The Almost Paradise Guide to Colombia’s Islands

We went to the islands of San Andres and Providencia the week before Christmas because: A) we had to distract ourselves from the fact that we were not with our families during Christmas and B) I am trying to see as much of Colombia as possible before we have to leave. I wasn’t anticipating the guilt I would feel our first day there. As I was dutifully setting up our blanket in order to relax on the beach, I realized it was pointless. I was already way too relaxed. I haven’t been gainfully employed in over a year, and we had just left one tropical paradise for another. I needed a job. I decided to make this a work trip, and set out on a fact-finding mission.

One of my jobs over the past year has been to tell everyone I know how great this country is, and to get them to visit. So far we’ve had 13 visitors, with 2 more on the way in May. ¡Not bad, amigos! Colombia has it all; gorgeous mountains, colonial towns, modern cities, wildlife, museums, nightlife, and beaches. And because of a reputation it can’t shake, not that many tourists. Colombia gets most of its beach cred from San Andres and Providencia. The islands are closer to Nicaragua than Colombia, and the languages spoken include English and Creole. They have been ruled by the English, Dutch, and Spanish, and have had some recent treaty disputes with Nicaragua, but have been part of Colombia for over a century. Geopolitics aside, I needed to find out if a trip to these islands was worth the effort for foreign tourists with kids, particularly Providencia, which is 2 flights away from Medellin or Bogotá. The short answer is, get yourselves to Providencia. For a longer answer, and some suggestions about where to stay (what? so helpful!) scroll down to the bottom. Now, here are some things we learned along the way:

1. Both islands collect a visitor tax, and they appear to be spending it in very different ways. Holy cow, Providencia is gorgeous. And in addition to its natural beauty, it has parks, playgrounds, public art and clean streets. San Andres has a few pretty beaches, but you might spend your time on them feeling sad about all the garbage you passed to get there. Or you might start drafting a proposal for the Colombian government to develop sustainable tourism in San Andres. Or perhaps you’re distracted by the photo shoot taking place next to you.

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Seriously though (and because it’s my job to tell you) San Andres has experienced rapid growth, both from tourism and immigration from the mainland, and hasn’t been able to manage it in a sustainable way. Providencia, which benefits from a smaller, more cohesive population (UNESCO told me that) and greater distance from the central government, successfully fought to keep out large resorts and has been able to retain much more control over their resources and development. The difference between the islands, which are less than 60 miles apart, is striking.

2. San Andres is where you go to celebrate your quinceañera.

San Andres is a popular destination for Colombian tourists, and, it turns out, for large groups of girls celebrating their sweet 15. They were everywhere, in packs with chaperones in brightly colored tour guide t-shirts, taking glamour shots on the beach, having dance contests, and celebrating their transition to womanhood in the company of dozens of their closest friends, with no boys in sight. Kind of amazing really.

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3. If your boat sinks or crashes into San Andres, just leave it, it’s no big deal.

As I mentioned, San Andres has a bit of a garbage problem. In addition to the standard street litter, there are rusty vehicles, half-finished houses and countless boats, in the water and on the shore, left for dead. The most spectacular is a rusted out tanker that appears to have crashed into a small coral island offshore and been abandoned. San Andres has a lot of potential, but if they don’t figure out their waste disposal strategy soon, they will be a cautionary tale.

tanker

Oops

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No, just leave it. It’s fine.

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Yep, I’m sure.

4.  Wine bottles can be turned into light fixtures, planters, fences, and Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

One way to deal with your garbage is to turn it into art. I really like the wine bottle art/ recycling happening here.

5. Your bonus prize for making it all the way to Providencia is Santa Catalina.

I love Providencia. It is so beautiful, laid-back, tiny and mountainous. What’s more, it comes with the even tinier bonus island of Santa Catalina, which you can only reach by boat or footbridge from Providencia. Lonely Planet underplays it, and perhaps low expectations contributed to this being one of my favorite spots of the whole trip. The island is small, but there’s a walkway around it and an amazing view from the top. We also ended up snorkeling right off the island and saw Morgan’s Head (a rock that looks like a face) and the cave where Captain Morgan stored his treasure. The area around the bridge to Santa Catalina is shallow and at night the lights attract hundreds of sting rays. Our last night in Providencia we drove a golf cart down the coast singing Feliz Navidad to the world and then stopped to watch the stingrays glide around and leap out of the water.

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The view from Santa Catalina

The view from Santa Catalina

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Christmas lights near Santa Catalina

Christmas lights near Santa Catalina

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One of a gazillion stingrays under the bridge

6. Lionfish are a venomous, invasive species and locals kill them when they see them. Squid can fly.

We went on a snorkeling trip in Providencia and before we even got in the water we saw a lionfish, held up like a trophy by another guide, and a flying squid. (Crazy, right? Squid can fly) The weather was windier than usual and the water was a little choppy. The guide apologized profusely for the less than ideal visibility, but we were not hard to please. Once assured that lionfish would not come after him, Aiden had a blast. He would pop his head up every now and then and yell, “Amazing! You have to come see this!” We saw clown fish, parrot fish, sea urchins and other fish whose names I don’t know.

7. Coconut pie.

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I would go back to Providencia just to eat coconut pie. The Caribbean Place Restaurant was lovely; the people, the food, the ambiance. We had to make a concerted effort not to eat every meal there. And they have the best coconut pie on the island/planet.

8. If you have a fear of crabs, it may be best to avoid Providencia, particularly during the great migration.

For 2 weeks every year  (sometime in May or June) the island is covered by crabs migrating to the sea to lay their eggs. Apparently they cover everything. They go in the houses, they cover the roads, you get the idea. We did not experience that, but there were a lot of crabs around.

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Crab on the beach, asserting his dominance.

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Crab in the woods.

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Boys on a crab.

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Crab on a bench.

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Little cutie crab.

Ok, now here are some non-crab related recommendations, for people traveling with kids.

NOTE: If you’re not traveling with kids, you can go scuba diving and stay at the romantic Hotel Deep Blue or drink coco locos all day or whatever. You don’t need my help.

Photo courtesy of Deep Blue Hotel, Providencia and no kids

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Same island, different scene:

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Fly to San Andres and then get the next flight to Providencia. If that isn’t until the next day, or you’re concerned about making your connection, stay in one of the hotels in downtown San Andres.  The Lonely Planet (which I reference often because we have copies left behind by each of our 13 visitors) refers to the town of San Andres as “a hideous agglomeration of fero-concrete blocks that look as if they were thrown together with a pitchfork.” Yikes. They also mention the scenic 30 km road that circles the island. But I am here to tell you, that town is more scenic than the road circling the island. We stayed at a hotel along one of the scenic roads, within walking distance to the beach. But the road was not scenic, the hotel was not what 4 year olds consider walking distance, and it wasn’t close to one of the swimmable beaches.

The scenic road:

The scenic road

Downtown San Andres is walking distance (or a quick taxi ride) to the airport, and it actually has a nice beach. There’s also an El Corral Restaurant and a playground across the street from the beach.

Another reason to spend the night in San Andres is to have dinner at  La Regatta, a great restaurant a few blocks from the beach with fabulous bottle art and tables overlooking the ocean.

If you can’t make it to Providencia and just want to hang out on the beach for a few days, I recommend staying at Cocoplum. It’s not cheap but it’s on a nice beach, unlike most San Andres hotels, and has a restaurant, small pool and playground.

Now, go to the San Andres airport and fly to Providencia on Satena Airlines. This is an experience in itself.

There are a lot of nice, small hotels on Providencia, but I think with kids it’s best to stay as close to the beach as possible (unless your children are less lazy/more portable than mine). The hotels on the beach are Sol Caribe, Cabañas Miss Elma (both on Aguadulce Bay), and Cabañas Miss Mary on Southwest Beach. Sirius Hotel is also on the Southwest Beach, but looks pretty run down from what we saw. The Posada del Mar, also in Aguadulce, is only a 5 minute walk from the beach. They have a nice pool, playground and rooms with balconies and hammocks that overlook the ocean. They also arrange tours. We went on our snorkeling trip with them and they were great.

There are lots of little playgrounds around the island. You can go kayaking or take a boat tour or go fishing or just hang out on the beach. We had a really nice time on the beach in front of Felipe’s Dive Shop, where the proprietress played Patsy Cline and Elvis songs.

There are a number of places that rent golf cars by the hour or the day. It’s definitely worth a drive around the island, which only takes about 20 minutes, to check out the other beaches and parks.

Aside from the Caribbean Place Restaurant, we also went to the Cafe Studio, which is run by a Canadian woman. They serve some nice pasta dishes, which was a welcome relief to the kiddos after many days of fish and the usual Colombian food.

Manzanillo Beach was deserted when we went, aside from a few people at Roland’s Roots Bar. Lonely Planet told us we couldn’t leave the island without going here, so we did. We enjoyed Roland’s coco locos and the rope swing next to his bar.

It was hard to leave Providencia, partly because this herd of cows was blocking our way to the airport.

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So long. Until next time. 20140121-151856.jpg



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