Agua Azul (Spanish for "Blue Water") is a series of famed cascading waterfalls that flow from the Xantil River in the southern state of Chiapas in Mexico – just 70km from the hugely popular ruins of Palenque. Declared a natural reserve in the 1980s because of many endemic plant and animal species found in the area, Agua Azul is a perfect example of how mismanaged “ecotourism” projects with purely economic and political motives can have serious negative impacts on local communities and natural habitats. These cataracts of turquoise waters attract thousands of tourists every year, but the reality of ecotourism in Agua Azul, one of Mexico’s most famous waterfalls, is a grim one.
1) Exploiting nature and indigenous lands for quick cash
After paying and entering into the “eco-center” of Agua Azul, it immediately becomes evident that you are contributing to an environmentally and socially irresponsible operation. Not knowing what I was getting myself into at the time (like many tourists who are at the mercy of local guides), I can say without hesitation that I did not enjoy a single minute of my time in Agua Azul.
The unauthorized road blocks by indigenous and campesino groups along the way to Agua Azul are evidence themselves of the community division and inequality caused by the mismanagement of this attraction by the government and their business allies. For over a decade, the government authorities and communal landowners from indigenous communities have been clashing over Agua Azul. The dispute over who has the right to the land has led to arrests, injuries, and even the killing of indigenous people by the authorities. So if you think that entrance fee you are paying is helping to lift people out of poverty/violence, you are seriously mistaken. Unfortunately, the government’s interest in the area has increased with the tourism potential of the indigenous lands – the majority of which belong to the Lacandón people.
Read more about the violence here:
2) Two words: TOURIST TRAP
Agua Azul is full of selfie sticks, packaged tours, and vendors at literally every point along the river’s shoreline, making it difficult to even see this beautiful natural wonder. This site is geared toward maximizing profit for the tourism industry operated by the government and transnational corporations, despite the fact that much of Agua Azul lies on land belonging to the indigenous Lacandón people. Even worse, many Lacandón people have been displaced from their land along the river so that these development projects can attract tourists. I think it's fair to say that the government is counting on ignorant tourists to fall into their false eco-center scheme in order to profit from Agua Azul.
3) Privatization without preservation
Expect to pay for everything: bathrooms, entrance, to go through roadblocks – I’m surprised they haven’t started charging a fee for every photo. I am not opposed to paying to enter natural reserves, eco-centers, or parks, but if there is an entrance fee then the area should be well maintained and the local economy should benefit in some way from the this activity. The reality of Agua Azul is that the surrounding ecosystem is suffering greatly from the destruction caused by over tourism and poor regulation.
The Mexican government has placed tourism front and center in the economic plans for Chiapas. In doing so, it has rolled out a series of development projects that seize public and indigenous land to turn into private tourist attractions – as we see in the case of Agua Azul. Projects to increase earnings from tourism backed by the national government are beginning a process of privatization of the resources of indigenous communities, which is leading to increased violence and community division.
Control over Agua Azul is granted to a handful of small groups who have been given permission by the government to exploit this fresh water source. Thus, it’s a handful of people who are profiting from this “ecocenter”, proving that these government development projects are failing to solve the problem of widespread poverty in Mexico's poorest state (more than 74% of the population in Chiapas lives under the poverty line).
What is privatization? Privatization is the transfer of a nature, business, industry, or service from public to private ownership and control.
4) Dumping & pumping along the river
In recent years, the Agua Azul falls have had several dry spells with unknown causes. The most recent dry spell was blamed on Mexico’s 8.2 magnitude earthquake last fall which was said to have rerouted the water. However, this wasn’t the first time the water levels were depleted to almost non-existent levels. Evidence that major companies pump public fresh water sources completely dry is rampant across Chiapas. In fact, Coca-Cola notoriously stole public water near the capital city of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, for its manufacturing purposes, forcing locals to pay for bottled water distributed by none other than Coca-Cola (seriously… WTF!!!).
5) You might as well visit a market or mall
Yes, seriously. With makeshift gift shops and restaurants along every inch of the river, there is no shortage of things to buy at Agua Azul. In fact, it’s almost difficult to see this natural wonder because of all the shops propped up on the shore. The one place to get a good view is a look out point on a wooden pier built over the water.
6) Selfies Everywhere, but no one is swimming
If you are able to find a good view of the falls, it’s difficult not to get hit in the head by selfie sticks and eager tourists rushing to get their perfect Instagram or Facebook photo. Of course, it is permitted to swim in Agua Azul. However, I did not see a single person doing it.
* Clearly, I don’t recommend visiting Agua Azul for the reasons stated above, but you should certainly visit the state of Chiapas if you get the chance. Not only is the natural landscape incredibly beautiful, but Chiapas also full of rich indigenous history. Chiapas offers tourists a chance to explore the Lacandón jungle, visit ancient Mayan ruins, and try exciting new cuisine. If you visit Chiapas, please do so responsibly and enjoy your trip. Comment if you have any questions about visiting.
Further reading about government exploitation of indigenous lands and use of fake “ecotourism” projects to attract tourism:
The Mexican government is moving ahead with an ambitious new plan to surround the Lacandona Forest in Chiapas, Mexico, with oil palm plantations; while disguising the forest around the plantations with various eco-tourism sites. intercontinentalcry.org/
The Realities of Ecotourism in Chiapas upsidedownworld.org