Providencia is a small Volcanic island in the Caribbean Sea, North of San Andrés and near Nicaragua. It is part of Colombia. Also known as Old Providence, The island has a population of about 5000 people and an area of 17 square kilometers. It’s possible to drive around the entire island in less than one hour in a golf cart buggy, or on a scooter. The island is not very easy to reach and as a result is still unspoiled by mass tourism. There are no large hotels or resorts and almost no consumer items to purchase. The island consists mostly on concrete roads, jungle covered hills and rocky coast line with a few small beaches.
Providencia consists of the main island and a smaller island called Santa Catalina. Apparently they were connected a few hundred years ago, but the infamous pirate “Morgan” had a canal dug between them for a rapid escape route and to facilitate ambushes on unsuspecting ships that happened to be unfortunate enough to pass by. The two Islands are connected by a long wooden bridge ad the scenery is stunning! On The highlight of Santa Catalina is Morgan’s head, a large rock formation said to be the face of Pirate Morgan with a stunning view over a beautiful tropical bay flanked by jagged cliffs and green jungle. On the way here you will pass the ruins of Fort Warwick and and a small beach called Fort Beach. Fort beach is a great place to hung out, there is a friendly local man here selling coconut cocktails and offering tips on the area. Like all the locals we met on Providencia, he was genuinely friendly and not just after a quick buck. He recommended a great snorkeling spot nearby and his wife even cooked me a plate of food for lunch right there at the beach. I also saw a huge Iguana lizard climbing a tree on the trail here and there are many other beautiful lizards around. The island is famous for it’s great diving and stunning aqua blue waters and is not very developed at all. Most of the island is covered in in lush jungle and steep hills, with the houses scattered around on the flat lands.
The people on Providencia are true old school Caribbean people of African decent and they speak Caribbean English, Creole English and Spanish. It was really interesting to see how they have retained some of the african sounds in their language after all these years and miles of separation. They are generally friendly and relaxed and a favorite expression is “you go right ahead”. One thing I loved about this island was the generally non commercial feel, people are happy to let you pay later for things if you don’t have the money and often charge you less than they probably could. On the weekend evenings a local band played at the main square by the general store in Fresh Water Bay. The instruments included Mandolin, Wash tub bass and a Giro/shaker made from a horses Jaw bone. This is a traditional instrument from the area apparently. Another amazing thing about the island is how everything from tires to wine bottles gets recycled into funky decoration around the streets and restaurants.
The diving on Providencia was pretty good and it is famous for it’s Caribbean reef sharks, and we got to see many of them. They are not intimidating at all and really nothing to worry about and add an exciting touch to the diving around the island. The shallower reefs were beautiful with gorgeous coral and loads of fish and there is a nice wreck dive on an old barge and a cool underwater Jesus statue. There are three main dive operators on the island and we chose to dive with Sonny Divers as they had the best safety practices and don’t feed the sharks. It’s important to keep in mind that there is no access to a decompression chamber on the island, it would be logistically difficult to get to one in an emergency and the depths here are deep so it’s best to be conservative. We generally stuck to depths of 25 meters and never went below 28 meters. Sonny divers were took good care of the less experienced divers and were conservative with their safety practices which made me feel more secure. The conditions were quite harsh while we were on Providencia, with some of the strongest surface currents I’ve ever experienced on the final day. After about four days the weather got worse and worse until all diving was cancelled for the last few days. Luckily we had already got to do the diving we wanted to do. The visibility was never less than 20 meters during our stay and the guys from the shop told us this is considered very bad for the area, with 40 – 50 meters being quite common. On the last day we dived in the McBean lagoon area in front of Morgans Head. The water here has incredible color’s because it’s shallow and has a lot sand banks, although I found the coral here to be worse condition than dive sites at the back of the island. I think this might be as a result of boat traffic and anchor drops over the years. Unfortunately we didn’t get to visit Crab Key due to the weather. You can rent Kayaks here on the road below town, I think the Turn off Sign says “Mar Caribe” or something and you can easily rent kayaks along the road here. There are also small boat operators who will offer to take you. I’m not sure if there is some kind of reserve at the McBean Lagoon, we tried to visit it from the road, but the place seemed abandoned and run down and had a pack of aggressive wild dogs living in the bushes that approached us as soon as we entered, so we left got out of there fast and never came back.
The two main places to stay on Providencia are Freshwater Bay and the Port area. Fresh water is more touristic, with lots of hotels and restaurants and a more tranquil atmosphere. It’s also near all of the dive operators, but there is only one general store and it’s expensive with not much selection for groceries. The port has a some actual supermarkets and is more local, but there are less restaurants here and it’s far from most of the tourist sites and beaches, although it is very close to Santa Catalina, which is really beautiful. We first stayed in a Decameron mini resort in Freshwater Bay , which looked great, but didn’t have hot water, tv or internet and when we got stuck we stayed at the rundown hotel right there,( Posada Leila I think?) where we got a big room with an electric shower head (hot water!) and had a big modern HDMI TV and the best internet on the island, really cheap too($25?)! You won’t find white sandy beaches on Providencia, the sand here is mostly a golden color with a slight grey tinge. For White coral sands you will have to go to San Andrés, but the beaches and coastline of Providencia still have a powerful, rugged sort of beauty and the sunsets are spectacular.
South West Bay is the longest beach on the island and has a lot of great seafood restaurants right on the sand where you can get a huge double seafood platter for very cheap, like $12-00 USD or something at the restaurant called “Devino Nino”with the small Mother Mary statue in front. This is a great place to hangout and have lunch after diving and go for a swim and a walk on the sand. The food on Providencia consists manly of fish and rice and they don’t seem to have much in the way of vegetables, just tomato, carrot and bread fruit.The fish is fresh and delicious and there are also usually pork and chicken options available too, but all we ate was fish! We met two friendly Swedish cocktail divers, Tony and Thomas, who were doing their PADI advanced with Sonny Dive shop. Tony had visited the island before and took us to the best restaurant on the island, “Caribbean Place”. You have to make a booking if you are going to eat here , but “Mr Tony” as he is known around the island had a table waiting for us. The food here is of a more gourmet standard and there was evening some light live electro jazz show featuring a performer with a saxophone and a laptop computer. Tony had told Thomas all about the Black crab and Lion fish dishes, but there was a shortage of both while we were there due to the sea conditions and season. in the words of Thomas, “I heard all about the black crab and lion fish, but everywhere we go they are telling us there is no crab and no lion fish!”., you had to be there….
One of the other attractions is the highest point on the island, a rocky hill top called the peak which goes up to about 350 meters. It takes a lot longer than you would think to get up here, I’m not really sure why, the trail winds a lot, goes up and down and can be insanely slippery and muddy after rain, which we found out the hard way. You can get a stunning panoramic view of the whole island from up here, but be sure to time it so you to summit this hill as we were a bit late on the first day. The Peak trail is located near South west Bay.One option to arrive on Providencia is to take the catamaran from San Andrés, however I would advise you DO NOT take the catamaran. It often does not run due to weather, as it needs a relatively flat sea to keep the propeller firmly planted in the water. I think they said it can’t run in swells bigger than three meters and believe me, with the Caribbean winds it does not take much to stop it from running. When this happens people end up trapped on the island, desperately paying top dollar for a charter plane or missing there flights home. This is exactly what happened while we were there and I have never seen such mass desperation to get out of a place as I saw then. Luckily we left a few extra days before our flight, so we just made it out in time. The bottom line is pay the little bit extra and fly, unless you don’t mind being stuck for an extra week which is exactly what happened to us.
We visited the island in early January, which is supposed to be the “winter”, although I still have not been able to figure out which season is which here. It rained a lot and was very windy, which people said was quite unusual because January is supposed to have some of the best weather. I would advise a stay of 5 to 6 days on Providencia, more than enough time to see everything. We ended up here for over 10 days due the weather and it started to feel small, and without diving you start to visit the same spots over and over. Tony told me he had better luck with the weather and diving conditions in when he visited in May.
Providencia is a great place to visit if you are looking for something different and willing to expend a bit more time and energy to arrive somewhere special. It also seems to attract a more down to earth, adventurous type of traveller. If you are looking an undiscovered paradise with great diving and friendly locals, I can highly recommend Providencia. It’s a real gem and a true caribbean paradise.