Updated: Aug 11
This Sunday, my active five-year-old, Gaia, and I took a day trip to Isla Contoy. This is an Island just north of Isla Mujeres, a beautiful islet uninhabited by humans but home to many birds.
So what is Isla Contoy? Isla Contoy is a declared a Natural Reserve and a National Fauna Refuge since 1961. The Island is only 8 kilometres long (about the same as Isla Mujeres), 800 meters in its widest part and about 30 km from Isla Mujeres.
What does Contoy mean? The word Contoy has two possible origins: from the Mayan words Kom (low or shrouded) and To'oy (shelter), terms related to the low waters surrounding the Island that provided refuge to sailors, or from the word Pontó, which in Maya means Pelican.
Why go there? The reserve is home to about 152 tropical marine birds with more than 70 species of the most important seabirds in the Mexican Caribbean, including the frigate bird, brown Pelican, herring gull, white-bellied bubuia and double-crested cormorant, as well as four species of turtles, including the loggerhead turtle, green turtle, hawksbill turtle, and leatherback turtle. It is unspoilt by human habitation.
Can you stay there? No. While volunteers live above the museum for short periods of time to monitor and report on the wildlife, there are no hotels or houses. No mammals (humans included) make this Island their home because there is no fresh water. Rain only comes to the Island about one month out of the year.
The mangroves thrive, however, by filtering out as much as 90 per cent of the salt found in seawater as it enters their roots.
On the Island, so many marine species exist, especially crustaceans. The Island is home to hundreds of lobsters that seek refuge there.
Reptiles walk freely around the Island and are familiar visitors while eating your lunch. The brown iguana can measure up to a meter in length. Snakes and boas are common.
Only 200 visitors are allowed on the Island daily, and a few operators have the appropriate permits. Bookings must be made in advance with the proper tour operators in Cancun or Isla Mujeres. Supervised ecotourism and regulated commercial fishing are permitted on and near the Island.
Is it worth seeing? My daughter and I thought so.
Gaia and I started by meeting for our tour at 8.30 in the morning. The weather was terrific, as it usually is at this time of year. From March to October around Isla Mujeres, we are often blessed with long periods of beautiful weather. Even in Winter months, we still have primarily warm days.
We then crossed the waters to pick up other clients in Punta Sam near Cancun. This is quite normal for open ocean tours to start in Isla and then pick up more passengers on the Cancun side of the water. Gaia loved the trip, and the captain entertained us with upbeat music. This picking up of extra guests in Cancun can often make a trip viable to tour operators, and no time is lost on the actual tour because of this.
After the other guests arrived, we were presented with a massive platter of fruits. This was a nice extra as we had not eaten breakfast. There was a cooler of water, soft drinks and beers, so we had plenty of fruit and fluids to start our day. Once underway, the Island was about 45 min boat ride. Our boat was broad, with three motors and not overly affected by the choppy surface. Boat motors can fail, and it is not uncommon for this to happen on any boat, as those familiar with boats know. This is why most boats here have at least two motors, so it was comforting that they had not two but three powerful engines. The boat was wide and comfortable and easily fit the 19 people on our tour. We did not feel cramped and sardined into the boat, and the captain played music, so the time passed quickly. We snacked, drank, sat back and enjoyed the ride. Gaia was constantly looking for dolphins, familiar companions on this journey. She was also hoping to spot a mermaid or two.
Upon arrival, we were given a comprehensive briefing. We were explained that there was to be
1 NO sunscreen at all. We had been advised of this upon booking, so we were prepared. Our captain explained that sunscreens are one of the largest killers of coral, suffocating and killing them within a week. The sunscreen blocks the ability of the coral to filter feed and can cause a fungus to grow that can kill them within a week. Imagine a coral that has taken thousands of years to grow being destroyed in a week by sunscreen.
No plastic or bottles on the Island. Plastic bottles do not have enough weight and could easily be swept up by the wind and deposited into the ocean, where turtles could mistake them for medusas. Bottles could break. Only cans were allowed but were to be returned to the boat for recycling. We were happy to see that nearly everyone on tour complied with this.
No smoking on the Island. Cigarette filters are harmful to ocean life.
Do not take anything off the Island, such as shells and do not eat anything the Island has to offer; this is for the wildlife.
There is the option of a guided walk on the Island. We opted to do this. It was free of charge and so informative. It took about 40 minutes, but most were in explanations and not so much in walking. We followed a path to the lagoon, and the flora was explained to us on the way. From the plants that had sap that, when mixed with dirt, set like concrete and used by the Mayans for their buildings to others with leaves with a texture that they could use to polish their precious stones or exfoliate their skin. They showed us the edible plants (although not for us, as the fauna had first rights there) and explained how the mangrove survived in the saltish lagoons.
You could see evidence of where people tried to inhabit the Island before it became a reserve. Not in the age of the Mayans, but a lot more recent. There was evidence of pozos (wells) where they had tried to collect water.
When we arrived at the lagoon, we could see a huge tarpon flitting around. This particular lagoon had a local residence of about 36 crocodiles. Another of the lagoons held residence of 100. We looked, but they were shy this day.
The walk then took us past a place where a Boa, lovingly named Suegra (mother-in-law), generally spent her days, but she wasn't there today, much to the disappointment of Gaia. We saw a small serpent with a band over its eyes and many lizards and crabs.
We then checked out the museum, which had so much to fascinate a child. A very interactive display that had Gaia intrigued from the start.
Some volunteers assist on the Island to study and live there for a time. They are the only humans with the privilege of spending time on the Island, but with no running water available, they have my utmost respect. They work hard to protect the Island, where they monitor and study the wildlife. They also help control the flow of people around the Island, including up to the lookout point, during the brief tourist hours each day. When we went to climb to the lookout, too many people were up at the top, so we decided to check this out after lunch.
Lunch, yum. We could see that lunch was based upon the company you travelled with, as each prepared their versions. Ours was a buffet of various salads, pasta, fish, rice and beans, and my daughter was very impressed. She even had seconds (Spaghetti Bolognese is her favourite). There was no shortage of drinks, but I found that most of the guests did not divulge excessive amounts of free beer, even though there was plenty, but instead preferred to stay hydrated and enjoy the tour. Iguanas came to check it all out and eat anything that dropped to the floor, to the delight of Gaia. Her favourite part might have been the hermit crabs that were everywhere around the area.
After lunch, we went to the lookout. It was beautiful. Crystal blue Caribbean waters everywhere you looked. You could see both sides of the Island. One side was the calm, turquoise Caribbean we all love, and the other was the island's windward side. Still beautiful but a bit wilder. Perfect photo opportunities.
There is an observation tower, but it was under reconstruction this trip. I climbed it last time I was on the Island (around ten years ago).
Then it was time to enjoy the waters. Various turtle nests had been sectioned off away from clumsy feet. There were swim lines that restricted where we swam for the benefit of the local wildlife, but that did nothing to alter our enjoyment of the water. There was plenty of room and depth, and most of all, there was virtually none of the overcrowding in many Mexican Caribbean destinations.
The lovely thing about this is that we were held up a little in Punta Sam because the other guests were late (not the tour company's fault), the other boats left earlier, and we were the last ones on the Island. We had the beach to ourselves.
Then it was time to leave the Island. We stopped for a small snorkel at Ixlaché Reef on the way back to Isla Mujeres. This reef belongs to the second-largest barrier reef in the world. It coexists with various marine species: corals, manta rays, multicoloured fish, crustaceans and sometimes even sea turtles.
My daughter is like a fish and an above-level swimmer for her age. The water was a little choppy, with slight currents, and it was open sea, even though the depths were very shallow, so they wanted to ensure everyone was safe and comfortable. They were handing out masks and fins (we had brought our own), and when I nodded yes to my five-year-old going, they shook no.
Fortunately, the captain was known to us and persuaded the guide to let us go on strict instructions that I was to hold my daughter's hand the entire time. We got into the water, and it was a challenging swim (mine, of course, I was pulling my daughter along) to get to the reef, and one or two of the adults were having a hard time. Gaia, however, loved it. Once we were on the reef, the current took us along.
She got to see her first shark (nurse shark) and was over the moon. She had been worried about snorkelling in the open sea but handled it like a trouper. Would I recommend this to every-five-year old? Probably not, unless they were strong swimmers. But we had life jackets, and the guide trailed a safety ring. As I know, sell and lead snorkel tours, I felt completely at ease with his professionality and knowledge.
After the snorkelling tour, we returned to Isla. It had been a long and satisfying day, and my little girl had already been having a little nap in the boat on the way back. We docked at the same place where we met the tour group in the morning, at around 3.30 pm.
It is recommended to tip the staff at the end of the tour. They deserve it. They work hard, prepare your food, explain the Island and its flora and fauna exceptionally well, play great music and make the whole day feel tailored for you.
Of course, not all tours are precisely the same. Tour companies vary slightly in how they present their tours, but the setup is similar. Please feel free to contact Pocna Dive Center if you would like more information on these tours.
Contoy is an ideal example of successful ecotourism. One where you feel safe and looked after and a great way to spend a day. It's affordable, and the children love it. I highly recommend it but book in advance as spots are strictly controlled and book with a reputable company.
colaboradores de Wikipedia. (2021, July 27). Isla Contoy. Wikipedia, La Enciclopedia Libre. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isla_Contoy Dickert, C. (2023, March 27). The massive impact of cigarette filters on our oceans. Visual Capitalist. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/sp/impact-of-cigarette-filters-on-oceans-2/#:~:text=Cigarette%20Filters%20Harmful%20to%20Ocean%20Life&text=Once%20in%20the%20ocean%2C%20fish,end%20up%20on%20our%20plates. Katharina Bunk My name is Katharina Bunk; I am 26 years old and work as a PhD student in the ‘Plant Biomechanics Group’ in the beautiful city of Freiburg. I studied Biology at the University of Munich, followed by the Master's program ‘Bionik/ Biomimetics in Energy Systems’ in Villach/ Austria. I am especially interested in Botany and therefore chose Plant Biomechanics as my main field of research. (2017, June 19). How do plants filter salt? A visit to the mangroves - Blogionik. Blogionik. https://blogionik.org/blog/2017/06/20/filter-salt-mangroves/ What are mangroves? Coastal protection and other benefits | AMNH. (n.d.). American Museum of Natural History. https://www.amnh.org/explore/videos/biodiversity/mangroves#:~:text=Many%20mangrove%20species%20survive%20by,salty%20if%20you%20lick%20them. Wikipedia contributors. (2023). Isla Contoy. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isla_Contoy