Coral, Colombian Style

Juan Valdez meets the deep blue Caribbean in San Andr?s and Providencia


CLEAN TAXIS

Later that day, we make our way back around the island to another idyllic white sand beach at the Hotel Miss Mary restaurant for an incredible lunch of pasta and island crab. Our cab never shows up to take us back, so we start walking the two miles to the hotel. I joke with Felipe that the guidebook says it's easy to catch cabs on the island. "But not in the rain," he says with a laugh. "They don't want to dirty dem taxi." ?

The rain was light and warm, though, and the walk turns out to be a great way to see the island. Giant cotton trees loom with tall root blades, along with a range of other tropicals, such as mango trees and the occasional breadfruit. Toads call out to one another from the damp. They sound like a group of kids back in the trees, all making popping sounds by pulling their fingers from their cheeks.

I comment on the lack of development, and Felipe explains that the island's laws prevent nonresidents--even those from mainland Colombia--from owning property outright. The few high-end vacation homes are owned by people from Bogot? who have to establish partial ownership with a local.

By afternoon the bay has settled enough for us to launch from the dock, just behind Felipe's shop on the beach. On our first dive, we drift toward a spot called Nick's Place, exploring at about 60 feet the edge of a mellow wall that drops to 140 feet with multiple ledges. Over the drop I see a huge school of Creole wrasses with a few large parrotfish and black grouper in the mix. I happen upon a spotted moray showing off his pearly whites, and then drift on to look at some giant barrel sponges, large enough to dwarf Felipe's 210-pound frame, even with his four years' growth of dreadlocks waving in the current.

ARE YOU A TURTLE?

The next morning takes us to the most spectacular site of the trip--Turtle Rock, which descends from 75 feet down to 120, forming, with the adjacent wall, a fissure wide enough to swim through. At the top of the 35-foot-diameter rock, I admire a tree of bushy black coral jutting out about five feet. We cruise with a school of ocean triggerfish and find more black coral. As on many of the sites on this trip, we also find plenty of black durgons, their velvet-black bodies outlined in deep blue.

A fish I've never seen before catches my eye, so I take some careful mental notes. About six inches long, it is stark white with black markings distinct enough that I think later identification will be easy using a fish book. I'm wrong. I've been through every book on my shelf, and I can't find it--just another discovery in the waters of the Caribbean.

We finish up with a visit to a shallower reef near Pedro's Place, where the main attractions are large game fish, including hogfish and red snapper. Large cones of great star coral loom all around, and the occasional trumpetfish drifts vertically through the soft corals in between.

At dinner that night I ask Felipe about his favorite dives when the wind is out of its more usual direction. He laughs and says that, of course, it is Felipe's Place, his eponymous collection of ledges. "You can't ask what is there, ask what is not there, because everything's there," he tells me.

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Queen Angel Fish (Photo by Franklin Viola)

PIRATES AND PROTESTANTS

Before my flight on the last day, I rent a golf cart and circumnavigate the island's 10-mile-rim road. Save for the few very small villages, the place is almost completely undeveloped. The mountains are a uniform wild, dense green. I pass two men clearing a plot of land with machetes and a loaded horse on the road, then come around to a small military base. Virtually anywhere else, the posts for the barbed-wire fence would be painted in olive drab. But here, they shine in bright Caribbean pastels.

I stop briefly in the main town, efficiently named Town, for some juice and an ATM visit. A man and his son come through using a motorcycle and a stick to herd a small group of cows. Just around the corner is the colorful floating bridge connecting Providence to its smaller sister island, Santa Catalina. A walkway beyond ends at a small sign that explains the spot is where pirates were hanged and Protestants were burned. Without skipping a beat, the same sign points out that there are mangroves and seagulls nearby.

I buy some Bush Rum, with its hand-printed labels, and wonder if they will ever make it past customs. And then I wonder anew at these islands. Coffee and corals--who knew?

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