Providencia y San Andres

If one wanted to find a place to escape life, Providencia would be a top contender.

This island of 5,000 people is 140 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, a part of Colombia (long under dispute), and a former pirate hideout. To get here requires a mainland flight to the larger neighboring island of San Andres, and then a 21 minute flight on a 20-person Russian aircraft. You can also reach Providencia via a 40-person, 3 hour catamaran, which makes the journey four days a week. Both the internet and the woman staying in the cabin next to me advise against that option. The limited transportation options, along with few hotels, makes Providencia wonderfully underdeveloped and undertouristed – hence the appeal. Be warned, there is not a lot to do here, while there is great diving, and a few days worth of activities, there aren’t the myriad beach action activities (jet skis, parasailing, etc.) you’d have at a normal resort town. You’ll be rewarded with empty beaches, no hawkers, a safe destination, and a lot of Kindle time.

Part of the intrigue is the island’s fascinating history. It was a base for English pirates (old cannons dot the island), thus English is widely spoken here even though most tourists speak Spanish, German, or Portuguese. Locals speak a version of creole that is only mildly comprehensible to non-locals, however they all also speak English and Spanish. Hearing American English was a rarity and I met only a handful of people visiting from the States, most already in Colombia for an extended period of time and taking a quick beach detour. This wouldn’t be a place to go to from the US, but if you happen to be in Panama or Colombia, and it is a quick flight, I highly recommend.

From a boat, Providencia looks like the setting for Lost, lush mountains go straight to the ocean, with only a few colorful houses dotting the landscape. Approaching from the air, the water looks like the Maldives, every color of blue. The water is famous for its “Seven shades of blue” and in the sun, is absolutely brilliant. The island is protected by the third largest coral reef in the world.

This is a place where you can make friends with everyone you meet. Everyone on this island knows everyone else, and wants to help island visitors while sharing their home. You can leave your bag on the beach, in fact you may have the entire beach to yourself. You can’t be in a rush. Even dining alone, it takes about 2 hours to have a meal here. Service is what it is, you are a guest and now on their island time.

There is a single main road that runs in a circle around the island. You can grab a cab from the airport, but that is the only time you will take a taxi with four wheels. When you need to go back to the airport, your hotel will call the exact cab driver who took you there. More common during the stay is simply hopping on the back of a passing motorcycle and for less than a $1 US you can go anywhere on the island.  There were frequently families of three or four on a tiny motorbike. For those hesitating to get on a motorcycle with a stranger without a helmet, you can also rent scooters and drive yourself ($20 a day), or rent a souped up golf cart ($60 a day).

Wildlife is abundant. I was lucky to see the famous local black crabs crossing the road during a night walk. During the spring, the main road is closed here to allow the crab migration from the sea into the mountains. I also saw large lizards, spiders the size of my palm, lots of fish – including one that bit my finger, two turtles swimming, horses, and roosters roaming, and some malnourished cows (decided all seafood after that).  There were mosquitos, but the Ex Officio bugs away clothing kept them at bay at night.

There are no large developments here, by design. Even though part of Colombia, you go through a sort of migration, and non-residents cannot spend more than three months a year on the islands. Most hotels are small, and run by the Decameron chain that does inclusive packages. There is one “luxury” hotel on the island, the Deep Blue. I checked availability (for fun – I am unfortunately on a budget), and it wasn’t available when I was there. The rest of the island’s accommodations are basic at best. I considered my hotel “glamping.” No hot water or wifi, bugs galore, dogs barking and roosters howling through the night, and even rain in my room during the two day downpour. If I did it again, I’d find a room with a view of the ocean, but my place was fine for $65 given the location. It was a better value for a group given it had beds for three people. A basic breakfast (eggs, toast and coffee) was included. The other option is staying at a local house, a “Posada” and there are many around the island.

Colombia – you didn’t disappoint and set a high bar for starting the trip. Time to move on, headed to Quito, Ecuador to find SteveLeavesTug.com who is making his way there from Cali, and then onto the Galapagos, once we settle on a boat. Bucket list part of the trip set to commence! Better get on learning how to use my camera.

Goals completed in Providencia: Eat a meal with strangers, three new airlines involved in getting there and away (Viva Colombia, Satena, and Copa), and read three books.

See my Providencia y San Andres photo album here.
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Know if you go:

This isn’t a luxury beach vacation – go to Cabo for that. This is a rustic, remote, and fairly untouched slice of paradise. You can have an amazing, relaxing (albeit rustic) week for $500-700, inclusive of hotel. While it is hard to get to, that is what keeps it still light on tourists and without a beach hawker on the whole island. Go here to escape something.

Getting there: Flights fill up. I was going to need to take the catamaran one way due to not booking a flight on time, but was able to get something last minute the day before I intended to go. Don’t be me, book the flights in advance here.

Stay: Aside from the one fancy hotel, I recommend staying in Aguadulce, as there is where most the restaurants are and there is a good beach, and another two great beaches that are walkable. The other area with some activity is two miles down the road at Bahia Suroeste. I stayed at Cabinas Aguadulce (~$65 per night, sleeps three), but there were other small hotels on the beach. Note I got a 30% better rate on a Spanish language site (www.despegar.com) than US based sites. There was AC, but no hot water. Staff were helpful and can handle all activities on the island.

Nightlife: The only thing resembling nightlife is at Rolands Reggae Bar. It was hit or miss among the people I talked to and for groups of women, mostly a miss. I’d check it out during the day, but skip making the trip at night.

Eat: You will eat seafood, every day. There are probably 10 restaurants on the island, 9 of the 10 are seafood (the other is pizza, which provided a welcome respite by my final night). I didn’t make it to Caribbean Place, which was highly recommended. I did have an enormous lobster on the beach at El Divino Nino, and decent enough coffee and pie at Café Studio. The pizza at Blue Coral, while not out of this world, was good enough I don’t regret the night off of seafood. Even if you are not staying at Cabinas Aguadulce, I do recommend sunset happy hour (2 cocktails for 20,000; ~$7.50) on their perched terrace overlooking the ocean.

Safety: While the island is very safe, know that there isn’t a hospital (there is a clinic with essentially first aid) and there is no bariatric chamber if you choose to dive. Also, while there isn’t on island crime related to drug trafficking, more than 800 men from the island are in jails abroad or have disappeared related to work for traffickers because of their knowledge of the sea. More info.

Money: There are two ATMs in the main town, and more restaurants than expected take credit cards.

Know: There is little wifi here. There is 3G cell service. But as my hotel said “We don’t have Wifi – Talk to each other”

Do: Scuba or snorkel. Beach. Rent a scooter or souped up golf cart for a day and go around the island. Saturday means beach horse racing. I found out about it too late – but check it out on Bahia Suroeste.

More information: Washington Post article (2014).

San Andres: If you have a layover, the main town is walkable from the small airport. I enjoyed a real coffee at the outdoor Juan Valdez, followed by a leisurely lunch with AC and ice cold beers, along with beach views, at Beer Station – a Colombian chain.

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