The Top Things to See and Do in Providencia, Colombia

Come to Providencia, Colombia, for excellent snorkeling and beach-side bars
Come to Providencia, Colombia, for excellent snorkeling and beach-side bars | Chris Bell / © Culture Trip
Chris Bell

A Caribbean island that belongs to Colombia but is closer to Nicaragua, tiny Providencia feels a world away from anywhere. Rustic and relatively tourist-free, this former British colony has a unique Creole culture – horse racing, cannons and golf-buggy transportation feature among the fantasy beaches, sensational snorkeling and laid-back rum bars. Here are the top things to see and do here.

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Relax on Playa Manzanillo

The beaches of Providencia are as quintessentially Caribbean as any in Colombia. Perhaps the most beautiful beach on an island of beautiful beaches is Playa Manzanillo, known locally as Manchineel Bay; the 300m (1,000ft) stretch of sand fronting towering palm trees slopes into a turquoise sea. When you’re done sunbathing, grab a piña colada at Roland Roots Reggae Bar.

Explore the island by golf buggy

Providencia has a circumference of about 16km (10mi), so you don’t need a speedy vehicle to get around the island. In fact, the best option is to hire a golf buggy and trundle around the ring road, stopping at those paradise beaches to swim, sunbathe and eat. You can do all three at Freshwater Bay, as cafes line the beach and the water is calm and shallow. A day’s buggy rental is around $50 – you can pick one up from the Deep Blue Hotel.

Hike to the top of El Pico

The highest point of the island is El Pico, and while it’s not exactly a mighty mountain at 360m (1,180ft) high, the steep gradient and heat makes it a fairly challenging hike. Trekking through rainforest and past waterfalls, you’ll reach the summit after around 90 minutes, where you should take your time to absorb the astounding panoramic views of the entire island and sea. Bring plenty of drinking water, as there are no facilities along the route.

Eat king crab for lunch

It’s no surprise that the culinary speciality here is fresh and varied seafood. One of the best restaurants is Don Olivo Gourmet – the green-and-yellow-painted hut on the seafront of Santa Catalina is Don’s own home, where he serves lunch on his terrace each day. The menu includes succulent barracuda fillet and lobster tails. Don is also the only person on Providencia to fish for king crab.

Snorkel with turtles at Crab Cay

A perfect green mound rising from the sparkling water, the miniature paradise island of Crab Cay invites you to paddle over. And you can – it’s just 1km (0.6mi) from the shore of the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park, an easy kayak ride. Kayaks are available to hire from Hotel Deep Blue. Ask to borrow snorkeling equipment too, so you can submerge yourself in the underwater world of turtles, manta rays and octopus in temperatures of around 25C (77F).

See the nature of McBean Lagoon National Park

A spectacular aquatic ecosystem lies along the northeast coast: the McBean Lagoon National Park, a protected area that includes Crab Cay. Here, the Old Providence Barrier Reef spans 255sqkm (87sqmi), and the water – all shades of navy, turquoise and aquamarine thanks to the varying depth of the reef – is rich with little coral fish. As well as snorkeling, you can follow the trails for birdlife such as the green heron and brown booby.

Go diving with sharks

With some of the best-preserved reefs in Colombia, Providencia is a diver’s paradise. Underwater aficionados flock to the island for its amazing visibility and multiple dive sites. Head out for an excursion with Felipe Diving Center, whose staff know all the best spots for surrounding yourself with marine life – the most thrilling are the inquisitive sharks, species of which include the whitetip, blacktip, grey and Caribbean reef sharks.

Watch the locals race their horses

The quiet beach South West Bay takes on a wholly different vibe on Saturdays, when locals descend to place bets on a race between two jockeys, who use the beach as a track. It’s a spectacular sight, as the hooves pound the soft white sand. Blink and you’ll miss it. It takes place some time between 1pm and 3pm – ask the locals when to get down there, or wait it out in one of the beach cafes.

See Fort Warwick on Santa Catalina Island

The 17th-century fort on Santa Catalina Island (a smaller island adjoining Providencia via a bridge) is now only ruins, but it still has defense cannons, pointing out to sea to repel enemies — usually the Spanish Armada or Dutch pirates. Fort Warwick is so named because the native Miskito people first came into contact with the English, when the Second Earl of Warwick established his colony on Providence Island in 1639.

Drink cocktails at Roland Roots Bar

A local institution, Roland Roots is where people gather from all over the island for an end-of-day drink – and it’s arguably the best beach bar in Colombia, if not the Caribbean. Settle into one of the bamboo booths that are spread out on the sand, and sip a strong coco loco cocktail, served in a coconut. With a booming reggae soundtrack, friendly vibes and seafood suppers including great-value lionfish, Roland’s place is the best spot for after-hours fun.

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