The resort islands of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina lie 645 km (400 miles) northwest of the Caribbean coast—closer to Nicaragua than to Colombia and still a point of contention between the two nations. Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on the islands during his fourth voyage to the New World. They were later settled by English pilgrims (who landed in their vessel, the Seaflower, at about the same time their counterparts came ashore at Plymouth Rock), and then by Jamaican cotton growers. The local islanders, the Raizal, are their descendants, and the islands' unique culture and looping creole English has a rich mix of influences. On San Andrés, massive tourism from the mainland is overtaking the local culture and Spanish has become dominant, but on the more isolated Providencia you'll find that most locals still speak English, and there are names in Spanish and English for just about everything. Frequent air service and San Andrés's duty-free status mean that it has become a rowdy all-inclusive tourism enclave, but it's an excellent base for divers wanting to explore the crystalline waters around the island. Nearby La Providencia, only reachable via a short flight or a sometimes turbulent ferry ride from San Andrés, has escaped most development and remains the laid-back Caribbean outpost that sun seekers dream of.
These three islands fall within the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a marine protected area that spans 180,000 square km (69,498 square miles) and protects nearly 10% of the Caribbean sea. The marine diversity is astounding, despite recent water quality issues, and the clear, warm, shallow waters teem with an impressive variety of tropical fish and corals, making itof the Caribbean's best diving and snorkeling destinations.
There is no passenger boat service from the Colombian mainland or between the islands, and no rental cars are available on either island.