As we pulled up to Casa en el Agua, we could see a tiny island adjacent to us in the distance piled high with makeshift houses (see picture above). “What the hell is that?” I think most of us were asking ourselves as we got closer. The answer turned out to be one of the most odd and unusual places I have been to in my life, Santa Cruz de Islote.
Santa Cruz de Islote is a tiny island located in the San Bernardo archipelago. I had never heard about Islote before I went to Casa en el Agua, but I will certainly never forget it now. That mass of houses that we saw in the distance is the world’s most densely populated island, Santa Cruz de Islote, a 100,000 square km island with over 1,000 people living on it. Every evening they offer guided excursions from Casa en el Agua to the island to check it out (it’s only about 5 minutes away by boat).It sounded like something I definitely had to see firsthand, and all of us that went were so glad that we did. Everyone who stays in the San Bernardo islands should definitely take advantage of their proximity to witness this weird but wonderful anomaly in the middle of the Caribbean.
Our guide met us when we pulled up and boy was he a character. About 65 years old, he claimed to have fathered 17 children on the island, and have over 75 nephews and nieces living there. We still aren’t sure if he was kidding or not. It sounds crazy, but after taking the tour of this island, which you can walk across in about 10 minutes, it seemed like a very viable possibility. Of all the crazy and weird things that stood out about this island, the most shocking was the sheer amount of children running around. At least half of the inhabitants of Islote were small children, who much to our delight were very outgoing and eager to pose for the camera:
It was pretty obvious how the local people are warding off boredom on this little island 😉
Our guide, who claimed to have over 75 nieces and nephews on the island.
But actually, boring is the last word I would use to describe this place. Every square meter of the island was teeming with energy from all age groups. Children were playing football in the plaza outside the island’s one and only primary school (the teenagers are sent away to attend secondary school on the mainland). Groups of men were drinking beer and playing cards in the street. Everyone was laughing and having a great time, and very happy to see some outsiders turn up. Our guide brought us to the house of a family that was setting up for their daughter’s “Quinceanera”, her 15th birthday celebration, which is a big deal in Latin american cultures. He invited us all to come, and I kind of wish that we would have.There’s no doubt it would have been one of the craziest parties I’ve ever witnessed, since the whole island knows each other and were simultaneously preparing for this event. Apparently, if there is one thing this island knows how to do (besides reproduce), it’s party.
One of the big questions I know that I had for our guide was why the heck do all these people choose to live on this overpopulated island when they have the mainland right there next to them, less than a half hour away by boat? I asked one of the locals, our boat driver, and his answer was the best ever: “la rumba es mejor aqui!” (the party is better over here!)
That was just the beginning of the line of questioning. A place this peculiar needs explaining! Luckily, we had our guide to answer them all for us. What happens when people need to go to the hospital? Doctors come in one month shifts to live and work in the “Puesto de Salud” (health post/clinic) on the island. What do people do for work? Most of the inhabitants work on the neighboring islands, like Tintipan, with tourism. Indeed, pretty much everyone working at Casa en el Agua went home to Islote after work. Where does your garbage go? It is collected and brought by boat to a dump on the mainland. What about electricity? Water? Fresh water is brought in from Cartagena, and as Islote officially belongs to the municipality of Cartagena, they pay for the few street lights and installations that the island has. The dead are taken to another nearby island to be buried.
The island doesn’t even have one square meter of space without construction on it
Our guide was excited to tell us that these days, Santa Cruz de Islote is working hard to put itself on the map for tourism. He was very excited to bring us to the island’s “aquarium”, which consisted of a small netted pool with sharks, sea turtles and fish that they caught and brought in “for tourism”. Unfortunately, we did not find the small pool of large aquatic animals that were trapped and swimming around frantically, quite obviously in distress, very amusing. This is a common trait I’ve noticed in many undeveloped societies and cultures: animal rights are hardly a concern, the concept of cruelty to animals doesn’t seem to register with them. We tried to politely explain that this was not nice to look at and maybe not the best idea for tourism. He just excitedly chattered on about how they have two pools, one for the babies, and another that they get transferred to when they become adults. Similarly, cock fighting is apparently the island’s main pastime.
The religious preferences of the island were various obvious as graffiti like this was around every corner, as well as statues in the plazas and other religious propoganda
Most houses aren’t bigger than 40 square meters
Within an hour we saw everything that there was to see on tiny Santa Cruz de Isolte, so it’s hard to imagine how anyone could pass an entire lifetime there. But plenty of them are, and they’re doing it on purpose and with pleasure. It was certainly interesting to get a glimpse in on a completely different mode of life, if only for an hour. Santa Cruz de Islote: the strangest place I have ever been.
It’s all in Spanish, but this little report from a Miami news channel about Santa Cruz de Islote will take you on a virtual tour of the place if you want to feel like you’re there: