On the Colombian island of Providencia, the pace is slow but the charms come thick and fast
We spent the afternoon at the outdoor restaurant of a small fishing cooperative that offers everything we dreamed of in Caribbean cuisine – fresh fish, juice, coconut rice – and a little something we don’t have: rondon, the island’s popular dish made with pigtail, fish and snails. The cooperative also sells seafood, and after we have had our fill we buy a wonderful fish for dinner, then stop at a small grocery store on the way back to our accommodation to collect onions and milk from coconut to be sautéed with mangoes for an accompaniment. creole sauce.
As we climb a steep hill on rickety old bikes, taking turns holding the big red snapper by the tail, we have to ask ourselves if this is the best way to bring dinner home. But as we find out over the course of a week in Providencia, Colombia, that’s part of the charm of this Caribbean island, where you’re more likely to bring home fresh fish to cook than to serve yourself at the buffet, to have a cold drink. in a rustic seaside cabin than in a poolside bar, and to bait your hook with a local fisherman than join a chartered excursion.
We’ve been hearing about Providencia’s beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, and distinctive culture for years, so we finally decided to make the trip here. The island sits approximately 140 miles off the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, is owned by Colombia and, largely due to its history as a base for English pirates, is predominantly English speaking. The extremely welcoming locals move effortlessly between English, Spanish and a unique Creole language, and throughout our stay we can’t wait to point us to a good local restaurant or the nearest beach.
To get to Providencia, we first stop near San Andres, a larger and more commercial island, where you can take a fast flight or catamaran to Providencia. After landing at the tiny airport in Providencia, we jump into the back of a van – the informal local taxi service – which takes us to our hotel to drop off our luggage. The outdoor walk is a perfect introduction to the island. We drive along the main road, which traces the shore, past colorful houses, through several small towns and over hills with great sea views. The water that surrounds the island is known as the Sea of Seven Colors and lives up to its name with truly spectacular hues of turquoise and blue on pristine white sand beaches.
The gift of hospitality
Eager to get on the water, we find a guide, Atanasio Howard, who runs a small hotel and arranges kayaking, snorkeling and fishing trips for visitors. We will be back in the next few days to present the last two options to him, but the first afternoon we want to go kayaking Old Providence McBean Lagoon. We slowly cross tangled mangroves, home to colorful crabs and elusive little birds, to reach the lagoon. There, we pause for a quick hike up Iron Wood Hill, which highlights the dry tropical forest on the east side of the island and offers stunning views of the turquoise sea.
After the kayaking, we return to our lodge to relax in the shade. Given its off-the-beaten-path location, Providencia has remained largely underdeveloped – it has a single high-end hotel – and like many visitors, we chose to stay in a posada, a small house rented to visitors. Ours is Posada miss rose, which sits on a green hill just off the main road and consists of a two-story log house with a kitchen, porch, and second-floor balcony with partial ocean views. A local resident congratulated us on choosing a posada over a hotel. “You learn how the islanders live and where our people will tell you all their stories,” he said. “That’s what makes this Providencia. This is what sets us apart and why we will never compete with five-star destinations. “
Miss Rose, which costs around $ 75 a night in high season (Christmas to mid-January, Easter week, and mid-June to mid-July), includes hospitality. Owner Luisa Canencia Britton lives directly behind the guest house and every morning during our five day stay she gives us little gifts on the island: a bowl of refreshing local fruit with plums, warm bread or books on the island. the island. She also kindly advises us on how to cook the snapper that we bring home from the fishing cooperative.
“I really love having people here and I think gifts are an important part of life,” she says. “The people here have a huge heart, a heart that cannot be found in the rest of the world. It is the treasure of this island.
From our house it is a five minute walk up a long, steep hill to Almendra Bay, which cradles a small, secluded white sand beach, surrounded by rocky outcrops and verdant hills punctuated by a handful of painted houses. bright colors and other winds. worn houses. The only facilities on the beach are a few plastic picnic tables and a small hut, the owner of which happily serves cold soft drinks, beers (oddly enough, Old Milwaukee is quite popular) and simple seafood dishes. Like almost all beaches in Providencia, Almendra Bay is great for swimming, which we often do, being careful not to step on the giant starfish that dot the seabed.
Busy but relaxed
Every day we set off from Miss Rose on the slightly run down bikes that we have hired for the week. On our first full day we cycle around the entire island, which you could probably do in an hour if you kept pedaling, but we take frequent breaks, explore several beaches, and stop in the town of Santa Catalina to find some much needed ice cream. cream.
We also head to El Pico Forest Reserve for a two hour round trip inland hike. Climbing through the shadows of the forest to the top (“el pico” means “peak”), picking fresh mangoes as we go, we are rewarded with a 360 degree view of the island and the mountains. waters below. But soon after we get to the top, dark towering clouds roll in and we have to hurry from our exposed position to shelter from lightning, if not torrential rain.
The next day we return to Atanasio Howard for a guided snorkeling excursion. His son takes us to explore parts of the nearly 20 mile long Providence Barrier Reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the Americas. It is inside the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO marine protected area.
We take advantage of the trip to speak the language, learning more from our guide about the local Creole of San Andres-Providencia, which mixes expressions of Spanish and African languages. We’ll have time to talk about fish after surfacing from the waters below, where we’ll encounter endless brains and fan corals, an amazing array of brightly colored fish, and the occasional floating squid.
Next, Howard’s son drops us off at Crab Cay, a popular day trip destination that sits in the middle of the most brilliantly colored part of the surrounding waters. The view from its rocky summit is fascinating.
Another day, we rent kayaks and snorkeling gear on our own and paddle to Morgan’s Head, a locally famous rock outcrop named after the pirate Henry Morgan, who used the island as a base to attack the Spanish settlements in the late 1600s. It is rumored to have hidden as yet undiscovered treasures in Providencia, and the rock formation sits near an unexcavated pirate-era fort that exudes mystery. There is snorkeling right by the shore, and we spend a good deal of time lazily paddling before climbing the rocky cliffs and jumping into the clear water below.
We spend the rest of our days visiting our favorite beaches, reading on Miss Rose’s porch, and enjoying long meals at seaside restaurants. Our favorite is El Divino Niño, a local institution on South Beach. West Bay which serves a generous seafood platter that’s supposed to be for two but can easily feed three. For around $ 20, the platter is stocked with Caribbean delicacies: whole red snapper, lobster, crab claws, sautéed conch, soup, coconut rice, and fried plantains. From our outdoor table, we can watch the weekly horse race, during which local youth ride bareback on the white sand beach, while apparently half of the island’s population sits there. friendly bets and encourages riders. This is the only fast paced event we experience in Providencia.
Despite its small size, the island keeps us busy but never overwhelmed. There are just enough options to make us feel like we’re accomplishing something every day, while still giving us the relaxing beach vacation we’ve been looking for. Before coming we had considered getting certified in scuba diving but decided to keep it for another trip.
Yet we have acquired a new skill. And who knows? Being able to steer a bike with one hand while holding a snapper in the other might come in handy one day.
Beeson is a freelance travel writer based in Burlington, Vt. Romoser works for an environmental organization in Washington and frequently travels to Colombia.