We had really enjoyed our previous time in Colombia and were interested to experience some more Colombian culture – this time on the islands of San Andres and Providencia. These islands are actually closer to the Nicaraguan coast than Colombia and we weren't sure what kind of local feel they would have.
We had to get there first though. This involved an overnight sail from Colon, Panama to San Andres and much discussion was had with our fellow Suzie Too Rally sailors on the best departure time. We had decided on a 2pm departure, but found ourselves slipping lines just after mid-day – the last of our group to leave on that day. Having dodged out of the way of the immense shipping around the Panama Canal area we then started dodging bad weather. There's nothing wrong putting a tack in to miss a particularly nasty and wet squall !
After a relatively quiet night sail we approached the well marked channel entrance between the reefs that surround San Andres whilst being hailed by the port authority to announce our arrival. We then tried to anchor near the local fishing boats. After a couple of attempts the anchor appeared to have dug in, but a swim over it revealed that it was simply caught in the myriad of rubble and waste scattered over the sea bed. Fellow sailors were having similar problems so we decided to join friends in the anchorage area on the other side of Cotton Cay. What a beautiful anchorage this turned out to be. The anchor bit on our first attempt and we found ourselves surrounded by the most stunning clear water in ever changing shades of blue. Even the occasional tourist boat cruising by and the slightly splashy dinghy rides ashore, did not detract from the sheer beauty of the sea water around us.
Our immigration was dealt with by a local agent which freed us up to start exploring ashore asap. We were rather taken aback by how busy and 'touristy' San Andres appeared. We strolled around the shopping centre and sea front promenade, marvelling at how many people were enjoying their beach based holidays and the local bars and restaurants. We hadn't seen anything on this scale for quite a while and it took a little adjustment to settle back into holiday fun mode again.
Always keen to find out about local culture we joined a group of our friends from the rally on one day, hiring buggies for a driving tour around the island. First stop of the day for our small convoy was the 'museum' – really an old island house with some period pieces, but interesting to see and useful to hear the background from a local guide. Dancing lessons were an unusual twist for a museum visit. We will spare you all the pain of watching the video !
A trip inland to the Big Pond proved to be the highlight of the day as our local Raizal guide escorted us around the area explaining Raizal culture, how the local families use the fauna in the area and why the pond is full of caimans. Other stops along the way on our island tour included lunch, the botanical gardens and a beach club, but nothing matched the relaxed and fascinating experience of Big Pond.
After a few days in San Andres, ourselves and another yacht in the rally decided to head off to Providencia slightly ahead of the rest of the group. Our plans were thwarted when the wind decided to puff off and then the engine decided it wasn't playing either after a few hours. We had to turn around and sail back to San Andres to take advantage of the tide and what little wind there was. We also thought there was a better chance of finding any parts we might need on San Andres.
As per usual with the cruising life we sailed into the beautiful anchorage and then set about the running repairs; in this case tackling the nasty case of diesel bug that had blocked the engine fuel pipe. Also as per usual, rally chums rallied round and spent several hours on board with Steve clearing the problem. I kept myself busy in the meantime riding around town on the back of a complete stranger's motorbike looking for boat parts. The locals of San Andres really are very kind and helpful to tourists.
After our enforced extra night in San Andres, we successfully made passage up to Providencia and anchored between between the islands of Providencia and Santa Catalina. These islands proved to have a completely different feeling to San Andres and became one of our favourite stops in the rally. Ashore we found the island to be awash with scooters, mosaics and creative bus stops. Whilst the scooters were a good way to get around the island, I hated seeing babies being carried in their parents arms on the front and back of the scooters.
We took up a recommendation from the first group in the Suzie Too Rally and spent an evening at the local cinema, watching films made on the island about their heritage, language and the black crab migration. An excellent evening out.
The snorkeling around the area of Captain Morgan's Head was very good and we were treated to an encounter with yet another fish we had not seen in Caribbean waters before. Another nature 'first' for us was leaf cutter bees that repeatedly tried to make nests on board. Turtles, fish and coral were also enjoyed on a trip out to Crab Cay and the view from the top of the cay was wonderful.
Our thirst for knowledge was briefly quenched during a fascinating talk from a local resident who explained how Providencia came to be populated and developed, and how they transitioned from British to Spanish to Colombian rule. Providencia folk are basically very rebellious and have an enchanting society based on Raizal and European cultures. Whilst Spanish was widely spoken in San Andres, Creole and English were the norm on Providencia and Santa Catalina with Spanish being introduced at school and via television.
As our relaxed time in Providencia drew to an end we were hit by a brief storm causing ours and other yachts to drag in the anchorage. Again the sailing community pulled together and we returned from being caught ashore in the storm to find our yacht had been safely re-anchored by friends, luckily not damaging other friends yachts. It is so nice to be regularly reminded how many kind people there are in the world.
Having waved goodbye to friends who were leaving the Suzie Too Rally in Providencia, we set sail in convey to negotiate the potentially dangerous waters off Nicaragua en-route to our next rally destination of Honduras. What an eventful passage that turned out to be.....