While archaeological sites such as El Rey and San Miguelito show that the area that is now Cancún has been inhabited by the Maya up until shortly after Spanish conquest, the modern-day city can be said to have been conceived in 1969-70. It was during these years that the organization now known as FONATUR, Mexico’s Tourism Investment Board, recognized that the area’s pristine Caribbean beaches had great potential as a resort. The long island, divided from the mainland by the Nichupté Lagoon, that is now the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone) was then home to a total of three people, the caretakers of a coconut plantation.
Puerto Juárez, the nearest port, mostly dependent on the country’s armed forces, had a permanent population of little over 100 people. When the first hotels and fully-fledged airport (CUN) opened in 1974, the project was still a huge gamble. Now, nearly five decades later, the city is home to almost a million people, the long island is now almost completely developed, and the Zona Hotelera has extended to practically engulf Puerto Juárez. In addition to this accelerated growth, Cancunenses have also had to deal with the consequences of three major hurricanes (Gilbert in 1988, Wilma in 2005, and Dean in 2007) as well as on-and-off periods of violence caused by the Mexican Drug War in the 21st century.
This means that, although short, Cancún’s history has been complicated, so symbols pertaining to it are seen as important to create a Cancunense identity out of a diverse, mostly-immigrant population. That is where a replica of the wooden control tower, belonging to the original 1971 airstrip pre-dating the current airport, comes in. The metal and concrete structure, covered in tropical woods and chit palm fronds, was added to the center of a roundabout on the confluence of the city’s main highways in 2003.
Many Cancunenses welcomed the tower, seeing it as a symbol of the pioneering spirit and cosmopolitanism that lead to the city’s establishment. Despite this, when roadworks required the removal of the tower in 2008, its condition was used as justification to not rebuild it. The controversial decision lasted only two years, and the control tower can again be found on this roundabout, with a dedication plaque dating to 2010.
The tower’s history, much like the city’s, is defined by ups and downs. In 2020, an apparent act of arson risked the structure being burnt down completely, although it was ultimately saved and restored. The Tren Maya (Maya Train) project of the early 2020s has also threatened the tower, as the trace for its tracks (as of February 2022), would require its removal. It is not yet clear if the plans call for the structure’s permanent removal or relocation.
Meanwhile, CUN airport (the country’s second-busiest), continues to be dependent on notable control towers. With subsequent expansions and renovations, a new main tower was built in 2009 and, at 97 meters, was Latin America’s tallest at the time.