by Taylor Selsback
Photography by Adam L. Weintraub
As our small fiberglass boat bounces its way along the San Bernardo archipelago just off the northern coast of Colombia, Islote seems to appear out of nowhere, rising from the sky-blue waters of the Caribbean like a concrete rainbow. The island, which was built on top of a small coral reef by Afro-Colombian fishermen in the early 19th century, has grown to about 0.004 square miles, which is slightly smaller than the Disch-Falk baseball field at The University of Texas at Austin. While the other passengers intend to stop quickly for a short tour of the island before continuing to Mucura and Tintipan, islands known for their untouched beaches along the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean, I’m getting out to stay.
I step over their bags, climb out from under the shade of the boat’s blue vinyl roof, hop into the beating Caribbean sun, and onto Islote’s only dock. To the left several small fishing boats are propped up on old beer bottle crates with various motors, piles of fishing nets, and bricks scattered around. To the right is a bright yellow building missing its exterior wall as if it were a life-sized doll house. Its crumbling stairway leads to nowhere, but a man on the top step holding his arm up and over the water finds it a purpose as one of the few places on the island with cell service. Directly in front of me is a faded tangerine wall with “Bienvenidos al Islote Bendecido” (or “Welcome to Islote the Blessed”) written in black paint.
Santa Cruz del Islote has a school, a restaurant, a church that’s currently under construction, and four convenience stores, but it doesn’t have any official accommodation. This is mostly due to lack of space. Home to anywhere from 800 to 1,200 people, it is believed to be one of the most densely populated islands in the world. As I ask around to see if anyone knows where I might be able to stay, two barefoot boys look at each other and simultaneously say, “Freddy.” They proceed to lead me through the village’s only entry point, a cast iron gate with a floral design at its center.
The island is a labyrinth of slightly faded, colorfully painted houses with the occasional cartoon character on a wall reminding people not to litter. We turn the first corner and onto the only official street on the island. A crowd of children in uniform whisper “gringo” to each other as the boys pull me through a concrete courtyard where they are running around, playing games. We go down a series of narrow passageways between houses whose windows and doors are wide open, offering glimpses into the dark living rooms and kitchens where mothers and grandmothers sweep floors, wash clothes, or avoid the midday sun while most of their husbands are out fishing.
ONE BIG EXTENDED FAMILY
Freddy is in his sixties, has short, buzzed grey hair and a permanent smirk on his face. He’s wearing a muscle shirt and a gold chain necklace with a small gun pendant dangling from it. “You know my grandfather was a gringo too,” he says, explaining that his grandfather came from California to work for an oil company some miles south of Tolú and eventually met his wife, Freddy’s grandma, on Islote.
Now a retired fisherman, Freddy spends his time improving his house with the hope of making it into a more official hostel. He tells me that life on the island has not changed much over the years, but access to basic necessities like fresh water, food, and education has improved. “A tanker from Cartagena brings us water a few times per month, a boat with plantains, mangos and cheese comes every 15 days from the mainland, and a boat from Tolú comes to stock the four convenience stores every week,” he says. As he owns his own boat, he also goes to Tolú to pick up construction materials and anything else people on the island might need.
Although supplies only arrive every so often, the islanders can rely on their neighbors when they need something. “We all help each other out,” says Freddy’s older cousin, who happens to be the only other person named Freddy on the island. “If I don’t have something one day, there is always someone who can help, and hopefully I can one day also help them. We are all one big family.” The older Freddy, or D. Freddy, as he likes to be called, sits behind a green house near the water smoking a cigarette while a man next to him with large dreadlocks shaves his friend’s head with a single razor.
D. Freddy is one of several official Islote tour guides who lead half-hour tours around the island. At 70 years old, D. Freddy has nine grown children and around 70 nieces and nephews. He says he is thankful for the opportunities that tourism has brought to the island, explaining that apart from fishing or clerking one of the four convenience stores, people work in tourism on their island or on the other islands in the hotels, hostels, and bars.
As I make my way through one of the many small passages that wind through the houses of Islote, I meet Juan, a 20-year-old who works at Casa en el Agua, a popular hostel that sits on stilts in the middle of the Caribbean just offshore from the neighboring island Tintipan. Juan is thrilled to have the job, and enjoys meeting all the foreign guests. He sits next to his girlfriend who is five months pregnant and reading a small pocket-sized Bible. “I think many of my friends want to leave the island, to get to see more of Colombia and other countries, but everyone always comes back,” Juan says, and his girlfriend agrees. There is a sense of pride in the voices of the people who claim they have lived on Islote their whole lives, or that they had left only to return, or how they weren’t born there, but life had guided them to this island and into its big family.
THIS IS WHERE WE PLAY
With 60% of its population being children, the island is full of life at every turn. I pass a group of teenagers huddled around a plastic patio table where Maria typically sells juice in small plastic bags out of a white styrofoam cooler. The juice stand had temporarily been turned into a card table and any money earned from selling juice seemed to go straight back into the game. “No, you have to get nine, and the royal cards don’t count either,” she says to the teenagers who throw their 100 pesos on top of the table.
It is the middle of the day and the sun shines through a black net awning that hangs from four wooden posts and provides a bit of shade to the kids who have gathered around with pockets full of change. Above them is a small cage with a canary, a rare sight on a tropical island where the only animals are pets and the few trees that exist seem to struggle to find room to grow between the cement and crushed white coral on which their tiny Caribbean island is built.
The kids race back to school with their earnings. The island’s school has 180 students, who are split into three groups by age and attend classes for two to three hours a day either in the morning, after-noon or late afternoon. Tatiana, a teacher who works for Colombia’s Ministry of Education, who was there training the school’s four teachers, tells me that this school, like many in the region, lacks resources. The students have very little if any access to the internet, and even though full government scholarships to higher education institutions are available for students of these remote areas of Colombia, as far as she knows no one has ever applied.
A six-year-old boy named Manuel in his blue uniform holding a toy gun grabs my hand and leads me behind the school. A group of eight other kids follow. As they rapidly talk in a Spanish I assume only other six year olds can understand, I have no idea where they are going, but their hand gestures make it clear I need to keep up.
Want to get a feel for the San Bernardo islands? Head to the harbor in Tolú and catch an all-day boat tour with Club Nautico Tolumaria. The tour includes a stop on Islote for a locally guided walking tour, including entrance to the aquarium. Be sure to grab an ice cream at one of the island’s four convenience stores. The tour continues to the white-sand beaches of Mucura and Tintipan where you can sunbathe, snorkel, or explore the islands on foot. Don’t forget to pack a lunch and bring some sunscreen! Cost: $35.000 COP / $12 USD
You can’t visit the San Bernardo Islands without trying the fish. Many restaurants serve traditional Colombian dishes such as sancocho (a stew usually containing large pieces of meat, plantains, cassava and other vegetables) and the catch of the day served with a side of rice, beans, salad and patacones (fried plantain chips). Meals typically include fresh squeezed juice or aguapanela(a refined sugar drink). Cost: $12.000 – $18.000 COP / $4–6 USD
Islote: If you feel like being adventurous and getting to know the wonderful people of Islote, ask for Freddy and stay a night in one of his private rooms. Cost: $30.000 COP / $10 USD per night.
Tintipan: For the backpacker, the budget traveler, or eco-friendly voyager, a 24-year-old house on stilts just off the coast of Tintipan called Casa en el Aguahas accommodations ranging from hammocks and dormitories to private rooms. It has its own restaurant and bar, and breakfast, bottomless coffee and free drinking water are included in the price of your stay. Young foreign travelers from all over the world spend their days here swimming, snorkeling, reading in a hammock, or taking off on one of many excursions the marine hostel offers. Note that the hostel does not accept reservations more than one month in advance. Cost: $70.000–$200.000 COP / $24–$70 USD per night. casaenelagua.com
Mucura: If you’re looking for a more luxurious island getaway, Hotel Punta Faro offers beachside accommodation with all the modern amenities. Three meals per day are included in the price so all you need to do is show up and relax. Cost: $700.000 COP / $240 USD per night. puntafaro.com
Through a few more narrow passageways and what seems like someone’s home, we arrive at the waterfront to a small cement wall painted with fish and sea creatures and a sign that reads, “Aquari-um $2000.” To the right, three tanks built into the water with cement pillars and black netting for walls hold various fish, a few sea turtles, and a couple of sharks. The children run around the edge of the tanks pointing and shouting out the names of all the different types of sea animals.
Without warning the children run out of the aquarium and I follow. We end up under a large roof where a few men are building a fiberglass boat. The kids bring me to the edge of the roof, point to its top, and tell me to look up. The entire roof is a solar panel. Until a year ago, the island had been powered by a generator that often broke down. Now, with the solar panels, they have reliable electricity from 7:30 p.m. to sometime after midnight. The looks in the kids’ eyes are of a wonder and excitement. They are proud of that large roof the way the others are proud to have lived on Islote and I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for them to see those panels arrive one by one on little boats to their tiny island.
TELENOVELAS AND LIGHTBULBS
The sun sets behind the horizon leaving an orange haze around Islote. The fishermen return to their families and every square, street corner, and stoop is occupied by children playing. Old men sit in a circle and pass around a bottle of rum. Mothers and their babies sit in chairs out on the street while the smell of cooking fires fill the air, drifting up from behind the houses or through the open windows. A group of five teenagers wearing sunglasses, despite the lack of sun, pull out a large speaker and start to blast music near an unnamed convenience store.
I’m invited to eat dinner and await the coming of electricity with Freddy’s friend Lorena and her family. Lorena, who lives with her husband, three children, and a granddaughter, has a motherly presence. Her hair is up in a bun and she’s wearing a yellow floral dress as bright as the smile on her face. As the sky grows darker, a cool breeze passes through the houses and not a mosquito can be seen. The sound of water boiling on the fire can be heard just inside the house and then there is light, and a subtle cheer of excitement is heard from around the island.
The lightbulb in their house turns on to reveal the baby blue walls, floral paintings, and faded family portraits on the walls. They serve dinner and turn on the television to get their daily dose of telenovelas filled with all the drama, love affairs, and suspense a small island community could ever want. Later as I walk back to my room for the night I can see that all the living rooms on Islote are filled. All eyes are glued to the screens, and for a moment the streets are empty.
Fly to Cartagena, Colombia. From Cartagena’s main bus terminal, it’s a 2.5-hour bus ride to Tolú ($25.000 COP / $8 USD). Head over to Club Nautico Tolumaria right across from the harbor where all tour boats leave and get a ticket to your destination ($30.000 COP / $10 USD).
Not a single person is alone; everyone is together enjoying a small moment of pop culture in an otherwise secluded and remote part of the world.
I had come to Islote seeking isolation, wondering how such a small community with few readily available resources thrived in the middle of the Caribbean. Of all the people I met, not one person wished they could leave and never come back. The children ran freely without fear or danger, the adults took a collective approach to keeping their community safe, and the more fortunate helped those in need.
Despite its location, the island didn’t feel secluded or distant at all. It wasn’t barely surviving or on the fringe of society. Its people were one large family. A family who had made a home that provided for everyone, a place in which to work, teach, learn, love, and most importantly, for those who had left, a place to come back to.
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017