A Stay in a Blue Marine Paradise – Providencia Island Tour
It’s sunset and the small plane is about to land on Providencia Island. We left San Andres, the largest island in the archipelago 20 minutes ago, and the view is simply stunning: a tiny island with big mountains, surrounded by the blue Caribbean sea. The beautiful shades of blue are too difficult to describe, so instead I’ll let the pictures of this speak for themselves.
Caribbean culture: reggae style
After passing through the airport control, where each one of the 16 passengers is registered in a book by hand, the most surprising thing is the language. Providencia is officially part of Colombia, but geographically speaking it is closer to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, all Spanish-speaking countries. However, despite its location, the native and most widely-spoken language in Providencia is not Spanish, but Creole English! That’s right, we had landed on an island paradise where all the locals (known as raizales) speak Creole English, and English, rather than Spanish.
As we found out later, reggae is the soundtrack in most restaurants, bars and beach huts, and the easy-going, relaxed Caribbean style is present everywhere. The love for life, music, beach, sea, the island – its laid back atmosphere will draw even the most uptight traveller into its vibe. A very different vibe to the days when it was used as a base for English pirates! However, some simmering cultural tensions still exist owing to the islanders’ insistence on retaining their Creole English, despite the Colombian government trying to impose Spanish onto the island.
In the past, I have written about examples of villages in the North East of Brazil where artisan fishermen work with tourism (Little Fishing Villages, Big Vision of Ecotourism in Brazil), allowing visitors to experience unspoiled, sandy beaches, while discovering more about local culture and traditions. We also work with artisan fishermen in the Pacific Coasts of Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica, where the approach and contexts are similar. Caribbean beaches however are a huge challenge for us: How to overcome the touristy side of it? How to offer authenticity to our travellers in a context where mass tourism (and its negative impacts) is the norm? Providencia Island might hold part of the answer.
Avoiding the crowds, regulating the volume
The next morning, Betito, our local and eccentric guide, was waiting for us at the pier. We jumped in the boat and were completely surrounded by the aquamarine sea – a striking way to start the Providencia Island tour. After a few minutes we arrived at Crab Cay, an islet surrounded by clear blue water, where we spent the whole morning snorkelling. The water surrounding the island is so transparent that you can easily explore the coral reefs and other untouched marine landscapes, as well as the curious, brightly coloured fish that inhabit it. You can also spot barracudas, crabs and starfish, and all this is experienced as if watching it through polished glass.
In total, there were about 10 travellers and 10 locals enjoying the sun and the sea. Nobody was trying to sell us fake Ray Ban sunglasses, or any other tacky touristy items that typically form part of a Caribbean experience. This was actually the most satisfying aspect of being in Providencia: on every beach, on every cay (which is a small sandy island on the surface of a coral reef), and in every bar, there were consistently more locals than tourists.
In fact, depending on the season, there are between two and four flights per day between Providencia and San Andres islands, each with up to 16 passengers. In 2010, a catamaran service was introduced about three times a week (the weekends), which can ferry up to 60 passengers to and from San Andres Island. These are the only two ways to get to the island.
They also have a government body known as the Control Office of Residence and Circulation (abbreviated OCCRE), which controls who can reside and build hotels on the island. “Even for a Colombian from the mainland, moving here is more difficult than migrating to Miami”, joked one of the locals when we were chatting by the beach. These strict controls have obviously prevented the big hotel chains, and the floods of tourists they attract, from overcrowding the island. Along with the strong sense of local ownership, this has created an effective defence mechanism against mass tourism.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”
Bob Marley’s Redemption Song was playing in the background when we returned to Crab Cay after snorkelling. Betito, who is a rasta man (obviously!), suggested we climb to the top of the islet. These are the moments that explain why we love travelling. When we reached the summit, the salty breeze was filling our lungs, the sun was bright and the striking shades of blue of the Caribbean Sea captivating. The silence and the calm, with Providencia Island in the background, completed the post card cliché. Trust me, even the pictures are not enough to explain the feeling of peace and solitude.
Back on the boat, we completed the Providencia Island tour, stopping by different beaches to have fresh sea food for lunch, swim in the sea or simply relax in the hammocks. After a visit to Santa Catalina Island, we were lucky enough to witness a horse race on one of the beaches!
Back in San Andres we could immediately tell the difference. Although tourist volumes and growth are also regulated on this island, it has more of the air of a touristy Caribbean island, with lots of hotels, motorcycles and crowds around, and the noisy bustling that goes with it. Other tourist traps such as the Morgan’s Cave and the Hoyo Soplador are also to be avoided if your aim is for an authentic travel experience.
Providencia might not be the solution to overcrowded and touristy Caribbean beaches, but it definitely has some emancipation lessons to share with the rest of the Caribbean islands.
The next couple of blog posts will be about rural tourism in Argentina. After the sun and the gorgeous Caribbean beaches, we’ll bring some green and the fresh air of the mountains. Stay tuned!