A former prison island in Mexico is being reimagined as an eco-friendly tourist destination. The Islas Marías archipelago, a UNESCO world heritage site off the coast of Nayarit, will soon open to tourists, three years after it released its last inmates.

The Islas Marías archipelago is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to vibrant coral reefs, mangrove forests and rare wildlife you won't see anywhere else like the Tres Marías raccoon and the Tres Marías cottontail rabbit. The reserve is a prime spot for whale shark watching and is an important nesting and feeding site for large colonies of sea birds, sharks, and sea turtles.

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A bir remains on the branch of a tree in Islas Marias, Nayarit, Mexico
A bir on the branch of a tree in Islas Marias © AFP/Getty Images

Islas Marías history

It sounds idyllic, an easy breezy place that has remained relatively untapped by human development. But the islands have a dark past. Often compared to Alcatraz or Robben Island, until 2019 Isla María Madre, the largest of the four islands, was a penal colony for men and women, and sometimes their families. When it opened in 1905 it held socialists and striking workers under the regime of Porfirio Díaz, before keeping prisoners accused of petty theft and harder crimes. Far from prying eyes (it's about a four-hour choppy boat journey from the Pacific coast), the prisoners held here were left to suffer in brutal conditions.

Mexico's president López Obrador said the prison was "famous for its cruelty" and claimed that prisoners human rights were violated. While, in an interview with the Associated Press last week, former inmate Beatriz Maldonado spoke of the inhumane living conditions she endured, describing a "a dirt-floored warehouse" where 500 women shared five bathrooms. "We lived in a chicken coop," she said.

View of Islas Marias federal prison at Isla Maria Madre
Prison buildings have been renovated into guest houses © AFP/Getty Images

Islas Marías as an eco-tourist hub

These days, the island looks very different in its new chapter as a tourist destination. In 2019 the government closed the prison and instead of abandoing it, transformed parts of the existing buildings into a museum and cultural center named after the writer José Revueltas, who was imprisoned there during the 1930s for his involvement in the Communist Party, and who based the novel Walls of Water on his experience in Islas Marías.

The whitewashed church stands bright and welcoming. And the prison buildings have been renovated so that visitors can stay here rather than further disrupting the land by building a new hotel.

"What was a hell is becoming a paradise," López Obrador said. "In three months, this island will open for visitors, who will have a lot to see, do, explore and enjoy."

As an eco-friendly tourist hub, Islas Marías hopes to attract scuba-divers and nature-lovers with tours, hikes, bird-watching and arts programs. López Obrador said the island will be accessible to people of all budgets. "It shouldn’t be an island for the elite; we’re going to seek a balance," he told local media.

How to get to Islas Marías

The navy will give tours, and will also run the express ferry service from Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco; San Blas, Nayarit and Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Islas Marías is expected to open to tourists by July 2022, if the hurricane season doesn't impact the schedule.

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