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Even the trees make you lazy in Providencia, Colombia. Photos by Mark Robertson.
Even the trees make you lazy in Providencia, Colombia. photos by Mark Robertson.

Providencia, Colombia:

A Guide for “Making Lazy” on the Caribbean Coast



Colombia is a land of beautiful and tragic ironies. They alleviate some of the tragedy with jokes like the following:

When God created the world, He was instructing the archangels to distribute things. Soon the archangels began to question God's decisions. "Divine Master,” they said, are you sure you want to give Colombia two ocean coasts, the Pacific and Caribbean."

"Yes, I'm sure," He answered resolutely.

"Are you sure you want to give Colombia three major mountain ranges?” “Yes, I'm sure,” He continued.

"Are you sure you want to give so many species of birds, emeralds, so many natural resources to just one country!?" they pleaded. "Yes, I'm sure,” God replied again, this time with a wry smile on His face.

"But is that fair to the rest of the world?" protested the archangels… "Just do it!" God said, "and as far as being fair, just wait to see the politicians I'm going to give them!"

Long before God gave Colombia calamity, cartels, and 100 years of war, the Almighty, set a chain of archipelagos far away from Colombia but would be given to Colombia via a strange twist of historical fate. Specifically the archipelago of San Andres and Providencia 220km (137 mi) east of Central America and 775 km (442) north of Colombia. Perhaps the angels were right: God has been a little unfair to Colombia anyway (albeit their soccer team never seems to catch a major break).

Providencia, the smaller of the two and the focus of this piece, is often overlooked. It is adjacent to San Andres, which has flashier hotels and duty free booty, but is also more hectic and has a little less of the far-flung charm of its northern neighbor.

Locals are dark-skinned descendants of African slaves.
Locals are dark-skinned descendants of African slaves.

Vacationers looking for sun worship, open bars (that even offer free cigarettes), and crystalline, seven-colored-sea views, have no intention to island hop. In fact local and foreign travelers—most of whom are Canadian—often overlook the smaller isle: why pay another $250 in round trip airfare to see another, more rustic rock in the Caribbean.

Providencia often remains the ignored little sister. But, as I’ll humbly contend, the little sister can often be less spoiled and more beautiful.

Because the only major airport in the area is in San Andres, the traveler will have a chance to see the beauties and the vagaries of the island. The most intriguing and comfortable hotel is the Acuario, which rests on the tide line like stacked captains’ wheels. As of 2000, both have been named the UNSECO Seaflower Biosphere Reserve. Like many other more nomadic travelers, I was drawn to Providencia.

While not quite as nice, the hotels, hostels, and posadas are all nice, comfortable, no-frills places to mend tired shoestrings, bask in the sand and order a medicinal coco loco.

Disclaimer: there is not a great deal to do on the 22 by 2 kilometer isleta. Unlike Púcon, Chile or Buenos Aires there is little pressure to do, do, do. In fact, the locals have a nigh religious devotion to “hacer pereza” (literally, “to make lazy”). They are not necessarily lazy people; they simply know how to hit the pause button.

Starfish are plentiful....but don't take them with you!
Starfish are plentiful....but don't take them with you!

On the island, there is so much to breathe in (starting with pure air): “the seven-colored waters,” the dry tropical landscape, the soft eastern breezes—and the lilting quality of the local’s patua language (a mix of English, Spanish and French creole).

Even a fairly relaxed Sourthern Californian—as I prefer to imagine myself—has great trouble learning how to make a good lazy. I had to ascribe to myself a daily mantra: “Today I do not have… to do… a thing. I do not have… to do (exhale) a thing.”

I, like the author of a popular memoir about travel, feel my brain is filled with trees of monkeys throwing bananas at each other. Yet soon, even I was intoxicated (for another word on island intoxication, see the sidebars), by simply “being there.” No one except the deep divers feels guilty indulging in a little refreshing ennui.

One morning on the Bahía Agua Dulce I built a sandcastle for two hours, making dribbled orcs and castles. I was actually just making some great lazy.

A prehistoric-looking moving gargoyle at the Providencia cemetery
A prehistoric-looking moving gargoyle at the Providencia cemetery

Places to Make Lazy

The island has five main places to eat and stay: Pueblo Viejo (Santa Isabela), Bahía Agua Dulce, Bahía Sur Oeste, and Bahía Manzanillo.

Pueblo Viejo, originally on Santa Isabela, is the easy-going center of town. There are a couple of comfortable places to stay, some cafes, government buildings, and markets, but even the most bustling part of the island is quiet.

Panaderia Seaflower is a great little café that boasts an impressive trilingual library, a book enchange, and an assortment of locally-made sundresses, belts, and jewelry. The proprietor offers light food, pastries, and great iced coffee from the Colombian mainland.

From Old Town you can take a 200m walking bridge to Isla Santa Catalina, which offers stunning views of Providencia, and, if you choose to take a 2km eco-hike on the western side you will encounter such oddities such as “Captain Morgain’s meditation rock,” a painting of the 18th century trade route, and enigmatic placards with statements such as “we dare you.”

There are also indimidating, dinosaurian iguanas who know they’re cool. Maybe it was this thirsty hiker’s imagination, but they seemed to glance at me sidelong with scaly eyes, then swagger off to their deeper haunts.

Swinging on a tree in Providencia.
Swinging on a tree in Providencia.

Bahía Agua Dulce has the largest cluster of hotels and restaurants; it also has an arts and crafts store, a great Caribbean restaurant and a small market.

The other hotels include the swashbuckling Agua Dulce, the hushed and comfortable Posada del Mar, and the equally comfortable El Recreo, Miss Mary, and Hotel Relax. Arts and Crafts is run by the self-proclaimed “El Frenchie”; aside from the café, book exchanges, and artisan work are homemade “paletas” (natural popsicles) with exotic fruits like the tamarind.

Set in a small dusty neighborhood 2km south of Agua Dulce lies Bahía Sur Oeste with a road leading to Cabañas Miss Mary’s simple, a charmingly unadorned posada, with one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve yet to see. A meal at the restaurant includes coconut rice, shrimp, and caracol (sea snail).

The beach in front is a blanket of silky white. My friend and I had a surreal moment watching crabs scuttle along a blanket of white, sipping on an Old Milwaukee beer on Old Providencia. I have no idea what kind of trade winds brought 80s blue-collar brews to remote, highly undiscovered islands—just a perfect moment of the irony and grace that glimmers more often when you leave the gringo trail.

Sunrise on Providencia.
Sunrise on Providencia.

We were also told that on weekend short, impassioned horse races take place on the kilometer stretch of beach in front of the cabañas.

Finally, the last stop on a boat tour of the island is Bahía Manzanillo on the southern tip of the isle. The unofficial king of Manzanillo beach is Ronaldo, a local politician and the proprietor Roland’s Roots Bar.

Seafood and cocktails are served on rowboats converted into tables, boat-net hammocks garnished with the offbeat echo of reggae, less than 600km southwest of Jamaica, though just as at home downstream on this emerald island of peaceful, offbeat vibes.

To note: in 2009 the Colombian islands and Jamaica signed a “brotherhood agreement” that affirms its common ties and ancestry, so Ronaldo’s does show that Reggae’s positivity still has political unction in the post-Bob Marley world.

Chicas enjoy the warm waters.
Chicas enjoy the warm waters.

A final tip for the non-diver

Boats can be arranged at most of the hotels through Decameron or independent companies. A three-hour jaunt about the island, with short intervals of history and local biology, as well as a short lunch, and an hour at the crystalline Crab Cay, make it a half day worth putting any lazy making. We see the island as a whole, including the stunning barrier reef which is the world’s third largest, behind Oz and Belize.

Getting there:

The best way to get to the islands is to travel to Bogotá or Medellín. After several days of the Colombian metropolitan binge, the traveler can book a short comfortable flight via Avianca to San Andres (with continuing service to Providencia via Satena).
     
Avianca
is Colombia´s main domestic carrier. It offers daily flights from Bogotá and Medellín to San Andres.

Satena was created in 1962 to connect a number of smaller locations in Colombia and adjacent cities in Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador. There is a flight to San Andres in the morning, and another flight from Providencia in the evening

Decameron: For those who are tired of mending shoestrings while taking overnight buses, Decameron offers excellent no-frills all inclusive packages. These include airfare, lodging, and three daily meals. There are a number of hotels, hostels, and posadas affiliated with Decameron and you can eat at any of them.

Sunsets are always dramatic.
Sunsets are always dramatic here.

Moreover, since all are oceanside, or near enough, you  can play Goldilocks and look for the beach that is “just right.” The traveler can decide to spend a few nights at the fascinating Hotel Acuario, then opt to fly, via Satena, to Providencia for the second half of the trip.

If you prefer to book your own flights and lodging, you can browse a site like Old Providence and book your own hotel. I recommend Hotel Posada, for its simplicity and proximity to the other hotels; my second choice would be Miss Elma´s, for its beachfront charm, meals of coco rice con carocol (sea snail), and the unexpected Old Milwaukee beer.

Some basic shopping can be done at Captain Morgan’s, which also offers unaffiliated beachfront lodging.

The “best place to eat” according to locals and travelers is the Caribbean Place (for foreigners), known as “Donde Martín” to the locals.

I´d call the ambience “scallywag chic,” and the food delicious. My favorite part of my meal at Donde Martín was the poetic if grammatically suspect English menu. The “Place” is located across the street from Hotel Posada.

 
Mark Robertson.




Mark Robertson
is an international educator, transferring from the coffee axis in Colombia to Brasilia, Brazil. He teaches high school English and Journalism and loves Latin America, traveling, and trying to capture the ironies, beauties and colors on the blog he keeps with his wife. Click the photo to read their blog.

 

 

 

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