These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Caribbean island that’s not overrun by tourists. Many have lost their charm and authenticity in the pervasive development of large hotel chains and overcrowded beaches, where locals are outnumbered by travelers and small, family-run restaurants have been put out of business. But there is one island in the Caribbean that has spared itself from overtourism, remaining unspoiled and unquestionably authentic.
Providencia, an eight-square-mile Colombian island off that country’s northern coast, is a flashback to the Caribbean in the days of yore: a tiny undeveloped island where locals run the show. As part of Colombian territory, Spanish is one of the native languages, but English and Creole English are also spoken on the island. There is a warm inclusivity that makes you feel like a kid again: Locals embrace their visitors by proudly recounting Providencia’s history, with folktales of pirates and treasures. During the day, word spreads about evening activity, be it a baseball game, a cockfight, or a night at Roland Roots Reggae bar and restaurant. There are also the island’s natural wonders to discover, from hiking the tallest peak to swimming and diving in the Sea of Seven Colors, as well as enjoying the local fare and cruising around the island in golf carts. Providencia has everything you miss about the raw Caribbean you never knew.
It’s no small feat to get there, which is likely why Providencia has maintained its mystery. There are no direct flights to the island from the mainland, but as more travelers discover Colombia, their visits are leading them to the island of San Andres, which offers daily transport by way of a puddle jumper plane to the hedonistic island of Providencia. So while the search for the new bohemian beach town is always ongoing, Providencia looks promising.
Where to Stay
On a breezy hilltop over the water, Monasterio del Viento is situated directly across from the tiny island of Crab Cay. The place has just four suites, a small freshwater infinity pool, and various shared indoor and outdoor lounge areas. The rustic-bohemian design is anchored by the island’s colors: Shades of turquoise, cerulean, and green fill the property, accented with mosaics by local artist Luz Carmiña Cruz. When guests aren’t taking in the sea breeze in one of the many hammocks, enjoying some shade and cocktails in the tiki bar, or jumping into the ocean for an afternoon swim, they can enjoy breakfast or dinner tailored by the in-house cook to their liking. The hotel prides itself on being a home away from home, and does an excellent job of fusing comfort with the elevated charm of the Caribbean’s natural beauty.
For more of a proper hotel feel, next door to Monasterio del Viento is Deep Blue, the most refined hotel on the island. The decor blends the island’s beachy charm with a design that’s also rustic and bohemian, and each room features its own private balcony and breathtaking view of the sea.
Where to Eat
For seafood lovers, Providencia is a dream. The restaurants at Deep Blue and Monasterio del Viento are not to be missed, as they provide some of the best eats travelers will get on the island, not to mention the added luxury of seaside dining. Pop over to Santa Catalina (a neighboring island connected by bridge) to try the king crab at the home of Don Olivo, a local who has lived on the island for over 30 years and runs a restaurant out of his home with his wife. If you’re lucky, the couple will share stories of their time on the island along with the meal. Another must-try is the Wellington conch at Café Studio, one of the most popular restaurants on the island, which is also run by a husband-and-wife duo.
And for guests lounging at South West Bay, the largest beach on the island, be sure to eat at El Divino Niño (order the seafood platter for lunch with a large fresh-squeezed juice). Other worthy restaurants on the beach are Tom’s Corner and La Sirenita. Farther south on Manzanillo beach, you can’t miss Roland Roots Reggae Bar and Restaurant, where atmosphere, not food, rules—it’s the best beach bar in Providencia. At Roland’s, reggae music plays loudly while local kids swing from the rope swings and plunge into the water. The evenings here are just as good, with live music and a local scene.
What to Do
There is only one road that runs around the island and not many cars, so the first activity on your list should be to rent a golf cart. Scoot around to get familiar with the tiny island, passing all of the scenic spots, beaches, and restaurants; be sure to park your cart by the Lovers’ Bridge to cross over to Santa Catalina. Of course, the island’s initial draw is its raw, natural beauty, which can be explored in a variety of ways with outdoor activities like hiking Lazy Hill or El Pico, the island’s highest mountain.
Divers are especially in for a treat, as Providencia boasts some of the best diving on Colombia’s coast—their barrier reef is the third largest coral reef in the world. And if you’re looking for unspoiled beaches devoid of people, good! Because that’s what you’ll get in Providencia. South West Bay, the biggest beach on the island, is lined with local beachside restaurants; Manzanillo is more popular but slightly rough around the edges.
There are also smaller, quieter beaches like Almond Bay, Bahía Agua Dulce, and Fort Bay, all of which can be reached by road or by sea and are worth a visit. A boat trip is imperative, as it’s the best way to see the colors of the sea and take in a view of the island from afar. Make sure to visit the famous Crab Cay, as well as Tres Hermanos Keys and Morgan’s Head on Santa Catalina, for some snorkeling. And if you’re lucky enough to be in Providencia on a Saturday, head to South West Bay to watch the highly anticipated horse races on the beach. Although if only one horse shows up for the race, don’t be discouraged—even the horses are on island time.
Previously published on Architectural Digest.