Providencia, San Andres and Albuquerque Cays, June 2009
Having enjoyed Bocas del Toro, Panama, and having started to feel that urge to see something new, we decided to sail north for a visit to Providencia, going by way of the Albuquerque Cays and San Andres. The forecast was for winds solid on the beam, but in fact we got winds solid on the nose and it took us almost a whole extra day of beating to windward, to make landfall.

The archipelago called San Andres/Providencia is actually part of Colombia (forming that nation's smallest province), despite the fact that Colombia's closest mainland point is Cartagena, some 390 miles away, whereas Nicaragua's mainland is only about 125 NM distant. The basis for Colombia's claim is not entirely clear to us - apparently, Simón Bolívar simply included it in Greater Colombia after independence from Spain, and although various other countries (notably the UK and Nicaragua) continued to lay claim to it, the question seems to have been pretty much settled by some treaties signed in 1928, putting the islands under Colombian jurisdiction. Not everybody is happy with that solution: Nicaragua still claims the archipelago, and we met at least one young man in San Andres who is part of an independence movement there.

The original settlers were Puritans who had stopped in Jamaica but were not welcome there. They were actually part of the same group that settled Plymouth, Massachusetts, arriving in Providencia about 1620. The famous pirate Henry Morgan established his base on Providencia in 1690, and his presence is a matter of civic pride there, today. Many islanders still speak English as their first language, and distinguish themselves from the "Colombians", who speak Spanish.

We came to the islands from the south, so our first landfall was the Albuquerque Cays, some 20 NM south of San Andres. The Albuquerque Cays are two tiny islands, surrounded by an extensive reef. One cay is occupied by a 13-man squad of Colombian marines; the other is a base for fishermen licensed to fish the reefs and surrounding waters. We wound our way through the reefs, using GPS waypoints provided by a fellow cruiser in Bocas. The waypoints turned out to be perfect, the waters inside the reef were crystal clear, and the lagoon was beautiful and alive with fish and conch.

The Marines asked us by VHF radio to come to their cay and check in. The "Comandante", a 19-year old Corporal, then gave us a tour around their tiny island base - about a 5-minute walk. The marines are all young and bored silly, so they are delighted to have visitors, who give them a refreshing break from their non-stop satellite-TV fare of music videos and telenovelas. They serve a rondo of 30 days at the Albuquerques, then 30 days on Cayos Bolivar (another otherwise deserted reef and cays), then 30 days back on San Andres. We surmise that their presence in this remote atoll is simply to prevent the Nicaraguans from taking the islands under the pretense that they're deserted.

The marines have no boats and limited snorkel gear (unless other cruisers, like us, have left some behind). The Commandante more or less invited himself and some other Marines to join Rob on a hunt next day for snappers in the reefs, claiming that they knew exactly where to find lots of fish. That evening, Rob free-dove to the coral formations 25 feet below Akka and speared a good-sized grouper, but despite having enough fish to eat for days, he and another cruiser went ashore the next morning and picked up 8 Marines, including the Commandante, for a snapper hunt. A morning's snorkel, using just two spear guns amongst the 10 participants, provided 24 decent snappers and a half-dozen conch. The big entertainment of the morning was a 10' nurse shark that was poking his nose into the same holes in a little reef that Rob and the Marines were shooting their spear guns into - eventually, one of the Marines, apparently regarding the shark as harmless, grabbed his tail and pulled him away. Kids.

That evening, we and the other cruising couple dinghied ashore for a taste of the ceviche the Marines had said they were making from the conch. To our surprise, we were instead served a full dinner of grilled snapper, french-fries and salad followed by the best-tasting ceviche we've had anywhere. We had to leave the next morning to avoid a storm that was forecast for the ensuing days, but, all in all, the Albuquerques were a delightful place to visit, and a convenient stopping point on the way to San Andres.

It was a full day's sail from the Albuquerques to the island of San Andres, even with a good breeze. All of the islands in the archipelago are misplaced on the charts by as much as 0.2 NM (the Defence Mapping Agency charts, dated 1985, say "Datum: NONE"). Fortunately, San Andres is quite hilly, with some bluffs right at the water's edge, so we were able to use our radar to calculate the offset between WGS-84, which we use as our standard GPS datum, and the charted position of the island. Why nobody at DMA has corrected this error is a mystery to us.

It was just as well that we did that calculation, because we arrived at the narrow San Andres entrance channel in rain so heavy that we could hardly see from one end of the boat to the other. As it turned out, the winding channel is extremely well marked, with buoys every hundred meters or so, and using our corrected GPS navigation, our radar, and a sharp lookout we were able to steer a course right up the middle of it despite the rain.

The contrast with the Albuquerque Cays could not have been more extreme. San Andres is a tourist and shopping destination for mainland Colombians. Some of the people on San Andres speak English as their first language, but the island has clearly been taken over by Spanish-speaking Colombians and the English-speaking natives appear to have been marginalized. The island is supposedly duty free, but as far as we could tell this designation only applies to the Hugo Boss, Armani, and Benetton stores and other places of that ilk; the locals claim they pay higher duty for ordinary products than do the mainland Colombians. One day, we got together with another cruising couple and rented a gasoline-driven golf cart. This turned out to be a great way to get out and see the island; we not only did a complete circumnavigation, stopping in several bars and restaurants on the way, but also were able to visit a little inland lake where crocodiles roamed and Rastas reigned.

We happened to be in San Andres during the NBA Championship series, and one day, when Rob was looking for a shop to repair some electronic gear, he met an elderly English speaker who invited us to join him and some friends in watching the games on TV. The TV set turned out to be mounted in the doorway of a convenience store - the audience sat in those plastic stackable chairs, out on the sidewalk and even partly in the street, and watched the games. The store benefited from sales of beer, soda and snacks. As it turned out, we were only able to make it to one game, but that experience was a lot of fun.

Our real destination on this trip was Providencia, which is always characterized in cruising guides and articles as "laid back", especially in contrast to the bustling atmosphere of San Andres. Providencia is certainly much more laid-back than San Andres, but it's not the quiet little backwater that some descriptions might lead one to believe. There are about 5000 residents, all of whom appear to own motorcycles ("motos"); four supermarkets; two banks (with cash machines); and various other stores and restaurants. Unlike on San Andres, a majority of Providencia islanders speak English as their first language; reggae music is heard much more commonly than salsa.

Although all policemen and all military personnel we saw were Spanish-speaking Colombianos, Providencia seems to enjoy a fair level of autonomy from mainland Colombia, and even from the province of San Andres/Providencia. The main government building in Providencia declares the island to be "New Providence", and there is a strong political determination to preserve the traditional culture of the island. We were told that there is an absolute prohibition against high-rise hotels, and currently there is a moratorium on all new construction. Supposedly, there is some kind of quota on Colombianos immigrating to the island, though how they can enforce such a limit was not clear to us, since the island is part of Colombia.

One thing that surprised us about Providencia is that things there are very expensive compared to just about anywhere else in the Southwest Caribbean. Diesel fuel was about 20 cents per gallon more expensive than in Panama, not including the cost of delivering it to the boat. A single arepa with an egg and some hash inside it cost the equivalent of US $1.00 (the same arepa costs $.50-$.75 in Cartagena). A whole roasted chicken, to go, cost about US $11. For some reason, the island drinks Miller, Heineken and Moosehead beer - these cost about $1.50 apiece in a bar.

Internet access was the worst we've encountered in a long time. There were three terminals at the one internet café in town, so generally there was a long wait to get a terminal, and the connection was painfully slow - displayed download speeds were 3-10 KB/sec. The clerk there would not let us attach our laptops to the system, though we saw a local doing so. Rob continues to do lots of rules stuff for US SAILING and the International Sailing Federation, so every other day or so he hopped on the back of a moto taxi ($2 each way) to the Hotel Sol, about 3 miles away on Freshwater Bay, and paid $5 an hour for a mediocre wi-fi connection.

We needed diesel fuel, and had heard that we could bring Akka in to the pier and take the fuel on board from a pickup truck. We called the local cruisers' agent to arrange this, and when we were about to weigh anchor and come alongside, he told us instead to come to the dock in our dinghy. We did so, and he told us that to bring Akka to the dock was "too much trouble"; instead, we would take the fuel out to the boat. So Rob went in a pickup truck to the gas station, bought 80 gallons of fuel, and returned with it to the dinghy dock. This part went fine (except for the part where they had to push-start the pickup truck carrying the fuel), but the rest of the process was a disaster. It turned out that we had to use our own dinghy to transport the fuel, in two 15-gallon jugs with no caps on their tops (our helpers simply shoved rags into the openings). Each time the jugs were lowered into the dinghy or raised (by halyard) onto the deck of Akka, a half-cup or so of diesel fuel spilled out, some into the dingy, some onto the deck, and some into the water. To get the fuel from the jugs into our tanks, the helper sucked on the hose to create a siphon, then pushed the end of the hose into our Baja filter. This worked well until he needed to pick up the jug to get the last part of the fuel out, when he dropped the filter end of the hose, which of course came out of the filter and spilled diesel fuel over the deck. When each jug was empty, our helper nonchalantly drained the hose and then coiled it, letting any residual fuel spill onto the deck. In the end, the decks (fortunately fiberglass, not teak), the dinghy, and even Rob were covered with diesel fuel; but we did have most of the 80 gallons of fuel in our tanks. Washing up took more time than the entire bunkering operation, and to add insult to injury we had to pay the helpers US $40, effectively raising the price of the fuel by $.50 a gallon.

As you might imagine, there's generally not much to do around Providencia, but we just happened to be there during their annual Carnival, so things were a bit livelier than usual. The centerpiece of Carnival is a beauty pageant (showing that Colombian cultural influence can't be staunched entirely); the "princesses" prance around at various events, get chauffeured around the island, show up (late) at all the Carnival events such as the basketball and volleyball tournaments, splash with everybody else in the bay during the afternoon of marine frolicking, and of course go to the horse races.

The horse races ("arse reces" in the local vernacular) were held over the course of one afternoon, on a long beach on the south end of the island. The horses are local, compete in pairs, and are ridden bareback by local kids. Lots of rum and beer is consumed by the crowds, and we understand there are lots of bets made, but we didn't see any money changing hands and there's certainly no official betting office. We showed up early with some other cruisers (there was some confusion about the time of the first race, and the official Carnival brochure had no mention at all of this event), so we got a chance to walk the full length of the beach and sample the various beachside bars well before the crowds arrived. Finally, after a great seafood lunch, we sat back to watch the races. Well, maybe "jumped back" would be a better description: you start out standing on the beach watching for each pair of horses to come galloping toward you, then you take a quick snapshot as they are almost upon you, then you jump out of the way as they thunder past. After the races we repaired to the beach bars, only to discover that we (and the rest of the crowd) had drunk the bars out of beer. Great fun.

A couple of mornings after Carnival was over, we awoke with that urge to see something new. After clearing out and paying the agent, we set sail for the San Blas, about 200 NM to the southeast, seeking new adventures.