Guided by glowing coral and parrotfish, my test dive at Tete’s Place, a reef just one kilometer from Providencia’s palm-lined beaches was a feel-good, zero gravity experience.
As my companions floated weightlessly next to the instructor of ‘Felipe Diving’ I felt that my forty minutes at the sandy bottom of the sea had made the hop and skip to Providencia worth its weight in oxygen. “When you hold the sand in your hands” remarked Lorenzo Cabezas, as we stumbled out onto the empty beach of Sweet Water Bay, “you know you are close to heaven.”
Having arrived a few days earlier in ‘Old Providence,’ I had no doubt that I was indeed fortunate to be in this tropical paradise. Lorenzo’s words just drove the idea home. Gone were large-scale hotels, souvenir shops and tourists descending from cruise ships. It was my good fortune (as this island’s name suggests) to be in good Providence.
Blessed with rings of blue sea, sparkling reefs and a ridge of emerald green mountains that crosses the island from north to south, Providencia, is one of Colombia’s most remote destinations and located 700 kms northwest of the South American continent. Although it’s only a twenty-minute flight from big sister isle San Andres, it’s a world away. Even the name of the island’s miniature airport, El Embrujo (The Bewitched), with its colorful painted walls of wood, hints at some of the magic to come.
Founded by Puritans sent from London with the Providence Island Company to set up cane plantations in the Caribbean as well as, a slaves from Jamaica and those Dutch “freebooters” Providencia’s history is steeped in legend. While it became part of Colombia in 1822 it has never lost a deeply rooted connection to the Old World and the seafaring roots of buccaneers. English is spoken throughout the island making it easy for tourists to be understood, and locals speak their own blend of Spanish and a Creole.
Despite a rebellious past as the archipelago was used as a shelter for pirates in the 16th century, the inhabitants of Providencia and Santa Catalina do welcome outsiders and one can stay on this tiny isle up to four months a year. With a population of 35,000 scattered across an outcrop of pristine Caribbean, it is also a tightly knit community where everyone keeps an eye out for everyone else.
Even the island’s favorite son, Henry Morgan, still casts a watchful gaze from a privileged corner on neighboring Santa Catalina Island. Shaped by the surf and with the sun beating down on his brow, this protruding rock-face, with the natural resemblance of the legendary pirate’s brow, is one of the most visited landmarks on the archipelago and fondly referred to as ‘Morgan’s Head’.
Although you can reach the privateer by boat you can also do it on foot by crossing the floating bridge or ‘Lover’s Lane’ which spans a clear inlet between Providencia and breezy Santa Catalina. Soak in a sunset from the old ‘pirate’s den’ of Fort Warrick where rusted cannons still take aim at the horizon.
One road unites the people of Providencia, its cardinal points, landmarks and small villages nestled next to the ocean surrounded by blooming tamarind trees. So there’s no need for maps or asking directions. Tourists can scoot around the island in under an hour while stopping to take in breathtaking views of its numerous sandy bays and rocky coves.
If you prefer to name drop Morgan as spiced rum and coconut then Manzanillo Bay is where you’ll come face to face with the corporate castaways basking in the sun. While Roland serves up his hypnotic ‘coco locos’ to the sound of soulful reggae at his bar, you can choose your very own palm and throw your towel on a empty beach. Although Providencia is a sun worshiper’s delight, it also sits on the second longest barrier reef in the world, which extends its way south from the Yucatan, Belize and Honduras. Snorkling is one of the preferred leisure activities for tourists and Colombia’s National Parks (PNN) conserves several small keys, such as Crab Key, for those like to keep their head barely above water.
There are also fresh water lakes and a hiking trail up Manchineel Hill for watching birds during the October and November migrating season. McBean Lagoon with its shady mangroves is also popular for kayaking and taking in the seven shades of ocean blue.
While Providencia might have shed some of its Puritan values, it still remains entrenched in a way of life that is both traditional and focused on nature. “People don’t come here to party,” says Aminta Robinson from the tourism office. “We are convinced that what Europeans like are our ecosystems.”
In order to preserve jobs and the sustainability of the island, locals have fended off the resorts by turning their homes into lodges. On the southern tip of the island in South West Bay and Sweet Water Bay some of the cozy places to stay such as the lodges Miss Mary, Miss Elma, Relax and the Posada del Mar. Cabañas Aguadulce has twenty-one rooms and an appropriately named ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ bar for the after scuba drink. One of the most complete hotels is the Sol Caribe Providencia with its ocean front deck for dining. On the island’s north shore, in Maracaibo Bay operates Posada Cocobay with rooms jutting out over a peaceful inlet.
The familiarity of Providencia is one of its most endearing features. It is easy for outsiders to find themselves suddenly on the inside, seated around a table in someone’s home. As I searched for a bowl of crab stew, I was taken to Lazy Hill and the house of Lupe Whitaker, who among the islanders is known for preparing it best. Several restaurants operate in Providencia such as Caribbean Place and Café Studio.
But one place on the island has coveted more stars than the finest of restaurants. Located at the tip of South West Bay, guests take their place under the heavens while Richard, the owner of this breezy ‘point’ stirs up the night with a roaring fire and ice infused mojitos. There’s no need for formalities or small talk. All eyes focus on the sea and the canopy of stars. Nature envelopes us and we fall under the spell of the night. It is what our new friend, Richard, refers to as an “inspiration of visibility.”