Isla de Providencia, Colombia’s Unspoilt Paradise Island
Oooooh Isla de Providencia, Colombia! WHAT an island! While our favourite trip of our year and a half of travels was without a doubt the San Blas Islands for a very long time, Isla de Providencia swiftly swooped in to steal that top spot. The lesser-visited sister of the island of San Andrés, Isla de Providencia sits around 80 miles North-West of SA. A short bridge away from Providencia is Santa Catalina Island, which has no urbanisation and just one street of wooden-porched houses.
You can see a video of our first 4 days spent on Providencia island below; after that trip we decided we loved Isla de Providencia so much that we returned 5 months later.
While you’re in the Isla San Andres and Providencia area, don’t miss the following guides:
Isla de Providencia’s strongly Caribbean culture has the slightest of Colombian twists, and local life there appears laid-back and full of happiness. Family ties are strong, so it’s common to see large groups of people of all ages sat outside houses or shops, chatting until the wee hours.
The main draw of the island is the beautiful turquoise water and stunning white-sanded beaches, and the famous Crab Cay (Cayo Cangrejo) that sits just off the North coast. All the beaches can be found on the West and South coasts, the rest is mostly rock. Check out our ‘Beaches of Isla de Providencia, Colombia’ post to see how we rate each beach!
History of Isla de Providencia
Isla de Providencia, or ‘Providence Island’, as it was formerly known, was originally held by the British, with many Dutch residents too. They created a Puritan colony there, which was super-strict on church service attendance and godly behaviour. Residents were heavily encouraged to produce tobacco, even though other islands such as Jamaica produced tobacco of far greater quality, and even when the market was flooded with supply so the price went down. Workers on the island were mostly indentured servants from Europe, who were working hard labour for free in order to pay off a debt or crime.
Once their time was done, the residents of Providence Island decided to replace the workforce with African slaves, and the island became a slave-trading hub. Bizarrely, for all that’s wrong with that sentence, it’s the profiting that the Puritans took issue with, and so slaves were only able to be traded for tobacco, not hard cash.
The economy of Providence Island took a few dips south so it instead became a hub for pirates and expeditions on their quest to take down the Spanish. Isla de Providencia was positioned in the ‘mouth of the Spanish empire’ in Latin America, so it was perfectly placed as a spot from which to defend all that was British in the Caribbean. The island was eventually gifted to Colombia in the Victorian times.
Nowadays, there are around 5000 residents on Isla de Providencia and 150 on Santa Catalina, most of them direct descendants of the African slaves brought to work the land. Many locals lean towards Caribbean culture rather than Colombian. The first language is Creole, but almost all islanders also speak both Spanish and English to a good level. It’s the first place we’ve been to in South America where some natives seem to prefer using English to Spanish.
The population of Isla de Providencia has been particularly affected by Colombia’s narco wars, after cartels realised the invaluable sea skills of the young men living there. While the island itself doesn’t have a particular narco problem, thousands of local men have gone missing after setting off in their boats over the last few decades.
Safety on Providencia Island
We felt incredibly safe on Providencia island, mostly owing to islanders’ friendly and helpful attitudes. Stand idly on the street too long and you’ll have a local asking you how they can help.
In all honesty, we’ve always wanted to check out more of the Caribbean, but safety concerns on larger islands often mean you’re advised to stay within the boundaries of an all-inclusive resort and therefore are not able to see what real life is like there. Isla de Providencia may be small, but it feels like the perfect place to immerse yourself in authentic Caribbean vibes without having to look over your shoulder the whole time.
The only area of Isla de Providencia that our local host told us to be careful in was Manzanillo beach, where she said that crime wasn’t generally violent, but unattended bags sometimes went missing.
Until the next big election in 2020, the current governors on Isla de Providencia have restricted the opening times of beach bars, meaning they have to close at 7pm every night – which translates to ‘whenever the police eventually turn up to shut it down’. This is due to a fight that broke out on New Year’s Day after a party carried on into the afternoon on Manzanillo Beach.
Can I live on Isla de Providencia?
A stay on Isla de Providencia may have you wishing you could move there permanently, but unfortunately this small island has some restrictions so that the paradise can continue to be enjoyed by the natives and not profited from by foreigners. You are allowed to buy a house in Providencia as a foreigner, but you cannot buy land on which to build your own property. This keeps westerners and mainlanders alike from putting up monstrosities of hotel chains on the island, or from turning it into a summer house destination, empty during the working months. It also goes some way to controlling gentrification that we see on San Andrés, where locals can no longer afford many of the shops and restaurants in the centre.
If you do own a property as a foreigner on Isla de Providencia, be warned that you are only allowed a visa of up to 4 months to stay there. If you are just a regular visitor without property, the tourist visa on Isla de Providencia is 3 months long.
Are there ATMs on Isla de Providencia?
Yes, but only in the main town, next to the port. If you’re worried about charges to your card, make sure you stock up on cash in San Andrés or the mainland (don’t forget to check our list of ATMs for free cash withdrawals in Latin America!). Almost everything – including your accommodation – needs to be paid in cash outside of the main town, because although there are many more masts that have gone up in the last 5 months since we were first on Isla Providencia, the signal still often isn’t strong enough to guarantee a card machine working. To give you an idea of budget, an average cost of the cheapest dish on the menu in a restaurant is around 30k COP, beers are usually 5k and cocktails 15-20k.
Isla de Providencia Carnival
In June, Isla de Providencia has a big carnival, which sees droves of natives from other Caribbean islands flocking to this teeny one. There you’ll see traditional parades and music artists from all over coming to perform, mingle in the crowds and enjoy this little piece of paradise. Flights, catamaran tickets and accommodation will be hard to come by during this time (lots of owners shut their places down to go and revel in the party), so plan way ahead.
Where to stay on Isla de Providencia
If you want luxury, get yourself down to Deep Blue Hotel. It’s modern, it has its own jetty looking out to Crab Cay, and to be quite frank, its price tag gives it an exclusive feel. Some of the rooms have their own pools overlooking the sea. The restaurant has excellent food, though you will pay much higher prices than you’re used to if you’ve been in Colombia for a while – still cheaper than the UK, of course!
For a more Caribbean, homestay feel with friendly staff and even more beautiful views (due to its elevation), make a booking with Crab Cay Boutique Lodge. We wrote a full review on our stay there at this link. We’ve so far stayed there twice, and then spent a day with the staff during their holiday when we crossed over on San Andres Island a few couple of months after our last visit.
If you want to stay somewhere beach-side on Isla de Providencia, look at somewhere along Fresh Water Bay or South West Bay.
One thing to be said is that despite a high average cost of accommodation here – compared with mainland Colombia, for example – the majority of places are quite basic. I mean, you’re on a teeny-tiny island miles from anywhere. Therefore, you may not get the luxury and modernity that you might be expecting, even with accommodation in the higher end of prices. You can also practically forget about the rest of the world for a few days, with WiFi and phone signal hard to come by reliably. With that being said, the charm of this island is best enjoyed offline.
Things to do on Isla de Providencia
Kayak to Crab Cay (Cayo Cangrejo)
Number one on our list of things to do on Isla de Providencia is a visit to Crab Cay (pronounced ‘key’). This is the small rock off the North coast of the main island. Go to the jetty of Deep Blue Hotel and either ask Lady for a boat ride for 40K COP pp or hire kayaks and row yourself over for 30K COP pp.
Unfortunately, you cannot stay overnight on Crab Cay. In terms of timings, all boats must be back on the main island by 4:30pm, and Sundays after 1:30pm is for locals only. The snorkel tours tend to crowd Crab Cay between 11am and 1:30pm, so going either side of that is always a good idea! Upon arrival, you will be asked to pay an 18K COP conservation charge in cash.
Once on Crab Cay, make sure you take the 5 minute climb up to the top to see breath-taking 360 degree views, then hire a snorkel and flippers for 20K COP and take a swim round the island.
The cay is a regular feeding ground for wild turtles. If you see them, you can swim near them, but remember never to touch them. You can also quite easily swim around Crab Cay and enjoy the variety of reefs and marine life it has to offer.
There is a drinks stall on Crab Cay which sells soft and alcoholic drinks for reasonable prices (5K COP for a can of beer; 20k for a cocktail), as well as a stand offering ceviche and snacks, which may be closed in the PM once all of the snorkelling tours have visited and left. However, if you want a proper meal you’ll have to bring it with you from Isla de Providencia.
Golf buggy beach-hop around Isla de Providencia
Don’t miss doing this! Isla de Providencia is teeny, and with only one main road there are very few ways to get lost. There are fewer than 20 taxi drivers on the whole island, and taxi rides tend to be pretty expensive (25-35K COP per trip), so your best option is to either hire a moped or a 2- or 4-person golf buggy. These cost 80K and 200K respectively (2-man buggies presumably a little less than 200k) for 24 hours. The owners will drop off and pick up the vehicles wherever you like (fantastic for us when we finished the day with a few beers at a beach bar on the other side of the island from our accommodation).
Be sure to stop in at Manzanillo, Fresh Water Bay and South West Bay. For something secluded, Almond Bay is your pick, but there’s a steep walk to get there and back from the main road. Arm yourself with our ratings for the best beaches of Isla de Providencia beforehand to plan your beach-hopping.
Join a snorkel tour
For 300K COP each, Isla de Providencia’s snorkel tours take you to several areas around the island, including White Shoal, the reef breaks, Santa Catalina and Crab Cay, plus you should get to sail around the Tres Hermanos rocks where you can see frigates flying around like mini draculas. For us, Santa Catalina had the most insane corals to snorkel around, and the coral cities in the deep, deep ocean around the reef breaks were awe-inspiring. After snorkelling around Isla de Providencia, the guides drop you off at a beach restaurant (usually Arturo’s on South West beach) for a late lunch to finish the trip.
You can also organise the option to take a glass bottom boat tour if some of your party would rather not get their face wet.
Explore Isla Santa Catalina
This is the smaller island that juts off from the main town (Pueblo Viejo) of Isla de Providencia. It doesn’t have a huge amount of life on it, but it offers quitter spots for snorkelling and swimming. You do have to walk a fair bit to get to the more northernly post where the best waters and beaches are. From the main town, cross the wobbly ‘Lover’s Line’ bridge to get onto the island, and turn immediately left, following the path around the island. To the right is just a dead end 😉
We were under the impression that we could walk all the way around Isla Santa Catalina, and Google Maps made it seem like it was possible, but in reality most of the island is overgrown and very steep, so the furthest you can hike to is Morgan’s Head, a rocky resemblance of the pirate Captain Morgan, who used to use Isla de Providencia and Santa Catalina as a base to attack Spanish ports. It’s around this area that the best snorkel spots are.
You can scuba dive around the corals in several sites around Isla de Providencia & Santa Catalina – in fact, this is the third biggest coral reef in the world, after Australia and Belize. Get in contact with Sonny Dive Shop on Fresh Water Bay to organise your scuba diving excursion.
Climb the Peak of Isla de Providencia
Right in the middle of Providencia Island is ‘the peak’, which you can climb in a couple of hours. Ask your accommodation to organise a tour (50K) for you if you want to ensure you’re going the right way and learn about the terrain as you go. The hike starts very early in the morning, so you reach the peak when the sun isn’t too strong.
Chill in an Isla de Providencia beach bar
Popping up on almost every list of things to do on Isla de Providencia is Roland’s Reggae Bar. The best evening of the week to go is a Sunday (remember that for the rest of 2019 the police come to shut the party down at 7pm). Expect banging dancehall and reggae music and coco loco cocktails served in fresh coconuts around the firepit. People drunkenly swing on ropes off palm trees and chill in the sea. While the party was pretty cool, it has to be said that this felt like something that was really cool maybe 5 years ago, before it started appearing in places like the Lonely Planet. A standard effect of such a feature is that places once enjoyed by locals become swamped with westerners, until eventually the locals find somewhere else to mingle.
The locals in Roland’s Reggae Roots Bar tended to either keep to themselves – sitting on their motorbikes next to the toilets instead at a table – or were very obviously there with the sole intention of picking up an exotic blonde girl.
On South West, a beach bar not yet swamped with tourism is La Sirenita, and unapologetically loved by tourists (but not at at in an inauthentic or tacky way) is Chill Spot / Tom’s Corner on South West Bay. This is an idyllic spot to take in the afternoon sun face-on as it goes down over the calm, clear waters of Isla de Providencia – just bring your bug spray!
Get pampered at the spa
As Isla de Providencia is such a good spot to get away from the crowds and truly wind down, it’s fitting that the island should have such a good spa on offer. Right on the beach of South West Bay is the Cotton Tree Spa, which offers all sorts of therapies, rituals and packages, ranging from traditional to modern, detoxing to energising.
How to get to Isla de Providencia
Get to San Andrés first
To get to Providencia Island, you first have to get to Isla San Andres. There are regular flights from most major cities in Colombia to San Andrés from as little as £50-60 return. We recommend spending a day or two on this island as it’s a pretty cool place, then heading on to the real paradise. If you’re after some ideas for what to do on San Andrés, check out these from Jarrod over at Ramble Around the World, and you can also read our comprehensive guide to the island here.
Flying from San Andres to Providencia
We highly recommend getting the first plane of the day from San Andres to Providencia. Flying through the pink clouds in an 18-seater propeller plane at sunrise is an experience we’ll never forget. The flight from San Andres to Providencia is only 16 minutes long, and gives unimaginable views of both islands.
The downside: the planes get booked up very quickly, and they’re not cheap. We got our return flights from Isla San Andres to Providencia for £160 per person. San German, Searca and Satena are the companies that fly there; check their websites for availability as they don’t show up on comparison sites (we’d recommend not trying to book through Searca as they never got back to our initial enquiry, despite the fact we ended up on a Searca plane).
You may need to leave large luggage somewhere on San Andres or the mainland as the planes to Providencia are so small that checked luggage is restricted to 10kg and hand-luggage 5kg, but from what we saw they weren’t as strict as we expected at check-in, if you coughed up a little extra cash. Don’t be alarmed if they weigh you whilst holding your hand-luggage so they can balance the plane’s weight.
Boat from San Andres to Providencia
The other option is to get a catamaran across from San Andres to Providencia. Be warned, the reviews are not good. It’s 3.5 hours long, and so choppy that most people end up sea-sick. It’s smoother on the way back, so we’re told. For this reason, some travellers opt to buy a plane ride on the way to Isla de Providencia, and a cheaper catamaran ride back. There is currently only one catamaran company that sails from San Andres to Providencia, called Conocemos Navegando. There are 5 catamarans to Isla de Providencia a week (no boats on Tuesday or Saturday), and a return will cost you in the region of 400K COP (£100) depending on the season. You have to be at the catamaran port an hour before departure.
Isla de Providencia tip: Remember to keep your San Andrés tourist card!
This is a card you have to pay for at the check-in desk on the mainland, as you check in for your flight to San Andrés. The San Andrés tourist card costs 112,500 COP (£28) as of September 2019. You will need this card to prove you’ve paid the tourist tax throughout your time on Isla San Andres and Isla de Providencia, and will be asked to show it on any arrival to and departure from the islands – even when heading back to mainland Colombia.
How long to stay on Isla de Providencia, Colombia? 3-4 days
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