A few days ago I gave you a quick taste of Isla Providencia – a ittle Colombian owned-island in the Caribbean. If you saw the photos you’re probably thinking that it looks nice and all, but why should you go there as opposed to any of the other gorgeous islands in the area. Oh, I’m so glad you asked!
First, Isla Providencia or Old Providence as it’s often referred to by locals contains the world’s third largest barrier reef, coming in behind Australia and Belize. In addition, the coral on the reef is alive and healthy which is more than can be said for many of the reefs in the world. Having such a healthy reef system surrounding the island means that the diving and snorkeling around the island is phenomenal.
We spent almost every day in the water and I really regret not having an underwater camera or housing so I could share what we saw. We only had to head a few feet off shore before coming across brilliant parrotfish, giant starfish, blue tangs, squid, snook, sea turtles, rays, and a whole list of other fish – oh, and even an old cannon at the bottom of the sea!
There are several good snorkeling spots off the island and pretty much anywhere that has underwater structure (rocks or coral heads) makes for a great place to spot fish. The best location we found right off the island was Morgan’s Head. This rock formation resembles a man’s head when approached from the right angle and was named after the pirate Henry Morgan. You can reach Morgan’s Head by snorkeling from the beach at Fort Bay (maybe ¼ mile in distance) down to the rock or you can hike the forest trail and access the water close to where it ends behind Morgan’s Head.
Offshore you can have a boat run you out to Cayo Cangrejo (Crab Key) which is part of the national park and you’ll need to pay the entrance fee. You can also hike to the top of the island where you’ll be treated to seemingly endless views of the Caribbean Sea. Another great spot is known as Margarita which is essentially an underwater island loaded with coral and fish. When we jumped off the boat here we plunged into the middle of a school of hundreds of blue tangs.
So there you go. If you like the water and little-disturbed nature you’ll be in for a treat at Providencia. Not sold yet? That’s okay because there’s more.
You’ll probably be hungry after a long day in the water (we certainly were!) and Providencia will not disappoint – as long as you like seafood. The waters around the island give up lobsters, shrimp, many types of fish, conch snails, and more. Typically the fish are grilled whole (minus their innards) with seasoning while the conch snails are stewed in a coconut sauce. If you’ve never tried conch (known here as caracol) you definitely should as it’s tasty! Most meals are accompanied by coconut rice, fried plantains, and a small salad. And of course rum is a great accompaniment to any dish!
If you don’t care for fish, there are a couple of pizza restaurants and chicken is fairly easy to find on the island as well. But seriously, try the seafood – it’s wicked good!
History buffs will have a heyday on the island too. Actually you don’t even need to like history, just pirates and who doesn’t like pirates? Providencia was a major base for both Captain Morgan and Louis Aury, though at different times. Pirate lore permeates the island and treasure hunters still scout for Morgan’s rumored buried treasure. Captain Morgan’s cannons remain on the island today and the channel that Aury’s men dug still separates Isla Providencia and the much smaller Santa Catalina (which at one time were all part of the same island).
But there’s more than pirate legends here. The island was settled by Puritans who eventually became disenfranchised with local governance and some turned to piracy. Others had slaves to help on the plantations and now the island is primarily inhabited by descendants of slaves/puritans/pirates. The locals speak Spanish, but English is their first language with the Caribbean Creole being widely spoken. Even the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar had a mansion built on the far side of Santa Catalina which has since been seized by the Colombian government and has sadly fallen into disrepair.
Local still tell tales about the old days, but beware – not all stories are true and pirates still roam the island, they simply take a different form these days!
The best reason to visit Providencia though is because it has not yet been spoiled by overcommercialization and rampant tourism. While tourism is alive and well there are no giant resorts and only a few pricey lodging options. Most days we shared the beaches with only a few people if any and we met many of the interesting locals. If you’re looking for an authentic Caribbean destination be sure that Isla Providencia is on your short list!