Infamous prison island guarded by sharks to welcome day trippers

A NOTORIOUS prison island off the coast of Mexico is to open its doors to day trippers this summer if pandemic precautions permit.

The Islas Marías Federal Penal Colony – one of the world’s last remaining prison islands until it was closed in 2019 – is often described as Mexico’s ‘Alcatraz’.

Built in 1905 on Isla María Madre, and housing as many as 29,000 inmates over the years, it was once rife with violence, disease and torture, and was designed to be escape-proof.

But 76 prisoners successfully made a break for it, and only 10 of them were ever recaptured. Most hid out on the small island, which is sixty-five miles off Mexico’s Pacific coast.

It was still being used in recent years to house prisoners collared during the battle against the modern-day drug cartels, but the last inmates have now been moved to the mainland.

By the time it was closed, prisoners were allowed to live with their families and it was considered ‘humane’ by the National Human Rights Commission.

Now, the prison has been turned into a cultural centre celebrating biodiversity and named after José Revueltas, the writer and political activist once held there.

Writer and activist José Revueltas

It has been rechristened Walls of Water: José Revueltas, taking its name from the book he wrote, inspired by two periods of imprisonment on the island.

When its closure was announced, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he wanted “to promote more schools and fewer prisons across the country.

He said of the prison island: “It’s a history of punishments, of torture, of repression over more than a century.”

Sited on Isla María Madre – the largest island in the Marias Islands archipelago – the transformed centre plans to open to day-trippers in July this year, should Covid crackdowns permit.

The friendly and welcoming new look

It may even eventually make an unlikely excursion for cruise ship passengers, with plans to build a larger dock on the island to welcome tourists.

Tourism Secretary Miguel Torruco says: “The experience begins with the cruise ship or ferry arriving from Mazatalán or San Blas, to Isla Madre, and on the voyage the passengers can admire the beauty of the ocean.

“Visitors will have their first contact with the former island prison which for 100 years sheltered numerous criminals.” Officials have compared the island to Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay, and say tourist visits could start soon.

The islands were designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2010 due to the area’s isolation and minimal human interference. Other than María Madre, they have remained mostly uninhabited.

The 65-mile stretch of water to the mainland is home to sharks

The rich array of wildlife on and around the islands includes their famous sharks – the main deterrent once facing would-be fugitives.

Divers and snorkellers will appreciate the diversity of marine life, with coral reefs, an abundance of molluscs, more than 21 shark species and 10 different varieties of rays. The islands are also a starting point or stopover for whale watching expeditions.

“The federal prison has undergone extensive renovations to become an education centre promoting understanding, respect, and protection of the biodiversity of Mexico,” say tourism chiefs.

“The Marias Islands archipelago – four islands located 60 miles off the coast of San Blas in Riviera Nayarit – will be open for day visitors for the first time from this summer and will be promoting eco-travel experiences.

The San Blas coast, the nearest mainland

“The Mexican government is working to update regulations that will allow for sustainable tourist activities on the islands, which will both respect the native ecosystem and empower the local community.”

Marc Murphy, managing director of the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau, adds: “The Marias Islands will offer visitors increased opportunities to enjoy our unparalleled natural beauty, and an exceptional chance to be part of history in the making, as we transform a penitentiary into an educational centre.”

A paradise for birdwatchers, the islands are home to the Tres Marias Amazon, an endemic parrot that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Other birds include blue-footed boobies, blue mockingbirds, broad-billed hummingbirds, and migratory birds such as the hook-billed kite, Caspian tern and blue-winged teal.

For more information, and the latest Covid travel advice, visit

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