Coral, Colombian Style

<strong>Pedro's Place off Providencia</strong><br>Photo by Franklin Viola
As I arrive on San Andr?s, the locals tell me that I am in luck. Winds here are generally steady out of the east, but a westerly wind has come up, creating a lee on the eastern side of the island. I will have a chance to see some dive sites that most visiting gringos never lay eyes on.

That's undoubtedly true. Then again, any San Andr?s dive site is bound to be one that most dive-traveling gringos (or gringas for that matter) have never seen before. Talk to even the most travel-hardened groups of divers, even those with the extra pages sewn into their passports, and chances are that the only San Andr?s they've ever heard of is a fault line that runs through California. Tell them there's another one, and that it is an island that's part of Colombia, and you're apt to get a reply like, "There's diving in Colombia?"

There is, and it's refreshingly pristine and still largely uncharted territory for those norteamericanos who associate Colombia with Juan Valdez (and Pablo Escobar), and remember it--albeit vaguely--as the place where Danny DeVito chased Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. To most of us, when we think of it at all, Colombia is the go-to place for great coffee. But great coral? That's news.

MOUNTAINS AND SEA

True, when you fly into Bogot?, Colombia's teeming capital and the gateway for most international travelers, you might get the idea that your travel agent is laughing her hind end off back home. The city of 7 million people is high in the mountains, with dense forests all around, but no ocean as far as the eye can see. And modern city traffic is, indeed, dotted with the occasional burro laden with burlap sacks full of green coffee beans, and looking for all the world as if it is waiting for Juan to step into the scene.

Two hours in a commuter plane changes all that. San Andr?s is actually much nearer to mainland Nicaragua in Central America than it is to mainland Colombia in South America, and it is comfortably and beautifully ensconced in the clear-blue western Caribbean, one of Colombia's two ocean fronts (the northeastern part of the country butts up against the Pacific). With a population of 60,000, the 8-mile-long island balances modern tropical hotels with strict laws regulating new development. Travel south of town, and you'll find few buildings other than the crumbling mansion that locals say once belonged to a drug cartel--but that has long since been confiscated by the government. Though populated, much of the island is still beautifully natural.


BLUE WALLS AND PYRAMIDS

That goes double underwater. Nelson Ramos, divemaster with PADI Dive Resort Divers Team, shakes his head in amusement as I tell him how surprised I am by Colombia. He's heard the reaction before--a case of the destination's reputation not catching up with the times. And with a just-wait-and-see smile on his face, he turns the dive operation's 31-foot banda toward the east.

Nelson picks a spot called Grouper Palace on the Blue Wall, and we roll in. Minutes later I'm at 120 feet, hovering in front of a cavern populated with durgon, not the dive site's name attraction. And it's not mask squeeze that's making my eyes pop out--feather black coral bushes surround the Palace. Somewhere, a thousand blue and misty feet below, the wall bottoms out--a fact I decide to take Nelson's word for. We head up instead, past a wall covered in sea fans, gorgonian soft corals, and neon-green rope sponges, all standing at attention with almost no current. But the most striking inhabitants are large yellow tube sponges, each colonized by exactly one striped goby. I'm struck by the beauty of such minuscule life on a wall so huge. At the dive's end, Nelson doesn't even ask whether I want him to move the boat. One look at my face tells him I want to see it all over again.

But San Andr?s had more to offer than deep dives and walls. On a shallow dive site called the Pyramid, we found a pair of large waving anemones, one with neon-green tips, the other purple, and plentiful fish, including French grunts and snappers. Drifting lazily over this life-filled site, I spotted an exquisite flamingo tongue cowrie, about the size of a thumb joint, its neatly outlined mantle seemingly too delicate for someplace as wild as the sea.

The next day, the wind is still gusting, shaking the 19-passenger puddle-jumper as I make the 50-mile trip north to a place shown on the map as Isla de Providencia, but known to most inhabitants as Old Providence or Providence. Compared to San Andr?s, it is almost like journeying to a different country.

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