San Andres and Providencia are 2 islands in the Caribbean which belong to Colombia but are geographically closer to Nicaragua. The local people speak their own language in addition to Spanish and English. San Andres is easily accessible by plane from the mainland. From there, you can get to Providencia by plane (45mins) or catamaran (3hrs). The sea is pretty rough between the islands, so it is recommended to spend the extra and go by plane. I was ok luckily, but not so for many unfortunate travellers who spent the whole 3 hour journey puking their guts out.
Initially settled by the English, African slaves were brought to work on the islands in the 16th century. Pirates, including the famous captain Morgan, also operated here. In the 18th century ownership of the island changed hands several times between the Spanish and the English. The islands eventually ended up with Colombia, but this was recently contested in the International Court of Justice in the Hague by Nicaragua, claiming the islands fall in its territory.
The locals speak their own creole language. A creole is a language which derives from a pidgin (or simplified version of a language, developed as a second language), but is then nativized – it becomes the native language of the children. Many I spoke to referred to settlers from the mainland as “Colombian” as opposed to native (nativa).
San Andres was declared a duty-free zone in 1954, resulting in an influx of tourists from the mainland. There was apparently a boom in the 80s and 90s when many mainlanders settled to take advantage. The main town in the north of the island is where the airport and most hotels and duty-free stores are located. It has a real run-down 80s look to it. The rest is a shanty town. I stayed on the hill – Lomo Barrack – in a Posada Nativa (i.e. establishment run by natives). It is inhabited almost exclusively by natives and has no tourist infrastructure to speak of.
I didn’t hang around long on San Andres preferring to head straight to Providencia. On the way back however, I did take a tour visiting two of the most popular sites, the Aquarium and Jonny Caye. The Aquarium is a small island with a natural swimming pool aside it, full of fish (hence the “Aquarium”). It was chocka full of people making it unbearable. As soon as you arrive they are pushing hard drugs on you (alcoholic cocktails). You get the feeling the fish just hang out there to get fed, not because it’s a naturally cool hangout for fish. Jonny Caye is a small uninhabited island off the north coast of San Andres opposite the main town beach. It’s a cool little island with a beautiful white sandy beach, but also inundated with tourists. They ship them in by the boatload like a conveyer belt. If your idea of a great holiday is to lie on the beach all day and get completely smashed, then you would love Jonny Caye.
Providencia, on the other hand, is much more laid back, the complete antithesis to San Andres. There are only a few small settlements on the island and not much nightlife to speak off, so very little tourist development. There is some great seafood available at reasonable prices (you can expect the islands to be generally more expensive than the mainland). There is the ubiquitous reggae bar, Roland’s Bar on Manzanillo beach. Contrary to what I heard earlier, there are police on the island, but seem to tolerate weed smoking. That said, it pays always to be on your guard in a foreign land, so use your common sense.
I took a boat tour of the island, which stops off at Crab Caye, a small island surrounded by gorgeous turquoise water. and with a view of a huge coral reef, the third longest in the world, according to our guide.
One thing to note when visiting the islands is that you need to buy a tourist card at the airport on the mainland before arrival. They then register you at the airport once you get to San Andres. You need to present this card again when transferring to Providencia. This is a complete pain in the arse. A local told me it is to generate revenue for the island for local projects. But the cost of administering it surely cancels out the revenue gained and just pisses everyone off.