Not what you would think of Colombia being like. An island with zero stress, but is that too little for some people?
Michael: We sat in the first row of seats behind the pilot and co-pilot as the twin engine plane left San Andres, Colombia. Beautiful blue Caribbean Ocean passed under us for 40 minutes. Then the view through the pilot’s window was like something out of movie. Lush green foliage pressed against the sides of a short landing strip that ended with a mountain rising. The control tower exists as the only visible building on the end of the island. My mind imagined Ricardo Montalban waiting to greet us in his white suite and a small guy named Tattoo shouting, “The plane, the plane.”
Graciela: Fantasy Island played on Colombian TV, but the only thing I saw was the possibility of a breeze. It was like a sauna inside the plane.
Providencia Island, also referred to as Old Providencia, is owned by Colombia though it is actually closer to Panama in the Caribbean Ocean. Only 13 square miles, the island is part of the Archipelago de San Andres which encompasses over 96,000 square miles. Attached to it by a floating bridge is Santa Catalina Island which is only one square mile in size.
Michael: The one story wooden airport building appeared slightly up a hill to the side of a runway. Palm trees lined the walkway to it. Some passengers started fanning themselves with whatever they had in their hand. A check-in counter to the island with two ladies behind it became the first stop. I left my wife to that duty as she is much better dealing with people than I am. My attention turned to the number of people who just could not keep from taking photos of the beauty surrounding us. I watched as an ATV pulling a trailer parked along side the plane for removal of luggage. It then drove to an opening in the wall beside the counter my wife was at and pushed everyone’s bags through to a bench inside.
Graciela : Average year round temperature in Providencia is 25 degrees (77 degrees Fahrenheit). It very rarely gets that warm where we live in Bogotá, and where we had left just a few hours earlier.
There are two reasons for taking our information when we landed. The first is for promotion of tourism. The second is to make sure all visitors comply with the law. To keep the island from being overpopulated and to protect the eco system, visitors can only have a maximum stay of four months per year. This even includes Colombians who were not permanent residents of the island in 1991 when the law was made.
Michael: As a comparison for Michiganders, Providencia is about three times the size of Mackinac Island. Like our famous Michigan place, it is mostly protected forest. However unlike Mackinac there is no blatant display of tourist places. And there is far from being the swell of people on the island at certain times of the year.
After picking up our luggage from the bench we had to place it on a table where two police officers inspected it for contraband. Once cleared, Jennifer from Decameron got us to the waiting transportation to take us to the hotel. Like 70% of those who live on the island, she speaks English.
We engaged the driver in conversation. While he is a permanent resident of the island, his mother is retired from General Motors and lives in Flint, Michigan. Small world. But no way would he go to live with her. He told us, “Life on the island has zero stress.”
Graciela: Decameron is a Colombian company who operates vacation hotels in seven Latin American countries. Many are all inclusive places; however the ones on Providencia are not. I have used the company for over 30 years because they always provide a known value.
Michael: Since neither my wife nor I are lay-on-the-beach people we chose the Decameron affiliated Hotel Posada Del Mar. It does have a pool (which we also do not use) Breakfast is included with the price of the room. My favorite part of that place is the fantastic sunset views from your balcony. Other choices from the company include Miss Mary (with a beach), Cabanas Relax, Miss Elma and El Recreo. All of the places have between 8 to 40 rooms so you are never fighting crowds of people.
Graciela: We interviewed many residents of Providencia and asked what they liked best about living there. The vast majority answered, “The food.” Normal packaged food and ingredients are expensive because of shipping. So they mostly use what the island produces. Fish is fresh daily. There are many crab dishes. Coconuts are aplenty.
Michael: Graciela and I enjoyed the restaurants and trying their specialties. At one I asked why their bread tasted so good. They explained that since fresh water is not always easy to get cheaply they use the juice from the coconut in making the dough for the bread. All the restaurants we ate at are open air places. We enjoyed a crab sandwich for $5 at a place near our hotel. The children of the owner, two girls about ages three and five, entertained us with their dancing to music. They spoke to us in both Spanish and English. When I complimented them on knowing two languages their mother told us they actually spoke four languages.
Mother Nature and all her beauty is the major attraction. You can forget about man-made tourist traps. A boat trip around the island with stops for snorkeling at a national park that might best be described as a large rock in the ocean is available for $30 per person. From there you can view the blue/green water and how the sky meets the ocean. Most people take advantage of swimming in crystal clear water. Others take advantage of the ceviche served or a coconut drink where the lady uses a machete to open the top of a coconut then adds alcohol to the juice inside. The tour stops for lunch at a place with wonderful food. However it was the natural show that we enjoyed most. A horse ran by on the beach just as if it owned the place. Soon another followed it and they acted like best buddies. A rooster strutted by with a following of a chicken and four chicks. A couple dogs came by seemingly taking a stroll on the beach stopping only long enough to give an inquisitive look to all the humans sitting at tables.
Graciela: I enjoyed our walk to a restaurant on Santa Catalina Island. The name of the place is Eneida. Michael got to enjoy a fish soup we call sopa levanta muertos. In English that translates to soup that will wake up the dead. Usually the dish is reserved for those recovering from a night of partying.
Michael: Everyone is extremely friendly. We met a French lady who came to the island 32 years ago. She stepped on something and hurt her foot requiring her to stay on the island for awhile. Well, she liked the place so much she never left. She introduced us to a couple from France and their two small children. The lady is a veterinarian and her husband is a professional sailor. The family sailed from France on a 42 foot boat and were visiting the Caribbean area. That evening at dinner we met a couple from Texas who had also sailed to the island. The guy was celebrating his birthday. He told us that the island use to have a bad reputation among the sailing group (because of the drugs during the 1980’s and 1990’s) but now it is considered a place that must be visited.
Coming over on the plane we met a couple from Argentina. They walked the path with us up to the water reservoir for the island. The wife is knowledgeable in plants and told us that the island has one of the largest collections of palms. What I enjoyed along the way was the sight of about 200 geckos and chameleons that darted around us.
Graciela: Yes, Providencia has one of the best preserved natural covers in the Caribbean with one of a kind plants and animals. There are 56 different migrating birds which make a stop on the island. Though there are many reptiles, none of them are poisonous.
Michael: My wife and I walked most of the time. Most tourists rent either a motor scooter or a four-wheel ATV. The island does have a taxi service and a bus service, but that seems to be at the whim of when they want to work. Not to mention that one taxi we saw was actually a pickup truck with eight guys piled in back. In interviewing ex-pats around the world I have asked them how they chose the place they did to live. Many told me that when they visited the place the first time it just felt like home to them. Providencia Island gave me that feeling.
Graciela: I can understand my husband, but for me the island is a great place to visit, not to live. I have lived in large cities all my life and just can’t imagine everyday of just sleeping and eating.
Michael: Hey, I plan on writing, reading and, taking long walks through nature. Unfortunately since, by law, I can only spend four months there a year I guess I need to rethink things. Whether the island is right for you for a short term vacation or several months depends on your personality. But if you just want zero stress, and don’t need places to shop, then I highly recommend Providencia Island.
Other travel articles by Michael: