Stop Romanticizing Poverty, the case of Santa Cruz del Islote, Colombia

In the heart of the Gulf of Morrosquillo, in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, is Santa Cruz del Islote, an artificial island under the jurisdiction of the Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo National Natural Park, where 779 people live on one hectare. It is the most overcrowded island in the world.

Santa Cruz del Islote, with its shingled houses, stands out from the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea, in the heart of the Gulf of Morrosquillo. It is covered by a collage of more than 100 houses, everyone there is family related, and the offspring continue to grow.

The formation of new families has caused construction to grow vertically, increasing household overcrowding. The island has no public utilities and 40 percent of households still dump feces into the sea; the rest of the community uses septic pits.

The island’s vocation has always been fishing, but in recent years it has been seduced by tourism….

Slum Tourism in Colombia

The hyper-crowded Island

Santa Cruz del Islote has gained much popularity due to its overpopulation. Newspapers, such as The Guardian, have associated it with García Márquez’s magical realism, relating how people live at their own pace and highlighting the absence of violence and the mutual support among the inhabitants who are like one big family.

Documentaries have also been made, such as Aislados (Isolated), an award-winning 2016 documentary. The documentary shows the most densely populated artificial island in the Colombian Caribbean where there are no police, no priests, no armed conflict, and where the arrival of modernity and the possibility of an eviction, makes its inhabitants begin to awaken from the magic spell.

Today many children on the island dream of moving to the mainland, studying, working, and thus “sending money to fix the island”.

Santa Cruz del Islote currently occupies 10.000 km2, i.e. 1 hectare. With an average of 1.25 inhabitants per 10 m², 65% of the population is under age, and there are only 6 surnames and 97 houses. Scarce resources, and people’s curiosity, created a niche for a kind of slum tourism, promoted by the same inhabitants. Besides, the Official Tourism Site of the Republic of Colombia, promotes it as a destination to see, for being the most densely populated island in the world.

So far, this slum tourism has made little change or contribution to improving conditions on the island or for its inhabitants; and it does contribute to romanticize poverty, by focusing on the magical realism of the colors of their houses, the marvelous blue of the Caribbean Sea and the children playing on a small soccer field. About their precarious and difficult reality? no idea.

Artisanal aquariums to swim with Sharks

Apart from the social-cultural attraction, another of the island main attractions are some artisanal aquariums, where locals kept sharks and fish, semi-confined, to swim with tourists. The propaganda followed the idea that going to Santa Cruz del Islote means having the opportunity to swim with sharks, rays and fish in the small improvised pool and make short tours through the streets of the island. Sounds Great! right? But reality is different.

In high season, the influx of tourists can reach 1,200 people, eager to participate in the great attraction offered by this community. Thus, for 5 thousand pesos, people have the right to swim with sharks.

There, in precarious conditions of confinement, without scientific surveillance or any kind of professional marine scientists, they keep the fish, which endure the harassment of dozens of tourists who jump into the water to touch them and take pictures.

This is a type of invasive and illegal tourism, even if the intention is not to mistreat the animals, but to have an alternative economic activity, it is not the right way.

On the other hand, as there are no sewage services on Colombia’s most populated island, the unwary travelers do not know that they are swimming in a sea of feces, in the aquarium-pools. There are also all kinds of pollutants, such as motor oil for the boats and large amounts of garbage.

Towards a sustainable tourism

In January 2020 a tourist denounced in her twitter account: This happens in Santa Cruz del islote, they have these animals in captivity so that people enter and touch them and disturb them. The animals were trying to avoid people. They are little animals that have no teeth, they can’t defend themselves #NoAlMaltratoAnimal @PoliciaColombia @Citytv pic.twitter.com/DvvcmZmqxz
– Daniela Correa (@dacf2891) January 27, 2020.

Although the sharks are going to be released, the inhabitants are asking for other work alternatives. Today the local government is working with these communities to implement sustainable tourism to protect the beaches and to eradicate illegal practices such as the captivity and mistreatment of these sharks.

The goal is to provide these communities with new work opportunities, such as implementing pools for lobster farming, training them in sustainable tourism practices, legalizing their boats, among others.

Discovering Santa Cruz del Islote

Santa Cruz del Islote. ©El Universal

Santa Cruz del Islote contrasts in a fascinating way with the Archipelago of San Bernardo, of which it is part, where wild mangroves, white beaches and few inhabitants is the common landscape.

However, it has an artificial origin, Santa Cruz del Islote was built by man.  The islet was built by fishermen who arrived and built it in the middle of the coral, with stone, rubble and garbage. The little town has four main streets but no presence of cars or motorcycles. You can see that there are boats everywhere, floating on the shores of the sea or on the cement patios of the houses.

On your visit to Santa Cruz del Islote you will see some stores, a health post, a three-story school, a restaurant and 97 houses that are no larger than 40 square meters. About ten people live in each house. The islet has an average temperature of 28°C (83º F).

Birds in colombia

How to get to Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz del Islote is located between the islands of Tintan and Múcura. The closest ports are Rincón del Mar, Berrugas and Tolú in Sucre, and boat transportation costs 30,000 pesos per person. To Cartagena, in Bolivar, the boat fare is 60,000 pesos.

  • Take a 1-hour flight from El Dorado (BOG) in Bogotá to Rafael Nuñez International Airport (CTG) at Cartagena city.
  • Take a 1-hour flight from El Dorado (BOG) in Bogotá to Las Brujas Airport (CZU) at Sincelejo city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 1-hour ride to Tolú.

Once there you must pay a fee of 5,000 COP for the entrance to the islet in exchange you will be offered a guided tour of the islet.

Where to stay in Santa Cruz del Islote

Santa Cruz del Islote belongs to the islands of San Bernardo, in the Colombian Caribbean. You can stay overnight on the island, but if you want a more comfortable accommodation you can stay in one of the adjacent islands: Múcura or Tintipán; or even in the houseboats in the surroundings, as is the case of “Casa en el Agua” (House on the Water), with very basic services and very low comfort.

Activities and attractions in Santa Cruz del Islote 

As mentioned before, at Santa Cruz del Islote you will know one of the most populated places in the world. You can stroll through its alleys and admire its colorful houses, you will talk to the people who always seems to be happy; you can also enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the island (no violence, theft, altercations or fights). If you are a soccer lover you will be able to play a game with the locals.

You can also visit near places in Tolú and Múcura Island.

Tolú

  • La Ciénaga de la Leche. It is a natural reserve located 20 minutes from the center of Tolú. It consists of beautiful mangrove trails and a surprising biodiversity. During the tour you will find several species of birds and abundant vegetation that will allow you to connect with nature.
  • Roca Madre Adventure Field Park. Considered one of the best attractions in the department of Sucre, this park is ideal for adventure lovers. You will be able to walk through the tropical dry forests and discover the most amazing natural attractions.

You will also have the possibility of doing several extreme activities for the more adventurous such as climbing, rappel and canopy, as well as getting to know the flora and fauna of the area.

  • The Toluviejo Caves.These caves are formed by millenary formations of stalactites, stalagmites and dolomites in its depths, dating from the Miocene and Pliocene periods. Ideal for spelunking activities, the caves are:Las Claras, Del Caimán, De la Iglesia or Catedral, De las Mercedes, Del Cáñamo, De la Mansión; each of these names has been given by the community in relation to their similarities, and others are honorific.

Múcura Island

  • Snorkeling: It is done every day from 9:30 am to 12 noon. In this tour people are taken to a beautiful reef.
  • Kayaking: You can do it with the tranquility of this turquoise sea, spend a moment of tranquility while contemplating the beauty that the island offers.
  • Ecological Hike: You can tour the island with a guide or you can do it alone, you can walk along the island and marvel at the nature that this little piece of land offers you.

Tintipan Island

You can also spend an afternoon on Tintipan Island, where you can snorkel and do some sport fishing.

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 References

About the authors

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism-environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.