This island in the Caribbean has been a Puritan colony and a pirate haven. Today, Providencia Island is home to a distinct culture (more Creole than Colombian), one of the largest coral reefs in the Americas, and plenty of other reasons for travelers to make the effort to get there. Use our Island Travel Guide–which covers things to do, what to eat (and drink), where to sleep, and how to get there–to plan your trip to Colombia’s Caribbean.
What makes Providencia Island special
Providencia Island (called Isla de Providencia in Spanish and Providence Island by English-speaking locals) is part of the San Andrés Archipelago that also includes San Andrés Island and Santa Catalina. The archipelago is 395 miles (637 km) from mainland Colombia and just 120 miles (190 km) from Nicaragua which claimed ownership of the archipelago in a dispute that lasted until it was resolved (in Colombia’s favor) in 2012.
About 6,000 people live on Providencia mostly in the main town of Santa Isabel in the north of the island. It’s a cliché, but it did seem like all of the islanders knew each other and they often called out greetings in creole, usually from one moving motorcycle (called a moto) to another.
The island, which is 20 miles (32 km) long and covers seven square miles (18 square km), got its name in 1629 when Puritans from Plymouth, Massachusettes formed a colony on the island. Bad planning, bad luck, and slave-trading activities put an end to the colony pretty quickly. Today, Baptist, Catholic, Jehova’s Witnesses, and other churches exist on the island. On Sundays, women in church dresses and high heels ride side-saddle on motos behind their partners and kids on their way to church.
Unlike many islands, there is fresh water on Providencia (though there can be water shortages during peak tourist months, so moderate your usage). There’s even an area of the island called Freshwater Bay. This attracted pirates including Henry Morgan who used the island as a base. Some believe he left buried treasure on Providencia and some still dig for it.
The island is hilly and tree-covered including palms and a number of notably big cotton trees that are part of the ceiba family. Bromeliads cover anything that doesn’t move. The sound of lapping waves is pretty much constant (you’re never too far from the water’s edge) and you can also hear the chirping, popping song of a thousand unseen frogs who are especially vocal after it rains. Songbirds, frigates, gulls, kingfishers, and swallows swoop and call and the ground moves with the scurrying of hermit crabs and lizards, including one that’s practically neon blue.
The wonders in the water are just as plentiful. The island is part of the Seaflower Biosphere which was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000 and protects 10 percent of the Caribbean including Providencia’s 20 mile (32 km) long coral reef which is one of the largest in the Americas. This rich marine environment is part of what creates a remarkable range of blue colors in the water here, prompting the enticing nickname “sea of seven colors”.
Another bonus? Providencia is one of the few Caribbean islands that does not get hurricanes.
Things to do on Providencia Island
Our week on Providencia Island was unusually rainy. This may sound like a disaster, but it wasn’t. The rainy days forced us to slow down to island time until the sun came back out and for that we’re thankful.
In any kind of weather, a visit to the only true spa on Providencia is a good idea. Islander Zunny Orozco Archibold opened Cotton Tree Spa in 2018. Zunny calls herself a “constant spa client” and she’s put that experience and passion to use at Cotton Tree where she and her team offer a range of massages (60 minutes for around 150,000 COP or about US$45), packages, and facials in three outdoor treatment rooms with ceiling fans and curtains.
The sound of the Caribbean lapping up on Southwest Bay and the chirping of birds is better than any spa music. Guests can also enjoy two 6-person Jacuzzis, under the 200-year-old cotton tree that the spa is named for, and a large sauna.
Zunny has also tapped talented island chefs for her Cotton Tree Spa restaurant. We had excellent crab dishes, ceviche, and side dishes using local ingredients (some grown on the property) including a very white, very fluffy native plantain that we kind of fell in love with.
There are a few hiking trails on Providencia Island and through parts of the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park including a trail up to The Peak, the highest point on the island. However, when we were there, most trails were closed because there were not enough rangers to maintain them.
Our fourth day on the island dawned bright and sunny and we finally got to enjoy the famously blue water. Runoff from the mountains during the previous rainy days had clouded the Caribbean, but the sun brought out those famous seven shades of blue–from aquamarine to turquoise to bruised navy. It was time to get in the water. There are a number of dive shops on Providencia Island. Felipe Diving Center in Freshwater Bay, which was recommended by the owner of the Airbnb we stayed in (see below), offers day dives, night dives, wreck dives, and even SCUBA diving certification courses.
We’ve been certified SCUBA divers for years, so we signed up for two daytime dives (200,000 COP pp, about US$54, including gear). Our divemaster Picchis took us to our first dive site, called Felipe’s Place, where a sculpture of Jesus was submerged in the early 2000’s. In addition to that submerged Jesus, we also saw a nurse shark that followed us around like a puppy, a reef shark, triggerfish, parrotfish, a juvenile damselfish, barracuda, a large lobster, and lots of reef fish in the drab but intricate coral during our dives. And because the water was so warm (even at our max diving depth of 83 feet/25.5 meters) we were able to dive without a wetsuit.
Snorkeling and kayaking around Crab Cay are top activities for a reason. This tiny crab-shaped island, just off the eastern side of Providencia, is within the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park which, in just four square miles (10 square km), protects areas of Providencia including dry forests, mangroves, and Crab Cay itself. There’s a small ranger station on Crab Cay (17,500 COP per person, about US$5, to enter) and from there you can snorkel or kayak in the protected, shallow, clear, and warm water around the cay. We saw turtles, triggerfish, needlefish, thousands of baby fish under the wooden pier, and even a small shark. There’s a small shaded sitting area on the islet and a few vendors sell cold beer and snacks. You can also walk up a short trail to the top of Crab Cay for great views. Allow at least two hours.
To get to Crab Cay you can hire a boat and driver from in front of the Deep Blue Hotel who will drop you off and pick you up (we paid 40,000 COP, or about US$11, per person for this service including decent snorkeling equipment). You can also rent a kayak at Deep Blue Hotel and paddle to Crab Cay from there. Arrive as close to the 9 am opening time as possible to beat the crowds which begin arriving by 10:30 am. And in 2018 park officials started experimenting with closing Crab Cay entirely for a week in October to let the environment recover, so check about any closures when planning your Crab Cay visit.
If you want to explore Providencia you can rent a moto (we paid 80,000 or about US$22 for a full day) and drive it around the paved road that circumnavigates the island. These small motorcycles have covered tailpipes (so you don’t burn your leg) and do not require shifting, so they’re easy to operate. They’re big enough to carry two average-size adults. There are no helmets. Don’t ask for one. Quads are also available to rent (a 4-seater was 160,000 COP per day or about US$45). Allow at least three hours to tour the island and have lunch somewhere (see our eating and drinking suggestions, below). The island, but be aware that the island is surprisingly hilly and while There are few cars on the island there are many, many motos on the road driven by everyone from school children to grandmas. You’ve been warned.
Santa Catalina Island is the third island in the San Andrés Archipelago. It’s separated from Providencia Island by a natural channel that’s narrow enough to be spanned by a 300 foot (100 meter) pedestrian bridge.
The peaceful 0.40 square mile (1 km square) pedestrian-only islet has its own selection of restaurants and guest houses. The only real activity on Santa Catalina is the short walk to see Morgan’s Head Rock, a large rock formation that vaguely looks like a human head and was named after pirate Henry Morgan. Along the way, you’ll pass old Fort Warwick which is now nothing more than a lone canon.
Other island activities include horseback riding (and you can watch locals race their horses on Southwest Beach on most Saturdays), boat tours, fishing, and kayaking.
Where to eat and drink on Providencia Island
The predominant cuisine on Providencia is Creole with a focus on seafood and some of the dishes we had reminded us of the food in New Orleans (that’s a good thing). Be on the lookout for restaurants serving an invasive species called lionfish. It’s delicious.
Since 1969, Miss Elma has been dishing up generous plates of seafood on the beach along Freshwater Bay (main dishes around 40,000 COP or about US$11). Our arroz a ala marinara included plenty of seafood and good spices and a splayed whole snapper came absolutely covered in a rich, generous, subtle crab sauce made with the meat of the island’s famous land crabs. The beer is cold and you can order wine by the glass or by the bottle. Miss Elma also has a quaint guesthouse which is affiliated with Decameron. The resort chain is not allowed to directly own a business on Providencia so they’ve partnered with islanders.
Roland Roots Bar, on Manzanillo beach near the southern tip of the island, is the place to be on Sundays when they light up a bonfire pit in the ground, crank the music, and attract a rip-roaring crowd of islanders who live it up with cold beer and hot dancing.
For a splurgy dinner on the water, head for the Deep Blue Hotel. Sit inside or on the waterfront patio and get ready for good seafood including fish in a black crab sauce or large, tender, sweet grilled prawns. Side dishes include light patacones (fried plantains), crunchy salad, and coconut rice. This restaurant also had a surprisingly wide range of wines from Chile, the US, Italy, and Argentina.
One of the best value meals on the island can be found at El Divino Niño on Southwest Bay where we got the mixed platter for two which included two whole fish, a whole lobster, very tender conch, very tender octopus, two portions of coconut rice, two salads, and plenty of limes for 67,000 COP (about US$18). There was enough food for three people. The restaurant also offers hammocks, beach chairs, and very cold beer and they’re open on Sundays when many island restaurants are closed.
Tom’s Corner, on Southwest Bay, serves cold beer from a wood shack painted in rasta colors. There are beach chairs, a great sunset view, and you might even be treated to a spirited baseball game or practice session on the beach near the ignored and forlorn soccer goal post.
We also heard great things about Donde Martin restaurant in Freshwater Bay on Providencia and about Don Olivo restaurant on Santa Catalina Island, but we never got to those places. And if you get the chance, try the bush rum that’s been made on the island for decades. It’s got a pleasant smokiness and was smoother than we expected.
Where to sleep on Providencia Island
We were told that there are about 100 places to stay on Providencia and Santa Catalina, and that doesn’t count a growing number of Airbnb listings, so there’s bound to be something for everyone.
The first place we stayed on Providencia was an Airbnb listing called Hoy Hill House. This simple whitewashed wood cottage with turquoise and pink accents (which lend a festive Caribbean feel) is located right on the water near Southwest Bay. There are two bedrooms (each with an air-conditioner), two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, a laundry room, and an ample patio facing the sea. It’s peaceful, private, and we didn’t want to leave.
Deep Blue Hotel, the only luxury hotel on Providencia Island, opened in 2012 after a 3-year renovation of an existing hotel. Located on the eastern side of the island with a view of Crab Cay, the hotel has a wide range of rooms, all with air-conditioning, a de-humidifier, mini-bar, furnished patio with sea views, rain showerheads, stone floors, and L’Occitane bathroom products. A stunning junior suite has corner windows, epic sea views, a private plunge pool, and a separate sitting area. There is a narrow pool for all guests to use and the hotel’s seaside restaurant is great. Most staff members are locals, some with extensive cruise ship experience. To help deal with waste and address seasonal water shortages, the current owners built their own black water treatment plant and all reclaimed water is used to irrigate the hotel grounds. Travelers with mobility issues should know that the hotel structures were built up a hillside from the sea, so you have to climb quite a few stairs.
If you’re traveling with a small group or large family, consider booking Monasterio del Viento which offers four bedrooms with private bathrooms, three decks, a small freshwater infinity pool, direct access to the sea, a full kitchen (a hired chef can also be arranged), complete privacy, and a chic Caribbean aesthetic.
On Santa Catalina Island, we toured a homey, peaceful, super-clean 7-room guesthouse called Miss Francia’s Home. It’s sparkling clean and all rooms have air conditioning, TV, private bathrooms, and Wi-Fi (around 227,000 COP or about US$60 for a double). The onsite waterfront, open-air restaurant was very good too (about 100,000 for lunch for two with beers, or about US$28).
Providencia Island travel tips
- Many islanders talk about Bogotá—which is their official capital city—as if it were a world away and, in cultural terms, it is. You could spend a week in Bogotá and be able to count the number of black or Caribbean people you saw there on one hand.
- The official language of Providencia Island is Spanish, but you’re more likely to hear islanders speaking English or Creole. Though most tourists who travel to the island are Spanish-speaking Colombians, whenever we spoke Spanish to islanders we got the side-eye and answers in English.
- While tourism is a growing industry on Providencia, islanders are very proud and protective of their home and their way of life. For example, non-locals (even people from mainland Colombia) can only stay on Providencia for three months per year and only islanders can own businesses. An island tradition that was common until two generations ago was to bury a newborn baby’s umbilical cord in a designated place on Providencia to create a connection between the child and its birthplace.
- Do not expect reliable Wi-Fi or cell service on Providencia or Santa Catalina. And when we were there, only Claro and Movistar got cell service on the island in varying strengths depending on how far you were from the antennas.
- There are a few very small markets on the island that are thinly stocked and high-priced (US$2 for a can of tuna, for example). And don’t expect to find many fresh fruits or vegetables.
- Most businesses close midday for a few hours, then come back to life in the cooler afternoon. It can be hard to find an open restaurant on Sundays.|
- There is one gas station on the island and one ATM which does not always have cash to dispense, so bring plenty of cash. Credit cards are only sometimes accepted.
- The west side of the island, including Southwest Beach and Freshwater Bay, gets great sunset views. The east side of the island, including Deep Blue and Monasterio del Viento, get sunrise views.
- We saw plenty of bus stops built to depict various sea creatures and there are a few small buses that drive the road around the island.
- The island gets its electricity from an enormous diesel generator.
- In lieu of taxis, there are many motos for hire to take you around the island.
- Every year, roughly between April and July, Providencia Island experiences an epic migration as tens of thousands of black land crabs come down from the hills to the sea to deposit eggs in the water. During the migration, crabs cover nearly every part of the island and it’s suddenly clear why so many structures are built on stilts. Part of the road around the island closes during the crab migration to minimize roadkill. After the crab eggs hatch in the sea, millions of baby crabs with bright red legs make a reverse migration up into the hills.
- The rainiest months on Providencia Island are October and November. Dryest months are January through June. But rain can occur at any time.
How to Get to Providencia Island
To get to Providencia Island you first have to fly from the Colombian mainland to the island of San Andrés. You must also show proof of a return flight back to the mainland and you must pay a tourist tax (110,000 COP or about US$35 per person) in CASH. Keep the receipt for your tourist tax. You will need to show it in order to travel to Providencia and before you can travel back to mainland Colombia.
You can fly between San Andrés and Providencia, but the small airport on Providencia was being worked on when we were there which reduced the number of flights, so we booked tickets on a El Splendor catamaran ferry between the islands which also required proof of return passage back to San Andrés.
The catamaran ferry between San Andrés and Providence covered about 50 miles (80 km) and took about three hours toward Providencia and about four hours back to San Andrés. You must be at the ferry dock an hour ahead of departure time and you must print out your confirmation paperwork and show your passport and tourist tax receipt. Each passenger got a plastic bag of water and there were motion sickness pills in a bowl at the check-in desk. All luggage was checked by police officers before begin loaded onto racks in the ferry. The El Splendor catamaran was clean and comfortable with roomy seats, coolers with drinking water and glasses, barf bags, air conditioning, and big tinted windows. There were even two televisions showing movies in English. Our ferry was practically full and most passengers were locals. Our crossing was fairly smooth and engine noise and fuel fumes were minimal.
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