The tiny island town of Punta Allen in north-eastern Mexico was all but cut off from the world five years ago when phone companies abandoned landline connections there. Since then WhatsApp has emerged as the primary way for its 700 residents to stay connected with each other and the outside world.
“We would never go back to how it was before,” says Elsy Ramírez, who uses WhatsApp for everything from communicating with her neighbors to businesses in the regional hub of Tulum. “WhatsApp is much more reliable.”
Punta Allen provides Elsy and her two-year-old son Nicolás with the perfect lifestyle — she earns a living working in the local tourism industry and he is growing up in a tight-knit seaside community. But the town is five hours away from where Elsy's parents live, impossible to visit often and too expensive to call via mobile phone. Elsy says WhatsApp is the most dependable and affordable way for her family to watch Nicolás grow.
“Even though they're not physically here, they're still with us. My son and I make memories with our family; he can speak to them via video calls,” says Elsy, adding that because of WhatsApp, Nicolás recognizes his grandparents, making in-person visits more meaningful.
Punta Allen residents use WhatsApp groups to coordinate everything from street clean-up days to town meetings and importantly, notifying each other when sweet bread arrives in town — which is every three days. WhatsApp is also helping to modernize one of its oldest trades — lobster fishing.
The 50-year-old Vigia Chico Fishing Cooperative prides itself on having developed a world-class sustainable fishing model which it claims can help curb overfishing in the Caribbean Ocean. The cooperative's 75 members use WhatsApp to coordinate every aspect of their trade, including, importantly, how many fishermen deploy every day.
“Now, with WhatsApp, I send a text asking who will fish tomorrow," says the cooperative's treasurer, Alejandro Velazquez, explaining that before WhatsApp, every night he would go house-to-house coordinating the next day's activities. “We are careful to not overfish because we want our children — the next generation — to continue to catch lobsters.”
Alejandro describes WhatsApp as a community beacon: his friends near the harbor alert him to any problems with his boat and other members of the cooperative's WhatsApp group share information about catch locations, weather updates and the sale of their best catch to some of nearby Tulum's world-class restaurants and resorts.
The residents of Punta Allen have worked hard to create a self-sustaining island and today, WhatsApp is helping to ensure community ties remain strong and more people get to learn about their environmentally friendly way of living.