Island of many souls

Santa Cruz de Islote
The island of Santa Cruz de Islote in the San Bernardo archipelago.

It’s not Java, but it’s the next best thing if you like crowded places. Islote, a tiny outcropping of land some 40 kilometers off the northern coast of Colombia in the San Bernardo archipelago, claims to be one of world’s most densely populated islands with over 1,200 inhabitants living on just 2.5 square kilometers of sand and crushed sea shells.

A 30-passenger speedboat, the Brumor, connects the mainland with Santa Cruz del Islote. It departs the seaside town of Tolú almost every morning taking visitors on a day tour of the archipelago.  The vessel usually doesn’t stop at Santa Cruz because there are no pristine beaches or hotels to satisfy the vacationers. Some even consider it ugly when approaching, as wooden huts rise out of the ocean, like a mole on the back of a great blue god.

The captain kindly agrees to drop me off at the wooden pier at Islote, which due to space constraints, also serves as a bar stock-piled with crates of beer and the entrance to someone’s home. There are no cars on the island, let alone roads. The streets could be a Moroccan souk.

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At midday, the sun blares down on this outcropping of rock.  The residents are friendly, yet weary of journalists.  “The reporters say we marry our cousins,” remarks an angry woman as I take out my camera. “They also say we throw our dead into the sea, because there´s no space for them at the cemetery”. While the first statement might indeed be false, Islote is too crowded to house the departed. A nearby island, known for its jejenes (mosquitoes), and coconut grove, serves the community as the final resting place for beloved.

Before arriving at Islote, I envision a place crammed with humanity, where people have to push and shove just to cross from one side of the island to the other. But the islands alleyways are mostly empty in the afternoon as the children are inside at the local elementary school, and the men off at sea fishing. For the town’s elders, it is the siesta that keeps them indoors. As privacy is a luxury on the island, and most houses open up onto someone else’s patio or public footpath, I observe women cooking fried fish, knitting and washing clothes.

Despite catching a glimpse of the turquoise sea from an open living room or one of the few empty spaces on the island, there is no water. The isleños rely on whatever rainwater they can catch and store in plastic drums to help them through the dry months. Drinking water has to be barged in from Cartagena by the Colombian Navy every twenty days.

“Tio Pepe” at 92 is the oldest man on the island and the grand nephew of the island’s first couple, Maria Lucia Julio and Fermín Cortés.  Born Miguel Felipe Moreno Castillo, he has fathered 18 children and over 100 grandchildren and great grandchildren. There are so many of them, that he often forgets their names. “My ancestors came here in search of turtles,” he says with a smile.  “Life was easy back then and there was plenty of fish.”

Islote has fallen on hard times as fish stocks become depleted and buyers from the interior have dwindled. Just a decade ago, the fishermen of Islote moved more than 30 tonnes of fish a month to the mainland and could maintain their island’s economy. Today, there is the odd lobster and small catch. For fisherman Daniel Hidalgo, the survival of the island depends of searching for new alternatives. “We want a big boat, so that we can fish off the coast of San Andres,” he says.

As darkness falls, the humming of electric generators interrupts the sound of the sea. Some of the more prosperous islanders have brought their own mini power plants to boost stereos and televisions. For those who don’t fit into the living room, there is always the street and someone’s window to catch the latest episodes of telenovelas.  There is not much to do at night on Islote, and soap operas are too close for comfort so I retire to my candlelit room in Freddy´s house.

In the morning a supply boat leaves for Tolú and I take it.  As I head out on the ocean, I see Islote shimmering like an upturned barge. It soon becomes a mirage and my thoughts turn to the children and the men playing domino. More than a place, it’s an island of many souls.


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