It’s a drop in the ocean: a scrap of land no more than 7km long and 4km wide that seems to have come unmoored from Colombia, the country to which it belongs, and to have drifted off in the direction of Jamaica, the country it most resembles. But good fortune has blessed the island of Providencia more generously than almost anywhere I know – and the same good fortune extends to the few lucky souls who make it to this off-piste corner of the western Caribbean. Never was a place more aptly named.
Rural and slow-paced, Providencia is a virtually unique survivor (another I know of is Venezuela’s Los Roques) of the Caribbean as it used to be before tourism swept across the region like a tropical storm. It’s not easy to get to – which must be a major cause, as well as a guarantee, of its fine state of conservation. I arrived here on an 18-seater turboprop from San Andrés, the larger neighbouring island (which in turn lies two hours away from Bogotá) – there’s no other way by air – bumping along a pitted runway as the pilot bid us welcome and we all clapped wildly. My bags were delivered to the tin-pot terminal, essentially a beam-roofed barn, by tractor. Outside the door a girl with a big Afro and an even bigger smile held up a blackboard with my name written on it in Day-Glo pink chalk.
Out on the road there were no cars to speak of: Marvin, my driver, claimed that Providencia has only about 100 vehicles. Bougainvillea, acacia and mango trees leant in over the concrete track from the gardens of one-storey clapboard houses, some with porches where folk sat placidly in white plastic chairs. A hen with her chicks bustled and clucked on the roadside. At one point Marvin stopped the car and wound down the window for a chat with his sister in a thick Creole English, concluding with, “He win big, big, big”. I remembered that Colombia had held elections just the day before.
And this is Colombia, indeed, but only by the skin of its teeth. The 5,000 inhabitants of Old Providence, as they know their island, are the descendants of slaves brought here by the British and have surnames like Williams, Bush and Brown. Spanish is very much a second language, and the island has little to do with mainland Colombia, economically, culturally or politically.
It’s also out on a limb in another sense. Isolation, poor communications and, historically, a lack of investment mean that large-scale tourism has never taken root on Providencia. Not counting a handful of basic B&Bs and beach hotels with names like Windy View and Ocean Paradise, there are only two desirable places to stay. One is Deep Blue, the island’s single upmarket conventional hotel, which I found unassumingly modern but unpretentiously comfortable.
The other was to be my HQ over the long weekend I spent on Old Providence – a micro-hotel with just four rooms and two suites, sitting pretty on the island’s north-east coast with its toes in the powder-blue sea. Monasterio del Viento (“monastery of the wind”) has the look of what it once was: a seaside hideout belonging to a well-connected Colombian who relished the raw simplicity of this Caribbean Shangri-La. The owner was about to sell up in 2015 when his niece and her boyfriend stepped in, swapping the buzz of Bogotá for the snooziness of far‑flung Providencia. Cristina García de la Concha and Rodrigo Perry oversaw the change from house to hotelito, painting the walls bright white and picking out windows and doors in forget-me-not and aquamarine blue. The Monasterio’s brightly coloured decorative flotsam and jetsam, the shells and knick-knacks, bring the whole thing marvellously close to kitsch, but remain charmingly true to the island’s naïf aesthetic.
García de la Concha and Perry describe their place as a “rustic luxury getaway”, which sounds about right. The hotel has decks and terraces for dining, a small pool and a covered jetty over the water where, on my first night, García de la Concha served me a supper of lobster brochetas and roast red snapper while I lounged on cushions in regal seclusion. After a week of stressful hustle in Bogotá, the island had succeeded in allowing me, for once, to think of absolutely nothing.
The Monasterio has no WiFi, Providencia being a desert island in the digital ocean where 4G has yet to make landfall. Guests have been known to go a little crazy, confided García de la Concha, before they realise there are things that more than make up for the hotel’s disconnectedness.
Such as the food. Old Providence has an interesting local cuisine, with traditional dishes like black-crab soup and johnny-cake, but young Perry, who has worked at the great Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, is without doubt the island’s leading food dude. I ate like a king at the Monasterio: my notebooks are full of ravings over his camarones encocados (prawns in coconut sauce), his fish ceviche with palm hearts, his crab turnovers with fresh chilli sauce. Supply is a permanent problem, but Perry makes good use of the island’s native fruit and veg – yucca, breadfruit, guava, coconut – and, most of all, its amazing seafood, fished by artisan methods with hooks and harpoons. He works away in a galley kitchen behind the wooden bar, while García de la Concha dispenses glasses of tamarind juice or cups of fine-flavoured Colombian coffee.
On Saturday at sundown I set out from the hotel on foot towards the village of Santa Isabel, crossing a rickety wooden bridge to the islet of Santa Catalina. The tin-roofed houses on the boardwalk rejoiced in their eye-popping shades of hot pink and fuchsia, mint green and canary yellow. At Big Mama Sweet Taste, a beach-shack bar on Santa Catalina, the owner was just settling into a hammock, bottle in hand. I made the brief climb up to Fort Warwick, a ruined castle supposed to have been the hideout of the 17th-century pirate Henry Morgan, and sat in the evening sun, looking out over the pinky-blue ocean. A Saturday jump-up was going on back in Santa Isabel, and the gentle thump of reggae drifted on the breeze.
More of the island’s astounding beauty and state of preservation was revealed the next morning on a motor launch. Malcom [sic] Barker, my captain, wore a Marley T-shirt (Bob is big round here) and tucked his dreadlocks into a multicoloured topper. Chugging out towards the reef – which is said to be the world’s third longest (at 32km) and one of its best preserved – Barker challenged me to identify the seven shades of blue to be seen in the waters around the atoll of Crab Cay, a tone-poem running from glassy green and pale turquoise all the way to Yves Klein and rich royal blue. From the top of the Cay I had a prime view of the island’s surprising topography, its peaks and escarpments draped in dense vegetation. Such building as there was straggled sparsely along the coastal fringe.
We sped around the coast towards Manzanillo Beach, the island’s prime playa and a Caribbean dream of coral sands as soft as icing sugar, gracefully leaning coconut palms and weatherbeaten beach bars serving cold Colombian beer and bowls of ceviche. At Roland’s, the island’s de facto social centre, a mighty sound system was pumping out dancehall. There’d been a beach party the previous night and a fire pit was still smouldering among the palms. The eponymous Roland, mixing me a Cuba Libre, said he’d been here on Manzanillo for 35 years, during which time the island had changed “not too much. And I’m here to make sure it don’t change too much in the future neither.”
Providencia may be tiny, but its personalities are often larger than life. One afternoon I met up with singer-songwriter Elkin Robinson at his home in San Felipe, a beachside hamlet known locally as Lazy Hill. “Welcome to the laziest place on the laziest island in the laziest part of the world,” joked Robinson. In the creek beside his little house, three mottled-brown manta rays flapped slowly upstream.
Robinson has studied the island’s history and was happy to give me some edited highlights. Until 1641 Old Providence was an English colony – hence the Whittakers and Livingstones and Bushes – whose minuscule capital, Old Town, was fancifully named New Westminster. The island’s cultural DNA is not Hispanic but African, and its music is a rich stew of calypso, Jamaican mento and reggae featuring indigenous instruments such as the washtub and horse jaw. Robinson took me outside on the porch, tuned up his guitar and sang a sweet song with a ska-like rhythm, Creole Vibration, about Providencia’s powerful sense of identity and roots.
The island Robinson sings about is a precious fragment of the old Caribbean, but for how long can it stay this way? Providencia’s neighbour San Andrés has sadly fallen prey to uncontrolled development, devolved into a tacky and overpopulated party island with water shortages and a creaking infrastructure, where waves of incomers from Colombia’s mainland cities, Cartagena and Barranquilla, now dwarf the local population. The inhabitants of Old Providence have observed that transformation with horror and are rightly suspicious of any plan that might impact negatively on their island. For the foreseeable future it seems there will be no further hotels; building and residence permits will continue to be rigorously controlled, and there’ll be no extensions to the airport to allow bigger planes to fly in directly from Colombia’s major cities. For the moment, this is simply a delectably quiet place in which to lie low and empty your head.
The extent of my own exertions over three days was a morning spent swimming with turtles on the reef, and another climbing The Peak, at 360m Providencia’s highest mountain, with a Rasta called Elijah who showed me rare native plants and greeted passing walkers with “Positive energy!”
What I mostly did was eat. With the end of my stay in sight, I hadn’t tried conch, one of the island’s signature specialities. But I was in luck: the maracas player in Robinson’s band, a neighbour of his in Lazy Hill, had fished a bucketful that morning and brought some round to the Monasterio. Perry cooked them till tender in a herby sauce, with dumplings and a fishcake starter that both reminded me of the things this Caribbean outpost shares with Britain.
After lunch I lay on the bed in my cool white room, idly comparing the soft whoosh of the ceiling fan with the plashing of the waves below the house. Given the lack of WiFi, checking my emails or Instagramming the morning’s photos was out of the question. In fact, there was no urgent need to do anything or be anywhere but right here. Obligation was on vacation – and in its absence, Providencia had seeped into my soul.