Santa Cruz del Isolte is the world’s most densely populated island. There are 1,200 people living on a 2-acre island. For size reference, that is about one and a half football fields of land. There is no police station, no hospital, no running water, and no sewage system. Yet somehow this little island is thriving. How you might ask? Solar power. And a really tight-knit community of people.
History of Isolte: The World’s Most Densely Populated Island
Legend has it that 150-ish years ago fisherman off the coast of Colombia found this island and stayed because of its lack of mosquitoes. A real rarity in this part of the Carribean. Since then their descendants have remained, making a living as fisherman, and more recently in the tourism industry on neighboring islands.
Since its original discovery around 90 homes with 10-12 people living in each have been constructed on the island. They also have one small grocery store (supplied by boat from Cartagena-2 hours away), a restaurant, and a K-10th-grade school.
The island is growing.
Fighting the inevitable, the island locals have been using rubbish and a HUGE amount of conch shells to create more space on their island. Literally building more ground as the ocean rises due to climate change, which eats away at their tiny little home.
Our Time on the Island
We were staying at Casa en el Aqua. A little backpacker island out in the middle of the ocean, that happened to be just a 10-minute boat ride from Isolte. The hostel takes interested guests at 5 pm every evening to the island for a quick tour.
From a distance, it appeared to be a small cluster of colorful homes rising out of the ocean. And as we got closer, we saw that was a pretty accurate description.
A rocky shoreline that was packed to the brim with pastel-colored houses. Although it’s an island, don’t go expecting any sandy beaches. Every inch of this island is utilized, with buildings packed to the very edge of the shores.
Obviously, it doesn’t take more than 10-minutes to walk the streets of this quaint little island, but there is a lot more than meets the eye. Disembarking our boat and first setting foot on the island we noticed the kids. Tons of them. Kids bathing in the clear blue ocean waters, playing marbles in the streets, a 3-ish-year-old girl clutching a machete.
Someone on this island is doing some serious re-populating. And with all these young children, I don’t expect Isolte’s population to be dropping anytime soon.
People were out in the small streets talking, drinking, and playing dominoes with one another. Isolte felt like a real community. Like how neighborhoods and a town square would have felt back long before telephones and the internet.
Our tour began with an explanation of the solar power system and how they get basic necessities like drinking water. Every three weeks the Colombian navy delivers a limited amount to them.
Once the solar power for the evening has run out, it’s lights out on the island. At around 10 pm we watched the lights of Isolte blink out as the island powered down for the evening.
We stopped by the only tree on the island (and it’s residential parrot), saw the school, and the grocery store. Watched what seems like hundreds of kids playing a complicated game of marbles.
Our brief tour concluded with a stop at the small “aquarium” near where we docked our boat. This aquarium was actually just a pond constructed out of large sea rocks. And it housed some extremely large and scary looking fish. Among the fish were also a couple of nurse sharks sulking on the bottom and a few small roaming sea turtles.
Naturally, when the offer was extended to hop into the dirty fish-crowded, literally shark infested waters…I couldn’t say no.
Without considering whether or not the massive fish would bite me or what would happen once I dove to the bottom and pet the nurse shark, I grabbed a mask and headed for the disintegrating ladder.
One of those, “if you don’t do it you’ll regret it later” kind of moments.
Luckily, nothing in the pond seemed hungry. They seemed eager to avoid me for the most part. They circled around me while I attempted to not touch or kick anything living. Neat fun fact for those who haven’t touched a shark yet. Their skin feels a lot like sandpaper.
Once I saw the size of the dark red groupers that were hiding in the corners of the pond, watching me very closely, I was quick to get out of the water.
Take Away Thoughts
Isolte works because it is a community. People genuinely care about one another. People who live on the island aren’t concerned about what is theirs and what is their neighbors. They co-exist and share resources with those who need it.
And although the streets were crowded, it didn’t seem uncomfortable. It seemed lively and happy on the world’s most densely populated island. It says something that people rarely up and leave Isolte. The locals have chosen the simple life by the sea and even with few amenities, it seemed to work rather well for them.
Coming from Cartagena?
- Check out the 8 things to do in Cartagena outside the walled city.
- The best way to see the island is to stay at one of the floating hostels in the San Bernardo Islands. Casa en el Agua + Isla Roots come highly recommended.
- Prepare for a bumpy + windy two hours fast boat journey to the islands. Tickets can be purchased at TranqItEasy.