Sea of seven colours
Into the blue on Colombia’s Isla de Providencia
Torn from the sky, the plane falls momentarily, thrown off-kilter by a strong gust of wind. Sweat prickles the foreheads of those seated next to me; the heat is sweltering and each turbulent cloud threatens to send us plunging towards the sea again. Knuckles white from gripping the seat, I crane my neck to peer at the expanse below, which seems ready to swallow us at any moment. My 15 fellow passengers seem unperturbed; this 20-minute flight in a tiny, rudimentary plane is their journey home.
Like them, I am en route from the Caribbean island of San Andres to neighbouring Isla de Providencia. Notoriously hard to reach, it is technically part of Colombia but located about 800km north of the mainland, stranded mid-ocean about halfway between Costa Rica and Jamaica. Peering down, I catch a glimpse of dappled water randomly splashed with turquoise, bleeding into darker hues of azure. The outline of Providencia is visible up ahead, with smaller islands scattered around its coast. As we begin to circle, the Sea of Seven Colours — so called because this remote stretch of the Caribbean is vividly multi-hued thanks to its myriad coral reefs — is evident in all its glory. The verdant, mountainous island is wallowing in a pool of cerulean, with brushstrokes of paler cyan where the water grows shallow. Smatterings of coral beneath the surface create areas of dazzling electric blue, trickled as if with a pipette across the sea’s canvas.
Half the size of San Andres, Providencia is relatively untouched by tourism. Much of its culture dates from the 1630s, when English Puritans settled on the island under the aegis of the Providence Island Company, trading in tobacco grown on slave-worked plantations. As a result, locals speak a variation of English Creole. After the English left, various countries, including Argentina and Mexico, laid claim to Providencia during the next three centuries. In 1928, Colombia and Nicaragua signed a treaty that gave control of the island to Colombia. However, Nicaragua repudiated the treaty in the 1980s and continued to make legal claims over the island until 2012, when sovereignty was awarded once and for all to Colombia. Despite this political tug of war, the way of life feels laid-back, relaxed and distinctly Caribbean.
To the northeast of the island lies McBean Lagoon National Natural Park, which boasts the third longest barrier reef in the world. As I head there shortly after my arrival, skimming across the water on a speedboat, the colours I see from the plane melt into a glittering patchwork of blue. We stop to snorkel, observing an explosion of fish darting among the coral. Lobsters crawl across the seabed and a stingray billows sand, engulfing the accompanying “cleaner fish” that feed on parasites and scraps of food. Returning to shore, we light a barbecue on the deserted beach. Clouds of smoke are soon rising from it as we grill lobster doused in garlic butter.
As we relax, surrounded by palm trees in the company of a pensive iguana, we look out to sea and think about where we’re heading next. Our goal is Tayrona National Natural Park, on Colombia’s northeast coast. After flying into the nearby city of Santa Marta, we head to the mountains, drawing closer to the Sierra Nevada, its peaks visible through the clouds.
The jungle, peppered with pink flowers, becomes increasingly luscious and humid as we head along a highway teeming with roadside vendors and motorcyclists carrying heavy loads around tight bends. Finally, we arrive safely at the national park, an area of great importance for Colombia. Tayrona and the surrounding mountains are home to the indigenous Kogi tribe who live mostly in isolation, though children sometimes venture out to sell coconuts and other produce to tourists.
Walking through the dense undergrowth led by Juan, our guide, I learn about the strong belief system of the Kogi. Juan grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and his passion for the area shines through his every word. “Kogi see the Earth as a living creature,” he explains, “the trees as her hair, the mountains her muscles, and the rivers her veins.” He produces an offering of mildly narcotic coca leaf to thank Mother Earth for allowing us to enjoy her provisions. The leaf is ingrained in the culture of male Kogi, marking their initiation into manhood. They chew it, mixed with lime, to suppress hunger and survive for long periods without food.
Years ago, conflict was rife in the Sierra Nevada mountains where many people cultivated the coca leaf to supply the cocaine trade run by Pablo Escobar, the drug lord and trafficker who died in a police shootout in 1993. His business had brought intolerable violence, so after Escobar’s death, the region was sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate in an attempt to wipe out the plant. But the cocaine trade has continued nevertheless, and the area of land used to grow coca leaf soared dramatically in 2014 and 2015 after six years of declining or steady production. “The world is there to be enjoyed,” says Juan, “but the devastation and exploitation we have experi-
Tayrona National Natural Park, above left; island paradise in McBean Lagoon, above right; monkey business, below
San Juan del Guia in Tayrona National Natural Park, left; Deep Blue hotel, top; beach shack on Isla de Providencia, above