CARIBBEAN PROPERTY MAGAZINE
Living, Working and Investing in the Caribbean
C O U N T R Y F O C U S : COLOMBIA
An Englishman's Hideaway - Colombian Island Province
By Tim Hickman
San Andres, Old Providence and St Catalina, Western Caribbean, Colombia
Tucked away from the madding crowd away into the southern Caribbean, and not to be overlooked are the islands of San Andres, Old Providence and St. Catalina – together constituting a province of Colombia.
This little archipelago is relatively unknown with Providence and Catalina islands appearing to be in a veritable time warp compared to the islands in the Lesser Antilles, for instance.
The location of these islands at about 13 degrees north (similar latitude to Grenada) and about 125 miles from the central American coast in the NW part of the body of water cartographers know as the Colombian Basin puts them, importantly, outside the normal path of hurricanes.
San Andres is a long narrow island lying roughly north south about 10 miles long and 3 wide. The land is mainly low-lying, apart from some hills nearly 100 meters high in the central ridge, and surprisingly fertile for a coral island – while palm trees dominate the landscape, there remain some areas still virgin and bucolic with large trees and animals grazing.
The bulk of the population of some 85,000 by consensus, the reality may be more like 100,000, live in the north eastern part of the island where the main town, airport and seaport are located together with most of the tourist hotels.
A very large new hospital with the latest technology is soon to open which will attract competent specialist doctors from Medellin and Bogotá.
There is a Bahamas-like shallow coral sandy bank with small cays to the north east where the hotel water sports activities take place.
I live out on the western end of the island which is much quieter and where I am in partnership with an Islander, Franklin Martinez.
We are renovating a bar/restaurant at one of the island’s tourist attractions and generally improving and beautifying the location.
SAN ANDRES IS NOT YET DISCOVERED BY THE INTERNATIONAL TOURIST
San Andres is not yet frequented by the international tourist fraternity to any extent but is a hugely popular holiday place for mainland Colombians.
There is an efficient weekly service by ship from Miami and, from a shopping point of view, San Andres must be as good as any place in the Caribbean – that is, in all aspects other than the rather ordinary supermarkets which suffer notably from a lack of fresh vegetables and other healthy foods.
Providence and adjoining Catalina are volcanic islands, smaller and lying about 50 miles to the north of San Andres.
They are round shaped and measure approximately 4x2 miles, hilly (to about 1200ft) and fertile. A large barrier reef system, the second most extensive in the Caribbean according to the Seaflower Heritage, with spectacular marine fauna and flora stretches some 12 miles to the north of these two islands.
Providence and this reef system remain relatively untouched by tourism (and pollution) and there is only a small island population of less than 5000.
Recent regulations make it difficult for non residents of these islands (including Colombians) to own property there. English speaking islanders predominate whereas in San Andres the islanders represent only 25% of the population.
The history of these islands is most interesting if somewhat intricate and a subject for a future article. The archipelago has been under Spanish jurisdiction since the early 1700’s (prior to this period the settlers fought against the Spanish as British subjects) and was part of their Central American territory known as the Provincia de Providencia.
The Spanish had little interest in these islands with no gold or other wealth to be pillaged and it seems that Madrid did not discourage the British from colonizing these islands until later in the 19th century when some half hearted attempts were made to remove the pro British residents.
The original settlers were Puritans and later Loyalists with a mix of pirates (Henry Morgan based his outfit on Catalina), traders, seafarers but the Dutch also played a part as ship owners, repairers etc.
In addition, there was some French influence from Louisiana (after the Treaty of Versailles).
UNTIL WORLD WAR TWO INTERACTION WAS LESS WITH COLOMBIA THAN IT WAS WITH BRITAIN
Until World War Two, only a small minority of Colombians lived on the islands and interaction was less with Colombia than it was with Britain, the Gulf States and Eastern seaboard of the US, Nicaragua’s off-lying islands and Panama.
There was also considerable trading with other islands within the Caribbean basin, particularly Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.
The early sixties, when the population on San Andres was only about 6000, brought major changes, however, with central governments taking a keener interest in the islands.
The airport was built, before which the only access was by ship or flying boat, then the seaport and other infrastructure such as electric generating plant, roads etc.
This all caused a huge influx of mainland Colombians (mostly from the coast) since there was no restrictions for them then, and this sharply increased level of immigration over the years became somewhat detrimental to the welfare of the Islanders.
Since those times, the culture of the islanders, including the use of the English language, has become seriously diluted to the extent that the Islanders feel not only overwhelmed by the Spanish speaking mainlanders but also, as original settlers, insufficiently represented by Bogotá.
The main sports are baseball, cycling (clubs from Bogotá fly here for weekends with their racing bicycles) and horse racing with many handsome and well fed horses on both islands, even the police have a smartly turned out mounted division.
I hear that there are plans afoot to build a fancy race track.
As on the mainland, San Andres is heavily militarized with large numbers of police, army and navy personnel and many barracks giving the impression almost of a police state.
This heavy handed approach does not seem to impinge on one’s quality of life, however and San Andres is maybe the safest place to live in Colombia.
The era of the 70’s thru 90’s were not only periods of the controversial Free Trade zone experiment but also introduced the inevitable drug smuggling activities with some Mafioso taking up residence on the islands.
But these days, the Mafioso, as in the rest of the country, have mostly been dispersed and are now either comfortably in prison or have been otherwise permitted to integrate into the communities.
At present, there are no direct flights from Miami but easy connections via Panama and mainland Colombia.
San Andres and Providence are not retirement havens as such, due currently to rather tight residency visa restrictions.
But for someone wishing to own a house on a Caribbean island ‘with a difference’, where real estate prices are still reasonable (non-resident property owners can stay on the islands up to 6 months per year), San Andres is hard to beat.