Isla Roots – A Hostel Committed to Community Service

Susana and I visited Isla Roots Hostel, located in Colombia’s San Bernardo Islands in July 2019.  We had a terrific time during our visit, and you can read more about the overall experience at this review of Isla Roots.  One of the things that impressed us about the hostel is its commitment to making a positive difference in the surrounding community.  Here I’m going to describe some of the work Isla Roots does.

Disclosure:  We received courtesy accommodations, basic meals, and some activities at Isla Roots in exchange for sharing our experience and writing about their community service work.  I do think it speaks highly of them that this is an aspect of their work they specifically wanted to highlight.  The opinions expressed here are my own honest ones and except for where otherwise noted do not reflect the opinions of Isla Roots, their employees, or their management.  Please feel free to consult my Disclosure Policy.

Photo of 5 boys that are part of the soccer team sponsored as part of Isla Roots's Community Service
Some members of the Tiburones de Islote, the youth soccer team sponsored by Isla Roots.

Isla Roots and Its Community

Isla Roots is located on Tintipán Island, one of the 10 islands that are part of the San Bernardo Archipelago located off Colombia’s coast 80 km to the south of Cartagena.

One of the islands that make up the archipelago is the island of Santa Cruz del Islote.  The island, commonly referred to as Islote is a mostly artificial island with an area of approximately 10,000 square meters.

The island was originally settled by 3 families of fishermen in the year 1700, over 300 years ago.  It has since grown into a community of over 500 people, with the residents artificially expanding the island’s land over time.

Today, those 500 people in an area about the size of two football fields side by side make Santa Cruz del Islote one of the most densely populated island in the world.

Photos showing the island of Santa Cruz del Islote from the water and the cross in the center of town commemorating its founding.
A view of Islote from the sea and of the cross in its center commemorating its founding in 1700.

Unfortunately, the island and its residents have largely been neglected by the national and local governments (it falls under the jurisdiction of the province of Bolívar with its capital at Cartagena).  Water is collected when it rains or shipped in from Cartagena.  Limited electricity comes from solar panels donated by European philanthropists.

There is primary school on the island, but for secondary school, students must go to the mainland if they have family to stay with there.  There is no doctor, and just one nurse stationed on the island, and residents must take a nearly hour long boat ride in the event of a major medical issue.  There are no policemen.

Photo of two groups of people sitting at tables in Santa Cruz del Islote
Photo on Santa Cruz del Islote.

Nearly all of the island’s residents continue to rely on fishing or on the budding tourist industry in the islands for their livelihood.  That makes places like Isla Roots important, as they not only buy their food locally and provide employment opportunities, but also make an effort to fill at least some of the massive gap left by the lack of government investment.

Isla Roots’s Social Work and Commitment

Isla Roots has a commitment to supporting the community of Islote and taking actions that have a positive and sustainable impact.

Majority Local Work Force

Isla Roots has a policy of always employing a majority local workforce.  While the property administrator is French, and there were a couple of volunteers from New Zealand working when we were there, the cooks, boat driver, and bartender were all locals from Islote.

I’ve always had a bit of mixed feelings about hostel volunteering and how it may reduce opportunities for locals, although I understand, particularly as it relates to language, why hostels do it.  In the case of Isla Roots, I really appreciate that there is a firm policy of ensuring they provide critical job opportunities to locals as well.

Sponsoring the Tiburones del Islote Youth Soccer Team

Isla Roots is the official sponsor of the youth soccer team known as the Tiburones del Islote (Sharks of Islote).  The hostels backyard serves as their makeshift practice field, and the hostel has helped raise the money for their uniforms.

The administrator Alice told me they are currently trying to raise the money for and find a coach willing to work with the team consistently, and take them to play in tournaments in Cartagena or elsewhere on the mainland.

We had a chance to see the team practice one morning during our stay.  The kids were all very nice and loved playing.  Afterwards, they had a chance to hop in the water for a swim.  You could feel the community atmosphere at Isla Roots with the cooks and other employees treating the kids as if they were their own children or nephews.

I think sports is a great outlet for youth, and it’s great that Isla Roots gives these kids a chance to break out of their daily routine and play every now and then.  There is a donation box at the hostel if you’d like to support the Tiburones continue to grow.

Photo of the Tiburones del Islote soccer team sponsored as part of Isla Roots Hostel's Social Work
The Tiburones del Islote Soccer Team.

Support for Local Musical Artists

Music is another great outlet for young people.  The hostel has an ongoing effort to produce an album named “Champeta Pa’l Mundo” featuring artists from Islote.  Champeta is a musical style that developed on Colombia’s Caribbean coast that blends African rhythms and drums with other Caribbean, and Latino musical styles.

You can check out the playlist and the two music videos recorded so far at the hostel at this playlist on youtube.

Environmental Cleanup and Revitalization

Isla Roots is surrounded by mangrove swamps on the middle of an island in the middle of the Caribbean.  It’s good to know that they have a commitment to sustainability and environmentalism.

Mangrove swamps are important to the ecosystem for several reasons.  Most directly, they provide habitats for the fish that many local residents rely on for their livelihood.  They also help prevent erosion.  Thinking larger, mangroves are among the largest removers of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, making them important not just locally but globally.

In June 2019, Isla Roots helped to replant more than 200 mangroves.  They also work with the community on waste management learning and strategies, and support the organization Salvadores del Arrecife in beach, reef, and sea cleanups, as well as efforts to educate and promote proper trash disposal by the local community.

Photo of Isla Roots with the mangroves surrounding it.
Isla Roots sits nestled among the mangroves growing on Tintipán Island.

This article from 2018 (in Spanish) discusses the trash buildup in the San Bernardo Islands.  Articles like this are a reminder of the usually invisible and often destructive impact we leave on these beautiful natural areas we come to enjoy for a day or a few days.  It also points to the lack of proper trash collection and disposal practices of locals and, perhaps more importantly the lack of proper infrastructure.

That makes not only our own responsibility and consciousness of cleaning up after ourselves, but also the work done by organizations like Salvadores del Arrecife to promote sustainability, important.

Honestly, I was impressed overall by the cleanliness of the beaches, especially when compared to Playa Blanca here in Cartagena, for example.  Still, it’s good that a place that benefits from the tourism in the islands like Isla Roots is also committed to keeping it beautiful and promoting sustainability.

Would you like to know more about Isla Roots?

Check out my full review of our stay at Isla Roots.  Also, you can check out my video review.

The hostel’s website is currently undergoing maintenance, but you can contact them to learn more and make a reservation through the mediums listed below:

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