January 6, 2015,
Isla Providencia, Columbia
(New Providence Island)
Isla Providencia (New Providence in English) was settled by English Puritans in the early 1600s. They made their living by trading slaves and tobacco, and because of their position off the coast of Nicaragua, near the Panamanian Isthmus where the Spaniards transported gold form Western Mexico and Peru to Atlantic ships, privateering, and when necessary, pirating along the Spanish Main. Henry Morgan was its most illustrious businessman. It drove the Spaniards nuts because they had not run across the islands and couldn’t tell from where Morgan was operating. Finally they captured a privateer and, according to legend, extracted the island’s location under torture. Protestant, Puritan, Pirates, I had to see this place.
The Islands (There are two of them, the main island and Santa Catalina) are connected by the Lover’s Bridge” a footbridge built as part of the defense of the island. The settlers filled in the strait between the islands so that Spanish ships could not sail between them. They created a reef with a footbridge on top.
A different reef was the reason that the Prinsendam is stopping here. The Island has the second largest barrier reef in the Caribbean and the excursions included snorkeling, diving and swimming. That part of the visit was canceled because of 35 knot winds and heavy seas so history became the main topic of interest for those who went ashore, and many did not. I had read up on the island and, while I would not have minded a bit of beach time, I also wanted to explore some of Henry Morgan’s forts. We were scheduled to begin tender service at 11 in the morning and we started late. It was a wild 20 minute ride into the harbor. The Captain had warned us that the ride would not be pleasant. It was not, but for me, worth it when, as we stepped off the boat, a woman handed me a bible tract. I was waiting for the robbery that never came. At the pier we saw a giant Christmas tree and a statue of Santa Claus playing a saxophone.
The lecturer on the ship told us that the island didn’t have much tourism and that it would be like going back to many other Caribbean Islands 60 years ago. Most of the population is Black, and speaks English, we could tell this by listening to kids playing, although we heard a good deal of Spanish mixed in, Suzi thinks that the kids probably do not know the difference until they go to school where Columbia would try to teach them Spanish. Official signs are all in Spanish, commerce signs are in English. A number of the islands in the Western Caribbean became a part of Columbia over the years and remained part of Columbia after Panama seceded from that country. Geographically it would make sense for these islands to be Nicaraguan, culturally, probably part of Belize.
We were told that we could rent golf carts or motor bikes to go to some of the beaches which are about 6 km away on the other side of the island, but it seemed to be a holiday (Three Kings Day, or Epiphany.) Looking at the schedule posted on the web there are only about 4 cruise ship callings a year. So the locals had a choice, make money by selling us stuff or observe the holiday. Untrue to the island’s history, the holiday won. Living in a cruise ship town I have a lot of respect for that.
So we walked, across the “Lover’s Bridge” and around Santa Catalina Island about a kilometer along the mangroves and climbed up to Fort Warwick. Someone has taken the effort to place some nice ceramic plaques in English labeling boat building sites, “Typical House” and marking a compass rose. Just beyond the fort is a small beach and point Morgan. We passed colorful clapboard houses with hammocks for sleeping and a few breeze-block buildings and saw kid playing and a few fishermen and boat builders. After making the climb to Fort Warwick one of the passengers seemed to pass out (It was very hot and humid) fell, cut herself and was bleeding. Fortunately a nurse was with us and she started working on the woman. She asked me to go back to the harbor and get help from Holland America. Suzi and I started back and I have to say it was the closest I have ever come to having heat exhaustion myself. I had to sit and take some water. I flagged down some others and asked them to go back to find some crew members, they may be faster than me. A minute or two later I started up again and around the corner I found the two talking to two Holland American staffers. I explained the situation. They said they would get help to the woman. Suzi and I hiked to the other end of the trail at Santa Catalina Island. At that end we found a cannon and a plaque that said that on this spot “Pirates were hung and Protestants burned habitats of Mangroves and Seagulls.”
Back across the bridge in New Providence town we tried to find someone who could sell us a coke, with no luck, although one place that sold beer and one shop that sold coral had opened. Someone was also renting motor bikes. There is a mix of Protestant and Catholic churches and in the town square are the 10 commandments with the admonition “no pisar.” It’s not what I thought. Suzi says “pisar” means “step on.” “Don’t tread on the law of God.”
Everyone has their own take on things. As we came back on the tender one woman said to me: “With all of the beautiful places in the world they had to take us here.” I was thinking I enjoyed the day.