When photographer Charlie Cordero first learned of Santa Cruz Del Islote, a tiny, densely populated island a two-hour boat ride off the coast of Colombia from Cartagena, he was captivated.
People who find a way to live in difficult environmental conditions have always fascinated him, and Santa Cruz Del Islote immediately stuck out. On the island, there is limited access to water, food, and electricity, but 45 families still eke out a living in 97 houses on 12,000 square yards of land. That’s around four times as dense as the population of Manhattan.
“All we knew about this place was that it was an offshore island, little-known and far away, where for a long time its inhabitants had no interest in leaving it.” He says that he wanted to discover how a relatively “large number of people lived in such a small and remote space,” by learning about their daily life, their customs, and their traditions. “I knew it was a place that deserved to be [known],” he says.
His first images from the project, published alongside an interview this past August in the New York Times, showed the close, tight quarters where the island’s residents live. Cordero says the story of how the island came to be so crowded is like a fairy tale.
“150 years ago, Santa Cruz del Islote was a small, uninhabited island with less than a hectare of land that floated in the middle of the Caribbean Sea,” he says. “The fishermen working in this area from Cartagena and Tolú used this place to rest during their fishing and protect themselves from the storms.”
The island is located in an area with plenty of ocean coral that is ripe for fishing, so it became an attractive spot for people to come and build homes. Families built houses next to each other as they married and had children of their own.
The first settlers—grandparents and great-grandparents of the present generation—would forage the land and sea for building matierials, Cordero says. “Sea shells, coconut shells, tree trunks from the neighboring islands, sand, and even garbage were used to refill and continue to build [the land].”
More and more people began populating the island, steadily bringing their cousins, brothers, and friends. They came to fish and to work.
“One day, the tide brought in a cement cross, or “cruz” in Spanish,” he says. “The first settlers picked it up and put it in the center of the island. [At the time the island] had no name, but from that day it was called Santa Cruz del Islote.”
Despite the island’s steady population growth, life is hard. While seafood is abundant, all other food and household goods must be shipped in by boat. There is no way to produce drinking water on the island. Colombia’s navy used to bring water to the island, but they haven’t supplied any for months, so island residents are using rain barrels to capture water for drinking and bathing. School on the island runs through tenth grade, and then students who want to continue learning must either commute to schools off of the island or leave their home entirely. Many boys choose to stay with their families and fish for a living.
Cordero’s goal is to finish his photography project by the end of the year. He says there are still key moments waiting to be captured, like how the island celebrates Christmas and birthdays and how residents handle burials.
Santa Cruz del Islote does not have space for a cemetery, Cordero says, so people are buried on neighboring islands. “I think life on the island will continue to amaze me for a little longer,” Cordero says. “It is a place that seems to have come from a book by Gabriel García Márquez.”