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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Progreso, Then and Now — From Sleepy Port to Beachside Playground

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Over the past few years, change has been ramping up in the coastal city of Progreso.

A photo of Progreso in the early 20th century shows a lighthouse and El Madrileño restaurant  — both of which remain today. Photo: Fototeca Pedro Guerra

New restaurants with fancy menus and hotels have slowly but surely replaced most fried fish joints and inns, at least on the oceanfront boardwalk.

Several traditional seafood restaurants can still be found in Progreso, but to find them, it’s necessary to go a little further into town. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The presence of non-Yucatecos is, of course, nothing new in Progreso. Still, the increase in the construction of luxury homes, hotels, and rental properties catering to folks from elsewhere in Mexico, as well as the United States, Europe, and Canada, is striking.

Since Mérida’s Carnaval festivities moved to the Xmatkuil fairgrounds, Progreso’s Carnaval has grown in popularity yearly. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Of course, this does not mean that Yucatecos no longer frequent Progreso. Now, most day-trippers from Mérida and other nearby cities are more likely to be seen on the beach with coolers and beers purchased at convenience stores than eating on the Malecon. 

Folks from Mérida have long thought of Progreso as “their beach,” much to the chagrin of locals, who nonetheless depend largely on the constant influx of visitors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 

Progreso was founded in 1872 to create a seaport closer to Mérida than the older port of Sisal. The city was named “Progreso” (meaning “progress” in Spanish) to reflect its founders’ hopes for the city’s future.

Progreso’s port has proven to be a great success and boasts the world’s largest pier, soon home to the largest shipyard in the Americas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In 1881, a train departing from Mérida’s La Mejorada neighborhood began offering cargo and passenger service to Progreso — establishing the then-sleepy town as a popular beach destination for folks from Mérida.

Train connectivity between Mérida and Progreso began to go down during the second half of the 20th century until 1995. Photo: Rosado family archive

It also became common for affluent and middle-class families in Mérida to own beach houses in Progreso, which were enjoyed during the summer, as well as Easter and the occasional long weekend. 

The iconic Casa del Pastel which has been an icon in Progreso for 8 decades has now become its newest restaurant. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Several 20th-century beach homes belonging to folks from Mérida have since been converted into restaurants or hotels. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But as companies in Mérida began to offer less and less time off to their workers, many of these beach homes fell into disrepair.

Progreso has considerably improved its tourism infrastructure with projects such as El Muelle de Chocolate, and several photo-op locations to attract visitors. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

While it’s a good thing that these old homes are being rescued, the construction of new enormous towers and resorts along Progreso and its surrounding communities is striking.

Though less than a decade ago there were hardly any buildings with more than three or four floors, dozens of towers more than 10 stories tall have begun to dot the landscape, with more on the drawing board. 

Construction in Telchac looms over the wetlands that flocks of flamingos call home. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Blame a “rules are meant to be broken” attitude.

Transparency when it comes to approving the construction of these types of developments is virtually nil.

“Here in Progreso, there is absolutely no public consultation, although these changes affect us all. One day there is nothing and the next trailers and huge signs are announcing the construction of new condos,” Mary Gutiérrez told Diario de Yucatán.

Land being cleared on the side of the highway between Progreso and Telchac by machete and fire. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Among the concerns most cited by locals is the municipality’s inability to keep up with potable water demands, rolling blackouts, a lack of parking, and erosion.

Erosion is a serious problem on Yucatán’s northern coast as the ocean threatens to swallow up beachfront homes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“People have just begun to wake up to the fact that tons of sand are being moved to create beachfront for new developments, but ultimately history is doomed to repeat itself,”Orlando Cachon Pinto commented on Facebook.  

During a recent interview, Enrique Tava Griffin, president of Yucatán’s construction association argued that Development along the coast is inevitable, but that the construction of towers is the best way forward as it makes it easier for communities to avoid sprawl and offers access to basic services. 

Then there are also the social justice issues. As Progreso and other nearby communities like Telchac and Chixulub continue to grow, so is the divide between the haves and the have-nots. 

When driving along the coast it’s hard to miss the precariousness of hundreds of constructions inhabited by Progreso’s poorest nationals. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

In many ways, Progreso is better today than ever before, at least as a tourism destination. But a lack of regulation, transparency, and growing inequality mean that these changes are not to be enjoyed by everyone. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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