The first sign that Providencia is an island different from the rest of Colombia was at San Andrés airport, when two elegant ladies spoke in Creole English as my wife and I walked to our twin-propeller plane.
After the spectacular 20-minute flight, we landed in the dictionary definition of tropical perfection. Even the airport at Providencia is romantic: you step off the 13-seater plane into the balmy heat and walk past palm trees to the wooden terminal building.
Same country, different world
As we waited for our turn at immigration, cows were herded past the window and two calves leapt about enthusiastically. This youthful exuberance was in sharp contrast to the languid pace of the humans, I thought as a guard rested his head on the desk.
Despite the temperature, security was more conscientious and less eccentric than in Bogotá, where no one checked my ID and we were weighed on the baggage scales. Unimaginably for the mainland, the security was unarmed.
Providencia is a simple place to navigate: locals nip about the one road on motorbikes, untroubled by the burden of helmets or licenses. Tourists, however, are more likely to trundle around in glorified golf buggies called mules.
The place names would be distinctly foreign for most Colombians. In a taxi going for dinner at Caribbean Place in Freshwater Bay, we drove past Lazy Hill and Almond Bay. Our driver, Dundy, said it was very quiet for a Saturday night because everyone had gone to the cockfight before the dance, where the DJ would play reggae and calypso. It owes a lot more to Barbados than Bogotá, I thought as Dundy went off to play dominoes.
While there is no hint of El Libertador, Símon Bolívar, on Providencia, Henry Morgan is still making his presence felt. The admiral, privateer and pirate claimed the island in the 17th century; the romantic and myopic can still see his likeness on Morgan’s Head rock.
The Spanish then took control of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina and, through an idiosyncrasy of history, they became a department of Colombia.
Barely Colombian, perhaps, but never Nicaraguan
Nicaragua has long claimed sovereignty over the archipelago and its waters, a claim recently bolstered by the Hague ruling. While the islanders’ ties to Colombia may not be strong, there is one thing they are not, and that is Nicaraguan. The weary cynicism towards politicians in Bogotá is obvious, but enthusiasm for the government of Nicaragua is non-existent. The popular opinion is that President Ortega is only after one thing: oil.
The translucent waters around Providencia are rich in more than seafood but the islanders have rejected the oily charms of hydrocarbons with the backing of their distant president. The prohibition on exploration by president Juan Manuel Santos came as a direct counteraction of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe.
With the rejection of the oil industry, employment options on Providencia are limited. The bucolic attraction of farming is offset by the presence of fearsome ants. Local government is a big employer but cronyism provides an intimidating hurdle.
Tourism remains the great hope for jobs but no one wants to see Providencia become like sister island San Andrés, where high-rise apartment blocks and hotels have been swiftly thrown up.
Tourism without being touristy
We stayed at the Deep Blue Hotel, which opened its 13 luxurious suites in July after a thorough refurbishment. From a visitor’s perspective, it is a gorgeous place to stay. Waking up to watch frigate birds, locally known as Man of War, over our infinity pool before the Caribbean was truly glorious. The lobster tasting at the end of the jetty is one of the finest dining experiences imagineable.
All 20 members of staff, bar the manager, Jeffrey Lefke, and chef, are from the island. Jeffrey has recruited on the basis of attitude rather than experience; so on-going training should iron out early teething troubles, while the disposition of the staff remains impeccable.
The hotel and its kitchen attempt to source everything locally and use guides from the island for fishing, snorkeling and diving. We snorkeled with 58-year-old Betito around the reef and Crab Quay to see turtles, rays and endless fish. Betito, with his long white beard, is fit enough in the water to embarrass a man 20 years his junior; sadly, that man was me.
A walk along Freshwater Bay at sunset took us to Richard’s Bar, where Thomas slowly made the strongest Cuba Libres I have ever had. Amid wafts of their sweet marijuana he said of the island’s new opening: “Deep Blue is good if it keeps the money moving around.”
Putting together a top-notch hotel on Providencia requires prodigious investment and a mighty logistical effort. The island has strict rules to control building and patience-testing bureaucracy, which gives conservation the whip hand over development.
Only islanders can buy land and no permission for new hotels will be provided. To refurb an existing hotel, at least one wall of every building must remain untouched, and environmental rules mean Deep Blue’s stairs and decking are built around palm trees.
While developing a hotel is not easy, being a tourist also presents challenges. From Bogotá, it is a flight to San Andres and then either an eye-wateringly expensive trip by plane or a testing five hours by boat.
Access and controls on development rule out mass-market tourism on the island: meanwhile local people want employment. It is a difficult balance that requires small numbers of high-spending visitors. While a visit to Providencia requires an investment of time and cash, it is undeniably enriching.