Isla de Providencia and Santa Catalina are two small mountainous outcrops of land less than 8 square miles both situated 400 miles southwest of Jamaica and a quarter of the way on an imaginary line traced across the Caribbean from Punta Gorda, Nicaragua to Cartagena, Colombia. And a few hours after arriving, there I was, sitting behind this large, black, simpatico and unmet women who decided to take me on her small motorcycle to meet my friend Rolando in order to hand him some pictures I had taken the last time I was here.
I left Colombia (continental, that is) with all its guerrilla – army – paramilitary violence plus the mafia-related problems, headed to, as the islandýs webpage proclaimed, “the best kept secret in the Caribbean”. (I already knew the secret since I had been on the islands on sabbatical week twice before). The small airport in Providencia, called El Embrujo (The Bewitchment), brought strange deja-vu feelings not counting the fact that I was still mesmerized by the finite but subtle gradation of colors I had seen in the water from the small plane minutes before landing. The airport zone was like a tropical parade with the multi-color passenger lobby looming over gardens of red hibiscus in their turn being pierced by the yellow bananaquit birds fluttering from one flower to the other in a dreamy slow motion. Beyond, the turquoise waters of the Mc. Bean Lagoon National Park shimmered peacefully.
Isla de Providencia and Santa Catalina are two small mountainous outcrops of land less than 8 square miles both situated 400 miles southwest of Jamaica and a quarter of the way on an imaginary line traced across the Caribbean from Punta Gorda, Nicaragua to Cartagena, Colombia. And a few hours after arriving, there I was, sitting behind this large, black, simpatico and unmet women who decided to take me on her small motorcycle to meet my friend Rolando in order to hand him some pictures I had taken the last time I was here. That type of kindness struck me since it is not very usual in many other places. Clearly on the maps says Col. (Colombia) after the name of the islands. How far is reality from the assumptions this abbreviation brings to people’s minds.
The hurricane season has hit few but strong blows on the islands. One of them came about in 1510 when the expedition of Diego de Nicuenza separated from Alonso de Ojeda (Colonýs Second Voyage) and was caught in a storm and its ships blown to a small island which Nicuenza named Santa Catalina, because it was common in those days to name sites after the Saint of the Day. To the other larger island just 200 meters across a shallow sea he gave the name Providencia in honor to the God that had just saved him. The beautiful Lover’s Floating Bridge now links the two islands.
A name and a position on a map brought settlers. As the Spanish colonies in Central and South America grew more and more, slaves tried to escape from imprisonment and reached the islands.
So it was for 150 years when the buccaneers, having been given the Elizabethan wink to raze the Spanish galleons that traversed the region hefty with the New World richness, looked for a good place to establish their operations and cure their illnesses. They found these mountainous islands, ungoverned, hills ready to be used as searching periscopes over the Caribbean. Who else could find safety there but the famous Welsh pirate Morgan with also famous Paco, the parrot that sat on his shoulder? Legend says he buried the treasures stolen in Panama in 1671 in these islands.
After Morgan’s escape to Jamaica the Spanish took control of the islands but only by word of mouth since English men with their slaves from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands tried to establish cotton farming here but instead ended up raising cattle. By this time the population was as diverse as the vessels that traversed the Caribbean. Nevertheless, lovers were not interested in racial aspects and African, Anglo, Dutch (who were also around) and Latin mixed, populating the island with that distinct clear eyes-dark skin look of many persons in Providencia. After much give-and-take among governments and several entangled political moves that passed through England, Spain, colonial Guatemala, Chile (the son of Admiral Louis Aury, a corsair, claimed the islands for Chile), Nueva Granada (which included actual Colombia and Panama) and Nicaragua, Colombia would stay with the islands although, as so many islands nowadays, looking at a map it would never occur to anyone that they belong to this country.
Providencians feel Colombian but most of all they feel Providencian, a pride openly demonstrated when they start so many phrases with the words “Our island” talking to outsiders or when they speak a distorted English among them with distinct accents and Spanish words intermixed but very different to the ‘Spanglish’ spoken by Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. They even distill their own Providencia Old Bushi Rum (a little too strong for me I have to say) using spring water outbursting from the mountains. As kind and joyful as they are to other people, they don’t want their island becoming another San Andres, a larger island of the same archipelago with duty-free commerce all around and overpopulation problems. Residence in the island is controlled by a government agency called OCCRE and for outsiders is very difficult to get permanent resident status as more and more tourists that visit Providencia want to stay and share the secret. As I casually heard a woman saying to another: “that seems to happen to everybody that comes to the island. They come for eight days, fall in love with it and then don’t want to leave”.
I remember one night in Providencia as one of the most pleasing I ever had in my life. I was staying at one of the two cabins that a middle-aged fisherman named Van Britton had on Black Bay. That night the waves crashed against the lower wall of the cabin and through a glassless window I could see myriad stars while I slowly fell asleep. At morning a temperate breeze swayed my mosquito net in harmony with the ebb tide. That morning I felt I had found what peace and harmony are about.
There are no big hotels in Providencia, instead there has been an initiative toward having the natives install small cabins in synchrony with the colorful wooden architecture of the islands. The ‘native dwellings’ program surely established the islands as the place for a tourism more willing for nature’s calm rhythms but not entirely disregarding human conveniences or night life for that matter: it is a pleasure to go dancing reggae on one of the open-air bars just by the sea as I did one night with some friends. We arrived a little early by Providencian standards, so we just waited there talking, drinking beer and enjoying the warm night air. By midnight the dance floor was filled with people moving softly to Lucky Dube’s songs. A longhaired Rasta told me: “this is great, everybody is groovying now” giving me a big smile. I couldn’t have said it better.
The next day I snorkeled from Black Bay to South West Beach passing in front of small beaches with cerulean bays in whose depths hid octopuses, eels, sea snakes and all kinds of coral fish luminous under the sun. I lingered in the water while some horses, one of the foreign contributions to the islands, were readied for a race on the distant beach. It was another Saturday for the Providencia derby and kids around twelve years old jockeyed horses along the shore, riding without saddles and hoping for a moment of glory, the horses’ owners expecting big dividends. If it’s not horses it’s sail boats or dominoes. “People just love to bet even if they have no money” a young woman named Luz Marina Livingston told me. But more than that they love the sea. These people are fishermen, sailors and even the most office-secluded person has to take a glimpse at the Caribbean waters daily. They depend on the sea for food in many ways: the staples are fish, sea snail, lobster, and the black land crabs that have to reproduce in the sea but most of the supplies also come by sea on twice-a-week (when lucky) ships from the continent: gasoline, potatoes, rice, flour, drinking water, etc. If a ship breaks as it happened when I was there, everybody tries to move around the least possible. There are two occasions when everybody stays at their home in Providencia, everyone coincided: when the ship with the gasoline for the hundreds of motorcycles doesn’t come and when it rains. So from late April to July during the rain season the other ubiquitous inhabitants of the islands come out and take control.
The phenomenon of thousands of crabs that live in the mountains, following their ancestral instincts, coming down the hills to the coast where they reproduce is a truly remarkable natural event. I had specially come at this time of year to witness the march. Confusion, however, was what I found. If somebody told me the crabs had already come down this year just a week before my arrival, a few hours later another person, with the same ‘I know for sure’ look on his face said that they were still to come. 12 days went by and I had to resign myself to watch the crabs eating decaying matter at night. There are many sites where this same reproduction spree takes place. In Christmas Island on the Indian Ocean 120 million crabs (a different species) do the same process and though such numbers are not reported in Providencia, the pictures I had seen showed black crabs covering the only paved road in the island which could be closed at this time of year at Crab Peak Hour Traffic.
After a heavy nocturnal storm I rose early one clear morning day and headed for shore where I found tiny little spiders moving in the pockets of rain. What I took for spiders were actually newly transformed land crabs heading to the mountains. There weren’t a lot of them but it was wonderful to see a life cycle completion, how endurance had worked for these little crabs after being dropped as eggs in the ocean without any other maternal care.
I had yet to see the beginning of the cycle, and it occurred one night when I heard scratching noises on my room door. I knew burglary wasn’t one of Providencia’s problems so I figured it could only be that the crabs had started their 200 meters migration to the shore. The females’ underbodies were full with eggs that looked like Iranian caviar ready to be spread on a cracker. As I moved through the wave of crabs they clapped their claws fiercely. I saw some entering the hotel’s kitchen, climbing walls, crossing the road painfully slowly, descending staircases and some even plummeted from high cliffs to fall unharmed on the rocky shore. The ones that made it to shore settled a little bit and then came forward to reach the gentle surf. At the first contact with the water the females raised their claws like in ecstasy and danced a trembling tropical ‘cumbia’ letting go of their eggs.
The day before departure I grabbed my hammock and decided to tackle The Peak, the tallest mountain of the island. I had never been on that part of the island and, as I would learn later, should have. I passed the last settlements where a few undernourished cows grazed over the dry grass. Then I followed the spring the owner of the hotel told me to look for. The spring was a trickle at this time of year and the tall trees cast a green tinge down over the rocks that formed every now and then small cascades where I sat massaging my back with the falling water. Apparently the mango trees had adapted very well to the environment and some were so plush with fruit that the rocks below were stamped with their explosions. A small shack appeared near the end of the forest assuring me I was in the right direction since this should be the cabin of a hermit Rasta man that makes a living with what he can reap from nature. A little farther up, the forest was one of short palm trees and scrubby vegetation; the ground was rocky which reminded me that this archipelago had risen through volcanic activity millions of years ago. On the top the metallic plaque that stated the 370 meters (1220-ft.) of altitude of The Peak welcomed me mirroring the setting sun.
Since its eruption from the depths through all the years of political moves of possessive governments the island and Providencians have managed to keep the same peace and tranquility of always and that is their best kept secret.