Tiny Providencia—still called Old Providence by the locals—is a diminutive, 7-km-long (5-mile-long) volcanic island surrounded by golden sands. There's much less development than on San Andrés thanks to strict government regulations, which makes it a quiet, easygoing Caribbean retreat where salsa gives way to reggae and the Raizal culture and creole English remain dominant.

On the west coast is Aguadulce (Freshwater Bay), the island's largest town, where there is the highest concentration of hotels, a couple of supermarkets, and places to rent bicycles or motor scooters or join a boat tour of the surrounding islets. Smaller Santa Isabel, on the island's northern tip, is the governmental center and, though lacking beaches, it's not without charm and is worth a stroll as part of a visit to nearby Maraciabo, which is home to some excellent restaurants and the top snorkeling and kayaking destination, Cayo Cangrejo.

The tiny island of Santa Catalina is linked to the mainland by a colorful footbridge, and makes for a great day of exploring. Hike out to Morgan's Head, a rocky outcrop with views over the looping coastline, packed with improbably perched palms on stony shores, leaning over the sea as if moments away from tumbling into the waters below.

Annual highlights are the island's carnival in June and the crab migration in May, when the local black crabs scuttle down in the hundreds of thousands from the forests at the island's center and head to the beach to reproduce.

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