Divine providence

Once a pirate hideout, this 6.5-square-mile island off Colombia’s Caribbean coast is a peaceful haven set to the rhythms of reggae and the sea, a treasure of pristine beauty for awestruck tourists.

Text: María Camila Peña Bernal @penacamila



They say the islands of the Caribbean have a special kind of magic, partly thanks to the perfect sensation of having it all in the middle of nowhere. On my arrival to Isla de Providencia (Old Providence), I was struck by the charm I had heard so much about. It first appeared as my flight approached the island surrounded by a seven-colored sea that far surpasses romantic fantasy. And the postcard pictures just kept coming: colorful little wooden houses with porches (an architectural tradition inherited from the British) where children play and adults relax in the shade, abundant vegetation, eerie mangrove swamps… As the scene unfolded, I began to understand what colonizers and pirates were seeking once upon a time: the same things thousands of tourists come for every year.

A thirty-minute flight from San Andrés (or about four hours by sea), Providencia seems different right from the start. Far from the busy vibe of big resorts, fancy restaurants and hip bars, this island still has the special quality that so many destinations have lost with the advent of large-scale tourism. And it’s the locals themselves who have made it a point to maintain the island’s authenticity. Without the pomp of mass-scale attractions, Providencia serves as a portal back through time, a way of understanding the Caribbean of yesteryear. Here, the friendly woman who works at the restaurant and brings fresh caracoles to your table, who smiles warmly and asks if you enjoyed your food, is also the owner of the family inn and has lived in Providencia for decades.




Human Beauty

Some 5,000 people live on the island and most have dark complexions, a heritage passed down from the first African slaves who were brought to work on Providencia’s tobacco, sugar cane and cotton plantations. They speak English, a result of the island’s first wave of colonizers, as well as Spanish, the legacy of a Colombian influence dating back to the 20th century, but the official language is Creole, a hybrid of English with African influences. The island’s indigenous ethnic group, the Raizals, describe themselves as cheerful, honest, spontaneous, friendly and responsible, says Providencia native Jennifer Archbold, who runs a local travel agency.




The best proof can be found any Saturday on Providencia. Head over to Southwest Beach, where horse races are held just before sunset. The lead-up is longer than the event itself, and although the euphoria of the competition dissipates soon after the victory, it leaves behind a warm and homey atmosphere, where reggae blends beautifully with the sound of the sea.

When night falls with a silence found few other places on the planet, your best bet is to visit one of the rustic restaurants. Try the popular local seafood dishes. Highlights include the classic rondón (fish stew), the crab hamburger and the ultra-fresh caracoles (sea snails), accompanied by aguardiente and soda water. The night progresses with leisurely conversation and bottles of Cristal beer emptied one after the other.




Before the good cheer wears off, be sure to visit the charismatic Roland Bryan, owner of Roland’s Roots Bar on Manzanillo Beach. No matter the time of day, the bar offers reggae rhythms, drinks served in coconuts, the Caribbean breeze and a relaxed spirit. On Friday nights, Roland’s hosts performances by local reggae bands, and the party doesn’t end until dawn.



The Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina was named a Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in 2000.


Pirate treasure

It may seem hard to imagine today, but the archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia was once a haven for pirates. They say that the famous Henry Morgan planned his attack on Panamá and Santa Marta here. Legend holds that the canons still remaining on the island of Santa Catalina (also part of the archipelago) were used by Morgan to defend his treasure, which ultimately ended up at the bottom of the sea when his ship sank in a severe storm. The Welsh pirate is commemorated by Morgan’s Head, an enormous rock that resembles a human profile.

Most people agree that the archipelago’s true treasure is found in the bounty of the sea itself. You don’t have to be a professional diver to enjoy the underwater wonders: simply snorkeling is enough to witness its impressive diversity. Providencia boasts the third-largest coral barrier reef in the world (after Australia and Belize). The 20-mile-long ecosystem is home to everything from small, colorful reef fish to larger species like barracudas, sea turtles, rays and white-tip reef sharks.

In Providencia, you can hire a boat service that takes you to Crab Cay – part of the Old Providence McBean Lagoon National Natural Park, surrounded by a multicolored sea. Or, if you prefer, you can head up to the top of the cay, where in addition to getting some great snapshots from a natural lookout, you will enjoy an overwhelming sensation of freedom and beauty. You probably won’t feel anything quite like it again, until you return to the wondrous treasure that is Providencia. in


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