San Andres and Providencia-Colombia’s Caribbean islands

Often overlooked by travelers to South America, the islands of San Andres and Providencia offer visitors sun, Eco-tourism and shopping.

    Johnny Cay - Richard McColl

Johnny Cay – Richard McColl

The islands of San Andres and Providencia could not be more strikingly different from one another. San Andres is a tax free haven and package-deal holiday destination for Colombians of all walks of life. Its topography is unremarkable and towns are a mess of hustle and bustle of merchants hawking and tourists looking for the ever elusive duty free deal. Providencia on the other hand is the smaller and less populated of the two islands, yet mountainous and preserved as a national park. Its towns are ramshackle and definitively Afro-Caribbean in style.


As is the case in this part of the world, much of the history is falling by the wayside as more learned elders pass away and their story-telling abilities are not passed on to future generations and of course, there is precious little in writing.

Located far closer to the Nicaraguan coast – some 140 miles – than to Colombia, the islands boast an interesting history. Originally they are thought to have been settled by Miskito Indians, yet no settlements have been discovered to prove this theory. Some islanders believe that the Indians used the islands as fishing grounds – another theory that has yet to be proven since why would the Miskito travel so far when they have such fertile waters off their traditional territories on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua?

Historians also claim that Columbus could have discovered the islands in 1502 but there are no records that show this and no signs on the islands of a settlement of this type from this period.

Later came English Puritans intent on creating a new and pious community. Rather than succeed in their plan, their territory became more of a slaving route and whatever religious utopia they planned quickly fell fowl, became a pirate haven and major thoroughfare for contraband. The renowned pirate Henry Morgan made Providencia his base and is said to have planned the sacking of Panama from here.

Spain reclaimed the islands which were then controlled from Cartagena. Gran Colombia occupied the islands in the 19th century, a fact not recognized by Nicaragua, and subsequently ownership moved to that of Colombia. Since 1980 the Nicaraguan government has been petitioning the United Nations and staking its claim.

San Andres

By far and away a major vacation destination for Colombians, this island is not for everyone. Should you wish a hassle free all inclusive break, then you might well end up here. The island boasts a cave where Henry Morgan is said to have buried some treasure, a fine beach at San Luis, good diving opportunities and a plethora of duty free shops offering anything from reduced price electronic wares to perfumes.


Declared a national park in order to protect its obvious natural beauty, the mountainous and verdant Providencia is inhabited by fewer than 6000 people. The island has a wealth of riches in pristine beaches and diving opportunities. Far more laid back than San Andres, one does not visit here looking for thumping nightlife or bars.


San Andres – don’t miss out on the wreck dive or a trip to Johnny Cay.

Providencia – Playa Manzanillo is what you dream of when booking a Caribbean holiday

How to get there:

To San Andres: Within Colombia: Avianca, Aerorepublica and Satena fly several flights daily from major Colombia cities. Copa flies in from Panama.

To Providencia: Should you not wish to brave an open ocean crossing from Central America or from San Andres the only flights to the island are with Satena, twice a day.

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