21. June 2024

Charming cocaine island

On the nautical chart, you’ll only see Providencia if you zoom in very closely; that’s how tiny and charming the cocaine island is. Although Providencia belongs to Colombia, it’s much closer to Nicaragua. Here, traditions are upheld, and mass tourism is nonexistent. In 2020, a hurricane nearly devastated the island’s infrastructure, yet the islanders didn’t complain; instead, they considered the hurricane a blessing.

For us, Providencia is a restful stopover on the way to Panama, a breather to dive with the gray reef sharks and spend the holidays with our friends from SV My Motu. But soon, we realize Providencia also has its dark sides.

Providencia still has untouched nature

On Providencia, we feel immediately welcomed. The island greets us with warmth and music, and soon we recognize the people. “There, the Rasta man we saw earlier at the bakery, now he’s sitting at the pier! There, the old lady with the big hat from the chicken stand!” The island is so small that, even if one wanted to, no one could get lost.

A band plays at the harbor

In Providencia, old traditions are maintained, including music. A musical group plays at the pier with unusual instruments. One holds a horse skull in hand. With a stick, he scrapes across the teeth of the horse jawbone to lay the rhythmic foundation of the song.

But Providencia also confuses us. Here, people speak Creole, English, and Spanish, even though the island technically belongs to Spanish-speaking Colombia. “Creole was the secret language of our ancestors, so their English slave drivers couldn’t understand them,” says Justiffer, our dive guide. The Babylonian island reminds us that it has changed hands multiple times and that former slaves didn’t want their slave drivers to understand them. Christopher Columbus is said to have dropped anchor here between 1492 and 1500. In the early 17th century, the English conquered Providencia and brought African slaves to the island. At the end of the 18th century, the Spanish then seized Providencia, which, like the neighboring island of San Andrés, became part of Colombia in 1822, despite being closer to Nicaragua. Since then, Colombia has settled its mainland residents here to cement its power claim.

View over the bay in front of the main village

Nicaragua is unhappy about this territorial distribution. Although Nicaragua recognized it in the 1928 agreement, it later reconsidered and went to the International Court of Justice in 2001 to claim the islands and maritime areas, which are rich in fish, for itself. Nicaragua lost in court, but the dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia continues to this day – and that still holds political dynamite.

Providencia has about 5000 inhabitants and is so small that we can circle the island in forty minutes in a golf cart, which we do. We are sheltered in the bay near the main town, which consists of a few houses. Upon our arrival, we first have to go to Mr. Bush, the local agent for cruisers, to clear ourselves and Mabul. Mr. Bush is still in bed when we knock on his door and must first put on his pants. He wants to see our passports and boat papers, but that’s it. Then Mr. Bush tells us what makes this island so great: “The people, man, the people! Nowhere else will you meet such nice people! Nothing gets lost here, nothing gets stolen.” Soon, I will find out what he means.

We explore Providencia with a better golf cart

Mr. Bush has been running an agency for over forty years, importing and exporting, yacht services, clearing in and out, etc. He doesn’t want to talk about the island’s political history and Nicaragua’s long-standing claim to the island. Too political, too sensitive. Colombia is great, and they belong to Colombia because Colombia takes good care of them. This was actually shown after Hurricane Iota in November 2020 almost completely destroyed the island’s infrastructure. Afterwards, with the help of Colombia, the EU, and other nations, they were able to completely rebuild their island, says Mr. Bush: “The hurricane was a blessing for the island.”

As we drive around the island, we see that everything is new: a new hospital, a new police station, all the houses are new. There are even ATMs that work right away. I must have been absent-minded when I withdrew money because although I received the money, I forgot my card in the ATM – and didn’t even notice. There I experience firsthand what Mr. Bush said: “Nothing gets stolen in Providencia.” A few days after my visit to the ATM, I receive a message on Instagram from an unknown person. She has my bank card and wants to give it back to me. “Spam,” I think, but then I check anyway and realize that the card is actually missing. So I meet Melissa, the islander who wrote to me, in a café in the small town. She is 30 years old, a social worker, studied in Colombia, and grew up on the island.

Mr. Bush, the man for everything

Providencia is quiet now, but it used to be much, much sleepier, Melissa says. There were no cars or motorcycles; everyone traveled by horse. The community cohesion was enormous and still is, says Melissa. There was no abundance on Providencia, so they pooled resources. One family had tomatoes, another carrots, coconut milk, or fish. In the evening, everyone came together with their offerings and threw everything into a pot over a wood fire. Thus, the national dish was created: the Rondon, a stew. “This stew is not just a dish, it unites the community because everyone contributes something. In addition, while peeling potatoes, problems are discussed, and the latest gossip is exchanged,” Melissa says.

These traditions – whether it’s food, dance, or other customs – are still upheld in Providencia today, unlike on the neighboring island of San Andrés. It has been completely swallowed up by mass tourism, with the problems that come with it – environmental problems, crime, overpopulation, many islanders tell us. But on Providencia, there are no big hotels, a decision consciously made by the islanders to preserve their island and its spirit. “Due to the long history of various invaders, many here believe that everything that comes from outside is inherently bad,” says Melissa. That’s why the traditionalists always had the say, compared to the reformers and innovators, and that could sometimes be frustrating, says the young islander. It went so far that the purchase of a desalination plant for the island was prevented, even though water was a huge problem.

“There are no rivers or springs on the island, and the only water the island has is rainwater collected,” says Melissa. Since her childhood, she had to decide: Do I shower, wash the dishes, or cook?

At many places, you can find uninhabited facades like here

The hurricane changed a lot. First came the chaos. Never before had such a strong hurricane passed over the island. Everything was gone, everything destroyed, including all documents, registers, and receipts. The reconstruction was not fair or just at all, says Melissa: “People who only had one house suddenly got two because there were no books anymore to check who owned what, but because they had the right connections.” That created a lot of envy, but it was quickly forgotten. “Because we help each other, man. If one has nothing to eat, then we share.” And that is also what makes Providencia so special. “I don’t want to live anywhere else, and if I do, I’ll come back,” says Melissa.

For Melissa, the hurricane was rupture, injustice, and improvement all at once, and when she looks at her community now, she sees something: “Resilience, that’s what defines us, and unity.” And she’s proud of it.

And then she tells me about the efforts she made to find me and return the map to me. When she saw my card in the ATM, she knew the name on it wasn’t an island name. Besides, she thought I was a man. So she wrote to all the Posadas, the small hotels on the island, asking if anyone was hosting a Karin Wenger, but no one replied. Then she searched social networks and found a Karin Wenger who sails.

The glowing Christmas tree can be seen from afar.

One image caught her eye immediately: a photo showing Alex and me with our friends from SV My Motu, behind us a large Christmas tree of lights that Jeroen had attached to the mast of the boat. What we didn’t know and what Melissa told us: All the islanders admired this Christmas tree and stopped at the promenade to take a photo of My Motu and the Christmas tree. So, Melissa reasoned, this Karin Wenger must live on this boat, must be the sailor. And so she wrote to me, and we met.

Melissa and her friend visit us on board, where we share stories and spaghetti—and of course, take a photo with the Christmas tree for her Instagram. Although it’s hot in the Caribbean, Christmas is also celebrated on the island. Christmas carols are played in the small shops, My Motu’s Christmas tree shines brightly, and Aagje prepares a wonderful Christmas dinner for us, Dutch delights.

On the day after Christmas, we go diving for the first time. We dive with Justiffer—a Rastafarian from Felipe’s dive center. He assures us that we will see sharks in the waters of Providencia 99.9 percent of the time. He tells us to “chill,” to relax… And he’s right, barely underwater, the gray reef sharks come and gaze at us curiously.

A brief briefing from Justiffer, and we’re already swimming amidst reef sharks.

We dive six times with Felipe’s guys, and each time the gray animals come, gaze at us, swim away, and come back. “They’re not dangerous,” says Jim, another dive guide. “The reef sharks are used to divers.” This also has to do with the lion fish. Lion fish, an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific, released by aquarium owners in the Caribbean, reproduce like crazy. That’s why divers hunt them and feed them to the sharks—and you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Although: Justiffer says a diver has already been bitten by a shark here twice because the divers wanted to touch the sharks. “Don’t do it! Sharks aren’t cats,” Justiffer warns.

The sharks observe us just as thoroughly as we observe them.

What we also see, as in many other places in the Caribbean: The reef is bleached white and sick up to ten meters below the water’s surface. It’s a direct result of rising water temperatures. From white corals, we move on to talk about the white powder. A few packages of cocaine were washed ashore on the other side of the island a month ago, the dive guides tell us. Either the drug ship—often small boats with big engines—wrecked or was chased by the coast guard and threw its cargo overboard. Whoever finds such packages either gets rich or gets killed. They don’t want to say more on our first dive trip, but such stories require trust, and that comes with time. We’ll do more dive trips.

Pure white, soon the brown algae will come, and that’s it.

This little paradise, so beautifully green in the blue, also has its dark sides. Providencia lies on the cocaine route between Colombia and the North, with the ultimate destination being the USA—and the islanders, and sometimes passing sailors, are heavily involved. Colombia produces around 60 percent of the cocaine in the world, followed by Peru and Bolivia.

Providencia and the drug trade, that’s been together as long as she can remember, says Melissa. The temptation of fast money leads many islanders to get involved in the drug business, and many would lose their lives in this risky business.

We enjoy the beach and a reggae bar.

I learn about the relationship between cocaine and Providencia for the first time by chance. We rented a small golf cart and drove to the windward side of the island because we wanted to watch a traditional sailing race with traditional boats there. Since the start is in island time, which means it’s delayed, we first go to the beach bar, where I start chatting with the bartender while he mixes me a piña colada. “Where are you from?” “From Switzerland, but we live on the sailboat.” “Cool! I knew a sailor, a Spaniard. He took a kilo of cocaine to Europe and made a fortune. How about it?”

We could earn several tens of thousands of dollars if we brought a kilo of cocaine to Europe or the USA, he says. As I sit comfortably in the hammock with my drink, he already sends me several photos: one of cannabis, one with magic mushrooms, and one of a pack of white powder.

The masts are up, it can start anytime.

Then the traditional sailing regatta begins. There are three boats at the start, simple wooden boats, the mast is inserted, and the sails are hoisted. It all looks quite precarious, and we fear the keel-less boats will capsize any moment.

As we watch the boats being prepared, I chat with Martin, an islander who works for the island administration. All the boats are built here; they only buy the sails, he says. Before the hurricane of 2020, there were many more sailboats, but the hurricane destroyed most of them, and now they’re trying to slowly rebuild them.

Martin also emphasizes the unity on the island and says that many islanders, even if they temporarily leave to find work, return to the island—because people know each other here, because you can lead a quiet, peaceful life here… “and the drugs, don’t they cause unrest?” I ask. “Yes, they’re a big problem. Too many islanders turn to drug transportation as a way out when they can’t find a job. For the drug mafia, Providencia is also a good stop to refuel.”

Justiffer and Odin during tank exchange.

When the sea washed up five packs of cocaine a month ago, unfortunately, Dive guide Justiffer said he didn’t get anything on our second trip, but Olin, the captain of our small dive boat, did… The drug boats from Colombia often don’t even come into Providencia, but the islanders go out to deliver fuel to them or they transport the cargo in their own boats to Nicaragua, Belize, Jamaica, or Mexico. If we wanted to get into the business, the profits would vary depending on where we delivered the drugs. Justiffer talks about $40,000 per kilo that we could earn – 60% for him, 40% for us – if we brought a kilo of cocaine to Europe or even better, to China. In Switzerland, a gram is sold for about 90 Swiss francs, making almost 100,000 Swiss francs market value for a kilo. But don’t worry: We declined with thanks.

It’s usually not just about a kilo. In March 2022, the Colombian Navy seized 982 kilograms of cocaine worth $32 million on a speedboat off Providencia. In September 2023, the Coast Guard of San Andres intercepted a ship with more than a ton of cocaine worth over $40 million on a speedboat heading towards Mexico. Since the 1980s, the drug mafia has also been using submarines to transport drugs unseen to Mexico. In 2023, the Colombian Navy located 13 of these Narco Subs – one had over 200 kilos of cocaine on board. The crew tried to sink the drugs, but they didn’t succeed in time.

If things go wrong, you end up in prison or dead. The drug clans show no mercy if their goods are lost, says Justiffer. But the temptation remains. Many young people, and you have to be young and healthy to transport drugs in a small boat over several hundred nautical miles, see drug trafficking as an alternative to unemployment, says Melissa, the island social worker. “Many young men risk everything and lose everything. They never return from the sea. They capsize or are killed,” says Melissa. It has happened that the hacked-up body of a young man has been found in a suitcase – because he stole or lost the drugs. But the “drug trips,” as the drug transports are called here, have a magical fascination for the islanders. “The children see how their neighbors, friends, and relatives can afford a big house or a motorcycle and go abroad on vacation. They say, ‘When I grow up, I want to do drug trips too. They see it as a career, as a way to get rich,” says Melissa, who also works in schools.

Provisioning for the day

When she was still in school herself, many of her classmates would say, “I’m not learning anything, my only goal is to marry a drug boss or one who transports drugs, to then lead a life of luxury.” Films like those about drug baron Pablo Escobar have continued to contribute to the myth. “Some of my friends did just one transport because they said, with the money, I can start a business, build a house, and live quietly.” Others would become dependent on the gold rush. They would come back after the transport, invite everyone to drink parties. Everyone knew that someone had earned quick drug money. Then the money is gone and because they couldn’t do anything else, they had to transport drugs again and again. “If we want to solve this problem, young people need a good education and a social environment that encourages them not to take risks and go for quick money, but to pursue a good education and an honest income,” says Melissa.

With our drug research, the old year comes to an end and the new one is on the horizon. Nine boats are now in the bay, including three solo sailors whom we invite to dinner with us on My Motu on the 31st. There’s this American solo sailor, for example, whose wife ran away just before crossing the Panama Canal. So he stayed on the Caribbean side, looking for a new wife and spending his time playing the ukulele.

Almost all boats in the bay are represented on My Motu

After a hearty dinner of garlic shrimp, rice, and dahl, he delights us with his ukulele playing on New Year’s Eve. Also, Miks, another solo sailor who has his whole boat full of electronics but also had to stop here because a few essential things weren’t working, has come. After dinner, we all go to the beach and make a fire to welcome the New Year.

After two weeks on this wonderful island, we are ready to leave. But not without hearing from the bartender again, who wanted to give us cocaine. He has another request, which he sent to me via voice message: “Please find me a woman from your country, a nice woman, ok?” A woman who likes good lobster and fish, magic mushrooms, and probably also a line of coke – the bartender is your man, get in touch with us!

A bonfire to end the holidays, we leave Providencia the day after tomorrow

Now it’s on to the next adventure. We hoist the sails and set course for Panama, for the archipelago of San Blas. There, the indigenous Gunas live in their autonomous territory. If there is a paradise on earth, it’s there.

You can find more photos from Providencia in these galleries:

Providencia Diving

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