Has it already been a month?! Time is whizzing by on this bass thumping scooter riding little island of Providencia, Colombia but we’ve been making the most of it. Our time here thus far as been so filled with activity that it’s getting hard to count as another week flys by.
The islands of Providencia and San Andres both roughly 140 miles off the coast of Nicaragua but only 50 miles from each other share an interesting history. (From various Sources)
The first inhabitants of these Caribbean islands were Miskito Indians from the coast of Nicaragua followed by a group of Dutch colonists who made their home on Providencia toward the end of the 16th century. In 1631 they were expelled by English Puritans who effectively colonized the islands. They brought in black slaves from Jamaica and began to cultivate tobacco and cotton. The Spanish, irate at the English success on the islands, captured the islands in 1641, claiming rightful ownership of them by virtue of their proximity to the Spanish-controlled mainland; the English resisted, even re-capturing the islands for a brief period, until they finally recognized Spain’s claim in 1793.
Because of their strategic location, the islands provided convenient shelter for pirates waiting to sack Spanish galleons bound for home laden with gold and riches. In 1670 legendary pirate Henry Morgan established his base on Providencia and from here he raided both Panama and Santa Marta. Legend has it that his treasures are still hidden on the island.
The islands have variably been under British, Spanish and Dutch control, which has resulted in a blend of languages and cultures. Spanish is most commonly spoken, followed by English. Most of the native islanders, the Raizal, speak a Creole English incomprehensible to outsiders, but they can speak standard English and Spanish, too. Different groups of immigrants have come to the islands over the years, including U.S. missionaries, Chinese, Arabs and mainland Colombians.
Colombia claimed the islands in 1822 when it gained independence. Nicaragua has disputed the claim, though it has never challenged it with force, and as recently as 2001 filed a claim with the International Court of Justice to resolve the matter. Colombia responded by establishing military bases on the islands. On December 13, 2007, the International Court ruled the islands were Colombian territory, but left undecided the maritime border issue. There is also a small movement of native islanders seeking independence from Colombia.
Geographic isolation kept the unique English character virtually intact, though things started to change when a flight service connected the islands to the mainland in the 1950s. In 1954, a government plan to make the islands a duty-free zone brought with it tourism, commerce, and entrepreneurs.
In the early 1990s, the local government introduced restrictions on migration to the islands in order to slow the rampant influx of people and preserve the local culture and identity. Yet, Colombian mainlanders account for two-thirds of San Andrés’ population. The tourist and commercial boom has caused San Andrés to lose much of its original character; it’s now a blend of Latin American and English-Caribbean culture. Providencia has preserved much more of its colonial culture, even though tourism is making inroads into the local lifestyle.
Around the Island
We venture into town often via the dock where we leave the dinghy unlocked (though the motor is locked to it). This island has proved to be incredibly safe for us and our belongings. When you step foot on land you are immediately welcomed by elaborate art work based on the sea.
For the center of town being quite small it’s incredibly busy. At all times of the day and week residents here zoom by on motorscooters, walk with a destination in mind and generally aire a sense of business. Tate and aren’t exactly sure what they are all up to, but they have things to do and people to see!
After strolling around a bit it becomes apparent that color plays a large part in the lives of the people who live here. Pretty much everything that can possibly be painted is and with an astounding amount of color. I don’t know whose job it is to keep the paint up on the various buildings, houses, bridges and bus stops but they should never have a day off.
It also becomes apparent rather quickly that in order to see the whole island you need transportation. Walking long distances here in the sometimes stifling heat and humidity can actually be a health hazard. Your best bet is to meet up with some folks in the anchorage and pool your money to rent the six person mule for $50/day. This was our crew of mischief makers for a couple of weeks, John and Lela on SV Yachtsman Dream and Steve and Vicki on SV Tango.
The ever changing landscape reveals huge trees, free ranging cattle and horses as well as a variety of other things to grab your attention.
The island has a bright and charming feel with nautical references everywhere you look and a cute collection of artistic bus stops.
Right outside the Municipal Library
The local Black Crab
Humming bird with a boat bench
The creativity doesn’t stop in the town center or on the street. Every single house on the island is painted in a multitude of bright colors that sharply contrast against the lush green mountains in the background. Children run and play in the yards while clothes are hung in the sun and a barbeque takes place under a shady tree. As you would imagine building materials are hard to come by and though most buildings seem to be under some form of construction/destruction your heart can’t help but be lifted gazing upon these colorful oranaments that decorate the hillsides much like a Christmas tree.
Horses and Beaches
If you prefer to go a bit faster than on a mule $16 will get you a scooter, pink if you’d like, to use for the day tearing up the asphalt and leaving sand in your wake.
Heading around the island counter clockwise the best way to find a beach, and there are plenty, is to hang a right and follow it to the end. It’s hard to get lost on an island so small. One day we made it to Rolands Roots Bar where ice colds beers awaited and tree swings beckoned.
Rasta Roland himself
With our ice cold beers we took a leisurely stroll down the beach and found public hammocks and lots of shade and grass huts with more beer or a fresh caught fish for lunch.
One Saturday afternoon we made our way to the Southwest Bay to watch the famed horse races on the beach. Crowds gathered and moving speaker trucks blared Reggae music so loud the beach vibrated under our feet.
The race was against this first jockey and horse against this other much younger jockey.
The horse in blue won however based soley I think on the fact that he stood in the ocean for a bit before the race. I recorded a short video of the excitement.
Once you’ve seen everything from sealevel if you wish you can take a much different view. The Peak, or El Peako as the residents call it is a regional park here with a trail leading, what took us 2 hours, up to the highest point in Providencia 1,181ft up. I wouldn’t say it was strenuous… but it was strenuous. Nothing will make you feel older than hiking with a group of retirees and being the one who lags behind.
Huge trees with parasitic Orchids were everywhere as were idyllic hillside scenes that motivate one to grab an axe and start on a log cabin.
The residents here have a great pride in all of their natural surroundings and hung hand painted signs with details of the local ecology. There were more than ten all together that I spotted on the way up.
One of the many inhabitants are these very blue lizards. They can change from blue to brown and as far as I can tell OWN the mountain. There are probably two lizards every square meter, no joke.
The “trail” or as I like to call it the “rugged mountain path” starts out deceivingly flat and easy and gets progressive steeper. I think whoever made the trail got really tired towards the end and said screw it, cut it straight to the top! Tate however was unaffected and charged forward with gusto. At least I could count on him to carry me out if need be.
Eventually we broke free of the mountain side and our sweat quickly dried in the cool breeze. The hike was definitely worth it and provided the absolute best 360 degree views of the island. You could see the breaking waves crash constantly over the reef that surrounds a large part of the island. Even Sundowner could be been seen in the anchorage below. Pictures really don’t do it justice though so I made a short video of the view below.
Los Congrejos Negros (The Black Crabs)
“The hills have eyes” we were ominously told as we headed out one evening. We were on a mission to find the black crabs that migrate from the mountain to the sea once a year over many months to lay their eggs. You could see evidence of the migration attempt everywhere you drove and we were hoping to spot some in action.
We didn’t have to look far as they littered the sides of the roads waiting to make their break across the busy stretch of concrete and to the sea. They are skilful little crustaceans that climb vertical walls or any other obstacle in their way. They also taste good and are on many menus throughout the restaurants on the island.
They say that tourism is the number one industry here but you wouldn’t know from the town center. 99 percent of the people you see are locals, all apparently very busy in whatever they are up to. So while there are some “restaurants” within walking distance from the dinghy dock they are far and few between. Most are open for lunch but closed in the afternoon for siesta (12 to 3 is the best we can surmise) and then reopen, or not, for dinner. They are more like the places back home we’d go for a cheap lunch and not a steak dinner.
They all have plastic chairs and typically a few options of plate meals featuring chicken, beef or seafood. There is usually always beer though and sometimes wine. There is one pizza joint that we like a bunch and the cruisers from the anchorage would get together for a night on the town.
The tourism everyone talks about must be tucked away in the many different hotels and bungalows for rent around the island. Further out of town (via scooter) near these places you can find more options for eating out and I think the most expensive place on the island is called Deep Blue. It is a resort and a restaurant with a view of Crab Key. Here you can drink $12 pina colodas and dine on good food that runs $15 a plate with $5 for a glass of wine. Still cheap by US standards but very expensive in our budget. I thoroughly enjoyed however my fish fillet topped with none other than “black mountain crab”.
The lack of good places to eat with regular hours is actually a blessing in disguise as it forces you to cook on the boat. Since we’ve been in the anchorage here for a month we’ve had countless dinners on other boats ranging from freshly speared snapper or grouper, to homemade pizza and delicious pork loin with deserts to die for. Tate pleased a whole group of 10 cruisers, our largest group yet, with a pot of his famous chicken and sausage gumbo. He always said he wanted to bring gumbo around the world. Boats pictures are SV Yachtsman Dream, SV Tango, SV Nimue, SV Motu and of course SV Sundowner.
Our time here has been so fun and we are in no hurry to leave. The winds have been blowing like crazy in the twenties for over 3 weeks now but it keeps the temperatures much cooler. Tate goes spearfishing everyday and I join him about every third day for a few hours of snorkeling. We eat very good and spend a lot of time reading or playing bridge. It’s hard to imagine a better life right now than this. Eventually we’ll make our way to the San Blas but for now we’ll soak up the sun and enrich our souls in the lovely paradise of Providencia. Next up for the blog is posting our 6 months cruising costs and starting gear reviews. Adios!