On the Colombian island of Providence, the pace is slow but charms come thick and fast
By Bart Beeson and Annalise Romoser
We've spent the afternoon at the open-air restaurant of a small fishing co-op that offers everything we've dreamed of in Caribbean cuisine — fresh fish, fruit juices, coconut rice — and a little something we haven't: rondon, the island's prized dish of pig's tail, fish and snails. The co-op also sells seafood, and after eating our fill, we purchase a gorgeous fish for dinner, then stop at a small grocery store on the way back to our lodgings to pick up onions and coconut milk to saute with mangoes for an accompanying creole sauce.
As we swerve up a steep hill on rickety old bikes, taking turns holding the large red snapper by the tail, we have to wonder whether this is the best way to bring home dinner. But as we discover 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 serve yourself at a buffet, to grab a cold drink at a rustic beachside hut than at a poolside bar, and to bait your hook with a local fisherman than join a chartered excursion.
Providencia, a longtime hangout for pirates, offers 21st-century refuge seekers casual charm, friendly locals and a rich color palette. (Bart Beeson)
We've heard for years about Providencia's beautiful beaches, great snorkeling and distinctive culture, so we've finally decided to make the journey here. The island lies about 140 miles off Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, belongs to Colombia and, largely because of its history as a base for English pirates, is mostly English-speaking. The extremely welcoming locals move effortlessly between English, Spanish and a unique creole tongue, and throughout our stay are eager to point us to a good local restaurant or the nearest beach.
To get to Providencia, we first stop in nearby San Andres, a larger and more commercial island, where you can catch either a quick flight or a catamaran to Providencia. After landing at Providencia's minuscule airport, we jump into the back of a pickup truck — the informal local taxi service — that takes us to our hotel to drop off our bags. The open-air ride is a perfect introduction to the island. We drive along the main road, which traces the shore, zooming past colorful houses, through several small towns and up and over hills with superb views of the sea. The water surrounding the island is known as the Sea of Seven Colors, and it lives up to its name with truly spectacular hues of turquoise and blue set against 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'll be back in the coming days to take him up on the latter two options, but on our first afternoon, we want to go kayaking in Old Providence McBean Lagoon. We slowly make our way through tangled mangroves, home to colorful crabs and elusive little birds, to reach the lagoon. There we take a break for a quick hike up Iron Wood Hill, which showcases the tropical dry forest on the east side of the island and provides a stunning view of the turquoise sea.
After kayaking, we return to our lodging to relax in the shade. Given its off-the-beaten-path location, Providencia has remained largely undeveloped — it hasonly one upscale hotel — and like many visitors, we've chosen to stay in a posada, a small home rented out to visitors. Ours is Posada Miss Rose, which sits on a verdant hill just off the main road and consists of a two-story, two-bedroom wooden house with a kitchen, a front porch and a second-story balcony with a partial ocean view. One local resident commended us on choosing a posada over a hotel. "You learn how islanders live and where our people will tell you all their stories," he said. "That's what makes this Providencia. It's what makes us different, and why we will never compete with five-star destinations."
The soft sands of the Colombian island of Providencia would be the perfect place to practice biking while carrying a big red snapper. (Bart Beeson)
Miss Rose, which goes for about $75 a night during high season (Christmas to mid-January, Easter week and mid-June to mid-July), comes with hospitality included. Owner Luisa Canencia Britton lives directly behind the guest house, and every morning during our five-day stay, she provides us with small island gifts: a bowl of refreshing local plum-like fruits, warm bread or books about the island. She also kindly advises us on how to cook up the snapper we bring home from the fishing co-op.
"I really enjoy having people here, and I think gifts are an important part of life," she says. "People here have huge hearts, hearts that are not found in the rest of the world. It is the treasure of this island."
From our house, it's a five-minute walk down a long, steep hill to Almendra Bay, which cradles a small, secluded white sand beach, surrounded by rocky outcroppings and lush green hills punctuated by a handful of colorfully painted homes and other wind-worn houses. The only facilities at the beach are a few plastic picnic tables and a small shack, whose owner cheerfully serves up cold soft drinks, beers (oddly enough, Old Milwaukee is quite popular) and simple seafood dishes. Like almost all the beaches in Providencia, Almendra Bay is ideal for swimming, which we do often, careful to avoid stepping on the giant starfish that dot the sea floor.
Busy but relaxed
Each day we set out from Miss Rose's on the somewhat dilapidated bikes that we've rented for the week. On our first full day, we bike around the entire island, which you could probably do in an hour if you just kept pedaling, but we take frequent breaks, exploring several beaches and stopping in the town of Santa Catalina for some much-needed ice cream.
We also head to El Pico Forestry Reserve for a two-hour round-trip hike inland. Making our way up through the forest shadows to the peak ("el pico" means "peak"), picking fresh mangoes as we go, we're rewarded with a 360-degree view of the island and the waters below. But soon after we arrive at the top, dark, imposing clouds roll in, and we have to hurry down from our exposed position to seek shelter from the lightning, if not the drenching rain.
The water surrounding Providencia is called the Sea of Seven Colors. (Bart Beeson)
The next day, we return to Atanasio Howard for a guided snorkeling excursion. His son takes us out to explore parts of the nearly 20-mile-long Providence barrier reef, one of the largest coral reefs in the Americas. It sits inside theSeaflower Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO Marine Protected area.
We take advantage of the trip to talk language, learning more from our guide about the local San Andres-Providencia Creole, which mixes expressions from Spanish and African languages. There'll be time to talk fish after we surface from the waters below, where we encounter endless brain and fan coral, a stunning array of brightly colored fish, and the occasional fluttering squid.
Afterward, Howard's son drops us off at Crab Cay, a popular day-trip destination that's smack in the middle of the most brilliantly colored part of the surrounding waters. The vista from its rocky peak is mesmerizing.
Another day, we rent kayaks and snorkeling gear on our own and paddle out to Morgan's Head, a locally famous rock outcropping named for pirate Henry Morgan, who used the island as a base for raiding Spanish colonies in the late 1600s. It's rumored that he hid still-undiscovered treasures in Providencia, and the rock formation sits near an unexcavated pirate-era fort that exudes mystery. There's great snorkeling just off the shore, and we spend a good chunk of time lazily paddling around before scrambling up the rocky cliffs and jumping into the clear water below.
We fill the rest of our days hitting our favorite beaches, reading on the porch at Miss Rose's and enjoying long meals at seaside restaurants. Our favorite is El Divino Niño, a local institution on South West Bay beach that serves a generous mixed platter of seafood that's supposedly for two but can easily feed three. For about $20, the platter comes piled high with Caribbean delights: whole red snapper, lobster, crab claws, sauteed conch, soup, coconut rice and fried plantains. From our outdoor table, we're able to watch the weekly horse race, in which local youths ride speeding horses bareback down the white sand beach, while seemingly half the island's population places friendly wagers and cheers the riders on. This is the only fast-paced event we experience in Providencia.
Despite its tiny size, the island keeps us busy but never overwhelmed. There are just enough options for us to feel that we accomplish something each day, but still allow us to have the relaxing beach vacation we were looking for. Before coming, we'd contemplated getting certified in scuba diving, but we decided to save that for another trip.
Still, we did pick up 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 some day.
Beeson is a freelance travel writer based in Burlington, Vt. Romoser works for an environmental organization in Washington and travels frequently to Colombia.
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IF YOU GO
COPA and Avianca airlines offerone-stop flights from Washington Dulles to San Andres, Colombia, where Satena offers flights to Providencia two to four times a day for about $128 round-trip. Two catamarans (www.catamaranelsensation.com) also operate between San Andres and Providencia for $32 one way ($23 for children).
Where to stay
Posada Miss Rose
From $55 per person in low season.
Posada Coco Bay
No-frills posada just feet above the sea. Owner Atanasio Howard arranges gear rentals and offers tours of Crab Cay and nearby mangroves, as well as fishing expeditions. Rooms from $44 in low season.
Hotel Deep Blue
The only luxury hotel on the island, remodeled in 2010-2012. No direct beach access but guests enjoy a private dock. Rooms from $185.
Where to eat
El Divino Niño
South West Bay
Generous portions of seafood, outdoor seating. Entrees from $9.
South West Bay
Tucked away among the trees, offers delicious pasta and fish dishes, many made with fresh herbs from the owner's garden. Entrees from $12.
Old Providence Taste
Pueblo Viejo, Via Al Paso
Affiliated with the Fish and Farm Co-op, offering full Caribbean meals with seasonal juices, locally caught fish and heavy fish soups. Entrees from $11.
What to do
Felipe Diving Center
Agua Dulce Beach
Offers dive packages, first aid and rescue courses, night dives and a "Discovery Scuba" course for those new to the sport. Open-water or advanced courses can be arranged for around $320. Daily snorkeling gear rental about $5.
Roland Roots Bar
Cocktails, beer, bonfires and music sent out over loudspeakers accompany low-key parties on the beach at this mostly outdoor bar. Live music offered some nights.
Hiking Morgan's Head
Walk over Lover's Bridge from Providencia to neighboring Santa Catalina. A 20-minute walk uphill takes you to the top of Morgan's Head for stunning sea views. Swim and snorkel in the waters below to cool off after the trek.