San Andres & Providencia: Fun times with Stingrays, Sharks & Chileans
San Andres & Providencia: Fun times with Stingrays, Sharks & Chileans
I’d be lying if I said that a place sharing the name of a Grand Theft Auto Game (almost) wouldn’t go some way towards convincing me to go off that alone. But throw in the fact that it’s actually a tropical Colombian island off the coast off Nicaragua and I was all in.
A two hour flight from Bogota, the tiny seahorse shaped island is no secret to the Colombians, or Chileans, for whom – I came to understand – it serves a purpose not dissimilar as Bali does for Australia (though with much reduced nightlife). As it turns out, the place is a bit of a tourist trap, egged on all the more by the fact that it serves as a duty free hub. The northern end of the island is a ramshackle mix of resorts, hotels, duty free stores and restaurants – though the beaches are undeniably beautiful. As are the small and easily visitable micro islands (cays) in the surrounding lagoon.
It’s a shallow sand bar just off one of these Cays – Jonny Cay – that’s home to the islands bizarre yet must see attraction, a large population of amiable stingrays. Having been fed by local fisherman for over a century, the rays have basically become pussycats around people, and there’s no shortage of boats that can take you out there to meet them. While entirely counter-intuitive to hop over board onto a sandbar brimming with Stingrays, it’s reassuring to know that these rays never sting anyone. Our guide even demonstrated their uniquely placid nature by picking several out of the water while they flapped their wings jovially.
I was on S. Andres Island for five nights, falling in with with a group of solely Spanish speaking Chileans, sort of a reverse take on Fez from that 70’s Show. I didn’t know what was going on most of the time, but it did sharpen my Spanish, as well as speed it up, since Chileans are incapable of saying anything slowly or with the clear annunciation of Colombians. I spent most of my time lounging around the beach, and the one bar with people in it in the evenings, Coco Loco.
I also did a couple of dives. The main feature of the first dive being the dive master spending most of our underwater time spearing Lionfish. I thought it was just some bizarre personal agenda – until we surfaced and he pointed out that Lionfish are introduced to the Caribbean from Asia and are an absolute menace on the local fish stocks, since they have no natural predators and as such have proliferated wildly
That aside, the underwater viewing was pretty average, and it was nothing compared to what I’d be experiencing 90 miles North on the island of Providencia. While of similar size and location, Providencia is a different game. On any particular day – given the means available – no more than 80-100 new tourists can come aboard the island, either via the 25 minute micro-planes or the 4 hour catamaran. And having taken the Catamaran over, I wholly recommend that you definitely do not. This comes from a person who normally gets a kick out of rough ocean swells and aggressive turbulence. Even signing a waver warning of severe seasickness prior to boarding, I thought nothing of it.
The boat itself was actually pretty nice. Enclosed, with air conditioning, reclining seats and TV screens. My initial concerns had far more to do with the three obnoxiously gay guys in matching Fire Island T-shirts, who came mincing down the aisle to sit in front of me while yapping loudly in shrill lisps. Four hours of that would definitely kill me.
But once the boat moved beyond the San Andres lagoon and into the open ocean, they went deadly quiet, as did everyone. The catamaran, captained by Evel Knievel, revved up and became airborne every few seconds as it smashed over oceanic waves at breakneck speed, before crashing down again at unpredictable angles. The lisping and mincing in front of me was quickly replaced by whimpering and vomiting, as all 3 guys began lurching into sick bags, along with almost all the 40 people on board. I too quickly felt bloody awful, and lay sullen and torpid in my seat for a good two and half hours before eventually reaching for a sick bag – for the very first time in my life. Jesus Fucking Christ. Needless to say, the boat smelled awful.
I was so shaken from the trip that I barely noticed when we eventually reached our destination. But as I staggered onto the Providencia dock, it became clear that this was a world away from S. Andres.
While officially part of Colombia, the native population is almost entirely Pidgin English speaking Creoles. There is very little development on account of its aquatic national park status, meaning that only a dozen or simple lodgings exist on the island (beyond one small luxury resort). This in itself has limited regular tourists greatly, but the fact that it’s also reasonably expensive has likewise prevented the place from becoming another fucking hippy commune, as has almost every island in South East Asia. If I’d thought the nightlife in S. Andres had been chilled out, it was practically Ibiza compared to here. Roland’s Roots Bar is ‘the’ bar of the island, though most of the time it’s little more than four huge Rasta’s named Jimmy, Jonny, Peachy – and of course – Roly, blazing up Monte Christo sized joints. Roland is a really cool guy though.
I was here to go diving though, going four times in the morning and once at night. It was spectacular, making the dives I’d done prior look extremely banal. The water was teeming with Caribbean reef sharks, large groupers and vast shoals of fish. I’d never been swimming with sharks before and found watching them in the wild to fall into one of two categories. Too far away or too close. Some of them were over two meters long and uncomfortably nosey – all the more so after our dive instructor began spearing Lionfish and offering them out as shark shish kebab, to which they obliged. The night dive however – my first – was as scary as it was pointless. We descended 25 meters to a barge wreck in pitch-blackness, with only small torches to illuminate a 1000th of the space around us. Other than harassing a sleeping turtle we saw almost nothing, and I was lucky not too hyperventilate through my oxygen too quickly given the eeriness of it all.
Other than diving I spent a few hours every day over lunch at Divina’s, a small restaurant around Southwest bay, eating giant seafood platters for $15 a pop and sipping on club Colombia’s in a hammock. I also spent a day driving round the island on a 4×4 golf cart, stopping at various beaches which I had entirely to myself. I then did the same circumnavigation via a small boat tour (me and a Venezuelan couple), stopping at Cangrejo Cay – a small micro island with spectacular views of the lagoon and reef, as well as offering snorkeling with turtles. I spent the early evenings on the deserted ocean side balcony of the Agua Dulce Cabana hotel, watching the sunset and nursing Amarula on ice while blasting café del mar lounge beats. This is as close as it gets to meditation for me.
While I’m used to travelling by myself, this was as close as I’ve gotten to literally travelling by myself. It was very relaxing, but by the time I had to leave on my forth day I was ready to go. I was craving human contact, there was almost no Internet, and my inner monologue was starting to get loud. Think of it as too much of a good thing, since I absolutely loved the place. The micro light afforded a great parting view on the way back to S. Andres. It was back to Bogota from there for an intermission. Next up, Cuba.