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Colombian sketches: Providencia

Hello Readers,

Below is the first instalment in a four-part series about my impressions of a recent stint in Colombia.

In other news, the writing retreat in March in Italy still has availability – if you’re feeling a bit stuck (in writing or life) and want to meet and work with a group of writers in an inspiring setting, join us! You can learn more here.

Colombian Sketches: Providencia 

Providencia is a small Colombian island just off the coast of Nicaragua. Part of the San Andrés archipelago, the island measures seventeen square kilometres with only 6.000 residents. It is ringed by the world’s third-largest coral reef, giving the island’s waters an ever-changing palette of what the locals call “seven colours.”

Beach with palm tree and tire swing

For more than three hundred years, the archipelago bounced between the colonial powers of the English, the Dutch and the Spanish before finally becoming part of modern-day Colombia. Unlike the mainland, however, Providencia’s native languages are Creole (similar to Jamaican Patois) and English. Providencia is also a different experience to the Colombian mainland. It’s calmer and quieter here: more Damien Marley than J. Balvin. Colombia ranks as one of the friendliest places to visit, and the people of Providencia are the warmest in the country.

Most of the island’s residents are black or brown. The archipelago’s most populous ethnic group is the Raizals, the official name for the descendants of enslaved Africans, the indigenous islanders and European settlers. 

Providencia isn’t easy to reach. First, you must get to San Andrés, the largest island in the archipelago, some 720 kilometres from Cartagena. Then, there’s the choice between a 3-hour boat ride over the choppy sea or a 30-minute flight on a small propeller plane. Yet, this remoteness ensures that Providencia retains its unique identity and remains out of reach from the clutches of mass tourism. The island has one road, though you’re likelier to see cows and dogs commuting than cars.

Beach bar on Providencia
Beach bar on Providencia

Wooden house

Bay overlooking water
Santa Catalina

man on mountain
Our guide Leo

Coming to Providencia rewards you with large swaths of near-empty beaches, save for the sounds of reggae (sometimes from a live band). The sand is fine and yellow, like cornmeal, with clean, clear water. Both the beach and its soundtrack are best enjoyed with Coco-Loco, a rum concoction served in a fresh coconut. You can get one at one of the many small restaurants serving food, such as freshly caught fish in a sauce of roasted peppers, served on rice and with a side of crunchy plantains.

Nearly every structure you see has been rebuilt over the last three years. In November 2020, Hurricane Iota hit the island, killing four people, damaging ninety-eight per cent of the island’s infrastructure and leaving almost all of the six thousand residents homeless.

Doris, an artist who moved to Providencia from Medellin thirty-five years ago, owns a B&B on the island. She recounted enduring the hurricane. She, her husband, dogs and cat retreated underground in a bunker for sixteen hours as the storm raged above them. They emerged the next day to an island almost completely destroyed – the hotel above them, their garden, the trees. Everything. And all in the middle of the pandemic.

Wooden houses on Providencia

mountain with moon hanging over
Sunrise hike

The hurricane destroyed almost one hundred per cent of the mangroves, a significant natural barrier to hurricanes and a carbon sink. Restoration is underway, but the mangroves will take at least ten years to regrow to where they were before the storm. In the meantime, the island remains vulnerable.

The Colombian government quickly dispatched a rescue mission and immediately raised funds internationally for Providencia’s recovery. But some of the rebuilding has caused consternation. While Colombia dispatched builders from the mainland, some of the new construction does not reflect the original architectural style of the island. The new houses do not always suit the island’s climate, leaving the interiors hot and humid. 

Tourism is also rebounding. It is the island’s primary source of income but has only recovered to ten per cent of the level pre-hurricane. Discussions have been ongoing since before the hurricane about how much tourism to let in. A balance must be struck.

San Andrés, the largest island on the archipelago, is a cautionary tale. Unlike Providencia, San Andrés has a larger airport that receives flights from Colombia, Panama and the US. The island suffers from over-tourism: terrible hotels, cheap trinket shops and a higher crime rate. There is also a question of who benefits. Mainland Colombians or investors own much of San Andrés, and they, not the islanders, pocket the profits.

El Pico/The peak

Life thrives on every part of the island and no place more than El Pico, the highest in a series of volcanic mountains. The mountains are lush, full of flora and fauna: mushrooms with bridal veil-like fibres, giant iguanas sunning themselves on the tree branches, and boa constrictors curling themselves around trees.

By law, a registered guide must accompany you. And with good reason: the hike is challenging with paths covered in (it is not outright blocked by) thick jungle undergrowth.

Our guide, Leo, chopped through more than a few thick vines. 

The hike is best to do so at sunrise - the strength of the midday sun doubles the effort required to make it to the top. Setting off early also ensures you can fuel up on hearty arepas (the best I had my entire time in Colombia) at a small stand. 

Two dogs serve as unofficial guides, waiting for hikers at the entrance and accompanying them to the top and back down multiple times daily. All they ask in return is some attention and perhaps a bit of the arepa.

Along the way to the summit, our very knowledgeable (and almost supernaturally sighted) guide, Leo, stopped and pointed out many plants and their medicinal uses – treatments for diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, fever, and diarrhoea all grow on the mountain. Pausing suddenly, he’d point to a nearby tree and explain the flower’s pain-soothing use. Since

Providencia was self-reliant for centuries, especially with healthcare, the islanders used what they had locally.

More than once, Leo cautioned us to stay on the path. There were more dangers beyond the boa constrictors.

“Not that we have poisonous animals,” he reassured us. “But their bites hurt.”

Right. We stayed on the path.

At the summit, he shared homemade coconut bread and pointed out Almond Bay, Manzanillo Beach and Santa Catalina.

Snaps from El Pico, including Leo, our guide

Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina is a small island that lies next to Providencia, connected by a narrow bridge. On Santa Catalina, there are no cars or motorbikes, just a tiny collection of houses, a boardwalk that rings half the island and many hills with hidden beaches on the other side. The English used the island in the 1700s for raids on Spanish territories. You can still see and climb the remnants of Fort Morgan, named after a pirate.

Santa Catalina is a great starting point for snorkelling, diving, boat tours of the mangrove forests and other areas best accessed by boat.

Bridge to an island over water
Bridge to Santa Catalina


One day on the island, we decided to go exploring via motorbike. As Doris unfolded the map on an old wooden table and marked areas of interest, she cautioned against driving too fast or overtaking people like drivers do on the mainland.

She smiled and said, “Tranquilo, estamos lejos de Colombia.”


If you looking to be inspired by nature, culture, art & architecture while visiting a a lesser-known part of Italy, join me and a small group of fellow writers on a transformative writing retreat.


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