The Lighthouse Project: A beacon of hope that extends beyond Cozumel’s beaches
On an April day in 2021, a group of tourists pulled their rental cars into the “Chedraui” parking lot in Cozumel, Mexico. Most had no idea until they looked on Google Maps that Chedraui was a grocery store, but all agreed that it was an unusual place to begin an off-road adventure. The group scanned the lot, looking for their tour guides. As they waited, they could feel the heat of this unusually hot day radiate up through the soles of their flip-flops. What they didn’t know is that flip-flops would become a common theme that day. In fact, they’d see hundreds of them — but they wouldn’t be on anyone’s feet.
Guides Cecilia “CeCe” Cupul, a Cozumel native, and her American husband Justin Smart can’t be missed as they roll into the parking lot with their Polaris RZR off-road vehicles. These 4x4 machines look like oversized go-carts with their exposed rollbars, massive shock absorbers, and knobby off-road tires that will be needed to reach their remote destination. From this off-roading machine exits a dynamic duo, clothed in matching light blue shirts that pop against their tan skin. The shirts feature a large round logo promoting “The Lighthouse Project”: the non-profit organization they run, and the reason the group is all here.
CeCe and Justin began The Lighthouse Project, which they describe as a “tour with a purpose,” as a way to combine adventure travel with sustainable tourism. Its namesake is the red and white Punta Molas lighthouse that sits on the northeastern tip of the island. The lighthouse is so difficult to access that most locals have never been there.
Tourists generally find their way to The Lighthouse Project by searching for “adventure tours” on TripAdvisor or Google. The group’s website and external site reviews showcase portraits of tourists in front of historic landmarks, relaxing on pristine beaches, and driving down remote dirt roads. Most who book tours don’t realize that part of their day will be spent picking up trash, but none seem disappointed when they find out.
CeCe and Justin approach the waiting crowd with gaiter masks in their hands. By this point in the pandemic, everyone was used to wearing masks. But these masks have nothing to do with COVID. The gaiters—which slip over the head—get pulled down to cover the face and neck, preventing dirt from entering noses and mouths. Once in place, each group of two was assigned a vehicle, and the guides gave a quick introduction of what to expect that day before they began their drive down the main road of the island.
The group didn’t for drive long before they noticed they reached the point of the island that didn’t have electricity. Then, the guides pointed out a quaint beach bar nearby that ran on generator power. The local police, who had congregated in the bar’s parking lot, seemed more interested in that morning’s fishing haul than in the plateless vehicles driving towards them.
Before reaching the bar, the cavalcade of vehicles turned left onto an unmarked dirt “road” — which looked more like a secluded hiking trail than something you’d drive on. Moments later, CeCe and Justin accelerated in their lead vehicle, and the drivers behind them did the same. Though faces were hidden behind masks, it was clear that everyone was already having fun. CeCe faced backward, aiming her camera at the vehicles behind her, to capture the emotion as tour guides do. She truly is a wonderful guide.
About 10 miles into the trip, the vehicles were stopped at a military checkpoint. All that blocked the road was a flimsy rope. The primitive military “base” looked like a relic of years past, constructed from discarded items and materials repurposed from the jungle surrounding it. Four military personnel — who appeared to be hot and hungry — climbed down from a lookout, taking a break from the monotonous job of surveying the coast for drug runners. They stared at the tourists, guns at the ready, as the lead man reviewed the permit paperwork Justin handed him. The rope was lifted, permitting the group to proceed.
The uneasiness of the checkpoint was soon forgotten as the group continued on. CeCe demonstrated her passion for the island as she explained cenotes and ancient Mayan traditions. Stops were made at two Mayan ruins, one large enough to walk inside, where Justin snapped keepsake photos for each group. This felt like a typical island tour experience.
History lessons were replaced with beauty as the group arrived at a pristine beach. Many took their flip-flops off to experience the flawless, white sand. Not far off, dozens of pale-pink conch shells sat atop the sand bars—their tips protruding slightly above the crystal clear water for everyone to see. The water was warm and shallow—perfect for wading and cleaning off some of the dust that had accumulated on their clothing.
While others explored, Justin cooked lunch on a portable grill using only local ingredients. The food, which was served using sustainable serverware, was delicious. Everyone sat around eating, drinking, and enjoying their island solidtude. Justin and CeCe, meanwhile, worked diligently to ensure not a trace was left behind.
The Lighthouse Project’s namesake structure was the group’s next stop. The lighthouse’s red and white stripes were vibrant and freshly painted. COVID restrictions prevented visitors from entering. There was, of course, time for more photos.
It was just beyond the lighthouse when the sustainability portion of the tour took over. The sight from the first hilltop overwhelmed us. There was so much trash that our RZR tires no longer touched the dirt. The garbage became our road. Hundreds, if not thousands, of flip-flops, covered the sandy white beach that sat below them. Interspersed between the sandals were single-use plastics like water bottles, disposable razors, and toothbrushes. There was also an abundant amount of “ghost gear,” which is fishing gear that was lost or intentionally abandoned in the ocean. This debris is especially dangerous because it can be deadly to marine life.
“I was amazed how many bottles, sandals, and fishing nets get washed up along the coast of Cozumel,” wrote one tourist in a review following her tour.
CeCe and Justin want people to be amazed because education is what inspired them to create The Lighthouse Project. “Our job is to transfer the emotion of caring to people who visit this beautiful island,” CeCe explained.
The husband and wife duo worked like clockwork. Justin gathered burlap bags and 4-foot trash picker tools from his vehicle while CeCe educated the group on how this part of the island became overrun with trash. Her words were expertly chosen as she conveyed the grim reality of the situation.
CeCe explained that most of the trash originates from Haiti, traveling by ocean currents until it lands on the island. There is overwhelming proof that CeCe is right. Author and Cozumel expert Ric Hajovsky writes on Everything Cozumel about his informal evaluation of the trash he surveyed on Cozumel’s beaches. He gathered data that makes him confident that 90 percent of the trash that lands on Cozumel “originates as garbage deliberately dumped into rivers, bays, or ocean by residents of” Haiti.
Further evidence is provided by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). IDB claims that only 11 percent of solid waste in Haiti is disposed of properly. The rest, including large amounts of post-consumer plastic, gets discarded in waterways. From there, currents flow the trash to Cozumel, causing catastrophic damage to ocean life along the way.
The problem can be overwhelming, but today CeCe and Justin are focusing on what they can do: cleaning up the trash after it arrives at Cozumel. It’s a never-ending endeavor — a newly cleaned area can be repopulated with trash within days, weeks, even hours — which is one reason many groups question the effectiveness of beach cleanups.
Justin distributed the oversized burlap bags, and CeCe established a special bag reserved for flip flops that she’ll use for an awareness project back in town. Then it started — the group got to work picking up the mess. There was so much trash that each person filled their 40-gallon bag without even having to take a step. The same types of plastics showed up repeatedly, including some “special” plastic bottles filled with what appeared to be urine. Bright blue fishing nets strangled the vegetation and could only be removed with a knife.
Nobody complained about the cleanup even though it’s not the type of thing normally done on vacation. They instead focused on getting the job done, mostly in silence as they contemplated the severity of the trash problem. It didn’t take more than 15 minutes for all the bags to be filled. Most people wanted to do more, but that wasn’t an option since they could only fill the number of bags that could be carried out on the vehicles the group drove in on.
Justin and company secured the bags onto the back of the vehicles with bungee cords. With a sense of accomplishment, the group waved goodbye to the cleared area of shoreline. Tourist Della Schmidt reflected that she “learned a lot and now has a new view on plastic waste.” This is exactly why CeCe and Justin do what they do.
Dust wasn’t the only thing flying around as the group sped back towards civilization. A bag of trash escaped its tiedown as a vehicle took a sharp right turn. Without missing a beat, another vehicle pulled over to pick up the bag and threw it in the back of the RZR.
Back at the grocery store parking lot, CeCe and Justin were thanked with tips. Many people would go back to their fancy resorts or cruise ships, perhaps picking up a bottle of water on the way without a second thought. Others will leave 5-star reviews that mention nothing about the trash part of their experience because, in reality, it was such a small part of their adventure. But some would go on to write glowing reviews describing the tour as “life-changing.”
Whatever the premise, positive tour reviews help support The Lighthouse Project’s mission. More tour bookings equal more opportunities to educate about our planet’s trash problem through the lens of its impact on Cozumel. Even small lifesytle modifications can make big differences to the environment. And seeing all that plastic in person is probably something that won’t be forgotten, even if it doesn’t often make its way into the reviews.
When the tours conclude, CeCe and Justin have more work ahead of them. They spend hours sorting, weighing, and responsibly disposing of the garbage they collected. CeCe adds the flip-flops she saves to her collection. They will become part of a 9-foot tall seahorse she’s building, which she hopes will raise local awareness about a problem that’s largely hidden from view. I hope she’s right.