Providencia: preserved island | Bogotá city paper
The first sign that Providencia is an island different from the rest of Colombia was at the 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 within the dictionary’s definition of tropical perfection. Even Providencia Airport is romantic: you step off the 13-seater plane in the mild heat and walk past palm trees to the wooden terminal.
Same country, different world
As we waited for our turn at immigration, the cows were walking past the window and two calves were jumping enthusiastically. This youthful exuberance contrasted sharply with the languid pace of humans, I thought as a guard rested his head on the desk.
Despite the weather, security was more conscientious and less wacky than in Bogotá, where no one checked my ID card and we were weighed on the luggage scale. Unimaginable for the continent, security was not armed.
Providencia is a simple place to navigate: locals roam the road on motorcycles, unmoved by the burden of helmets or permits. Tourists, however, are more likely to ride around in glorified golf strollers called mules.
Place names are said to be distinctly foreign to most Colombians. In a cab going to 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 was playing reggae and calypso. This owes much more to Barbados than to Bogotá, I thought as Dundy went off to play dominoes.
Although there is no allusion to El Libertador, Simon Bolívar, in Providencia, Henry Morgan still makes his presence felt. The admiral, privateer and pirate claimed the island in the 17th century; the romantic and myopic can still see his resemblance on the rock Morgan’s Head.
The Spaniards 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 reinforced by the Hague decision. While the islanders’ ties to Colombia may not be strong, there is one thing they are not and that is Nicaragua. The weary cynicism of politicians in Bogotá is evident, but enthusiasm for the government of Nicaragua is nonexistent. The popular opinion is that President Ortega is only looking for one thing: oil.
The translucent waters around Providencia are rich in more than seafood, but the islanders rejected the oily charms of hydrocarbons with the support of their distant president. The exploration ban by President Juan Manuel Santos came as a direct counterattack from his predecessor, lvaro Uribe.
With the rejection of the oil industry, job opportunities on Providencia are limited. The bucolic appeal of breeding is counterbalanced by the presence of formidable ants. Local government is a big employer, but cronyism is an intimidating barrier.
Tourism remains the great hope for employment, but no one wants to see Providencia become like the sister island of San Andrés, where high-rise buildings and hotels were quickly constructed.
Tourism without being tourist
We stayed at the Deep Blue Hotel, which opened its 13 luxury suites in July after a major renovation. From a visitor’s point of view, this is a wonderful place to stay. Wake up to observe the frigates, locally known as the Man of War, above our infinity pool before the Caribbean really was glorious. Lobster tasting at the end of the pier is one of the most beautiful culinary experiences imaginable.
All 20 of the staff, with the exception of the manager, Jeffrey Lefke, and the chef, are from the island. Jeffrey recruited on the basis of attitude rather than experience; thus, continuous training should iron out early start-up problems, while staff provision remains impeccable.
The hotel and its kitchen try to find everything locally and use island guides for fishing, snorkeling, and diving. We snorkeled with Betito, 58, around the reef and Crab Quay to see endless turtles, rays and fish. Betito, with his long white beard, is fit enough in the water to embarrass a man 20 years his junior; unfortunately that man was me.
A stroll along Freshwater Bay at sunset took us to Richard’s Bar, where Thomas slowly created the strongest Cuba Libres I have ever had. Amid puffs of their sweet marijuana, he said of the island’s new opening: “Deep Blue is good if it gets the money flowing.”
Building an upscale hotel in Providencia requires a tremendous investment and a considerable logistical effort. The island has strict rules to control construction bureaucracy and patience testing, which gives conservation control over development.
Only Islanders can purchase land and no permits for new hotels will be provided. To renovate an existing hotel, at least one wall of every building must remain intact, and environmental rules mean that Deep Blue’s stairs and terrace are built around palm trees.
While developing a hotel is not easy, being a tourist also presents challenges. From Bogotá it’s a flight to San Andres, then an extremely expensive plane trip or a five-hour test by boat.
Access and development controls exclude mass tourism on the island: meanwhile, locals want jobs. It’s a difficult balance that requires a small number of spendthrift visitors. While a visit to Providencia requires an investment of time and money, it is undeniably rewarding.