Providencia: The Hidden Treasure of Colombia

Somewhere along the Caribbean coast, near by the borders of Nicaragua is a small Colombian island that truly is the definition of untouched paradise. A place where tourists are the minority and the ‘island lifestyle’ is infectious. It’s home to the second largest reef in the world and was once the landing base for the infamous pirate Captain Morgan. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Colombia’s best-kept secret – Providencia.

During my travels through Colombia I’d heard the name Providencia tossed around only a few times. It’s more popular neighbour; the San Andres Island was supposedly the place to go. However the thought of sharing the Caribbean coast with thousands of other tourists on an island that was essentially a floating duty-free shopping plaza didn’t sound so appealing so my two travel buddies and I caught the catamaran to Providencia to find paradise.

Before we begin there is the disclaimer to finding the aforementioned paradise. It takes a very rough 3 to 8 hour boat ride to get there. Depending on the weather you could either have a lovely sail or a ride in something similar to a dishwasher. We stepped on the catamaran at the dock in Providencia after a turbulent 3.5-hour journey a little shaky and seeing green. It wasn’t quite the idyllic start we’d been hoping for however once we had a good look around, the queasiness faded quickly.

“Where you goin’ mon?’

A tall girl with skin the colour of coffee with long braids down her back approached us with a wide smile. Her throaty voice was lilted with the Creole accent that most locals on the island spoke. She pointed to a faded blue station wagon with a young man leaning against it.

“25,000, he take you.”

In the limited information we read about Providencia we knew this – about AUD$11 – was the standard taxi fare for the island, so we climbed into the prehistoric vehicle and set off.

Our accommodation was in Freshwater Bay at the Blue Almond Hostel, which is the only backpacker hostel on the island. There were several other small hotels and haciendas around the island, all owned by local people. One unique quality about Providencia is that only people from the island can have businesses, which means no giant hotelier can come in and take over this little slice of heaven. We spent our first afternoon exploring the area of Freshwater Bay and lolling around in the clear blue water. At sunset we watched the sky transform from blue to yellow to black as we devoured a fresh seafood dinner.

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Cocktails by the beach!
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Our seafood dinner
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Spectacular sunsets

Our second day was spent at Crab Cay, a tiny speck of an island just a few hundred metres off the shores of Providencia. We rented kayaks and paddled from the mainland across the azure coloured waters, jumping out halfway through for a quick snorkel of the world below. We reached the island and were greeted by two park rangers, Christian and Roger – the only inhabitants on the small cay.

“I feel like we’re on Survivor” my pal Lucy said, as we drank from the coconuts Roger cut open for us, whilst dodging the many crabs that scuttled around.

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Kayaking to Crab Key

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Only ones on the island!

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Freshly cut coconuts on an isolated island, don’t mind if i do!

Christian explained to us that the Black Land crabs come here around this time every year from the mainland to lay their eggs. The crabs were famous for descending from the mountains en masse towards the water creating roadblocks and traffic jams but the locals celebrated their journey, making the small crustaceans almost sacred.

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One of the many black crabs we saw during our time on Providencia
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Local signs warning of the crab migration

We jumped off the small dock and snorkelled amongst schools of fish that flitted around the healthy coral. Several turtles swam by, as well as a lone stingray. I couldn’t help dropping a ‘Finding Nemo’ reference into every sentence I uttered. As a long time fan of the movie, this underwater world was absolute quoting heaven. I left the water to walk up to the highest point of the island, where a large rock served as a lookout point. The reef below me shimmered in different shades of blue and the view went for miles. I was jealous of the birds that circled around the cay; they got to witness this view everyday.

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Blue on blue on blue

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The sun started to set and we had to head back to the mainland. Tired, sunburnt and snorkelled out we were reluctant to paddle back on the kayaks. It seemed however there was a light at the end of the tunnel, in the shade of deep blue. As the islands only resort, Deep Blue Hotel was the luxury way to stay on Providencia. While we couldn’t afford the pricey accommodation, their fancy restaurant would just scrape into our budget. We dropped off our kayaks and made a beeline to the ocean side tables to watch the rest of the sunset. As the black crabs darted around our feet, we devoured the fresh catch of the day and washed it down with coconut lemonade – quite possibly the best drink I’ve ever tasted.

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Another day, another freshly caught seafood dinner

The following two days we rented a ‘mule’ – a golf cart on steroids – that was the main form on transport on the island and spent our time buzzing around the island. Our attention was drawn to the under-the-sea themed bus stops and amazing viewpoints. We pulled in at Almond Bay where a large octopus shaped bus stop stood and walked down the hilly path to the beach. Here some Rastafarian locals greeted us warmly with freshly cut coconuts and showed us how to make rondon, the islands famous dish. We explored every bay and swimming hole and made plans to hike to the highest point of the island – however the heat of the Caribbean sun lured us to the beach instead of the mountains and we promised to hike it when we return one day.

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Watch out! Gringos on the road

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One of the cool bus stops

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Found Peach!

Our last day on the island, the girls and I separated for the morning. I was off to scuba dive in the second largest reef in the world and the girls were going to Santa Catalina – the small island close enough to Providencia that it can be accessed by foot over a long, brightly painted bridge. They were planning to find Morgan’s Head, the rocky formation named after the infamous pirate Henry Morgan who used the island as a base for raiding the Spanish colonies in the 1600s. There are rumours that there are still undiscovered treasures in Providencia, which the locals will proudly drop into every conversation you have.

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heading to Santa Catalina

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Free mangoes for all
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Old cannons from Captain Morgans time

I, on the other hand was about to witness what treasures Providencia had below the water. As one of the best (and cheapest) places to dive in the world, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity. What I didn’t realise was that the ‘treasures’ Providencia had to offer were in the form of very large fish – sharks to be exact! I will admit, these were only Caribbean reef sharks, but as an ocean dwelling Australian, the word ‘shark’ still sends a chill down my spine. Fortunately once we descended into the deep blue waters, my fear faded away as the school of almost doglike sharks swam around us. My dreadlocked dive master pointed out different fish and coral but my attention was drawn to the sharks, the way they glided through the water was mesmerising.

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Not as scary as I imgained

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After two dives we headed back to the mainland, where I met up with my two friends and we floated in the shallow waters, exchanging stories of our morning adventures and basking in the last moments of the Providencia sun.

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One last swim

We caught a ride in the back of a truck to the main dock and chowed down on freshly cook fruit bread while we waited for the catamaran. It had been such a brilliant week in the little piece of paradise and I knew I wanted to return. Providencia is definitely the hidden treasure of Colombia and I hope it has the same fate as the treasures that Captain Morgan once hid on the island and will never be discovered by the rest of the public.

J. xx

 

*Originally posted on the new Covermore Travel Blog

https://www.covermore.com.au/blog/theamericas/providencia-hidden-treasure-colombia

 

 

 

 

Terremotos & Seafood – Exploring Santiago

The bus ride from Valparaiso to Santiago was short and sweet and we caught up on the z’s we had missed out on the night before. Our hostel, Casa Rojo was a quick Metro ride away and by early afternoon we were settled in and wanting food. We had chosen Casa Rojo because it had a pool, however there was a slight chill to the air so we opted against a swim and went in search of a supermarket instead.

Santiago is probably the most modern city I’d been in since being in South America. It had a strong European feel and the clean streets were a stark contrast from other parts of the country. We stocked up on food and cheap Chilean wine at a nearby supermarket before creating a feast in the hostel kitchen. By feast I mean ramen noodles with frozen veggies because Chile is expensive and Jess is poor! We drank our wine and chatted with some other travellers by the poolside bar before heading into downtown Santiago to check out the nightlife.

Barrio Bellavista was the place to be when the sun goes down in Santiago. The streets of this funky neighbourhood are lined with bars, restaurants and clubs. It had that same bohemian vibe that Valparaiso possessed and it was difficult to choose where to go for a drink. We met with the Austrian twins and ordered a couple of jugs of Santiago’s famous drink, the terremoto. This potent cocktail made of pipeño (a sweet fermented – and strong – wine) and pineapple ice-cream truly lives up to its name. The English translation of terremoto is earthquake and it apt because after a couple of glasses of this strong beverage, the ground gets a whole lot hard to walk straight on! While the drink wasn’t the most delicious thing I’ve tasted, it certainly did its job! Feeling good, we found a nightclub and danced the night away until the effects of the strong terremoto wore off.

The following day was grey and overcast so we had a lazy start before heading into the city to check it out. We caught the Metro into the main part of the city and walked straight into a cool looking market. Wandering through we perused the markets before ending up unintentionally back in Bellavista. It was still as funky as the night before, with amazing street art filling the walls and leafy trees creating much needed shade. We wandered up to the base of Cerro San Cristobel to suss out how much it would cost to catch the funicular to the top. Unfortunately the state of our heads and the busy crowds turned us away from making it to the top but we vowed to come back tomorrow, which we hoped being a Monday wouldn’t be so busy.

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Streets of Santiago

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Hunger started to kick in so we found a little café by the street in Bellavista and ordered some pizzas, which were some of the best I’ve had here! So good! After lunch we caught the Metro further into the city, to the more built up area to check out Constanera Centre, where the tallest building in South America is located. Of course, going to the top of the tower was extremely pricey so we settled for wandering through the five-storey shopping mall gushing over all the westernised shops and the huge food court. Ah the perils of the poor traveller!

We headed back to the hostel late in the afternoon because sadly we were losing one of our little group members. Alex was heading south to Patagonia before going back to Quebec and after several weeks of travelling together it was sad to see her go. After she left we stayed in for the night, still tired from the night before.

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Our little trio – one last selfie before we go our separate ways 😦

The next day Tommy and I caught the Metro into town to go on the Tours for Tips walking tour. Our guide took us all around Santiago to four of Santiago’s most famous open air markets and the General Cemetery, which was more like a housing complex for the dead. The one thing that South Americans do that I find a little strange is how they house those who have passed in apartment style buildings with several levels, instead of burying them in the ground. Some of the tombs at the cemetery were very grand and expensive and most of which housed the past Chilean presidents.

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Mecardo Central – the famous seafood markets of Santiago
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Learning about the different types of seafood
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Would you care for a cat with your veggies?
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Tommy and I sampling the local street food
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The General Cemetery – up to 8 to 10 bodies can be stored in one tomb!
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Such a grand cemetery

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After the walking tour we met up with our friend Matt and had lunch at the popular seafood restaurant Tío Willy. I ordered salmon and the boys ordered the signature dish, which was a soup of mixed seafood. It looked heavenly with Parmesan cheese and garlic but the heavy sauce was too much. My grilled salmon was absolutely delicious and I couldn’t help but gloat to the boys that I picked better.

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My photography skills give this dish no justice – it tasted AMAZING!

After lunch we headed to the Plaza de Armas for a look around and to have a squiz through the thrift shops that made up a couple of the streets. The boys were chasing winter jackets as they were both heading further south and I just wanted to do some shopping! Afterwards we headed back to the hostel because the boys were catching a bus to Pucon and leaving me on my lonesome! Around 8pm we said our goodbyes and I was sad to see them go! Our little travel group had been split up and we were on to new adventures. I gave them one last hug and waved them off before heading to bed to be up bright and early to catch my flight to Lima!

J. x