Providence Island and Its Seven-Colored Sea

It’s not easy to get to Providence Island, but after experiencing what it has to offer, it’s even harder to leave.

Providence is the smaller of Colombia’s two sublime islands off the coast of Nicaragua. The trip there requires a boat or plane ride from Providence’s larger island cousin, San Andrés. But this isolation that has helped preserve Providence’s near-virgin beauty.

The island is volcano-born and surrounded by the third largest barrier reef in the world. Its verdant peaks, “seven-color” sea, isolated beaches, and delicious fresh seafood make it worth the trip.

(As a plus, both San Andrés and Providence host native English speakers, so it’s an easy trip to navigate!)

A unique history adds to Providence’s appeal. A succession of Puritan, buccaneer, Spanish, and Latin American settlers have left vibrant marks. Currently 5,000 native inhabitants live exclusively in barrios off the single paved road circling the island and make their living mostly from fishing and tourism. Few extranjeros live on the island due to the rule that no non-native islander may stay for longer than six months at a single time—their high-perched homes are the few to be seen dotting the mountainsides.

Islanders speak a mixture of English, Spanish, and an Old-English-and-African-derived Creole. Although the music is laid back with Caribbean beats, the traditional dances retain Renaissance-style steps. English-style wood-plank houses are the norm, and flour dumplings bob beside crab in tasty coconut milk-based stews.

Meanwhile, Providence hosts an incredible variety of wildlife. Besides the recent disputes over maritime-rights treaties, Providence occasionally makes international news for its incredible, edible, mountain-dwelling black crabs.  The army sets up roadblocks each year for the crabs’ migration. The crabs reach the size of dinner plates and in reality range from a blushing mauve and sky blue to a near-black purple. While a bit nightmarish viewed skittering through the woods, they’re delicious in stews, soups, cakes, and as filling for empanadas sold all over the island.

If crabs aren’t your thing, there’s no shortage of other wildlife; large iguanas and electric blue lizards dart over rocks, and herons sway on stalk-like legs in the mangroves. Up-close sightings are easy and startlingly lovely.

small peak It’s easy to cover the geographical span of Providence in a short amount of time. But it is worth it to linger. Away from reliable internet, traffic, or anything resembling a hurry, Providence Island offers far more than just a beautiful escape. Hike the mountainous slopes to reach world-class views or dance the night away to mandolin and horse-jaw-rasp accented music. Local islanders open their homes to visitors and are happy to share their heritage and culture.

The words of a traditional island song perhaps phrase anyone’s parting mantra best: Take me back to Old Providence/ To the waves and the coral reefs/Back to be where the sun shines bright/where the sea changes colors day and night. Humble despite its beauty, Providence Island offers something for everyone.

 

 To-Do on Providence:

  • Snorkel or Scuba Dive: Many local companies offer guided trips to the barrier reef or nearby cays to snorkel or scuba dive in the crystal waters.  Meanwhile, the ocean water is so clear that simply opening one’s eyes underwater lends an easy view to the sea life below. Book your trips on the island
  • Hiking: Head up the 15 kilometer ascent to Peak, the tallest of the volcano-born slopes for 360 degree views or find new paths. Hire a local guide for the trek to learn local flora and fauna
  • Beaches: Beaches, located off the main road, are small but mostly empty. Southwest Beach is the largest, but “Manchaneel” (Manzanillo) Beach boasts bars and late-night traditional music concerts. Swimming is safe everywhere; the water is calm and clear due to the barrier reef. Beach restaurants are pricey but offer a wide variety of delicious, fresh-caught sea life. Locals race horses on Southwest Beach on Saturday mornings.
  • Santa Catalina: This small island is connected to Old Providence by a small bridge called “Lovers Lane.” Walk the twenty minute wooded path to Morgan’s Head to see where Captain Morgan hid his treasure and enjoy amazing ocean views.
  • Old Providence: Spend some time wandering the small downtown to talk to locals in English or Spanish and take in the sound of Creole. One or two shops offer (unreliable) internet, and Rincon de Delicias is a great place to sample “crab toes” or RonDon–a local stew (ask to see what they’re offering that day). At night, fish and manta rays glide by the dock, lit by the streetlights.
  • MacBean’s Lagoon: A national park, the lagoon offers a long path through the mangrove trees. A guide is required to trek through. Most of the park’s 10 hectors, however, is protected water.
  • Circumnavigate the island: the island’s one paved road is 17 kilometers long. Pause for homemade ice cream, craft shops, and peaceful views of grazing cow herds or crystal waters. The whole road is walkable in 3 hours, or hire a golfcart for  about 12 dollars an hour. And if you get tired, artisan benches are never far away to rest your weary feet!

 

Where to Stay:

  • Posada Nativas: Try a posada nativa for an authentic experience. These are family homes run as a bed-and-breakfast. Prices tend to range from fifteen to thirty dollars a night. The quality varies, but established ones keep taxi drivers informed—ask the taxi driver contingent at the airport exit and they will be happy to bring you to their sponsor – specify English-speakers if this is a necessity.
  •  Decameron Resorts: A few posadas and traditional hotels are affiliated with Decameron resorts – a Latin American resort chain. These are all-inclusive and seaside located. Some islanders find them controversial in terms of taking away business from locals. Make reservations here: http://www.decameron.co/promosite/index.php/en/

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