With an hour of turquoise waves behind us, the boat slows as it passes the rocky southern edge of Isla Contoy and the mangroves which shroud its shores from the open sea. Cicadas sing from the shrubs beneath the lighthouse and all there is here is life unbound.
The Spaniards are the first to disembark on the dock, lightly toasted from a few cups of Dos Equis lager, which has been coming out by the 40 oz. (or caguama, as the serving size is called in Mexico) since we emerged from snorkeling the northern edge of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. It starts just south of Isla Contoy and runs more than 600 miles of Caribbean coastline to Honduras. But Isla Contoy has had crowd control in place for a number of years. No matter how badly you’d like to go, you have to comply with regulations. Only 200 visitors are allowed here per day, though we mostly have the island to ourselves as we’re here in late September, the Riviera Maya’s off season.
There’s no smoking on board the boat and absolutely none permitted on Contoy, a national park, nature preserve and otherwise idyllic and near-secret island off the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. We took off this morning from a marina in Cancun, where yachts the size of a house bobbed tranquilly under the rising sun. The Spaniards got their smoke break in on Isla Mujeres, a developed and heavily touristed island a mere six miles from the mainland where we briefly stopped to peruse suggestive souvenirs (read: beverage containers with boobs painted on them) and impeccably clear aquamarine waters.
Boat captain and general seafaring gentleman, Ulises Peniche, says he hasn’t guided many U.S. citizens on his tours: It’s mostly Europeans who come wanting to visit Isla Contoy. We speculate on why, coming to the conclusion that most gringos interested in adventure tourism don’t visit the Cancun area as it’s so heavily marketed to the all-inclusive resort, sit-by-the-pool, drinking types of travelers (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But, suffice it to say, there’s a lot more to the state of Quintana Roo and the Yucatan Peninsula than that.
Still soaked from an hour of snorkeling in awe of manta rays, sea turtles which seem to follow alongside our boat at a surprising velocity, and fish that look like they were painted on a day when the great creator was feeling especially generous, I stepped off the boat onto Contoy’s dock. Our group was counted scrupulously and eyed for signs of materials not welcomed on this bastion of purity: cigarettes and sunscreen are not permitted anywhere near the divine waters of the island, the latter of which is very damaging to coral (yes, even your hippie, all-natural SPFs.)
One of dozens of protected islands in Mexico’s coast regions, Contoy is completely uninhabited with the exception of a few scientists who study the island’s migratory bird and native flora and fauna habitat. Its proximity to Cancun and the fact that it permits visitors, makes it one of the easier of Mexico’s 3,000 islands (few of which are protected; only 144 inhabited) to visit—though many travelers still don’t know it exists.
This is Maya territory, and people have been coming to this island for millennia to fish and explore. Mayan pottery, human remains dating back more than 500 years, and evidence of pirate hideouts have all been found on Isla Contoy. The palm trees were brought by the Spanish from other colonized areas in the Caribbean, as they are not naturally occurring here.
Caiman crocodiles, iguanas, marvelous frigate seabirds, and hermit crabs are abundant. Designated as a protected area since 1961, this 5.4-mile-long (8.75 km) island has strict rules in place for the protection of the island, in addition to no smoking and no sunscreen, there are dry bathrooms only. What little electricity is needed is produced by solar panels at the island’s welcome center. Water capturation devices hold rainfall from the island’s ample rainy season for use as needed.
Captain Peniche has been guiding trips to Isla Contoy with Asterix Tours for nearly 30 years and says while care for the island has improved, massive deforestation (mainly for hotels, condos and shopping centers around Cancun) on the peninsula is having major impacts on Isla Contoy’s migratory bird population and each year, threats of a devastating hurricane get worse. On this particular morning, he danced because Hurricane Lorenzo had changed course, leaving Quintana Roo safe for another year.
“We have to move forward with consciousness,” Peniche says of protecting not only the island but the entire coast of the Yucatan. “We have problems with unsustainable, unlicensed fishing here; but what can you do when a boat full of fishermen are questioned and they say they are just trying to feed their families? We have problems with hurricanes that come in and destroy the reef system. Without reefs, we have no fish. With climate change, we are seeing stronger hurricanes and storms out here. We are seeing problems with the tourism boom in Cancun and along the coast, along with deforestation, there’s the issue of untreated water from that growing number of developments getting into the ocean. We still have time, but every day it gets more dire.”
Surely developers would love to get their hands on this property, which faces the nearly 600-square-mile Yum Balam preserve where the waters of the windy Gulf of Mexico meet the warm Caribbean Sea. Still, threats are posed by climate change and illegal fishing in the area.
“There should be a consciousness in the development of buildings and hotels here,” Peniche, who grew up in Cancun, says. “Respect for at least 60 percent of the nature that exists here; as in, if you build a hotel or a resort, you have to leave 60 percent of the land as it is. For every hectare that they rip out of mangroves, one kilo of fish is never born. They are fish nurseries. Back in my fathers’ day, the fishermen used to catch 100 kilos. Now it’s more like five or at most 10 kilos per year. The good thing is that people are respecting this space here on Isla Contoy more and more. Before we would find a lot of trash from people who visited, cigarette butts, that kind of thing. But we are working harder to take care of it. The government doesn’t support protection initiatives as much as it should. But it’s almost better that they don’t, because then they’d just steal the money.”
We snap shots of massive black iguanas and hermit crabs before sitting down to a family-style meal under the shade of the visitor’s center. Mention amberjack fish and any seafood lover who’s had it will, without hesitation, recall the best fish they’ve ever tasted, this writer included. The fillets are mouthwatering and served with saffron rice, a punchy pico de gallo, tortilla chips, lasagna and salad. The caguamas of Dos Equis are endless.
Peniche says the island is inhabited as well by aluxes, small, red-eyed creatures common in Mayan legends, that are known for playing tricks in the jungle. Some people leave treats for the aluxes or build them a home to discourage their pranks, though that’s not the case in Isla Contoy. Peniche swears he’s seen them, and while he’s in the tourism business (an enterprise known to exaggerate to wide-eyed tourists), I tend to believe him.
After lunch, we are left to ourselves for a few hours to explore the island, using a set of trails that go to the caiman-filled lagoon or up to a crest overlooking the Caribbean. The other tour-goers and I opt for the beach. Being careful to avoid active hermit crabs, we wander over to the beach where the song of cicadas is louder than the gentle lapping of waves on the shore. Needlefish dart about as we enter the water: which is much cooler here than near the mainland, and welcomed in 90-degree, hurricane-season heat.
When it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave. The people who received us on the docks now want us out: it’s nearly 5 o’clock and they make sure every last tourist is off the island. I saunter back onto the boat, completely enchanted by one of the best swims of my life. As the boat gains speed away from Isla Contoy, the rest of the ship’s crew starts to dole out shots of tequila, cranks the boat’s stereo high, blasting AC/DC and begins to boogie. I don’t partake as I get seasick pretty easily (the patterned, grainy dots on the ship’s floor are swaying back and forth like the sands of time,) so I maintain a steady gaze on the horizon as the party continues all the way back to the dock in Cancun. I don’t know when I’ll again be in such a pristine, people-light tropical paradise as Isla Contoy, but I’m glad to know it exists and that people are so passionate about keeping it that way.
How to get there:
The maximum number of visitors per day to Isla Contoy is limited to 200. During high season (Thanksgiving through Easter and during summer vacations), you’ll need to book far more in advance. Booking at least one month in advance is recommended during busier times.
Several companies are licensed tour operators to Isla Contoy, those include Asterix Tours and Caribbean Connection. There are packages which include pick up from your hotel, a visit to Isla Mujeres, and snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Reef, this part of which is known as Ixlache and also the Mayan Reef.
Where to stay:
On a budget -
Bahia Tolok on Isla Mujeres is ideal for independent travelers not looking for an all-inclusive resort experience. In the central part of Isla Mujeres, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy the nightlife and beaches the island has to offer. You can hop on the ferry here on the tours that stop at Isla Mujeres before reaching Isla Contoy. Bahia Tolok is a boutique hotel with a pool and breakfast included.
Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun is an all-inclusive, adults only resort 38 miles south of the Cancun marina. With a view of Cozumel island in the distance and a blessed current which keeps the sargasso at bay. The hotel draws a variety in crowds, and separates its massive pool into two sides: the rowdy bunch and the “we just came here to read” crowd.
Baller status -
Grand Velas Riviera Maya is one of the most exclusive, all-inclusive resorts in Mexico. With the largest spa in Latin America, including countless vapor rooms, clay baths and even a sacred corn massage (a corn and honey exfoliation followed by hot corn cobs applied to pressure points and rolled across the body), and five-star restaurants, this winner of a AAA five-diamond reward is the lap of luxury and fine service. Choose from adults only or family options.
Megan Frye is an independent journalist and translator living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as nonprofit administration and works with international and Mexican publications.