Providencia – a Hidden Treasure
Published 14 years ago, updated 5 years ago
Australia 31, our 43 ft ketch, had been waiting for us in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, for eight months and was itching for a sail. We headed out to sea with the promise of a favourable forecast. All sails set Sailing south to Honduras, we moved rapidly along through the water but the Gulf Stream current held us back. Progress was far too slow so we tacked for Cuba. After a few hours, this too seemed futile as we were being pushed north by the current so back to the south again. For five days we repeated this process, sometimes once a day, often many times and made only 300 miles away from Isla Mujeres.
Decision time. Cuba was appealing but now was too far away and Honduras, if we made it, was a long way to the west and we intended to pass the Panama Canal. So we headed through the banks towards Providencia. The wind god agreed and we made 300 miles in two days sighting the spectacular green peaks of Providencia on our horizon as we bowled along.
Arriving in Providencia
Cutting inside the lead light we sailed between the reds and greens (USA system red right return not like most of the world which is opposite). The folk from NW Carribean net who took our position twice a day and gave us weather (6209 frequency at 1400 Zulu) told us to go carefully between the beacons as reef abounds.
Dropping all sail, we motored into 9ft of water and the anchor bit. We were deep in a bay protected from all but a westerly. All around us was the green of the jagged hills with the scattered houses and churches (dozens) near the shore, an appealing sight after a week of bobbing about. Joined by a 500-metre decrepit bridge at the head of the bay on our west side was Catalina Island with a long paved walk along its shore and, again, scattered very colourful houses.
Cold beer in one hand, binoculars in the other, we absorbed the grand sight. “This gives me a good feeling, we will be here for a while,” Yvonne said and I murmured agreement.
I found a Columbian flag and the yellow quarantine and hoisted them, better late than never, and we showered and slept.
Next morning we headed for the wharf and found a dock to tie the dinghy. The friendly people of Providencia greeted us. People called to us, “good morning,” and there were many “all rights.” English was everywhere to my joy. (ten years cruising in Spanish speaking countries and still no Spanish). To a person, Providencians tell us how lucky they are to be there and how they love their Island and will never leave. This is unique to Providencia as inhabitants wherever we sail talk about greener grasses somewhere else. “Do not lock you dinghy everything is safe here,” one cried. More “All rights” flowed as we surveyed our surroundings.
Xmas was coming in 14 days and the decorative lights for the square we landed on were almost ready. For a week, a group of men with a larger group of advisers had been trying to get power to the maze of wires stretching around the square.
Work ceased as our desires of clearing customs and immigration were discussed. “Mr Bush was the man we had to see”, the immigration officer told us (he was helping with the lights).
We wandered along turning left up a hill passing three supermarkets with the possibility of fresh produce. Finally finding Mr Bush (everyone wanted to help and some had no idea where Mr Bush lived but as usual, in the third world, gave imaginary directions). A tall quiet gentleman, Mr Bush, bade us sit in rocking chairs on his upstairs balcony where we enjoyed the colour of Providencia passing in the street below. Brilliantly clothed people from coal black to Lilly white and every shade between, drove myriads of motorcycles. There is only 17 km of a road around the island but it seemed everyone had a motorcycle and a cell phone into which they shouted as they drove by.
Mr Bush appeared with the portmaster and we sat around filling out forms. Next, we walked with Mr Bush to immigration and as we approached the immigration man left the mess of the lights and we sat in his office. One minute later, he was telling us we could collect our passports later that afternoon. Mr Bush was a wealth of knowledge and included in his fee of US$100 was information unlimited on a daily basis if necessary. Where to buy this where to fix that.
The passports were another story – after three days Yvonne asked what the problem was. Shrugging his shoulders the little man told her the stamp for the passports is issued to a person and that person is on holidays but he may be back soon and we will get our passports returned then.
Things to do on Providencia
The enthusiastic tourist office personnel were also a great help as to where to go and what to do. There are many walks on the island and we crossed the bridge, which is floating in parts and has steps in the middle to allow a rise for fishing dinghies to pass under. Catalina was spotlessly clean as was Providencia and we began along the shore on the paved concrete walkway. At each house, we were questioned as to where we came from and details of our family and, most importantly how we liked their island. Again, everyone told us how they adored their islands and we could see many reasons for this. One old man told us he had not crossed the bridge from Catalina to Providencia for eleven years, as it was too busy over there.
At the end of the walkway, we climbed hundreds of steps over a hill on which is situated a fort with a couple of canons to prove the point then down an equal number of steps along a dirt trail with rich green jungle growth alternating with tiny beaches. A half hour later, we were at a large rock shaped like a head, Morgan’s head. Named after Morgan the pirate, who used Providencia as a base and is revered. On Providencia above the Catholic Church is a hill with a deep crevice at its summit which the locals call Morgan’s arse.
Around the point were lush coconut tree covered beaches and later we explored all of these in the dinghy. Coconut trees by the thousands clung precariously to stony cliffs that swept down to tiny beaches. Caves abounded some with bat colonies – one was called Morgan’s cave naturally.
Tourism only attracts 14,000 persons annually, mainly from Columbia, the island needs more tourists. There are pleasant hotels and resorts. Diving is popular as are the tranquil walks. The governing body of Providencia is strict on foreigners, even Columbian nationals, and six months is all you can stay on the island even if you own a house. This has kept the population at a reasonable 4,000. Too many islands such as San Andreas and have allowed unlimited immigration overtaxing resources with sad results.
Climbing the Highest Peak
One morning at 0600 we dinghied to the wharf where two motorcycles awaited us. We were to climb the highest peak on the island with a guide who, thankfully, would carry our pack of water and lunch.
With the fresh island air on our faces, we sped halfway around the island to Bottom Hill. People walking on the narrow road waved at us and we passed many brightly painted houses. The Islanders love colour on clothes, vehicles, and houses.
Bottom hill is where the blacks live we were told by a coal black attractive lass. Do you live there I asked. “I am not a black” she replied haughtily. Racism does not exist amongst the people of Providencia and all get along well. The Police and other public servants are from Columbia itself, speak no English, and seem left out of the bubbling community spirit.
Arriving at the trail, we took up our walking sticks and followed our guide who pointed out birds and points of interest. The climb along the dry creek bed surrounded by semi-tropical jungle was arduous and we rested often. After 2 hours we came to sunlight and palm trees as we walked on. The trail steepened and we puffed on for another hour. It was a thrill to be at the top, the view all around was spectacular. The crisp white line of the surf indicated the reef edge of the coral reefs that encase Providencia. Beyond it was the blue-black ocean and inside the multicoloured blues, greens and browns of shallow reef. Below us to the North West was the bay between the two islands and this view was enhanced by our sailboat. Lunch was a pleasure with this vista below.
The descent took only an hour but without our sticks to balance us, it too would have been difficult.
The motorbikes continued around the island to get back to the dinghy and we passed many delightful beaches at high speed.
Dinghying to a few places we found fine snorkelling around the islands.
Provisioning and Services
We found if you see fresh fruit or vegetables in a “supermarket” or stall, buy it then as it may not be there an hour later and then unavailable for a week. It was explained the population is from Pirate and fishing stock and vegetables and fruit are not grown commercially apart from own use but this will happen one day. Everything comes from San Andreas, an Island every Providencian told us was dangerous and definitely undesirable.
They made great wholemeal bread on the island but after four days of it being “sold out” I asked what time I should call at the shop to buy it. I was told that “we have no wholemeal flour until next year”. Things run out on the island. This is the first Xmas they had propane for sale the filler told me.
Every job took a day. We went to get propane but our new USA bottle, with all the safety precautions that USA citizens need, could not be filled with the equipment on the island. I asked to change the tap and it was done and the bottle filled.
We spent hours talking to people learning about the island while we waited ― another day gone but enjoyed.
Mr Bush advised who to go to rethread a stay lock fitting. “If he cannot do it then it cannot be done on the island,” he told me grimly. In 20 minutes, it was done (albeit with different threads) and our mast will not fall. “Buy me a soda” was the cost. Surely, this is the way the world should be?
It is good the peacefulness and ambience of Providencia are being guarded by the people. They are determined their treasure will not be overrun by settlers and the land will be protected from developers. Accordingly, I believe Providencia will remain as it is and not develop in the heartbreaking way many other one-time island treasures have. Go visit.
Bernie and Yvonne Katchor