Exploring Providencia

At Anchor, Providencia, Colombia

“Nelson’s Butt” Providencia, Colombia

We are tucked in at anchor in a very pretty spot: Santa Isabel Harbor on the island of Providencia, a protectorate of Colombia. Only 18 kilometers around, with a population of about 4,000, it’s pretty much untouched by tourism and one of the friendliest places we’ve been.

We left Vivorillos at about 9:30 on Tuesday morning, heading south and east taking a short cut across the Main Cape Channel, between Half Moon Cay and Alagarda Reef before turning a bit more south toward Providencia. What a nice ride! The wind was between 5-10 all day and through the night, letting us experience sea swells instead of wind chop coming slightly off our stern for the last half of the ride. Even the cats were amazed, since our last day in Vivorillos saw a wind shift that had us rolling back and forth pretty violently for about 18 hours and experiencing next to no rest. Getting underway was a relief! Our longest passage to date of 188 miles, we tried to stand 3-hour watches and get as much rest as we could.

Of course, shit happens, though. We turned on the generator, it ran for a few minutes, then stopped because of high cooling water temperature. So when it cooled off a few hours later, we tried it again and again it stopped. The chief went down to take it apart and have a look, and found that the problem was as simple as a hose clamp that had broken and the cooler was sucking air instead of water. Half an hour, and we were back in the electrical business, happy that we wouldn’t have to throw out a freezer full of fresh seafood.

Then at about three in the morning, Ole found a freshwater leak in the vicinity of the port engine. We suspected it was the water heater, since it’s 20 years old and looking pretty rusty on the bottom, and we ordered a replacement before we left Roatan to be waiting for us when we arrive in Panama. But disconnecting the water heater, then checking a few hours later, the water leak was still there. Based on the Chief’s knowledge and intuition, it’s the heat exchanger, a fairly simple part to replace, but not easy to get. And running on a leaking one means getting seawater running through the engine instead of fresh – not a good plan in the long run. We shut down the port engine for an hour so Ole could do his detective work, but made up the time with a good following current.

Providencia Anchorage

Arriving in Providencia at 11:30 on Wednesday morning, we found about a half dozen sailboats at anchor, including Attitude, with Neil and Cathy, whom we met just a few weeks ago in Utilla. We anchored up in about 10 feet of water, and Ole went ashore to meet with the agent and do the entry formalities with the Port Captain. Since he had to go back later in the day to meet with immigration, I went with him and we took in the town, which is pretty much one main street and one side street at the head of the bay.

Commercial Dock, Santa Catalina Providencia

Everything has to come in by boat here (although there is a very small airport), but we were amazed that on the main street a mere four or five blocks long were not less than three fairly large grocery stores and tiendas of various types. There are two banks, two bakeries, an internet café, and a few mom-and-pop restaurants, so it seems a prosperous place. And the people here are tri-lingual, speaking English, Spanish, and Creole with apparently equal fluency. It’s clean, pretty, and lacks the usual staging of tourism and its accompanying hype.

We found a little cantina to sit in and sample the local beer: Aguila (Eagle). Outstanding. While we sat and watched the world go by, the agent (Mr. Bush) joined us for a soda, then Neil and Cathy wandered past. We compared our Vivorillos hauls, and swapped information about what do with conch – so on the spur of the moment, we invited them over Thursday evening to try our first attempt at conch fritters.

Thursday, while I cleaned house and consulted cookbooks for fritter recipes, Ole went back into town because we couldn’t get cell signals, and he needed to call American Diesel to talk over our heat exchanger problem and order a spare. He made the phone call from the agent’s office, and the agent recommended a repair guy “Mr. Bing” who might be able to jury-rig a solution to our damaged exchanger. That’s good news on such a small island. We still have nearly 250 miles to go and it would be better without worrying about a seawater-infused engine!

The conch fritters were pronounced a success (used the recipe in the trusty Joy of Cooking), and were accompanied by homemade garlic and rosemary focaccia. Neil brought over a fruit “palate cleanser” – passion fruit halves with papaya and mint, all local. This cruising stuff is starting to make all kinds of sense. Over fritters we agreed to meet in town on Friday to rent scooters and see what there is to see.

Friday morning, the supermarket in town that rents the scooters was fresh out and suggested we take a taxi (pickup truck with bench seats along the sides of the bed) to Freshwater Bay, where we found a clutch of scooters and golf carts and negotiated a rate of $5 per hour with no paperwork. I like this place. The island itself is volcanic, with a sharp, rugged interior (no roads and cows with two long legs and two short legs) and a coast road. Most of the traffic is scooters and improvised trucks. Most of the businesses seem to be concentrated in the town of Santa Catalina, with a few little hotels, restaurants, and dive shops in Freshwater Bay.

Carmeni’s Gallery-Refugio de la Luna

The highlight of the trip was an impromptu stop at Refugio de la Luna, the studio of an artisan named Carmeni Correa, who is living the kind of life I’d love to someday. She works in papier mache, creating whimsical sea creatures, panels, and sculptures in vibrant, primitive colors from her house on The Bluff. A steep path leads from the road, through a tunnel of flowers, fruit trees, and scurrying indigenous blue lizards. We were met by three dogs, , two cats and Carmeni smiling from the balcony. Her house is a simple two-story concrete block construction, with a corrugated roof and glassless shuttered windows, all decorated with murals and stenciled cutouts painted with fish, birds, and flowers. She works in the open air from a wide, shaded balcony overlooking papayas, bananas, avocado, lime, orange and plumarosa trees and out to the sea.

Her house is her gallery – the simple whitewashed walls and white wicker furniture make her art sparkle. She told us she walks every morning, and uses a lot of “found” objects and trash to get started, obtaining her cardboard and paper from the back of a local tienda, using plastic bottles as the framework for some of her creatures – a neighbor called her to report half a mannequin had washed up on the beach and that became a fantastic mermaid rising from the sea. We couldn’t leave without buying something – so there’s a new golden seahorse ready for the Christmas tree!

Another interesting stop for lunch allowed us to meet a man who is operating a hotel and restaurant that sits on the spot formerly occupied by his parents’ home, their original concrete entry steps sit all by themselves in a place of honor in the garden. The story is that during the late 60’s a lot of hippies from Europe discovered Providencia, and came with backpacks and tents. His mother offered her garden, charging the hippies a few pesos for a clean and safe spot to pitch their tents. She spotted another opportunity when, during cooking, she noticed hungry looks from the garden, and a restaurant was born. Today, the hotel is a collection of bright yellow frame buildings trimmed in red and blue, with a restaurant perched in the open air right at the water’s edge, looking due west. The food was good, the beer was cold, and the proprietor was charming. Who could ask for more.

On our return to town we found out some good news – the leak in the heat exchanger is a small one. Word from the Chief is that up to 10% of the tubes in the exchanger can be plugged without impairing its function. This exchanger has only one bad tube. Karma wins!

Today, Saturday, we’ve been boat-bound, as some weather blew in last night. We’ve clocked winds of 29 knots – Attitude, with a far more accurate wind generator, has clocked over 31. Rain squalls have been blowing throughout the day. Ole’s been inventorying spare parts. I’ve been reading and napping.  Tomorrow’s Sunday and we understand most of the local businesses are closed. If the weather lightens up a bit, we’ll go ashore and take a walk around the little island of Santa Catalina which is connected to town by a colorful footbridge.

Now it’s time for gin and tonics, as the sun has gone down.

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