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First I explain how you fly (or travel by boat) between San Andres and Providencia Islands. This is generally the bit that many independent international travellers find complicated to sort out - it's actually not at all complicated if you read the below information. I subsequently will offer a little advice about getting to Providencia/San Andres from abroad if you're in a hurry.
Flights from San Andres Island to Providencia Island
All flights to Providencia Island are from San Andres Island, with either Satena or charter flights operated by Searca / Decameron, who are now affiliated with many of the hotels on the island. There are at least 4 flights from San Andres to Providencia every day, and they cost normally cost between 300,000 and 360,000 pesos (approx US $150 - US $180) for a return ticket.
In July 2010, government owned airline Satena joined the 21st century by developing a proper website whereby one can simply and easily book flights to Providencia online. At last! No need to go via a travel agent any longer. The Satena website is in Spanish - if you don't speak Spanish you can very easily translate it all, page by page, at a click of a button, if you install the free Google Toolbar on your computer. Try it!
A lot of people seem to have difficulty getting their credit card accepted by Satena's website. Most foreign cards work fine though. Take note that it's easy to input your card details incorrectly on Satena's slightly different website - eg. when you input you card expiry date, if the expiry were June 2011, you'd need to insert 201106 NOT the usual 0611. A lot of people come unstuck here, and assume Satena's website doesn't like their card - it may well be that you're inputing the data incorrectly. Read all the fields closely.
It is also possible to book just flights (ie. "flights only") via the hotel chain Decameron. Every day there is at least 2 Decameron chartered flights (flights are operated by Searca) between San Andres and Providencia - prices are usually slightly less than with Satena. To book call Decameron on 0057 162 80000 (Spanish language only) or try emailing the Providencia office of Decameron on providencia.pva@ decameron.com where they do speak English.
Note the weight restriction for all flights between San Andres and Providencia is 10kg. Each extra kilo only costs 1000 pesos (50 US cents) so it's no big deal if you are overweight. No need to leave luggage on the mainland or anything - bring it all!
San Andres to Providencia Flight Schedules
I do my best to keep these below noted flight schedules up to date and accurate - they rarely change anyway.
Flight schedules - San Andres Island (ADZ) to Providencia Island (PVA):
Note - Satena's website claims the afternoon flight departs at 4.30pm. I seems that's often not true - it usually departs at 4pm, and they don't bother to warn you. Why does their website lie? I have no idea, one of the airline staff recently suggested to me it "hadn't yet been updated"!
Flight schedules - Providencia Island (PVA) to San Andres Island (ADZ):
All the flight schedules above are the low season flight schedules. Generally speaking, these are the flight departures that depart year round - when things get busier, both Satena and Searca ADD flights to this above schedule. When I say "when things get busier" - take that literally. If a large group appears an extra flight will often depart. In high season, things get busier - the airlines add departures when they see fit. In peak season (Easter Week, and December 25 to January 15th) sometimes there's 10 (rather than 4) flights a day between the islands.
Often both these airlines don't release their "official" schedules until just a couple of months in advance of the actual date/month. This can be annoying for everyone as it basically means a flight can't be booked way in advance. So if you ask Satena for a flight that is in 6 months time, they probably won't offer you any - so just check again nearer the time.
Getting to San Andres Island & Same Day Onward Flights to/from Providencia
There's domestic flights to San Andres from most places in Colombia - and booking them is a very simple affair. Theere's domestic flights from Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and Pereira. Internationally, there's flights to San Andres from Panama City, plus during the North hemisphere's winter there's flights from Canada and Prague. See the section on San Andres for complete details of such flights to San Andres (or read the final section if travelling in internationally).
If your flight from the Colombian mainland arrives in San Andres before 2pm, it's easy to easy to catch an onward flight to Providencia the same day. No need to hang around in San Andres - Providencia is far more beautiful and is without hordes of tourists! Every day Searca (ie. Decameron charter flights) has a flight departing San Andres for Providencia at 3pm. In addition, every day Satena has a flight departing San Andres for Providencia at 4pm-ish. Check-in for these flights to Providencia opens one hour before departure - so you've plenty of time to make the connection.
Likewise, when you return to the mainland, it's easy to do so in one day - no need to spend the night in San Andres if you don't want to. Almost all the flights from San Andres to the mainland (or to Panama) depart in the afternoon. So just catch one of the morning flights from Providencia to San Andres, and your onwards flight from San Andres to wherever will be in the afternoon.
Catamaran between San Andres and Providencia - the new fast boat service
In September 2009, a catamaran service began operating that connects San Andres and Providencia. Previously there were slow boats that accepted passengers and took 8 hours to make the journey. The new catamaran service takes just over two hours, and currently operates on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It is highly probable that frequencies will soon increase - so watch this space. Departure is from San Andres in the morning (about 7.30am) - the 30 seater boat departs from the Nene Marina pier in front of the government buildings near the centre of town. Departure from Providencia is on the same days - Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays - in the afternoon, at 4pm. The catamaran, called El Sensacion, is smart and modern, with a capacity for 40 people. The cost for a return trip is 210,000 pesos. One way tickets cost about 105,000 pesos.
The best way to book the ticket is to turn up at the office in San Andres a day (or two) before you want to travel. The office is found near the Arena Blanca Hotel and close to the centre of town in San Andres. The best time to find it open seems to be in the mornings, or in the late afternnon (4 - 6.30 pm). Note that the office isn't always open on Saturdays. Alternatively, book your tickets the morning of departure, but get there early - Check-in starts an hour before the boat leaves, so arrive by 6.30am latest if you don't have tickets in San Andres. The company also has offices in Bogota, Medellin and Cali where you can book tickets - for more info see www.catamaranelsensation.com (on that website you can select the language on the right where you see the flags) or call (0057) 3102225403, or (0057) 3107983764, or 0057 8512 5124 (San Andres office) to speak to the local catamaran organizers.
Take note that it can be a bumpy ride. When it's windy, bad weather or when the seas are very choppy, the boat doesn't depart - though this isn't a particularly common occurrence. Occasionally (every 6 months or so perhaps) the catamaran stops operating for a couple of weeks as it receives "maintenance" - this most recently happened in the latter half of September 2010. Generally speaking, it's a pretty reliable service, but is somewhat weather dependent.
The catamaran operator also offers day trip return tickets from San Andres to Providencia - this is a rather pointless trip, as you'll spend at least 5 hours on the boat, and only get a few hours on the island, and hardly see it properly. My advice is to not bother with this option, if you want to see Providencia, I highly advise you to stay at least a night.
I've been told that for the whole of December 2010 and January 2011, the boat will depart every day, except Tuesdays. Double check this yourself though.
International Flights & Connections to Providencia Island
While the section below was written in October 2010, note that flight schedules can change at any time.
Remember you've got to get yourself to San Andres Island first. I suggest you read only the part of the below section that is appropriate to where you're flying from as otherwise the detail will bore you. This below section is probably only really relevant to people who are coming to Colombia for the sole purpose of visiting Providencia Island, and what to get here as fast as possible.
From USA, you're doing very well if you find return flights to San Andres for under 1 million pesos (approx USD $500).
From Miami - there are nice connections with Copa via Panama City as well as with Avianca via Bogota - both depart Miami early in the morning. The arrival time in San Andres comfortably allows you to make the last 4pm flight from San Andres to Providencia. Prices seem pretty reasonable too - costing only marginally more than flying from Panama/Colombia (ie. adding the USA leg adds only a little to the overall cost). Note that American Airlines also has a flight from Miami to Bogota, you can connect to fly onwards to San Andres, but you'll arrive too late to catch the flight to Providencia.
From New York - a 5am departure from JFK with Copa airlines via Panama City will get you to San Andres Island by 12:45pm. It's then easy to make the afternoon flight to Providencia. The returning flight connections to NYC all work well with Copa but you'll have 6 hours to kill in Panama City, and you won't arrive back in New York until 2am. From New York, Avianca also fly to San Andres Island (via Bogota). The New York-San Andres flight arrives in the late afternoon - so you'll have to overnight in San Andres. For the return leg, the connections are all rather long, involving spending the best part of the day in San Andres (nothing wrong with that - my advice would be to head to Donde Francesca restaurant in Sound Bay and chill there for the day - you can even shower and change into fresh clothes before heading back to the airport, which has a luggage lock up), and spending 4 hours in Bogota before the overnight flight to New York that arrives at 5am.
From Houston - Continental Airlines has an overnight flight to Bogota that allows you to connect with a morning flight from Bogota to San Andres that in turn allows you to make the afternoon flight from San Andres to Providencia. Returning back to Houston all the connections work fine but the 1am departure from Bogota to Houston is slightly antisocial. Flights from Houston to San andres are usually more expensive than those from the East coast of the US.
From elsewhere in USA - you will need to use one of the above places as your transport hub. Considering that Continental is (I beleive) the only airline with an overnight flight to Colombia, there's no reason why you can't fly to Houston from wherever you are and catch that overnight flight. Otherwise fly to NYC or Miami and overnight in either.
From other places in Central and South America - you're best bet is probably looking into flights via Panama City with Copa. Copa fly almost everywhere of note, and their 11:30am departure from Panama City to San Andres allows you to connect when coming from a large variety of destinations and capital cities throughout the region. Failing that, try Avianca, who fly to many of the larger capital cities of the region.
From Europe - there is nothing that can be done to avoid overnighting en route somewhere. Departing very early from Europe, you can make it to San Andres in one day, though you'll arrive very late. You can then catch the morning flight to Providencia. Alternatively, split the journey up by overnighting in Bogota, then catching a morning flight to San Andres followed by an afternoon flight onwards to Providencia. European airlines that fly to Colombia include Iberia (almost always cheapest), Air France and Lufthansa (as well as Avianca). Note that it is almost always considerably cheaper to buy a "throughfare" ticket all the way to San Andres. DON'T by a ticket to Bogota, and a separate ticket from Bogota to San Andres as this is not cost effective. Last time I flew UK to San Andres, the ticket (with Iberia) cost £5 more than if I had flown only to Bogota. So the Bogota to San Andres flight effectively cost £5.
From Canada - Air Transat have charter flights that operate once a week (currently on Mondays) between Montreal and San Andres Island - price is from Canadian $500, the schedule is normally December until April.