Sea of seven colours

Into the blue on Colom­bia’s Isla de Prov­i­den­cia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - BELINDA MAUDE

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.