PROVIDENCIA – COLOMBIA’S SECRET CARIBBEAN ISLAND

PROVIDENCIA – COLOMBIA’S SECRET CARIBBEAN ISLAND

There aren’t many hidden secrets left in the Caribbean…but I’m about to let you in on one:

Providencia Island!

Colombia is a country full of so many contrasts it will make your head spin. This not only holds true on the mainland of the country but also within the islands that it holds within its territory.

Islands?! Yes. Just when you thought you knew Colombia, another secret unfurls!

Colombia has a number of islands dotted along its Caribbean coast, such as Islas Baru, Islas Rosarias and Tierra Bomba, and even has islands along its Pacific coast.

But it also has a secret chain of islands situated in the middle of the ocean – the San Andres archipelago. Located almost 800km off the coast of mainland Colombia, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the tiny specks of San Andres, Providencia, and San Catalina have been mistakenly attributed to the South American nation, and really belong to Nicaragua.

In reality, these islands are actually only accessible from Colombia, and even getting in from there is a process! Battle stories from the trip over are a real conversation point in Providencia, and you will find out why…

Once you arrive though – you’ll realize it was worth the journey. Providencia, in particular, is truly off the radar to most tourists and so quiet and laidback that you won’t be able to do anything else but swim, eat fresh fish and relax.

How to get to Providencia

Getting to Providencia requires time and a decent amount of money. If you’re planning to take the route that we did – flying to San Andres and then taking an onward boat to Providencia, we would recommend staying in Providencia for at least 5 nights. It’s a long process to get there and to get the most out of the island it makes sense to stick around for a while and enjoy it.

Step One: Fly to San Andres

The first step in getting to Providencia is to fly to San Andres. We flew from Cartagena airport. There are a few budget options that fly this route including Viva Air, Wingo and a few others, along with the usual mid-range suspects such as LATAM and Copa. If you buy your ticket way in advance you can score a return flight for as little as 70 AUD/50 USD which is a bargain. Because we booked only a week or so in advance due to our vague plans, it was a little pricier, around 140 AUD/100 USD not including baggage, but I guess that’s the price you pay for freedom. You also need to pay a 110,000 COP island tax at the airport which it didn’t mention anywhere in our booking, so make sure you have cash for that.

Step Two: Stay overnight in San Andres OR catch a direct local flight to Providencia

Because the flights from mainland Colombia didn’t match up with the boat times to Providencia, we had to stay a night in San Andres. If you go with the local flight option (which you may want to, once you hear about the boat!) you might be able to avoid this. Local flights are run by Satena and can be booked on their website. This is the far simpler and more comfortable, but less adventurous and more expensive option. Remember this is a small plane flight, so you can only take 10kg of luggage in total. Flights sell out early and cost roughly 280,000 COP/129 AUD/93 USD each way.

San Andres is quite well known to Colombian tourists, and while the beach we visited (Spratt-Bight Beach, sandwiched between the airport and the marina) is stunningly beautiful, all the trappings that come with mass tourism seem to be here. There are tons of duty-free shops.

Like, tons.

Why there would ever need to be so many of the same shop, I do not know, however it’s a great place to pick up some cheap essentials (sunscreen for one – this is the first place we saw on our whole trip where we would not need to sell a body part to buy some!) so there’s that.

There are numerous cheap posadas in San Andres that will get you by for a night. We stayed at Posada Hostal San Martin which was a rather odd backyard construction job but sufficed for a night’s sleep.

Almost there…

Step Three: Boat to Providencia

Okay, so you’ve made it to the final step – yes! Bad news though – this is the one that will test you.

We arrived in San Andres on Sunday, and surprise, surprise, the ticket office was not open. We had tried to buy tickets on the website of the boat company, Conocemos Navegando, prior to this, but couldn’t get it to work for us. When we arrived at our posada in San Andres, the owner seemed quite concerned that we did not have tickets for any transport onwards to Providencia. However, everything we had read said the ferry was never full, and hey, this is Colombia, who even books things online?! We resolved to get up super early to secure our place on the boat at 8 am.

We arrived at Tonino’s Marina where boats to Providencia launch at 6:20 the next morning to CHAOS. It was pouring with rain, there was already a line forming and people were looking edgy. We dutifully joined the line with slightly lowered confidence but we were still feeling hopeful. Surely not all these people had pre-booked tickets?

Wrong. They had. Damn you, 21st-century backpackers! We were told to take a number and if there were any no-shows we would be sold tickets according to our numbers. The line to get those tickets involved lots of elbowing and pushing in. Push or be pushed. People were desperate!

At this point, we’d pretty much resigned ourselves to taking the next boat, in two days’ time. Boats from San Andres to Providencia and vice versa only leave Mon, Wed, Fri, Sun so we accepted our fate.

Suddenly though, whispers started of … another boat! Jack learned from another traveler (who was freaking out due to it being her honeymoon!) that there was definitely going to be another boat that morning!

Woohoo! We were going to Providencia! At this point I would have taken a leaky dinghy there – I was just happy there was another boat. Luckily the boat was a totally seaworthy looking catamaran called ‘Karibes’. We’d heard nothing about this boat, so could only assume it pops up when there is an overflow of passengers from the other catamaran.

After paying our 340,000 COP/155 AUD/112 USD return ticket, we stowed our bags and were handed a seasickness pill and a sick bag. Hmmm. I had heard the trip from San Andres to Providencia was rough, but looking at the calm, flat Caribbean ahead I was sure that it couldn’t possibly be that rough.

Wrong again! As soon as we got onto the open ocean the waves were HUGE. Jack and I had never been on seas that rough, and because I have a fear of boats the first 30 minutes were pretty terrifying. After realizing we’d probably be ok (as long as the sailors don’t look scared, we might not die) I relaxed a little. We even saw dolphins jumping out of the water alongside the boat, which was an amazing experience.

The next phase of the boat ride was the blowing chunks phase. This is when people started to vom like crazy. You don’t see it or hear it generally, but you can definitely smell it. I felt so sorry for the people that were sick, it looked VERY unpleasant. If they give you a seasickness pill TAKE IT! That said, one sick passenger had allegedly taken 3 to no avail…

Step Four: Arrive in Providencia

So now, after 4 hours on the boat, and the emotional rollercoaster of the morning, we had finally made it to Providencia! A taxi to anywhere on the island will set you back 25,000 COP/10 AUD/8 USD, which is fairly pricey, but there are a limited amount of cars on the island. So you kinda don’t have a choice.

You made it! Now, more tips on making the most of your time on this secret island.

Where to Stay in Providencia

Providencia is a minimally developed island. There are no resorts here, no high rise hotels or buildings, nor anything resembling luxury. Which is actually refreshingly nice, as it takes a certain type of traveler to come here. The main type of accommodations are posadas, privately run guesthouses.

Beautiful South West Bay

Because of the lack of restaurants, we would recommend staying somewhere with a kitchen and cooking some of your own meals to keep costs down. We stayed at Saltwata Apartments in South West Bay. We found our apartment to be simple and basic, but all that we needed. The only thing that needed improvement was the cleanliness, but apart from that, it was the perfect place for us! The owner Raul was super helpful and friendly and helped us organize anything we wanted to do.

Here’s a rundown on the different areas you can stay in Providencia (but we think Sout West Bay was the best!):

Town/Santa Isabel

The main concentration of shops for locals. Close to Santa Catalina, which has two small beaches. The locals refer to this as ‘town’.

Freshwater Bay/Bahia Aguadulce

This is where the majority of guesthouses are located. To be honest the beach wasn’t that impressive, there seemed to be lots of discarded junk on it. It might be worth staying here if you have your own transportation.

South West Bay/Bahia Sur Oeste

The longest beach on Providencia. Also features a grand total of three restaurants/bars which are open for lunch. This was our favorite beach to relax on. Not good for snorkeling as the water is a little cloudy. Oh, did I mention there are horse races ON THE BEACH each Saturday? Wild.

Manchineel Bay/Bahia Manzanillo

Very secluded. Apparently, this is the busiest beach but there was barely anyone there when we went. The beach is nice but has a few more waves than South West Bay. No accommodation but a restaurant/bar. Get here by mototaxi or rent a motorbike/golf cart.

What else do you need?!?

What to do in Providencia

Providencia is a really fun place to explore. You can really do as little or as much as you like, depending on what you like. Here are some ideas.

Visit Morgan’s Head

This is a rock formation that you can jump off and snorkel around. Beware that the rocks are very spiky! Water shoes are a good idea. If you can’t make it back up the nasty rocks, you can swim down to Fort Beach which is rather nice.

Explore the island on a motorbike or golf cart

We did this on our last day on Providencia and it lots of fun! Gives you a chance to check out everything on the island (you can probably drive around it in 30 mins!). We rented through our guest house for 140,000 COP/65 AUD/47 USD and that was with drop off and return.

Snorkel or Scuba Dive

The snorkeling and scuba diving is apparently amazing here, but we didn’t experience much of it. There are a few dive shops on the island, such as Malcon’s Dive Shop, so enquire once you arrive. We regret not diving because we have heard amazing things!

Turtle paparazzi

Hike the Hill

Another thing we didn’t really get around to (whoops!) but that is meant to be spectacular, is the hike up The Peak, the highest point on the island. The views looks incredible. Unfortunately, we were too busy…drinking cocktails…

Visit Crab Caye (Cayo Cangrejo)

I’d say this is a must do! Snorkel, see loads of turtles, enjoy lazing on the dock, it’s a super beautiful experience. The color of the ocean has to be seen to be believed. You can also climb to the top of the caye and check out the view. You can organize a tour here through your guesthouse for around 50,000 COP/22 AUD/17 USD.

Providencia was definitely worth the ordeal it took to get there. It still seems like change is a long way off, but I always tell people to get anywhere that’s as beautiful and quiet as this ASAP, because I just can’t see it lasting forever.

But hopefully, it will.


Have we missed anything? Did you do something way cooler than us? Let us know for when we go back!

I’m Stephanie and this year I’m taking a break from life in Australia. I’m traveling South, Central and North America, learning Spanish, eating tacos and seeking out amazing swimming spots. When I’m taking time out from that hectic schedule I like to write, read and relax – and pat cute street animals that I really shouldn’t. I probably wrote most of what you’re reading from my hammock and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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