This article is from the December 1996 - January 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Isla Mujeres Revisited

by Paul Skillicorn

Paul Skillicorn is the CEO of the GreenGold Corporation, a Minneapolis technology company providing solutions for converting animal and human wastes into feed and foodstuffs. He also serves as Chairman of Prism-USA, a not-for-profit company devoted to promoting enhanced worldwide cognizance of the "duckweeds," a family of fast-growing, high-protein plants that hold promise for helping solve the world’s food problem beyond the year 2000 ( An environmental engineer and economist by training, he has dedicated his entire adult life to developing more appropriate means for improving the health and living conditions of rural villagers in the world’s least developed countries. Paul is now based temporarily in Quintana Roo where his wife is conducting a Fulbright/National Science Foundation supported study of the linkages between tourism and local agriculture in the Mexican Caribbean. During his stay in Quintana Roo he will concentrate on developing efficient and cost-effective solutions for the serious pollution problems facing Quintana Roo’s major resort areas, primarily Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Playa del Carmen.

My first visit to the Cancun-Isla Mujeres-Cozumel-Tulum region was in 1973 as the young captain of a sailboat making its maiden voyage from Southwest Harbor, Maine, to Los Angeles. The development of Cancun had only just begun and there was a lot of speculation about its design concept and its potential for success. Local tourism back then was dominated by Isla Mujeres...the favored Caribbean haunt of those hardened old-timers who we envy for always having beat us to the best places. My memory of the island was of a small town with one luxury hotel, half a dozen small inexpensive hotels, a couple of nice beaches, one little reef, an empty airfield, a couple of interesting inland lagoons....and little else on the rest of the island, save the remnants of an old estate developed by the scion of one of Merida’s wealthy old families in the memory of his lover. It was an interesting place in which to spend to a few days equipped with a bicycle and a snorkel. The water was beautiful, the fish likewise, and a significant percentage of the local people were engaged in making a living as fishermen. Sunsets on the island’s northwestern beaches were beautiful.

Today, the sunset from "Playa Cocos" is still beautiful, but otherwise Isla Mujeres has almost completely disappeared. It has become a Cancun day-trip with fast launches arriving at fifteen-minute intervals to discharge tourists desperate, on the fifth day of the "Cancun Week," to see a live fish and a chunk of live coral in situ. The lagoons are literally trashed, with the northern end of one half-filled with local garbage, and both lagoons are colored a sickening green-brown from algae. The island’s population has grown ten-fold, spreading south in a hodge-podge of small, tightly sandwiched, odd-colored and (always) half-finished "optimistic" housing that is so typical of Latin America (i.e., houses always sport reinforcing iron awaiting extension of a second floor). Everything is strewn with garbage: paper, chicken bones, plastic bottles, beer bottles and soda cans. My whimsical, breezy bicycle trip south of the airport brings me to an experience reminiscent of the worst neighborhoods of Lima, Peru. The little reef has been christened a national park. To get to the water, one must now run the usual gauntlet of tacky shops selling airport art and nylon hammocks and of restaurants offering "typical Mexican cuisine." Then, there are ten times as many snorkel-equipped tourists bobbing in the water as there are fish. Finally, the biggest tragedy for Isla Mujeres has been the loss of all its palm trees...killed by a plague that will eventually remove all the old native palms from the entire Yucutan. They are being replaced by immune species of Indian origin, but somehow lounging under a six-foot tall palm tree sipping a pina colada doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Those old-time insiders we all envy? They now live "above Punta Sam" in an area the tourists have not yet discovered, but which is now targeted for "low impact development." When I had the privilege of interviewing an old-timer the other a Cancun McDonald’s no less...he said that he was "heading inland...perhaps to Chiapas." He declared that it was "all over for the beach." I, for one, hope this time he’s not right.