In a calm gulf of the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Colombia, a tiny island is noted for being unlike any other island on Earth. In a region of typically uninhabited archipelagos where protected mangroves and coral reefs are home to colorful birds and sea turtles, the vitality of Santa Cruz del Islote comes from its people. Here are five things you may not know about this remarkable islet which we visit on Panama and Colombia: Exploring the Caribbean Coast.
It’s One of the World’s Most Densely Populated Islands
Approximately 600 people live in a two-and-a-half acre area, making Santa Cruz del Islote one of the world’s most densely populated places. More than a century ago, fishermen were said to have built the island on a coral platform before settling there, content with its beautiful location and lack of mosquitoes. Over the years, the families of the original inhabitants grew, and most never left, citing its palpable community spirit and laid-back way of life. Named for the white cross in a small square (Santa Cruz means ‘holy cross’), the island packs a church, school, shops, and one restaurant into its winding streets and narrow alleys where children play tag, teenagers listen to Spanish-language rap, and adults share homecooked meals and dance to champeta music.
Everyone on the Island Is Related
Residents have just six different surnames, a testament to how they are all related to each other by blood or marriage. Homes painted lime green, banana yellow, and sky blue are passed down through generations and there is no room to build more: if a family requires extra space, they construct a second floor. There are no non-native residents living in the island’s approximately 100 homes, where 10 under one roof is not uncommon.
Peace and Quiet: No Crime, Cars, or Motorcycles
There is no police presence on Santa Cruz del Islote and there’s no need for it. On this small island where everyone is acquainted and people look out for one another, nobody locks their doors and no crime has ever been reported. It’s also free of traffic and vehicular noise. There are four main streets on the island, none wide enough for cars or trucks, and since distances are short people walk–or take boats–to get around.
It’s an Island Full of Children
Currently, 65 percent of Santa Cruz del Islote residents are under 18, showing how much parents value this safe environment. Kids play soccer in the tiny amount of open space there is, take boats out to fish, splash in the water, and run under washing lines in their neighborhoods, all under the watchful eyes of adult family and friends. There’s one school on Santa Cruz del Islote that ends at 10th grade; students who wish to pursue further education leave home, but many also return to the island.
Locals are Working to Conserve Sea Turtles
The bounty of the Caribbean Sea has long been the major source of food and income for island residents: a variety of fish, lobster, shrimp… and, at one time, sea turtles. Since islanders have learned of the plight of these protected creatures, there has been a cultural shift. Whereas sea turtles were previously a significant food source, now residents avoid catching them. If they become entangled in fishing nets, there’s a protocol in place: turtles are kept safe until a nearby conservation organization collects them. Not only have islanders taken sea turtles off the menu, they also educate other residents and visitors about the critical need to protect them.