The island where time slows down - Old Providence, Colombia
The seventh time I threw up I began to think that no destination could possibly be worth the journey. We were one hour into a three hour catamaran journey between islands in the Caribbean. The captain had already turned back once to allow a passenger, panicked by the rough sea, to disembark. A few others went with her and I was wondering if they had made the right decision. That was until we arrived on the quay of Old Providence.
Old Providence and her tiny sister island Santa Catalina, joined by a floating bridge, belong to Colombia but are geographically nearer Nicaragua. They have been the subject of political wrangles for as long as they have been occupied. Today islanders campaign vigorously to become an autonomous region.
The islands are steeped in legends of pirates and hidden treasure. Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan apparently hid his treasure on Santa Catalina. Today there is a new and lucrative kind of treasure smuggled by modern day pirates - drugs, which partly accounts for a very visible police and army presence on the islands. Bored teenagers from Bogota on military service awkwardly hang around watching Rastas drink rum and coke in beach bars. These teenagers are divided by lifestyle but also by language as most of the islanders prefer to speak an English Creole rather than Colombian Spanish.
You can understand why city boys miss the noise and activity of Bogota. There is not very much to do on Old Providence. The locals strongly object to mass tourism and cite tourist trap and tax free haven, San Andrés as an example of how they don’t want their island to develop. Consequently, the pleasures are limited but in my view all the more delectable.
The island is surrounded by tiny beaches, mostly empty but some with a beach bar, dive school or café. After a failed attempt to use probably the slowest internet café in the world in Santa Isabel, the main town on Old Providence, we abandoned ourselves to lounging in hammocks. One day we hired kayaks and paddled out to visit Crab Cay a small picture perfect desert island a few hundred metres off shore. Other days were spent diving or riding mopeds around the island to explore new beaches.
There is one bus that does laps of the island playing loud music and delivering kids to school but the best way to get around is by hitchhiking. The small number of private cars and motorbikes mean that every one is a part-time taxi. It is a great way to meet the locals as long as you don’t mind your trip to the beach being delayed by picking up some crabs on the way – and why would you?
The seafood, as you would expect, is excellent. And there are some surprisingly sophisticated places to eat. Il Postino in San Felipe serves delicious Italian food in peak season and Café Studio between South West Bay and Freshwater Bay does interesting twists on the local cuisine. The most famous local dish is ‘run down’ which involves seafood and coconut milk and anything else people have in their kitchens. Food is usually enjoyed outside on the veranda of the traditional wooden houses – all the better to greet your neighbours when you see them wander past.
For a couple of months a year a section of the island’s only ring road is closed for crab migration. This sums up the attitude on the island – the natural world is as important as the man-made one and who cares if you have to go the long way around. If you are constantly in a hurry Old Providence isn’t for you.
- We flew from Cartagena, Colombia to San Andrés with Avianca and then took the boat to Old Providence. It is less vomit inducing, but more expensive, to fly with Satena from San Andrés to Old Providence. Boat tickets are available from the dock in San Andrés Town, it is best to buy them the day before.
- We stayed in South West Bay Cabanas at South West Bay and I also recommend Posada CocoBay at Maracaibo Bay.
Lynn Morris is Director of Atlantic Rising.