Santa Cruz del Islote, unofficially the world’s most crowded island, is an hour’s boatride from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It has some 90 houses and a population of around 700 people, which can rise to 1200 when the children who attend secondary school on the mainland visit their families.
Santa Cruz is surrounded by idyllic waters, but there is no beach, no swimming pools or hotels. The islanders bury their dead in a nearby island because there is no space for a cemetery. They play football on the neighboring Mucura key, because the only public square on Santa Cruz is about half the size of a tennis court.
Santa Cruz is part of the San Bernardo Archipelago, a string of small islands that lie about an hour’s boat ride away from the port city of Tolu. Tour boats that leave from Tolu, make daily rounds through the islands, with some people staying overnight at Mucura, a tropical paradise with white sand beaches, coral reefs and scuba diving opportunities.
The San Bernardo Islands were settled in the 19th century by afro-colombian fishermen, attracted by plentiful stocks of fish, lobsters and sea turtles. But fish stocks have dwindled, forcing the local men to settle for small –not fully grown- fish that sell for lower prices.
There is currently no electricity on Santa Cruz and the Colombian navy ships drinking water to the island, once every three weeks. But the water supplies are too few for the impoverished population. Women wash the clothes with salty water from a nearby well. And men settle for doing most of their necessities on the surrounding sea.
Despite these troubles, Santa Cruz is a peaceful island-village, far removed from the fighting between guerrillas, paramilitary groups and the army that has plagued Colombia´s mainland. There are no locked doors here, and at night, dozens of people gather in their neighbors homes to watch popular soap operas.
Some local residents are currently profiting from work in the Mucura island hotels. They say tourism could make life easier on Santa Cruz.