A world apart from the rest of Colombia, both geographically and culturally, the San Andrés and Providencia islands sit in the Caribbean sea near Nicaragua, with Providencia atop the third-largest barrier reef in the world. Visitors come all this way for the fantastic beaches, the best diving in Colombia, and the unique Raizal culture; 300-year-old ties to England mean that the residents of Providencia in particular speak an English-based Creole with a Caribbean lilt. On larger, busier San Andrés the Raizal culture is much more diluted, and for many Colombians, one of the island’s draws is its duty-free status, making it a much cheaper place to shop than the mainland.
Seahorse-shaped SAN ANDRÉS is a lively island with gorgeous (if often crowded) white-sand beaches, surrounding azure waters, fantastic diving and other natural attractions. Budget accommodation is concentrated in San Andrés Town, the capital – a busy whirl of unpretty concrete buildings, duty-free shops and careering scooters.
Though San Andrés Town has an attractive main beach of its own, the best beach is on Johnny Cay, the palm-shaded, iguana-inhabited island visible directly across the water. Numerous boats depart from San Andrés beach for Johnny Cay in the mornings around 9am; a return trip costs around COP$20,000, with the last boats returning around 5pm (make sure you remember on which boat you came). Visits to Johnny Cay can be combined with a stop at Acuario – a sliver of sand off the east coast of the island, where the water is swimming-pool clear – though on busy days you’ll find yourself fighting for space among the other visitors, hawkers selling stuffed crab shells and piña coladas and stalls renting snorkelling gear; trips to both places cost around COP$50,000.
If you rent a bicycle or scooter, you can do an easy loop around the island, following the coastal road. Along the west coast, south of El Cove, you’ll pass Piscinita, a beachside restaurant and snorkelling combo: for COP$2000 entry, you can swim with the many fishes who’ll eat out of your hand. At the southern tip of the island is Hoyo Sopladór – a natural blowhole; when the tide and wind conditions are right, a jet of water shoots up to 20m up out of the hole in the rock. On the east side of the island, you’re often likely to have the white-sand, windswept beaches of San Luis all to yourself.
The best of island diving
The islands’ biggest attractions are to be found under the sea, and both Providencia and San Andrés have several reputable diving outfits who can introduce you to a whole new world, even if you’re a first-time diver.
Great dive sites
Cantil de Villa Erica Turtles, manta rays and eagle rays to be found around this reef southwest of San Andrés; 12–45m depths.
Manta’s Place Southern stingrays (rather than mantas) congregate at this Providencia spot.
Palacio de la Cherna Exciting wall dive that drops from 12m to over 300m, with reef and nurse sharks, lobster and king crab among its denizens; southeast of San Andrés.
Piramide Large numbers of morays, octopus and shoals of fish make this shallow reef dive in San Andrés one of the most exciting.
Tete’s Place An abundance of schoolmasters, goat fish, parrotfish and more makes you feel as if you’re swimming in a giant aquarium southwest of Providencia.
Dive operators on San Andrés
Banda Dive Shop Av Colombia, San Andrés Town 8 513 1080, bandadiveshop.com. A friendly, central choice.
San Andrés Divers Av Circunvalar Km9 312 448 7230, sanandresdivers.com. Particularly recommended for their professional approach.
Dive operators on Providencia
Felipe Diving Shop in Aguadulce 8 514 8775, www.felipediving.com.
Sirius Dive Shop Bahía Suroeste (Southwest Bay) next to Sirius Hotel 8 514 8213.
Top image © Jess Kraft/Shutterstock