The island is part of Colombian territory, but the feeling is much more of a tranquil Caribbean hideaway, says Aaron Millar.
The only thing the island of Providencia does fast is slow you down. In this tiny South American corner of the Caribbean there are no vast resorts, no fancy restaurants and absolutely nothing that resembles the primped artifice of mass-packaged luxury. But what there is here is a kind of flow – a way of being – that is so effortlessly devoid of stress it is impossible not to get caught in its molasses.
Within minutes of dropping my bags I was making footprints in the soft jungle-kissed beach of South West Bay. Fishermen called out as they hauled their catch to shore, immaculately ribboned girls giggled home from school, and a starry-eyed Rasta called Jammy clinked my beer at the last dip of sun behind the sea. I dug my toes into the beach and sighed.
To stay in Providencia is to be embraced by its community. But the island itself is something of an enigma. It is part of Colombia but lies almost 500 miles north of the mainland – and is much closer to Nicaragua. The islanders here speak English, not Spanish, and staunchly hold on to a culture that is far closer to its Caribbean neighbours than any Latin American political allegiance would suggest.
It is also unknown to much of the travel world. Despite a handful of expert divers preaching legends about the high clarity of its waters, the island welcomes an average of only 15,000 visitors a year – a mere fraction of those received by its southerly neighbour, San Andres island. This relative isolation – helped by the fact it takes two flights and half a day from Bogotá in Colombia to get here – has left Providencia's culture largely unchanged since English Puritans settled here in 1630. It is one of the last bastions of a truly Caribbean island way of life.
The next morning Felipe Cabresa offered to take me under the waves to experience Providencia's celebrated marine status for myself. He is the stocky, gently spoken owner of a local dive shop. As we sped towards a nearby dive site, he explained that the reef here is one of the best conserved in the world – but that preservation hasn't been easy. In 2011, the community came together to fight off plans put forward by the Colombian National Hydrocarbons Agency to search for oil in these waters. "They wanted to give us money!" Felipe shouted over the bounce of crashing waves. "But it would mean a big change for our culture. I prefer that my children can do and see the same things as me than to have that money."
As soon as we were under water, I understood his passion for the reef. We slowly descended a vast wall of delicate coral: organic layers of orange fire tubes, spiralling pink brains and cumulus of yellow mushrooms mutated into an exquisite structure of utterly alien morphology. Blue parrotfish circled green sea fans; purple lobsters' claws poked from dark crevices; a grey shark swam cautiously below.
Back on land I talked excitedly about what we had seen, but Felipe took me aside. "It's not about telling people it's beautiful," he said. "It's about telling people about the fight to keep it beautiful. Maintaining it is what's hard."
But maintaining it is something the people here are determined to do. Over a lunch of Creole fish, Arelis Howard, director of local charity the Trees and Reef Foundation explained to me that development of the island should be on the locals' terms. "It needs to be sustainable; it needs to involve the culture and identity of the people and the way we have done things here for all time."
To read the full article by Aaron Millar published on Saturday 06 April 2013 which ran in the Independent, see here, Providencia: the map says it’s South America – the reality says it’s heaven.
Aaron Millar travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which specialises in tailor-made holidays and group tours to Latin America. An 11-day trip to Colombia visiting Bogotá, Cartagena and Providencia starts from £2,930 per person, based on two people sharing. The price includes accommodation, international and domestic flights, airport transfers in Colombia, and breakfast.
To read more of Aaron Millar's articles and view his amazing pictures look at: www.thebluedotperspective.com