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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Isla de Providencia and its larger sister island (San Andres) some 50 miles to the south belong to Colombia even though they are just 120 miles east of Nicaragua and 400 miles northwest of mainland Colombia. Providencia is about five miles long and three miles wide. Some of its hills are over 1,000 feet high. It receives ample rainfall and is fertile with banana and coconut plantations. It is a popular tourist area for mainland Colombians and a few North Americans. Plus it is conveniently located to provide a nice safe respite for cruisers traveling north and south along the east coast of Central America. We dropped anchor at 1230 after a 50-hour motor trip from Bocas del Toro, Panama. A local gentleman named Mr. Bush immediately hailed us on the VHF. He informed us that he was an agent for cruisers and with our permission would arrange for check-in procedures aboard Sojourner at 1400. This sounded extremely convenient so we quickly agreed to the appointment.
The check-in crew arrived promptly at 1400. There was Mr. Bush, an immigration officer, a customs officer, a health officer and a representative of the port captain. They reviewed our ships papers, passports and immunization records (yellow fever vaccination required) and were finished in 15 minutes. This was the second easiest check-in we have ever experienced. The easiest was the French island of Martinique in the Leeward Islands, which only required one simple form that was filled out in five minutes and no fee after which a one-year stay was granted. In Isla Providencia, we got 60 days and the fee, payable upon checkout, was 100,000 Colombian Pesos or $40. The representative of the port captain did not seem concerned that we did not have a departure Zarpe from Panama, but the next day, we were asked to visit with the Port Captain to explain in detail why we did not have the Zarpe. Mr. Bush accompanied us to the Port Captain's office to help with translation. The Port Captain's office was a neat, very well maintained building with working air conditioning, working computers and radios. The personnel wore immaculate uniforms with spit shined shoes. We were very impressed. In all our stops in the Caribbean, this was the first office that did not have broken file cabinets, broken chairs and non-working computers. The Port Captain invited us into his office and listened to our reason for not having a Zarpe from Panama. We had left during carnival and no one was available to issue one. He did not seem concerned at all and merely stated that a note describing what we had said would have to be prepared and put in our file. He then turned to his computer and typed out the note as I dictated and Mr. Bush translated. Jan and I signed it as co-captains and that was it. Fast, efficient and no fees required.
About 5,000 people live on Isla de Providencia. There is some farming, no commercial fishing fleet that we could see and not many tourists. Yet, the town appears very affluent by Caribbean standards. The roads are all concrete and are kept in good repair. Garbage cans are everywhere and are emptied daily. The stores are spotless and most have tile floors. The people are clean, friendly and most speak English. Many people drive new cars and many more drive new motorbikes. We could not figure out how such a small island could have such a high standard of living. Either the government of Colombia is heavily subsidizing everything or there are other sources of income we had not yet observed. Prices were about the same as Panama. A good meal of a quarter of a chicken, with beans, rice, salad and a soft drink could be had for about $3.50. Groceries in the three very nice stores were reasonably priced; especially considering it is a rather isolated island. Pork chops were less than $2 a pound and bread about 75 cents a loaf. It is interesting that familiar foods were available, like Lays potato chips, Nabisco Oreos, and Delmonte beans, but they are all packaged in Colombia and all the labels are, of course, in Spanish. Sometimes the taste is slightly different from our stateside memories. Sometimes better and sometimes not as good, but it is curious that certain products and manufacturers are familiar throughout a very large geographic area.
After waiting for the winds to abate for three weeks, so we could comfortably continue our voyage north, we finally got a good weather window and notified Mr. Bush that we were ready to checkout. About an hour later, Mr. Bush called us on the VHF and informed us that the copy of our U.S. Coast Guard "Certificate of Documentation" (COD) indicated that the document had expired nearly a year ago. In the last year, we had checked in and out of Venezuela, Bonaire, Curacao and Panama and no one had noticed that the COD was expired. Once again, we were impressed with the thoroughness of officialdom on Isla Providencia. By way of explanation, I must accept full responsibility for allowing the COD to expire, but my excuse as feeble as it is came about for two reasons. First, I simply forgot the expiration date. Second, the U.S. Coast Guard has changed its system and no longer takes responsibility for reminding COD holders of the annual expiration date. Which makes me wonder why CODs aren't good for three or five years, especially for cruisers who plan to be away from good postal services for more than a year.
At any rate, Mr. Bush politely informed me that we would not be allowed to move Sojourner until we could provide at least a copy of a valid COD. For
non-COD holders, it must be explained that the COD serves as title to the vessel. However, one should also keep the bill of sale. So, now we had to contact the documentation center in Virginia and try to get a new COD. Fortunately, the telephone service available on Isla Providencia is in good working order and I had no trouble contacting the appropriate office. When
I mentioned that my COD had expired and I needed a new one, I was informed
that it was my fault, that I should know better and that there was a five-month back-log for processing CODs. For a split second, I pictured us staying in Isla Providencia for the next five months. Then, inspiration dawned and I blurted out that we were stuck on a small Caribbean island and
could not leave until we got a new COD. "Oh,' said the official, why didn't
you say you were in foreign waters? We can expedite this. Go to the Internet, download an application form, fill it out and FAX it to us ASAP." This I did and called later to confirm they had received the application. They had, plus our credit card number for the $84.00 fee. After several
false starts, we finally found a working FAX number and in due course, the Coast Guard FAXED a copy of our new COD. I made several copies and gave one to the local officials, which made us all happy. And the next morning we left. Stay tuned.