How I’m Getting To Providencia

In mid-February, I jumped on a really good sale fare to Bogota, Colombia. It was purchased really far in advance — in fact, a year in advance. And I have to fly from Vancouver, Canada. Then again, it was a hair over $200, was heading somewhere warm when it’s going to be cold in the Pacific Northwest next year, and — somehow — I haven’t been to Colombia yet. So it was one of those “buy it now and figure out the details later” things.

That was, until I mentioned to my friends and family where I was going. “Colombia?!” was the typical response. “You’re going to get yourself killed!” And if you don’t know anything about the country, I suppose this might seem like a rational response. Venezuela, their neighbor, is on the brink of a civil war. Crime rates are higher than in the US (even Nomadic Matt got stabbed). Still, mass shootings happen pretty much every week in the US and I don’t worry about getting killed when I visit the local shopping mall. Nevertheless, I figured if I planned out the trip more in advance than I usually do (I’m going to Sri Lanka in 3 weeks and only have my first hotel night booked), I’d at least be able to describe what I’m doing. And as it turns out, as I researched Colombia, one of the most interesting places is also one of the safest places in the country.

Providencia is a former English colony that is now part of Colombia. It’s distinctly Caribbean in flavor, and the residents mostly speak English. It’s closer to Nicaragua than the rest of Colombia. And most importantly, it’s complicated and expensive to get there, making it an exclusive destination by virtue of its remoteness. I like destinations like these, and it fits nicely in with my recent theme of visiting extremely remote islands like St. Helena and Christmas Island. Of course, crime and violence on the mainland are a world away from Providencia.

There are two ways to get to Providencia, both of which require starting from San Andrés Island. If you think of San Andrés and Providencia as Colombia’s version of Hawaii (which really isn’t a bad way to think about it), San Andrés would be the equivalent of Honolulu except with duty free shopping. It’s a big, busy tourist hub, attracting hordes of Colombian holidaymakers on package tours. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but it’s not the kind of “nice” I would spend about 20 hours of travel time and 3 flights in economy class to reach. Getting to San Andrés is an easy two hour flight from Bogota. I was able to book this for almost exactly $69 each way on Avianca. Unfortunately, this was a Web fare, sold only on Avianca’s Web site, so I wasn’t able to use my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to purchase it (Chase was selling the same flights for $108 each way).

Most visitors to the region don’t venture beyond San Andrés, though. Providencia is intentionally kept undeveloped in order to preserve its traditional culture. It’s quiet and peaceful, making it a less interesting destination than San Andrés for fun-loving Colombians. Since it’s undeveloped, transportation is limited. There is a catamaran, which, when it’s sort of safe to do so, irregularly traverses the very rough open ocean. This is an intense ride. It’s so rough you’re pretty much guaranteed to puke; they give you seasick pills with your tickets! There is even a dedicated crew member on board who runs around collecting vomit bags. For the privilege of losing your lunch, the catamaran is also really expensive and it takes 3 1/2 hours.

NOPE.

You can also fly. It costs $50 more than the catamaran roundtrip, and takes 20 minutes. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket. There are only about 40 seats per day available for sale, in total, to Providencia, across the two daily flights. The flights are operated by Satena, a small regional Colombian airline. Satena doesn’t list their flights on online travel agencies such as Expedia. Their entire Web site is in Spanish, and even if you can manage to make it all the way through a booking, your transaction will fail (several hours later) because the credit card processor is set up to take Colombian cards, not foreign cards.

I tried to work around this by calling the airline. In Colombia, because that’s the only place where they have a phone number. Unfortunately this didn’t work. Everything on their phone system is in Spanish. I was able to figure out to press 1 to book a flight, I could say “Servicios en inglés, por favor” and they even put someone who spoke English on the phone, but telephone agents are only able to book flights through December, not through the end of the schedule.

Hmm, what’s this?

Right around the time I was close to giving up, I noticed a chat control at the very bottom of the page. Usually this sort of functionality is just a stupid useless bot, but I figured “what the heck” and gave it a try. To my complete and utter amazement, a fully competent reservations agent was on the other end of the chat. I gave her my previous reservation number, which she pulled up and was able to verify. While she was unable to make alternative payment arrangements, she was able to create a new reservation. The fare was roughly the same price, but with a roughly $18 service fee added. I quickly agreed to the fee, given that it wasn’t possible to complete the transaction on their Web site anyway, and the fare was still in the lowest bucket (around $90 each way, or $1 per kilometer).

I didn’t expect it, but chat actually worked!

Overall, the process took a long time – more than an hour. The agent spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether she needed to create a completely new reservation or could work with the existing one. Ultimately she created a new reservation, just copying all of the information from my previous one. She then emailed me an invoice from a Colombian payment service similar to PayPal. This is the same one they use on their Web site, but when you receive an invoice via email, you can pay with a non-Colombian credit card. As soon as I paid, I sent her the transaction confirmation number. My tickets were immediately issued, and I received them in my email.

Success!

Thoughtfully, Satena provided an itinerary in English, and provided all my ticket details (including ticket number) in Spanish. At over $1 per mile, this is — in terms of cost per mile — the most expensive air ticket I have ever purchased. On the other hand, I was able to purchase it at all, which is the most important consideration here. With only a handful of seats for sale to Providencia on any given day, it’s not crazy to book fully 10 months in advance.

Want to visit Providencia or anywhere else in the world? Let AwardCat help you use your miles and points to get there!

1 thought on “How I’m Getting To Providencia

  1. Marvin says:

    I recently went to Providencia during high season. It’s not so bad with the flights: Satena simply starts putting tickets on sale very late for the new year. I wanted to fly in January and they told me they’d start selling tickets in July. Nope, I think it took them until November (!) or so before they were selling tickets. Meanwhile, the website showed the flights as “sold out”.
    Anyway, if you don’t want to wait this long (it felt really risky to us as we definitely didn’t want to take the ferry), there’s another way to buy tickets: Call Latin American tour operator Decameron. Their US number is +1 855 308 0375. They could transfer me to someone who spoke English and he asked me to email him (the agent) our passport information and desired itinerary. They also have a general email address:
    websupport at decameron dot com
    – as well as –
    websupport1 at decameron dot com
    But I don’t know if they really work. I would rather call.
    The agent then created the booking for us and we could call again to make the payment over the phone (talking to an automated payment system) – but apparently you can even pay online:
    https://www.decameron.com/en/otr-search-and-pay-your-reservation-online

    The flights were operated by Searca – I believe they also operate some (most?) of the flights for Satena.
    The flights were awesome. We were seated right behind the cockpit and there is no cockpit door.

    Now to the bad part: Providencia is always pictured as this tropical paradise, and paradise it’s definitely not. At least not in our book. The island is dirt poor. The beaches were just meh, there is zero infrastructure, everything is falling apart. Actually the photo in this post is giving a good impression – a plastic chair on the beach and very (very) simple houses at best. There is no service at all, people were bordering on rude. Culturewise, it’s a Caribbean island, not a Colombian island. We found it really depressing and left again as soon as we could. We never felt unsafe, but it really is terrible poverty. An American who stayed at the same hotel as us called the main “town” a “ghetto”. He, too, left early. San Andres is better (there they at least have some 3 to 4 star hotels), but not much. I can only warn against visiting either island, unless you have very low standards – which I don’t mean as a negative thing. Some people like backpacking in Southeast Asia, staying in cheap hostels and eating streetfood. If that’s your thing, I can imagine you’d like it (though I would never do it myself). For us, it wasn’t what we were looking for at all. It seemed like most people were without a job, cars were rusting in the side of the road, houses generally had no paint or windows, etc. etc. Somebody got his hair cut in an open field. The airport had posters advising people to seek help in case of alcohol or drug addiction. It was just misery.

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