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This Mexican prison island is being turned into a tourist destination

The Islas Marías archipelago is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson

Prisons have held a gory appeal for tourists for decades. Alcatraz, once home to Al Capone, is now open to visitors in California. And in Belfast, you can take a tour of Crumlin Road Gaol, a significant site during the Troubles. Now, three years after its jail closed down, this group of Mexican islands is being turned into a tourist destination. 

The Islas Marías archipelago is a four-hour boat journey from the country’s Pacific coast. It’s stunning: the four islands are full of rare wildlife like the Tres Marías raccoon, and it now has Unesco World Heritage site status. But it was also a penal colony for over a century, until it was finally closed in 2019. It’s the eco-friendly tourist market that the Mexican government is trying to tap into, with the prison itself being redesigned as a museum and cultural centre. The navy itself will give tours, and also run the express ferry service.

The penal institution was known for its shocking treatment of inmates while it was open. Speaking to Bloomberg last week, former inmate Beatriz Maldonado told of how 500 prisoners shared just five bathrooms. ‘They didn’t pay attention to us when someone got sick,’ she said. ‘My friend’s gallbladder ruptured.’ Others drowned while trying to escape.

Of the redevelopment, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador said: ‘What was a hell is becoming a paradise.’ Guests will be able to learn about the islands’ history – even staying in the former prison buildings, which has the dual purpose of preventing further construction on environmentally-significant land.

The destination could be open in as little as three months, provided that seasonal hurricanes – one of the factors that closed the prison – don’t interrupt development.

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