Colombia meets Jamaica? Not quite, but two competing images loom large over the Caribbean island of Providencia: Bob Marley, adopted saint of the local Raizal population, and Johnny Depp, fictional hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise and a symbol of everything ‘pirate’ to the local tourism industry. It’s all a very long way from Bogotá.
This tiny Caribbean outcrop, along with its sister island of San Andrés, is actually much closer to Nicaragua than the coast of Colombia. With a population of around 5000, there are more golf carts and bicycles than cars and everyone knows everyone else.
All this makes Providencia a great getaway from Colombia’s frenetic cities. Here, Stephen Keeling picks a few highlights of visiting this fascinating island.
Crab lovers rejoice
Not surprisingly, fresh seafood dominates menus on Providencia. The local black crab is a major staple, appearing in soups, stews or simply fried in the shell – some twenty percent of the island’s population make their living from the tasty crustacean.
The black crab is actually tinged with orange and lives on land most of the year (hiding in burrows in the hills and feeding at night). Between April and July the crabs descend en masse to the sea during their annual migration to lay eggs (the newly hatched juveniles then make the return journey) – it’s sometimes possible to view this amazing spectacle on foot, but these days the army routinely closes and guards strips of the coast road to protect migrating crabs. In recent years their numbers have declined dramatically thanks to overexploitation and the loss of habitat, but there has been some progress in making crab farming sustainable.
Providencia loves its reggae and reggaeton, with the best place to soak up the island vibe Roland Roots Bar on Manchineel Bay. This Rasta-themed beach bar, with wooden shacks right on the sand, sways to a mellow reggae soundtrack and there are even swings from which to fling yourself into the sea.
Pirates of Providencia
In 1670, pirates led by Henry Morgan essentially occupied Providencia – though the buccaneers had been flushed out by 1689, this period informs much of the island’s romantic view of itself (many islanders claim descent from the pirates).
Get to grips with their legacy on tiny Santa Catalina Island, linked to Providencia by a rickety, wooden pontoon pedestrian bridge. On the other side a boardwalk leads along the shore, between tangled mangroves and a ramshackle village to Morgan’s Cannon (Cañónes), a rusty old artillery piece said to be the place pirates were hanged and ‘protestants burned’ by the Spanish.
On the other side of the hill lies Fort Beach (Playa Fuerte), a small stretch of sand with another old cannon, wishing well, an underwater cave (also named for Morgan), and good snorkelling. It’s one of seemingly thousands of spots in the Caribbean where Morgan supposedly hid treasure – he must have been swimming in gold.
Go to church
The Raizal population on Providencia remains proud of its cultural roots, and one of the strongest traditions is attending Baptist church on Sundays (services are usually held in English). Even if you are not religious, it’s worth going along to see the soulful gospel choirs that sing at the main services – a magical experience. Services at the Iglesia Bautista Central (Central Baptist Church) take place at 11am every Sunday.
Scuba, boats and beaches
Providencia is blessed with small but glittering white-sand beaches and the best diving in the region – the island sits atop the third-largest barrier reef in the world.
Submarine highlights include “Manta City”, a congregation of giant southern stingrays (not mantas), and “Tete’s Place”, where schools of snappers, goatfish and parrotfish make you feel as if you’re swimming in a giant aquarium.
If diving isn’t your thing, most hotels can arrange tours around the island via speedboat, including a two-hour visit to Crab Key, just off the east coast. This tiny islet offers superb snorkelling in the spectacularly clear surrounding waters – you’ll see plenty of small but multi-coloured tropical fish, fans and corals here. There’s a bar on the dock selling fresh coconuts and rum, and sometimes shrimp ceviche.
You can also make the short climb to the cocoplum-smothered top of the cay for sensational views of the massive reef, ‘the sea of seven colours’ around it and back over to the mountains of Providencia, rising into the clouds like a languid South Pacific atoll. Otherwise, tranquil Southwest Bay on the main island boasts the best beach, with a small selection of hotels and restaurants.