Finding Providence: The Real Hidden Treasure of the Caribbean
Posted by Tabitha Yeasley
January 14th, 2018
If you use Google to help you find your next travel destination, like we sometimes do, you can google “best beaches in Colombia” and you might find Isla de Providencia among the many search results that come up on your screen. While skimming through your options you might also see that Providencia - 90 kilometers north of San Andres, already a flight away from the mainland - is hard to get to, and move on. But we didn’t move on. We zeroed in and read a couple of reviews, and thought “This is it.” This is our paradise. And we were right.
Colombia, in a word, is beautiful. One of the most biodiverse countries and simultaneously infamous as a tourist destination, we ignored the shock and dismay from others at our destination of choice, and spent six weeks falling in love. We were whisked away into a whole new world that started with the chaos of riding in taxis in Bogota and breathing in the Andes mountains. We felt like we were at home in cozy Salento, complete with a horse-back tour of the coffee region, where the Cocora Valley and the tallest wax palms in the world tower above the clouds like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. We were entranced by the busy-ness of Medellín and the epitome of what it means to rebuild a community, and found solace in the colorful town of Guatapé. And after all the wild thunderstorms the country had to offer, we soaked up all the sunshine and patacones of the Caribbean coast in beautiful, Spanish-influenced Cartagena.
And while all of that would have been enough, we got lucky. Because we found Providence.
San Andres Island is a tourist destination off the coast of Nicaragua, but belongs to Colombia. Michael refers to it as the “Jersey Shore of Colombia.” The resort-and-vendor-ridden beaches are crowded and dirty, and consumerism seemed to be the main dry land activity. And while it retains some hint of the wonder of vacationing on a tropical island, it wasn’t for us. The smaller, more mountainous Providencia, just to the north and home to just over 5,000, was a night and day difference. You might see these islands on the map as “San Andres Y Providencia” but we would not lump them together if it were up to us.
There are two ways to get to Providencia from San Andres. One is a quick 20-minute flight in a small plane. The other is a bumpy, 3-hour catamaran ride. They give you sea sickness pills upon boarding. We opted for the more expensive but totally worth it, flight.
There is one commercial airline that goes to and from Providencia. At check-in, they weighed our baggage, and then they weighed us. We could pick our seats, and with child-like wonder we of course sat right behind the pilots so we could see the cockpit. There were about 8 other people on board, all tourists, all of whom we recognized around the island during our stay as there were so few non-locals. The tiny plane seemed to be buzzing with excitement. As we flew over the Caribbean and the first views of Old Providence came into view, we knew visiting an island we knew so little about had been a risk worth taking.
We booked an Airbnb, as it was a better deal than the poorly rated hostels on the island. Our host picked us up from the tiny airport, and helped us get acquainted with the island. Kildren and his girlfriend, Sumaya, were the most welcoming hosts all week long. We felt like we were staying with friends at Rocky Point. On our last night, they took us out to experience local night life, going from the famous Roland’s Bar on Manchaneel beach, to a couple of disco techs inside houses that we would have otherwise never known existed. (It’s safe to say we had a little too much borrowed happiness, and our departing flight back to San Andres wasn’t quite as fun...)
Technically part of Colombia, the islanders are taught Spanish in school, but they speak English Creole to each other. With a large Rastafarian influence, the island feels much more like a tiny Jamaica, where music and dreadlocks abound. Half the fun of the island is renting a scooter, or “moto” to get around like the locals do. There isn’t a single helmet on the island, and we spent most of our days hopping from beach to beach barefoot and in our swimsuits (sorry mom). You can drive the 17 km around the entire island in less than an hour.
We spent a day on Santa Catalina Island, a tiny, pedestrian-only island connected to Providencia by a foot bridge, known as “Lovers Bridge.” Here, there is a rock formation called Captain Morgan’s Head, which resembles the face of the pirate that used these islands as a base in the 1700s. You can use this as a jumping off point into the clear blue below, and the snorkeling around the island is beautiful. Providencia is a popular dive site as it’s near one of the largest reefs, and the best snorkeling is at Crab Caye. We took a speedboat there on our last day, and had the place to ourselves for a while.
By week’s end we had explored every beach on Providencia, even finding a secret beach our host told us about. We filled up on fresh fried fish, plantains, and coconut rice, and caught every stunning sunset at South West Bay. We danced around bon fires with locals. We trudged through mud on the hike up to the Peak, the tallest point on the island. We snorkeled and swam and got caught in tropical rainstorms more than once. But the water was always warm, the days were always long, and our hearts were always full.
It’s rumored that there is still some of Captain Morgan’s buried treasure somewhere on the island. And now, as our tans are fading and we’re settling into this next chapter of our lives, I can’t help but think that it’s Old Providence itself, that is the real hidden treasure of the Caribbean. Finding the island is like finding a beautiful piece of yourself you didn’t know existed. As the locals would say, “You have to know it.” And now that we know it, we know ourselves a little better too.
We pretty much stayed on what everyone refers to as the “gringo trail” while we roamed around Colombia. Other travelers spoke of Medellín, Bogota, Cartagena, all good places to talk about. But not a single soul told us about Providencia. And it turns out that it may just be Colombia’s best kept secret. And we would keep it to ourselves as well, if it wasn’t just too good not to share.