Magazine For Isla Mujeres Charities

Photo by Tony Garcia

Bringing Tourism To Isla Mujeres by Ronda Winn Roberts

     Isla Mujeres was a thriving community for a hundred and twenty years before developers carved Cancun out of the jungle in the 1970's. When the Mexican government decided to create a planned city as a major tourism destination in 1969, Cancun consisted of a handful of caretakers living on coconut plantations owned by wealthy residents of Isla Mujeres. 

    Tourism was being developed on the Island of Women many years before the first hotels were built in Cancun.  

Promoting Isla Mujeres Internationally in the 1800's

Drawing of Mayan Temple at Punta Sur, 1841, Catherwood

Isla Mujeres street, le Plongeons 1877 
         Isla Mujeres historian Fidel Villanueva Madrid says that the Cuban hero, José Martí, was one of the first promoters of Isla Mujeres. Martí wrote about the beauty of the island and the customs of the Islanders, after living here in March of 1877.
       John L. Stephens was the first American to publish a widely read account of the island, when his books about the Yucatan became available in 1843. Augustus & Alice D. le Plongeon visited in 1877, and published articles & books featuring the island in the 1880's. Alice included a description of the ex-pirate Mundaca, and mentioned the towers left behind by the pirate Lafitte. Archeologists Mahler & Holmes visited in the 1890's and published photos of the Mayan temple on the cliffs at the southern end of the isle. Famous Mexican photographer Agustin Casasola also published photos of the temple.
  1877 le Plongeons
1877 le Plongeons
Temple to Ixchel, Mayan goddess, at Punta Sur. Top:: 1891 by Teobert Maler (Austrian archeologist). Also: 1895 by William Henry Holmes (American archeologist)


















1930's: Domestic Tourism in the Mexican Caribbean 

Punta Sur Temple 1917
 Augustin Casasola.
    In 1936, President Cardenas launched a federal jobs program for the Federal Territories of Quintana Roo & Baja California, to foster development in the two territories, with the goal of promoting international tourism. When he was campaigning, Cardenas had fallen in love the beaches and blue seas on Quintana Roo. He created the Department of Tourism and changed the image of Quintana Roo from a place of political exile, to a piece of paradise.
   President Cardenas sent specific instructions to modernize and improve Quintana Roo for tourism.  Governor Melgar cooperated with public works that improved the main cities, including the creation of three hotels: Los Cocos in Chetumal, the Playa in Cozumel, and The Ruins in Tulum.
     At that time, the only tourism was domestic, consisting mainly of  governmental officials, entrepreneurs in the chicle industry, and foreign consignment agents who traveled between the islands and Chetumal. In 1928, Cozumel had a couple small hotels, but construction of the 18 room Playa sparked that island's burgeoning hotel industry.

Isla Mujeres in the 1930's. This appears to be the town square and the east coast, looking southward. The church and the basketball court are in their current locations. Posted by Taina Talina Garrido and by CMJ Lefevere

1930's: Amphibious Flights To Isla Mujeres

   In 1928, a trade route was established by Pan Am with regular service between Key West and Colon, Panama, with stops in Cozumel. In 1932 a 12-passenger amphibious aircraft was flying the "Chicle Route" from Florida to Cuba to Progreso to Cozumel, Chetumal, Belize, and Guatemala. Pan Am discontinued operations in the Caribbean in 1938. In Chetumal the first runway was built in 1929 by the Army, linking the city directly to Merida.
   In the 1930's, celebrated Mexican pilot Sarabia began operating his airplane company in Quintana Roo with five airplanes, which could each carry five passengers. They established the "Caribbean Route" (Ruta del Caribe): Chetumal-Puerto Carrillo-Cozumel-Isla Mujeres.
    The famous pilot was good friend with Q. Roo Governor Melgar, and they enjoyed breaking speed records together, until 1939 when the Governor sponsored the Sarabia's successful  trip from Mexico City to New York. Unfortunately, on his return flight Sarabia's plane plunged into the Potomac, causing his death and the end of the Ruta del Caribe to Isla Mujeres.

Isla Mujeres 1944 Bullfight. In the comments below the photo an Islander explains that the prominent families would contribute to the construction of the ring and then each family would have rights to their section, and would invite their friends to join them. The annual festival for the patron saint often included a bull fight, and the Magana's boat "Maria Carmita" brought the animals, musicians, and non-islanders to the festivities. . Posted by Temo Zurita


1940's: The Isla Mujeres Runway

  Isla Mujeres historian Fidel Villanueva Madrid explains the origins of the runway in Isla Mujeres and the runway in Cancun, saying they were both built in 1942 by chicle businessman Francisco Polo Montes, presumably for personal use, and/or perhaps for the transport of raw material.
Unknown date
      The historian says many Mexican airplanes came from Belize, laden with goods, and notes that the best known  example was actor-singer Pedro Infante Cruz, an alleged smuggler who lost his life while piloting a plane in 1957, near Merida. 
Photo from 1971 or 1972 of Twin Otter turbo prop plane of the Aeromaya company that flew between Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and Merida, dispatched by Gerardo Magana Barragam and the 'famous Keznel'. Comments note 'Kesnel' is the uncle of our current Mayor, Agapito Magana. Posted on Recuerdos de Isla Mujeres by Cuauhtémoc Zurita Landero
        Ruben Zaldivar Carvajal says the Cancun runway was built in 1954 by construction companies building the road between Valladolid and Puerto Juarez, so parts could be flown in that were badly needed for their machines. That road was completed ten years later, providing a route for more tourists to Isla Mujeres 
    Sr. Zaldivar says the Cancun airstrip was closed by Customs office in Puerto Juarez, because it was presumably being used for smuggling, noting there was a great deal of smuggling going on in the area. The jungle devoured the runway.
     To develop Cancun, it needed to be hacked out  and improved. An engineer from Isla Mujeres, José García de la Torre, led the project, with engineer Manuel Castro, who said,  "They told me they were going to build a city there. I had seen many imaginative plans, but in truth I did not think anything was going to come of this. This was Jungle! J-U-N-G-L-E!!!! JUN-GLE!! We set to work in April, 1970."  When the new international airport was opened in 1975, the old airstrip was closed, and it became Kabah Avenue. In 1976  a commercial jet accidentally landed on the avenue.

  1950's: Sr. Lima Begins Promoting Isla Mujeres

    In the late 40's and early 50's, Cozumel received some attention from divers, explorers, and the media. But tourism stagnated in Quintana Roo while the federal government focused on developing tourism in Acapulco, to compete with Hawaii.  However, an airline began another Ruta del Caribe (Merida-Chetumal-Carrillo Puerto-Cozumel) with DC-3's that carried 26 passengers. But after two crashes in 1957, the airline was sold in 1958 and the service discontinued.
            In the early twentieth century,  the vacant isle of Cancun was the backyard of Isla Mujeres. It consisted of jungle, empty sand dunes, and coconut farms that were owned by the wealthiest people of Isla Mujeres.
Gabriel "Gabuch" Barrido of Isla Mujeres, worked for Prisca Gomez, of Isla Mujeres, on a coco plantation of over 40 hectares, located near Cancun's El Rey ruins. After INFRATUR purchased land, workers were allowed to continue using the properties until they were developed. Source.
    In 1953, José de Jesús Lima Gutiérrez had arrived in Isla Mujeres and begun working toward developing tourism on the island. He was a politician from Jalisco with many connections among those in power. He was familiar with Quintana Roo from the years when he was part of the business "Maderas del Tropico" (Tropical Woods).
    In 1954, a federal project began, called "Ciruito de Golfo y del Caribe", which intended to connect Florida and Cuba to the Yucatan peninsula, using ferries and a road going from Puerto Juarez to Valladolid. The project ended when its architect, Carlos Lazo, died in a plane crash, but the road construction continued.

Sr. Magana Begins Offering Regular Ferry Service

     In September, 1955 the road was completed to Puerto Juarez. However, Mexican Union buses began bringing passengers to Puerto Juarez from Valladolid and Merida before the road was completed. The bus passengers walked the last four kilometers to Puerto Juarez, and then waited while smoke from a fire signaled the Magana boat "Maria Carmita" to cross over and pick them up. 
Maria Carmita from Recuerdos de Isla Mujeres
          In 1956, businessman Juan de Dios Carrillo Padilla arrived in Puerto Juarez on the bus from Merida. He describes the scene:
"The dock used for the crossing to the island was a tiny pier made of weak sticks of wood. From there, we boarded a little launch, and were taken to the boat Carmita, which was anchored in front of Puerto Juarez. Meanwhile, men unloaded correspondence and merchandise from the bus, to be delivered to Isla Mujeres "
       Raul Magana Carillo is the son of Ausencio Magana, who first provided ferry service, and the great grandson of Bartolomé Magaña, who helped found the town in 1850.  He explains:
    "For the first hundred years that Isla Mujeres existed, there were no roads.  The pantries and groceries of Isla Mujeres were stocked from the ports of Quintana Roo and Yucatan. We were bringing in all the consumable goods for the island's population via a boat called The Carmita, going to Progreso and Chicxulub to find food. The Carmita was the largest ship in the area, and went to Rio Lagartos find cattle. When there was a fiesta, we not only brought in the bulls for the event, we brought the musicians too, and a tradition grew on the island. The Carmita would take a loop around the bay, with the musicians playing."
Sultana.Posted by Matilde Gomez Heredia
       Isla Mujeres  historian Fidel Villanueva says that the Puerto Juarez pier was not strong enough and was expanded and rebuilt several times. He lists the ferries that made the crossings as a sailboat named El Rey, and the motorized boats: La Carmita, La Sultana del Mar, La Dama Elegante, and la Blanca Beatriz, all owned by  Ausencio Magaña Rodríguez. 

Mario Burgos Sanchez, 80, built Sultana del Mar. By Por Esto
     Former ferry Captain Carlos Aguilar Espadas, aka "El Gato", has a slightly different recollection: "The first was La Carmita, the second was La Novia del Mar, and the third was  La Sultana del Mar, and then came  La Dama Elegante, which I captained".


  Raul Magana explains:
"We were the first who started to take people across. - We had a 10 passenger boat named El Ariel and one called "De Arena" which was powered by an outboard motor. Then as the number of crossings increased, the Rosa Elena was purchased, which had a capacity for 25-30  passengers. Subsequently, as the number of users increased, the trips to Progreso were canceled and we dedicated the Carmita to transporting passengers, with a capacity for 50, and then came the La Novia del Mar, which carried 45 passengers. "   Raul left school at 16 to became a mechanic, and then he managed the Rosa Elena.
Novia del Mar Posted by Ramiro Coral
       When the Yucatan Teamsters Union Buses began arriving, the crossing were timed in accordance with their schedule. The drivers would sleep at "La Blanquita", owned by Ausencio, and depart at 7am the next morning.   Raul Magana continues with the chronology of the boats:
Posted by Matilde Gomez Heredia
          "Then came the Sultana del Mar, which still exists, which brought cargo to Isla Mujeres. There was a tiny wooded pier in Puerto Juarez, but we would transport 30 or 40 tons of cargo. The boat arrived in P. Juarez at 2 or 3 in the morning, and would begin to load, because they had to be in Isla Mujeres between 5 or 6 am. We made three or four trips daily. After that came another 30 passenger boat, called La Dama Elegante."
Sultana del Mar, Then & Now. Posted by Temo Zurita
        With the success of the Puerto Juarez-Valladolid road, the Posada del Mar hotel opened its doors  in Isla Mujeres, with four rooms, and there was a restaurant to receive the first tourists arriving from Merida.  

1959: Cuba & US Officially Become Enemies 

       Another factor that fueled tourism in the Mexican-Caribbean was the the triumph of Castro's Cuban Revolution on January 1st, 1959, ending US tourism in Cuba, leaving hundreds of American tourists looking for a new destination. (It is said General Lazaro Cardenas asked Jose Lima, his contact in Isla Mujeres, to assist the Cubans. Source. )

1963: Travel Book Features Isla Mujeres

       In the book "A Yank in the Yucatan", Rolfe F. Schell, wrote:  
     "Until March of 1959, Isla Mujeres was completely cut off from the rest of the world, with the exception of a narrow dirt jungle road, and a connecting ferry. In March, Jesus Lima, owner of the Zacil Ha, one of the two hotels on the island, inaugurated the first scheduled air flights from Merida. The little single-engined monoplane now skims swiftly over the lush jungle and dusty road, arriving at Isla Mujeres about two hours after takeoff .  In the many trips I have made to Mujeres, I have never really looked forward to the two hundred miles of hot road travel (from Merida to Puerto Juarez, via Valladolid), but I have never regretted te ride either. Actually, the bus is about as comfortable as the automobile ride, ... the $1.60 fare is contrasted blatantly against the $15 to $30 charged for a car and chauffeur. "
  The author tells about a friend of his who was known as the "Chiclero King" in the 1930's,  managing  nearly 2.5 thousand square miles of territory and 1500 men, from Carillo Puerto to an area north of Isla Mujeres. The chicleros installed narrow gauge railroads with mule drawn carts, because there were no roads at that time.
By Rolfe F. Schnell
      Schell describes traveling to Isla Mujeres in the 1950's:  "Puerto Juarez is not really a port in the true sense of the word, but rather a minute fishing village of a dozen huts. There are two 'stores' where a limited selection of canned goods is available plus prepared food of a dubious nature."  He says the bus arrived from Valladolid with a dead deer tied to the roof, and a cargo of contentious chickens, in addition to its passengers. He describes the white huipiles of the local women, noting that it was common for natives to take as many as five baths daily, in cold water.
       The passengers rode in a launch to the Carmita, which was anchored ~200 yards offshore. A bull was taken along, which did not go easily, nearly capsizing the launch.
       They arrived 45 minutes later at the concrete Naval pier, and he stayed at the recently opened Posada del Mar, which he described as four rooms stacked in two stories, overlooking the bay.  He said all the streets were of sand and he didn't see any vehicles. To the north of town was a large coconut grove covering many acres, which was kept free of other vegetation. He describes the airport south of town:
    "A tiny strip of green turf bounded on the east by a nasty little hill and on the west by the water of the bay. Only single engined planes could come in here safely and due to the prevailing trade winds, nearly always from the north, sweeping low over the village before landing."
 He saw two stores, stocked with staples and dry goods, and learned there were several more within private homes.  Since there was little or no tourist trade, souvenirs were not sold. Australian pines shaded the town square, where the Church was located, and nearby was a  dance hall - ice cream parlor combination. A new kindergarten overlooked the Caribbean, and to its north was a primary school, and then the ten bed hospital. Further along the Caribbean coast were a few private homes, and he walked to the northern point of the isle, "Where Zacil Ha lies". He says this building was once called Casa de la Punta (House at the Point), until an American tourist kept referring to it as "Casa de la Puta" or whore house.

1964: A Decade Before Cancun had hotels, Sr. Lima opened Zazil Ha 
Isla Mujeres Photo
Photo of Sr Lima at "Casa de las Vistas", one of the first residences in Cancun, which he built in 1968. It was purchased by the governmental agency that developed Cancun to house visiting businessmen, and was accessed by boat.  In the early 70's, the Mexican government built the first six hotels in Cancun, and developers joined in after the new airport was opened in 1975.
       The hotel located at the north end of Isla Mujeres, on the islet Yunque, was inaugurated on May 18, 1964, as the hotel Zazil Ha, with 32 rooms. It is currently known as the Avalon, although it was recently renamed "Mia Reef".  It was also called the Zazil Ha Bojorquez, and when the government owned it, it was named El Presidente Caribe.
Presumably mid to late 60's  posted by Carlos Gasca, photographer unknown.
    To finance its construction, Sr. Lima took out a loan for eight million pesos, with a fifteen year term, at ten percent interest, using most of his property as collateral. His land totaled 403,000 square meters, including "La Gloria, San Miguel, Montecristo, El Mesón del Pescador, la Supermanzana, el Palmar del Norte, employee housing, and a laundry". The first stone for the hotel was laid on June 23, 1962.
              Despite creating his own airline and tourism agency, Sr. Lima was never able to break even, because there was not enough tourism.. After nine years of intense effort, the family was unable to meet the loan payments. In 1973 they give up the hotel to the National Financiera, forfeiting their properties. Don Jose Lima Gutierrez retained his home, Casa de las Piedras, and continued to live in Isla Mujeres until he passed away in 2009, at age 97.  The Lima family owns Buho's and Maria's Hotel & Cabanas del Mar, among other businesses, and they are active in the Isla Mujeres Yacht club, hosting the Regattas.
 Construction on the Rocamar hotel in Isla Mujeres began in 1965 and was completed in 1969.

 Since 1965: Nearly a Half Century of Regattas

        In 1965, Jose Lima went to New Orleans in 1965 with a delegation of Mexican officials to organize regattas between Mexico and the United States. (At that time, Sr. Lima was head of the National Sports agency.) The Mexican Ambassador-at-large brought posters advertising a "Regata al Sol" race from New Orleans to Isla Mujeres. The ads said the race was sponsored by the Southern Yacht Club of New Orleans, who had never heard of the event.The club reluctantly agreed to be involved, providing they did not have to put up any money. 
      One member of the club was so impressed with the Mexicans that he volunteered to oversee the race. Three months later, he found himself flying to Mexico City, taking one of the three flights to Merida, enduring a four hour cab ride to Puerto Juarez,  and waiting for the small ferry boat to Isla Mujeres. After arriving on the isle, he borrowed a tiny rowboat, in order to place two homemade buoys in the bay, as a finish line.   
    As the date for the race approached, it became a major media event in Mexico, with Chrysler & GM of Mexico sponsoring trophies. In Isla Mujeres plans were underway for the festivities to welcome the fleet of American yachts to Isla Mujeres.
     Meanwhile, back in the US, there were zero entrants. Americans stopped visiting Cuba after the Revolution, and boat owners were hesitant about going to Isla Mujeres, because of its proximity to the Communist country. Therefore, the first race consisted of only two sailboats, provided by the US Navy. One was manned by members of the US Navy from Pensacola.  The other boat, which carried Mexican officials,  had been  re-christened  the "Isla Mujeres" .  It won the race. The following year the regatta was very successful, with 16 participants.
    Original plans for the regattas included various starting points (Houston, New Orleans, Pensacola, St. Petersburg and Naples) and destinations (Veracruz, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel and Progreso.) Only two regattas remain, and both conclude in Isla Mujeres.. The Regata al Sol del Sol, which first ran in 1969, is held annually from St. Petersburg. The Southern Yacht Club still participates in the Regatta al Sol, with the New Orleans Yacht Club, coming to Isla Mujeres every other year. In 2014, the Regata al Sol del Sol will be in April and the Regata al Sol will be in May.   ( Sports Illustrated article about the 1967 regatta) 

1972: No Place To Stay In Cancun

Punta Cancun, 1970 & 2006  Source

    In 1970, Isla Mujeres had 139 hotel rooms and a total of 8100 foreign tourists yearly.  There were 2663 residents on the island, while ten years previously there had been 1071.  Colonia & Pureto Juarez had about 200 people, which grew to nearly 5000 by 1975. (source & source & source.)
     On March 2, 1972, Aeromexico  & Aviomar launched an intense four-day promotion called "An Adventure in Cancun",  which promised interesting things. Aeroméxico started selling packages left and right , but there was one problem: The first hotels didn't open until two years later, in 1974. Meanwhile, the first flights, with the first tourists, began landing on the old runway in March 1972, which is now Kabah Avenue. There were visitors, but nowhere to put them.
Replica of tower at old runway.

      Javier Medina Riancho, who was a representative for  Aviomar in those days explains:
"One morning at the old airport, I saw in a couple of foreign tourists with their golf clubs, who had bought an all inclusive package from Aeromexico Travel. You see, Aviomar  and Aeroméxico were working together, but Aeroméxico had accelerated the selling of these packages.
    When I saw them, I drove the shuttle van over and said 'Climb on in & I'll take you to your hotel!' But the Playa Blanca was under construction, so upon reaching it, I said, 'Gentleman! Choose your room!' But there was nothing. In reality, I made money from the package taking them to Akumal and everyone was happy. For the record, Aeromexico suspended the promotion in 1973."  
The old airstrip, which is now Kabah Avenue, was closed when the International Airport was opened in 1975. The first six hotels in Cancun were built by the government, and after the airport opened, developers began building hotels.
   In 1973, in response to concerns from islanders about the deteriorating reefs, three underwater areas were given protected status, prohibiting fishing and waste disposal. (Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancun, and Nizuc).  In 1974, Quintana Roo became a state and the first two hotels opened in Cancun.

1975: National Geographic & Jacques Cousteau
Ramon Bravo & Jacques Cousteau
    In 1975, the Cave of the Sleeping Sharks, near Isla Mujeres was featured in National Geographic, and again in 1983. Jacques Cousteau featured the cave in an episode of his television program in 1975.(Here) Later that season, he featured Islas Mujeres and Contoy in an episode about the Spiny Lobster migrations. (Here).
   In the 1980's, tourism development intensified in the Mexican Caribbean.  Here is a New York Times article about Isla Mujeres written in 1981. Here are population statistics for Isla Mujeres over the past half century.
    In 2013, over 1.7 million people arrived in Isla Mujeres, according to the Port Authority. It is estimated that there are currently about 20,000 residents on the island.

Sources for this article: Francisco Verdayes Ortiz, & second article, third article, fourth article  Troy Gilbert article & article ; A Yank in the Yucatan by Rolfe F. Schell, Recuerdos de Isla Mujeres, Fidel Villanueva Madrid: various articles. (collection of his articles). Other sources cited within the text.

1984, Riito area of Playa Norte from El Presidente Caribe (now Mia Reef/Avalon) by Edwin Novelo Cevera
Recent photo of Avalon/Mia Reef and Riito area of Playa Norte


  1. What an excellent compilation of information on the developement of Cancun and Isla Mujers. Well done, and very interesting.

  2. Terrific article interesting to read the history and see pics from the past! Thank you!!

  3. Great article! Thank you for including the New York Times link. Flash forward 20 years and let's see how today's Isla deals with traffic congestion, rising costs for local population, increased pressure for high density resort accomodations, and infrastructure.

  4. I guess the challenge for Isla Mujeres now is how can it retain its 'soul' as more & more developments happen.

  5. hotels somehow brought attention and tourists to Cancún, but is remarkable to say that is better to rent a house in Cancún instead of going to hotels because that offers a more complete experience.
    Great historical facts! Let´s make people fall in love with México!!

    1. Oh trust me, you don't have to make people fall in love with just happens :))

  6. Wow... I read every word. Thanks for putting this together.

  7. I love this article, so interesting !!! Only wish I could have afforded to go years ago when it was less busy. Thank you so much for putting this together !!

  8. Great article thank you for all the information & history! I LOVED looking at the old pictures to see how many things have changed...well, sort of ;)