A week on the remote Caribbean gem of Providencia sounded like the perfect kickoff to our three-week honeymoon in Colombia. Situated on one of the world’s longest coral reefs, yet undeveloped and untouristy compared to most Caribbean islands, Providencia had been a dream destination for my husband and me for years. To get there, one has to first fly to the neighboring, larger and much busier island of San Andres, and then fly to Providencia on a local airline.
While I was planning the trip, purchasing a ticket on the airline’s archaic, Spanish-only website proved impossible. The site wouldn’t accept my U.S. credit card; plus, we were traveling during peak season, and availability seemed to change by the minute. But we found a very detailed website about Providencia from a U.K. travel agency, and it said not to worry if you couldn’t purchase an air ticket ahead of time, as the airline added extra flights as necessary during the high season. So we didn’t worry.
We arrived on San Andreas at 10 a.m., and the flight to Providencia was scheduled for late afternoon. We figured we’d buy our ticket at the airport and then relax on the beach for a few hours. We did not, however, anticipate that the airline’s ticket counter would be closed until an hour before the flight.
When it finally did open, the unsmiling agent told us the flight was completely booked, all flights for the following week were completely booked, and, no, they never added more flights to accommodate extra passengers. Evidently, we’d be stuck on crowded San Andres until our flight to the mainland a week later.
Then, almost as an afterthought, the agent said, “There might be space on the boat tomorrow morning.” A high-speed catamaran made the crossing to Providencia every day, she said, and if we showed up at the dock at 6:30 a.m., we could possibly secure passage.
The next morning, after checking out of our overpriced last-minute hotel, taking a taxi to the dock, and waiting bleary-eyed for forty minutes in a long line of people, we were finally aboard the vessel, waiting to depart. With a few wispy clouds overhead and a pleasant breeze blowing, all seemed peaceful.
A staff member stood at the front of the cabin and cleared her throat, but what followed was not the usual boat-safety briefing. Our Spanish wasn’t great, but we made out this much: “It’s going to be ugly out there — ugly, ugly, ugly.” And anyone who thought they couldn’t tolerate four hours of extreme motion sickness should disembark now. Of course, we were staying.
I knew from earlier boat travels that the best way to avoid getting seasick is to keep your vision trained on something distant and fixed. So I stared laser-like out the window at the horizon and clouds.
Not six minutes into the journey, the first passenger began vomiting — an elderly woman in the row in front of us. Next went a young mother in our row. About five minutes after that, her infant son awoke and hurled on his father’s chest, which instantly made his father hurl. On and on it went, a new person succumbing every few minutes.
The crew circulated among the ill, offering a saccharine-smelling anti-nausea inhalant, and bins and plastic bags as vomit receptacles. Many people failed to aim into those receptacles, however, and soon bile was sloshing around on the floor.
The acrid smell was itself enough to induce retching. Any time someone made it to the rest room and opened the door, bathroom and disinfectant odors mingled with the barf smell, adding another layer to the horror. I held my scarf tightly to my nose and inhaled through it.
My husband, a seasoned sailor, hadn’t been seasick in thirty years. But after a couple of hours on this evil voyage, he starting throwing up. I did not falter from staring out the window and keeping myself upright, and I lasted a solid three hours before emptying the contents of my stomach. Then I returned to my horizon vigil. Despite the all-pervasive misery, I focused on my breathing and kept reminding myself that this would eventually pass. I got sick three more times before we finally caught sight of Providencia.
By that point, 72 of the 76 passengers on board had thrown up. The boat’s nauseating corkscrew-like motion had continued unabated for over four hours. And, according to several people we spoke with during the trip, that day’s conditions were standard — it was always a sickening ride. Although the Caribbean is known for being calm and heavenly, we had glimpsed its dark side. Finally, within a few miles of Providencia, the sea calmed.
After stepping off that god-forsaken boat, although we were exhausted and in desperate need of a shower, we went immediately to the island’s airport to buy our return ticket. Thankfully, we succeeded. I think we would have tried to swim to the mainland rather than endure that hellish journey again.
Although this marked one of the worst travel experiences of my life, it taught me that even the most authoritative-seeming travel resources can be excruciatingly wrong. I wonder how many other unwitting visitors to Providencia have been thwarted by the misguided advice on that one agency’s website.
Kristen Cashman lives in Sonoma County, California, a region known for its rugged coastline, giant redwood trees, and world-class wines, all of which she enjoys regularly. She works as the managing editor of a small book publishing company and loves hiking with her dog and scuba diving with her husband.
(This is a real life story from our 2012 archives)