San Andres and Providencia
These two small Caribbean islands are famous for their laid-back vibe, beautiful beaches, and unique culture. Providencia is arguably prettier – and certainly less touristy – than its larger neighbour, but both offer excellent diving and snorkeling at a range of different levels. Snorkelers will love encountering wild stingrays in the shallow waters of the Caribbean, while divers can opt to explore a range of wall, reef, and cave dives. The islands belong to the third-largest coral reef in the world, and their waters have been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, meaning that there is no shortage of incredible and diverse marine life, including sharks, rays, and turtles.
The isolated rocky island of Malpelo in the waters of the Colombian Pacific is the Holy Grail of Colombian diving – it can only be reached on a live-aboard dive vessel, as it lies 311 miles (500 kilometers) to the west of the Colombian mainland. However, for hardcore diving enthusiasts there is surely no better place in Colombia to discover the remarkable marine life of the Pacific – the shark population is unique, and divers regularly encounter groups of up to 500 hammerhead sharks, as well as silky sharks, and rare and enigmatic sand tooth tiger sharks. Malpelo isn’t easy or cheap to visit, but it’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime diving experience.
The Colombian Pacific’s other great diving site, Gorgona Island, was once an isolated prison island. It takes its name from the thousands of snakes that are to be found in its jungles. It is also home to an underwater paradise. Between August and October, humpback whales pass by Gorgona and are often encountered on dives. It is also the only place in Colombia where whale sharks – the planet’s largest fish – can be seen on dive trips. Throw in sea turtles, reef sharks, and hammerhead sharks, and you have a recipe for some of best diving on the continent.
This small, sheltered bay in Tayrona National Park is the polar opposite of Malpelo or Gorgona: you won’t find any giant sharks or high-level dives here. Instead, the lovely Piscina beach is the ideal place to enjoy snorkeling in Colombia, with calm, warm waters and abundant aquatic life. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy snorkeling with children, or for anyone unqualified to dive. You’re unlikely to come across anything truly breathtaking, but lucky snorkelers occasionally spot turtles, and the lovely and colourful tropical fish make La Piscina a pleasant spot to snorkel in Tayrona.
Capurgana and Sapzurro
These two small seafront settlements on the Caribbean border with Panama both offer some of the best diving in the Colombian Caribbean, with water so warm that there’s no need for a wetsuit, and visibility of 65–100 feet (20–30 meters) for most of the year. There are around 30 different dive sites in the area, and several recommended dive companies operating in the towns. The really unique factor of diving in Capurgana and Sapzurro is how pristine and undisturbed the reefs are, allowing divers to observe large numbers of tropical fish, nurse sharks, hawksbill turtles, and much more. Snorkelers will also enjoy beautiful visibility and lovely fish just a few feet from the shore.
Diving in Taganga might not be a patch on the stunning underwater realms of Malpelo or Gorgona, but it is the number one spot in the country to take a diving course, due to a large number of dive operators in the village and the consequently low prices. A beginner’s diving course costs around $300, making diving in Taganga significantly cheaper than elsewhere in the country. Most of the dives take place in the waters of nearby Tayrona Park – because of the cooler currents, a wetsuit is advisable – where divers can encounter lovely colorful corals, as well as barracudas and moray eels. Truly lucky travelers can also enjoy sightings of sea turtles and dolphins.
A wildcard entry on this list, diving in Lake Tota – the largest lake in Colombia – isn’t something most people have heard of, let alone thought of doing for themselves. However, the chance to enjoy some unique high-altitude diving in a cold Andean lake is practically unique in South America. As the lake allows for only fairly shallow dives, Tota is a great place for beginners, or for those desperate to get a dive under their belts but without the time to venture out to the coast. There isn’t as much to see during a dive in Tota, but the visibility is a surprisingly good: 30–70 feet (10–20 meters) at times, and the unique experience makes this spot worthy of a place on this list.