Santa Cruz del Islote is a tiny coral island, one of the smallest in the San Bernardo archipelago, and it is located across from the Gulf of Morrosquillo in the department of Bolívar in Colombia.
It is magical realism: eighteen families live in 97 houses, there is a school, a restaurant that functions as a port, and a small square with a cross in the middle gives the island its name.
There is a strong community spirit here: a family who needs help can count on the support of its neighbours.
It measures only 0.012 square kilometers, but houses 1,200 residents, a number apparently insignificant, but that hides an incredible population density: 105,000 people per square kilometer!
Just to give an example, Santa Cruz del Islote is four times more populous than Manhattan…yes! But it does not have the services of New York: there is no sewage system, no running water, and electricity works for just five hours a day, thanks to a generator. Drinking water is carried by Colombian Navy ships once every three weeks. After this description a question arises spontaneously:
Why do so many people live there?
According to the legend, about 150 years ago a group of fishermen from the coastal town of Baru, 50 km away, were looking for new waters where to throw the nets when it crossed this small coral island, lying in the crystalline and shallow waters of the Sea of Caribbean.
Since it was too late to go back, the fishermen decided to spent the night on Santa Cruz and decided to stay there permanently when they realized there were no mosquitoes, which is very rare in the area. Locals attribute the mosquito-free environment to the absence of mangroves and beaches. The story tells that the men slept so peacefully that night that they decided to stay, forever.
Today, in Santa Cruz, there are 90 houses, two shops, a restaurant, a disco and a school, compressed within an area smaller than the one occupied, for example, by two football fields. So, It is the most densely populated island on earth!
The space is so limited that many of the structures extend over the water, supported by stilts. Multi-storey buildings may have avoided the current congestion, but the houses here are all single-family. The only unoccupied space is a courtyard that measures about half of a tennis court, which during high tides is often covered by water.
Most of the islanders are dedicated to fishing, or work in hotels and resorts on nearby islands. For a long time, fishing has been the only source of sustenance, but in recent years the amount of fish has greatly decreased, forcing local people to find work elsewhere.
Now a large part of their economy depends on tourism, even if there’s nowhere for visitors to stay. Tourists often spend the night at the neighboring Punta Faro hotel on Múcura Island, and travel to Santa Cruz by speed boat to explore for a few hours.
On the nearby island of Mucura there is a luxury resort that offers tourists, among other activities, fishing, snorkeling or diving, and many Santa Cruz residents work there. Others sell local products to tourists, such as shells, handicrafts and gastronomic specialties.
Despite the difficulties, the locals describe life on the island as calm and quiet. There is no violence or crime, the doors of the house are never closed, and even the children are described by the teachers as “obedient” and “more disciplined” than the pupils of other localities.
It’s like stepping into a Gabriel García Márquez book. Santa Cruz features a dreamlike, innocent way of life, in fact there are no police on the island, and the colorful houses are passed down through generations, so there are no non-native residents.
The generator for electricity is switched on at seven in the evening, until eleven: this is the moment dedicated to soap operas broadcast on television. On the occasion of important football matches, ordinary people combine resources to buy the necessary fuel to power the generator for a few extra hours, so you can watch the game on TV.
Juve Nal, a sexagenarian who has lived on Santa Cruz his whole life, great-grandson of one of the island’s earliest settlers, says that Santa Cruz del Islote is a paradise. and adds: “I will live the rest of my days here. It is a glorious life.”
Like the rest of the twelve hundred inhabitants of the island, Julio will only leave when he is dead, because the island has no room for a cemetery!