San Andres and Providencia Islands are confusing. They are in the middle of the Caribbean, closer to Nicaragua than Colombia and once home to pirates. They were, for a short time, British (1629-1641) and despite the fleeting-ness and distance in time of this, the Brits left a lasting impression on the place. This means that those who consider themselves proper locals speak Creole, English and Spanish and have that order of preference. They aren’t so keen on speaking Spanish. However, lots and lots of people only speak Spanish. Most of those who speak Creole and English are very dark skinned, but not all dark skinned people here speak Creole and English. So, to start to speak to a black person in English may look a little ignorant if they are native Spanish speakers but would seem polite and thoughtful to a Creole/English speaker. Worst of all, we can find ourselves stumbling through a conversation using our bad Spanish only to discover the other party is a fluent English speaker. As I say, all very confusing.
The Islands feel very, very different from mainland Colombia. Every gorgeous beach has a shack selling cocktails, Reggae music is everywhere and everybody eats fish. San Andres is reasonably well established with shops you would recognise, great quality restaurants, an Airport etc. Providencia is much less developed and is beautiful for it. The beaches are pretty much deserted, the restaurants and bars are literally just shacks, everybody is very laid back and they go horse racing on the beach. It is a little scruffier too; there is a reasonable amount of rubbish in the villages, abandoned cars and motorbikes and lots of homes that need TLC. The beaches are clean though, the water is incredibly beautiful and it is safe. I think the locals not directly involved in the tourist trade are a bit less happy to see tourists than they are on the mainland but I get that; tourists can be annoying.
We had a day with a man called Harley in his small boat on a tour of the island, visiting small beaches, the incredible Crab Cay and the reef. Snorkelling is great as the water is so clear and apart from lots of small tropical fish, we saw a turtle, a sting ray and a big bloody thing that I don’t know the name of. J, who is not keen on fish, stayed remarkably calm throughout all of this and only tried to drag me under a couple of times.
We were staying in a small Posada above a shop in South West Bay. I chose this place because South Wets Bay has the best beach, a couple of good places to eat and, if you are lucky, horse racing on the beach. Normally this is on a Saturday and we thought we would miss it, but due to a bad weather forecast, it was brought forward to Friday. There are only two races and the same two horses in both, and it is a fantastic spectacle; tens of locals getting excited, tourists looking bemused and two incredible beasts thundering down the water line. Wonderful.
At night, the front of the shop below becomes a local hang out and a huge set of speakers, the kind that could keep a warehouse full of drugged up teens making shapes until dawn get wheeled out to blast out music to the half a dozen customers, and I really do mean blast. I popped down to get some lemon Fanta (a great mixing with gin in the absence of tonic) and could barely hear the lady behind the counter. I was amazed that the two old men sitting no more than 4ft in front of the big speaker, just starring at them, did not have blood pouring from their ears. Luckily, this frivolity ends at about 10.30 and our room was very peaceful.
I also got to see a local butcher experience in the village. Just down the hill, on a bit of wasteland, a whole skinned cow appeared and I think that locals turned up, pointed at the bit they wanted, it got hacked off then shoved in a bag. V glad J missed out on that.
On the subject of good restaurants, I was temporary custodian of some rather wonderful lobster from a popular place up the road. I say temporary as I think it was inside me for about 45 mins, which is a shame but is rather good for weight management. I don’t think it was bad lobster, but clearly something didn’t agree with me.
My stomach was tested on two other occasions; getting between the two islands. Normal mid sized planes fly from a number of Colombian cities to San Andres, but the hope to Providencia is a little less well served. There are two flights a day on very small planes (less than 20 seats I think) and they were full when we tried to book a month in advance. The other option is the Catamaran Ferries that depart twice a day as well, one boat having about 50 seats and the other 70. They are not posh. Think about sitting in a down at heal cinema, based in an old porta-cabin that you could drown in, and you pretty much have the picture, The journey takes between 3 and 5 hours, depending on the weather and the worse the weather is, the longer you have to endure it.
My image of the Caribbean Sea is a crystal clear flat thing but this is rather wrong, as I discovered as we battled away from San Andres in the early morning, with our cinema (playing Wonder Women on the TVs on a loop) getting tossed around from wave to wave. The picking started about 2- mins out and continued until we were in the lee of Providencia (J and I are blessed with reasonably cast iron stomachs so were able to read, sleep and occasionally feel uncomfortable). I felt sorry for the crew member whose whole journey was spent collecting sick bags). The way back was a little better as we were going with the wind and swell, but if we were to go again, we would book the plane 6 months in advance.