San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina are part of an archipelago that covers 115,831 square miles (300,000 sq km) and plays an important strategic role in representing Colombia’s sovereignty in the western Caribbean Sea. These islands are a core part of the Reserva de la Biósfera Seaflower (Seaflower Biosphere Reserve)—one of the world’s largest biosphere reserves. Created in 2000, it is named in honor of the vessel that brought the first English who, along with their Jamaican slaves, first colonized these isles in 1631. This archipelago later became a base for pirates and privateers. Cutthroat pirate Henry Morgan is said to set out from here to sack Panama.
These islands were ceded to Spain in 1782 and came under Colombia’s control after independence in the 1820s. About one third of the population is Raizal—English–speaking descendants of African slaves. They pledge a strong allegiance to the Colombian flag, but feel a strong affinity to Jamaica and Nicaragua’s English-speaking Mosquito Coast.
Shaped remarkably like a seahorse and measuring 7 miles (12 km) long by 1.2 miles (2 km) wide, San Andrés is a favorite resort destination for Colombians. The waters around the island offer dozens of dive sites, from beds of sea grass to coral-strewn vertical walls. Its main town, El Centro, draws the bulk of visitors to the hotels, bars, and restaurants that line its beach-fringed malecón, or seafront boulevard.
Providencia, a 20-minute flight from San Andrés and 56 miles (90 km) to the south is free of mass tourism and is a peaceful throwback to the Caribbean of yesterday.
Its laid-back population numbers some 5,000 people, almost all Raizal. Most visitors stay at Southwest Bay, where calm waters are cusped by a coral reef offering exciting snorkeling. The Peak, the island’s highest point, can be reached by trail and offers 360 degree views of the archipelago.
Santa Catalina is connected to Providencia by a picturesque footbridge—Lover’s Bridge. Less than .4 square miles (1 sq km), Santa Catalina with a population of just over 100, is devoid of roads but offers beautifully calm beaches, the remains of an unexcavated fort, and Morgan’s Head—a large rock formation that resembles the head of the pirate Henry Morgan.