 2 Brazilian guys could not be further from the truth.
San Andres and Providencia (and a third island, Santa Catalina, which is attached to Providencia by a small bridge) are an archipelago of islands in the Caribbean sea some 400 miles north west of Colombia, next to Nicaragua. Since their discovery in the early 1500’s they changed hands between the English Puritans, the Dutch, and the Spanish Conquistadors before Colombia gained control in 1928. Since then they technically belong to Colombia, although you wouldn’t know it being out there. While the official languages are English, Spanish and Creole, the islanders speak Creole and prefer to be spoken to in English. “Why do you speak to me in Spanish?” one Island man asked me when he found out I was from the US “I’m not Colombian”. The people here are descendants of Afro-Caribbean ethnic groups which makes for an interesting blend of Latin American and Caribbean culture.
People say that Providencia is what San Andres and a lot of these islands in the Caribbean used to be like before mass tourism took over in the last couple of decades. Now San Andres has a population of almost 70,oo0 people, while Providencia is just barely 5,000 inhabitants. While San Andres is flat, Providencia is mountainous and hilly. Due to the high population and long-standing popularity for tourism, San Andres is obviously much more developed; you can get wifi everywhere; in Providencia you are forced to disconnect. San Andres is mostly tourists and people from around the world while Providencia is mostly Islanders. While both islands have amazing clean, beautiful, shocking blue shades of water (the sea of 7 colors), the beaches of San Andres unfortunately are soiled by the 1000s of people who traffic them every day. Providencia in contrast is clean, virgin, seemingly untouched.
You can reach San Andres cheaply and easily via mainland Colombia. Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena all have direct flights with low cost airlines (try VivaColombia and Wingo). I even heard of someone getting a round trip to San Andres for as low as $60. I wasn’t even planning on going to the islands until I saw the low prices for flights and grabbed one without a second thought. Anyone can fit San Andres into their budget.
Providencia is a little bit trickier and expensive to get to and you can only go via San Andres (read more info in: Providencia). This is part of the reason for the low numbers of tourists there so, we can’t be too annoyed about that….
If you are thinking to put the islands off because they are too expensive, they don’t have to be. Of course you will pay a little bit more than you do on the mainland for accommodation. 60,000 ($20) seems to be the starting point for low budget rooms on both islands. As far as drinking, eating and activities you can find all kinds of price ranges and budget options.
If you do decide to go out there, I recommend at least a week (you’re going to want more) and I recommend spending most of that week in Providencia. Warning: you are not going to want to be in San Andres after having visited Providencia. If you decide to both, heed my advice and do San Andres first (just for a night or 2) and end in the paradise of Providencia. Trust me on this one.