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Planning Your Time in Colombia’s San Andrés Archipelago

The San Andrés Archipelago is made up of seven atolls and three major islands: San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. San Andrés is 775 kilometers (492 miles) northeast of the Colombian mainland and only 191 kilometers (119 miles) east of Nicaragua. The islands are fairly small: San Andrés, the largest island, has an area of 26 square kilometers (10 square miles), Providencia just 17 square kilometers (6.5 square miles), and Santa Catalina, attached to Providencia by a photogenic pedestrian bridge, is 1 square kilometer (247 acres) in size.

A beach in Providencia. Photo © Andrew Dier.
A beach in Providencia. Photo © Andrew Dier.

Once serving as a base for notorious English pirate Henry Morgan, Providencia—or Old Providence, as English-speaking locals call it—and its tiny tag-along neighbor of Santa Catalina are places to experience how the Caribbean used to be before tourism developed. Here visitors enjoy small bungalow-style hotels and home-cooked Creole food. The beaches are pristine and secluded and the waters are an inviting turquoise. Seafood, particularly fresh crab, is always on the menu, accompanied by cold beer.

More developed San Andrés is popular with rowdy Colombian vacationers escaping the chilly climes of the Andes. However, it has many of the same charms as Providencia. Sunbathing, snorkeling, diving, and relaxing are always the order of the day.

On both islands English and a Creole patois are spoken, in addition to Spanish.

Planning Your Time

High tourist seasons on both islands are during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. It may be hard to find a hotel from mid-December until mid-January. During this time, as throngs of Colombian families and a growing number of Brazilians and Argentinians take over San Andrés. Also popular are Easter week and school vacations, between mid-June and August. May and September are quiet. Because it’s more difficult to reach, Providencia never feels crowded.

Travel map of San Andrés and Providencia, Colombia
San Andrés and Providencia

The average temperature is 27°C (81°F). During the dry season between January and April, water rationing can be necessary, especially in Providencia, where it rains as little as five days per month. The rainy season extends from June until November, when it can rain 20-24 days per month. October is the rainiest month and is also when hurricanes occasionally churn up the warm Caribbean waters. March and April are some of the best months for snorkeling and diving because the waters are calm. December and January are windy, making snorkeling and diving challenging. Strong winds can prompt airlines to cancel flights into and out of Providencia.

San Andrés is a possible long weekend getaway from mainland Colombia. However, most opt to stay 5-7 days. Week-long all-inclusive plans are popular. A visit to Providencia from San Andrés can be a budget buster, but it is well worth the expense if you are interested in getting away from it all. A jaunt to Providencia involves an extra flight, and hotels and restaurants are generally more expensive than in San Andrés, which itself is already more expensive than the mainland. If you want to do some serious diving, plan for at least a week, say three days in San Andrés and four days in Providencia.

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