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
– 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).

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.


  • 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.


If you want to come to Colombia contact us and plan your trip with us.


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.

Best Place for Diving in Colombia: Malpelo Island Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

On the Pacific Ocean, 507 km west of the port of Buenaventura, is the island of Malpelo. It is the only oceanic island of the Pacific Ocean and belongs to the marine corridor of the eastern Pacific Ocean with 11 emerged islets.

The charm of Malpelo lies beneath the surface of the sea. Thanks to its location and great variety of marine flora and fauna Malpelo is among the 5 most beautiful and exotic places in the world to practice scuba diving.

The characteristics of the marine environment are strongly influenced by the type of currents that run through this area of the Pacific. Malpelo is the point of confluence of different and important currents of the Pacific Ocean. 

The encounter between the cold currents of the southern hemisphere and the warm equatorial currents makes its waters very rich in nutrients. Because of this, Malpelo is home to an incredible amount of fauna: hundreds of Green Moray Eels that swim in open waters, schools of barracudas, turtles, dolphins, manta rays in solitary and in groups, rays, longfins, and huge schools of mackerels.

Malpelo is also the sharks paradise, and this is the main reason that makes Malpelo a unique place in the world, with large concentrations of Silky Sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis) and Hammerhead Sharks (Sphyrna lewini), among others.

Discovering Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

The Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary is located on the unique submarine volcanic mountain range, Dorsal de Malpelo. The highest point is Cerro la Mona 300 meters above sea level, this marine mountain range has a length of 150 miles and 50 miles wide.

Voluminous eruptions of basaltic lava gave birth to this island. The islets that surround the island seem to be the result of erosion processes caused by the waves, causing them to be lifted by tectonic effects. This process forms terraces known as “Strath Terraces”.

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary was declared a protected area in 1995 and has had 3 expansions in the years 1996, 2006 and 2017 with a total of 1.7 million miles.

In 2005 it was named an Important Bird Conservation Area (IBA) by BirdLife International and the Alexander Von Humboldt Research Institute. In 2006, UNESCO declared the sanctuary a Natural World Heritage Site, and today it is a Mission Blue hotspot. 

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary has one of the most important coral formations of the Colombian Pacific; the marine fauna is very varied on the island, and in this sanctuary you can find 2 species of starfish endemic to the country. In addition to this, one of the most important hammerhead shark breeding areas in the world is located in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.

Unfortunately, the sanctuary is constantly harassed by illegal fishermen, which mainly affects hammerhead sharks and hawksbill turtles. In addition, overfishing in zones of influence within the protected area’s limits, such as for tuna, can reach alarming numbers, endangering the decline of the tuna communities.

The Malpelo y Otros Ecosistemas Marinos Foundation, is in charge of promoting the protection and care of marine areas, especially sharks, so that they have a safe habitat for their reproduction. They work together with the national parks system and the national navy.

How to get to Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary


The only way to access the sanctuary is by sea, after a 36-hours open sea journey from the city of Buenaventura. Take a 145- minutes flight from Bogotá to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO) at Palmira city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 3- hours ride to Buenaventura.

What to do in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Diving and snorkeling

The sanctuary has the following areas for these activities: La gringa, Escuba, Los Reyes, Los gemelos, Sahara, Vagamares, El arrecife, La nevera, Monster face, El mirador, El Freezer, Aquarium, Naufragio wall, Bajo del ancla and Bajo del Monstruo.

These areas have the optimal conditions for a unique experience. You must keep in mind that if you want to do these activities you must have previous knowledge.


The biological component in the terrestrial environment of Malpelo Island is represented by algae, lichens, mosses, some grasses, shrubby legumes and ferns. Seabirds provide guano that acts as fertilizer along with the rain to generate a food source for the invertebrates that inhabit the island.

Ants such as the trap jaw ants (Odontomachus baur), which is considered to have been introduced to the island by man, can be found throughout the sanctuary. It is also possible to find a new species of beetle from the Platynus genus, which is unusual and can be found in Colombia and Ecuador.

Johngarthia malpilensis – Ph. by Daniel Vásquez-Restrepo CC

On the island, it is also possible to observe the terrestrial crab Johngarthia malpilensis, which is also endemic to the island. Besides this, several other species of crabs also live on the hard substrates, and there are around 270 species of gastropods, 60 of bivalves, 3 of cephalopods, 2 of Scaphopods, and 6 of Polyplacophorans.

Four species of reptiles inhabit the sanctuary:

  • Anolis agassizi, from the equator, feeds on the remains and food waste of seabirds.
  • Dactyloa agassizi is one of the island’s endemic lizards, greenish in color. It feeds on insects and crabs.
  • Diploglossus millepunctatus is also an endemic lizard of the island. Its diet is based on the remains of seabirds and in case of food shortages they can break their eggs and consume them together with the dead hatchlings.
  • Phyllodactus traversalis, known as the geko lizard, joins the sanctuary’s endemic species. It has nocturnal feeding habits based on insects, but during the day it takes refuge in rock crevices.

Malpelo has a wide variety of marine birds, making it an excellent place for bird watching. The bird with the largest representation is the Nazca booby (Sula granti). A third to a quarter of the total breeding population of this species worldwide nests in the Island of Malpelo.

The Biological Component in the Marine Environment

You will see different specie in the rocky walls of Malpelo depending on the depth. From 3 to 6 meters the walls are covered by sponges and some corals, such as the Tubastrea aurea. After 27 meters it is possible to see filamentous algae and violet hydro corals.

In the depths of the sanctuary there are submarine terraces divided into 4 sectors; the slopes of these sectors are the areas where the coral communities are most present. The four sectors are located as follows:

  • “El Arrecife”, it is the most extensive and is located to the northeast of the island.
  • “Pared del Náufrago” (Castaway’s Wall), located to the northwest.
  • “La Bahía de la Nevera” to the west, and “El Bajo de la Nevera” to the southwest.
  • “El Bajo de Junior” to the southwest.
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) CC Ph. By Sandra Bessudo, Malpelo Foundation

The sanctuary has identified 390 reef fish species and 5 of these species are endemic: Halichoeres malpelo, Axoclinus rubinoffi, Lepidonectes bimaculta, Chriolepis lepidotus, and Acanthemblemaria stephensi.

Pelagic fish, mammals, and sea turtles aggregate in the sanctuary, and it is considered a passageway for migratory species such as tuna, which feed in the sanctuary’s environment during their migration.

There are two species of sharks that can be seen during the visit: hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) and Galapagos shark (Carcharhinus galapagensis). The cleaning zones in Malpelo are inhabited by the barberfish (Jhonrandallia nigrirostris), the king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) and juveniles of mexican hogfish (Bodianus diplotaenia).

Due to the large number of larvae present in the sanctuary, it is possible to see whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) and manta rays (Manta birostris), which can be frequently sighted along with communities of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus).

Where to stay in Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary does not have lodging available, you will stay on boat.

Best time to visit Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

Malpelo Island can be visited all year round, it has humidity in the air and remains covered by a dense mist. The months with the lowest humidity are between December and March.

Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, foreigners holding a valid residence permit, and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 116.000 (Diver/day); COP 79.000 (Instructors for accompanying groups/day): COP 35.500 (Boats/day)
  • Non-resident foreigners (over 25 years old): COP 216.000 (Diver/day); COP 116.000 (Instructors for accompanying groups/day): COP 65.000 (Boats/day)

What to consider before visiting Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary

  • To dive in Malpelo there must be one certified guide with experience in the area for every six divers.
  • Tourists must be certified as advanced divers or two-star divers, and have a minimum of 35 dives in their logbook, information that will be corroborated by the National Parks official in the protected area.
  • The maximum diving depth allowed is up to 140 feet.
  • Each diver must have the minimum equipment for underwater activities and safety equipment.
  • Minors must have written permission from their parents, even if they are accompanying them.
  • It is important to ensure buoyancy control as a measure to avoid damage to ecosystems, and to refrain from feeding, chasing or touching marine fauna. Therefore, a buoyancy check dive is done to verify the diver’s ability.
  • Avoid carrying harmful elements that threaten the health of ecosystems such as CFC aerosols, and non-biodegradable cleaning products.
  • Diving activities are programmed from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., all within a previously defined schedule and depending on weather and oceanographic conditions.
  • Recommended the use of binoculars to admire animals’ behavior and beauty in their natural habitat.
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance. It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

If you want to plan your trip to Colombia do not hesitate to contact us, visit our Plan your trip page!

About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

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.