Lighthouses of Mexico. The guides of the high seas

A brief history of the most important lighthouses in Mexico and beyond, highlighting their relevance, development, and the meaning of navigation.

Lighthouses of Mexico. The guides of the high seas
A lighthouse in Mexico. Image by nextvoyage from Pixabay

It is worth mentioning that nowadays, due to the development of modern navigation methods, based mainly on the advance of satellite global positioning systems (GPS), lighthouses have become obsolete. There are less than 1,500 in service worldwide, and 135 operate along Mexico's coasts. The oldest is made of masonry, some more are made of concrete, and the most recent, with very solid structures, are built mostly of steel.

In Mexico there are three types of lighthouses:

1) landforms, which are installed in the most convenient places of the ports or very important points of the coasts or islands with abundant maritime traffic and are used to facilitate the arrival or landing of ships;

2) intermediate, which operate at known points on the coast, so that they function as a complement to the lighthouses, as they offer assistance to the navigator, and

3) situational ones, which are used to signal considerable accidents or danger to navigation on coasts, reefs, points, capes, islands, etc.

A system of 135 lighthouses is in operation on the broad coasts of Mexico, surrounded by three seas. These are maritime aids that, like the constellations, compass, astrolabe, sextant, and docks, have made possible the development of navigation in the country. Without the history of lighthouses, the evolution of the National Navy, both military and civilian, would be incomprehensible. Lighthouses have been and will be forever a universal symbol of the light signal leading to safe harbor.

In Mexico, the sea has a special historical and symbolic importance. Prehispanic mythology narrates how the civilizing god Quetzalcoatl embarked on a raft at the Port of Coatzacoalcos to disappear, entering the sea after announcing he would someday return to the lands of his origin. This prophecy, central to the mythology of the Nahua people, facilitated the Spanish conquest in the 16th century since when Hernán Cortés arrived with his ships at the Mexican coast, he was considered the "blond and bearded god" who was once again claiming his throne.

In Mexico, maritime signs already existed before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Yucatan coasts. On the coast of the Caribbean Sea, in the state of Quintana Roo, the pyramid of Tulum, built-in 1200 A.D., is crowned by a rectangular structure with openings to the sea, which by lighting wooden bonfires directed their light to the Mayan sailors at night, and in the daytime with their smoke signal.

The Mayas, besides being great builders, mathematicians, and astronomers, were also expert navigators. They managed to consolidate trade on two navigation systems: one, coastal and land-based, which extended from the coast of Campeche to Honduras and passed through the base of the Yucatan peninsula; and another system completely maritime around the peninsula, up to the coast of the isthmus of Panama.

Although trade by sea was carried out from early dates, it was not until 1000 A.D. that it reached a great development with the arrival of tribes carrying a maritime culture, such as the Putunes or Itzaes, experienced navigators and merchants who belonged to a Mayan group that came from Campeche and the delta of the Usumacinta and Grijalva rivers, in the current state of Tabasco.

They were the ones who established support places for navigators, such as some ports along the coast, either by taking advantage of the natural characteristics, as in the cases of the rocky coves of Xel Há and Xcaret or by modifying the geography of the place by building navigable channels to join bodies of water, as in the case of Chunyaxché, near Tulum. In the areas surrounding mangroves, they used snail shells to build lighthouses, docks, and dikes.

Without a doubt, the power and wealth of the Spanish conquistadors, since the 16th century, were consolidated around two ports with lighthouses: the Fort of San Juan de Ulua, in Veracruz, and the Fort of San Diego, which marked the entrance to the Bay of Acapulco. Those two ports and lighthouses, during more than four centuries, had a remarkable relevance in the history of world trade. It was through them that the axis mundi was established, a true axis of the world, linking, through the dirt roads of New Spain, the European continent with the Asian ports.

Between 1565 and 1815, ships such as the Nao de China sailed the Pacific to strengthen commercial ties between New Spain, the Far East, and Europe, which brought with it not only an intense exchange of goods but also a rich cultural exchange and important migratory processes, visible to this day. At present, the Port of Acapulco has been joined by other new ports on the Mexican Pacific coast that have become important levers for national development.

Many of the lighthouses that exist today are silent witnesses of history, commercial exchanges, battles, and anecdotes of all kinds. The most modern ones already have fully automated facilities that use solar energy, which has left, in many cases, the endearing figure of the lighthouse keeper as a beautiful memory.

The lighthouse keepers of Mexico were and are part of a history of more than four centuries.

Among the main tasks carried out by a lighthouse keeper are those aimed at providing help to navigators, issuing radio reports on the weather conditions in the area where the lighthouse is located, and monitoring maritime traffic. Sometimes, they even provide medical support to the crew of fishing boats.

The skills and knowledge that these characters must possess are many; they learn disciplines that not only allow them to carry out their work but also to provide for themselves in their isolation: cooking, first aid, mechanics, radio communications, carpentry, among others. The current technological advance in maritime signaling makes it necessary for modern lighthouse keepers to become sophisticated technicians.

An anecdote recorded in 1962, in the Island of Enmedio, in Veracruz, where a lighthouse keeper, when asked how he could live in such a beautiful place, but far from civilization and in such great loneliness, answered: "I would not choose any other job in the world". A short phrase of deep meaning, which years later would be repeated by the lighthouse keepers of Nautla, Santiaguillo, and Zapotitlán, also in Veracruz.

"And how can you bear life in the city with so much noise and hustle and bustle?" is another phrase that has always been said by the lighthouse keepers, people with a great spirit of service, who have also helped sailors avoid dangerous sandbanks, reefs, and reefs near the coasts.

Of course, the many years of service provided by the lighthouse keepers of Mexico are to be appreciated, beings whose work invites us to think: "It will never be the same to look at the lighthouse and know that it is a computer that controls the operation of the lighthouse and that nobody lives there anymore".

The lighthouses, a long history

The use of luminous signs to guide the sailor goes back to immemorial times. They used to be the fires that burned on top of a hill near the coast so that it was sufficiently visible from the sea. Columns and votive towers crowned with permanent fires -which burned in honor of heroes and demigods-, lacking any optical system, are illustrious ancestors of lighthouses.

The great writer Emil Ludwig, when telling the history of the Mediterranean Sea, mentions the epic poem The Iliad, in which Homer refers to the lighthouses when he compares the brightness that radiated from Achilles' shield with the fire that burned on top of a mountain:

How a fire, lit in a solitary place on the top of a mount, appears to navigators wandering through the sea, abundant in fish because storms drove them away from their friends; in the same way, the glow of the beautiful and carved shield of Achilles reached the ether (The Iliad, song XIX).

The luminous signal of the lighthouses, like that of the stars and the constellations, has allowed navigators since ancient times to direct their audacious explorations. Thanks to the lighthouses, the main maritime routes of the Phoenician navigators could be established in the Mediterranean Sea.

The lighthouses are built near the coast. Generally, they are located in places with important navigation routes and have a powerful lamp on top, which is a light guide for boats.

Some people recognize a lighthouse in the Colossus of Rhodes, as this bronze statue, 30 meters high, was visible to the ships approaching the Island of Rhodes. There are mythical stories that say that in one of its arms there was a bonfire that was fed day and night.

The Spanish word faro comes from the ancient Greek pharos, whose origin is the name of the Island of Faro, in front of the delta of the Nile River, where Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria. In the year 331 A.D., by order of the Greek conqueror, the construction of a stone dock was started, linking the small island to the Egyptian coast and thus beginning the creation of the most remarkable port of classical antiquity.

On this small island in the Mediterranean Sea, transformed into a peninsula, the famous Alexandria Lighthouse was erected. This tower is considered to be the first lighthouse in historical annals. Its architectural design was so formidable that the ancients included it among the Seven Wonders of the World. The lighthouse began its construction under the direction of the Sostratus of Cnidus and its work was completed until the reign of Ptolemy Soter.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria was over 120 meters high and was crowned by a statue of the god Helios, the deity of the Sun. It was able to guide ships even 50 kilometers away; by day, it did so with smoke signals, and by night, with fire. The port was created around the Alexandria Lighthouse, with its large library, gardens, and a museum that attracted countless scholars and scientists from all over the Mediterranean Sea basin.

In the ports built by the Romans, there used to be very high towers that served to signal the arrival to land. In England, the Dover Lighthouse on the English Channel marked the passage between Gaul and Britain. Another famous lighthouse from the time of the Roman Empire is the Tower of Hercules, built in the 2nd century B.C. in La Coruña, in the western end of the Iberian Peninsula, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. This lighthouse, which in ancient times was fed by wood and coal fires, is remarkable because it is still used today with state-of-the-art technology to lead ships along the right route.

The design of navigation aids has always been related to the activities of trade and war. For example, in the Renaissance, Italian city-states built lighthouses like the one in Genoa, on the Ligurian Coast, opposite Sardinia, known as "La Linterna". This tower was part of the city's defenses and then became a maritime signal. With its 75 meters high, it was considered the highest lighthouse in the world.

Built-in the 17th century in England, the Eddystone Lighthouse is located on the Eddystone rocks, 14 kilometers to the southwest of Rame Head, and next to the Port of Plymouth. The current structure is that of a fourth lighthouse that was built on the same site. The first and second, built-in wood in 1698 and 1705, respectively, were destroyed. The third, best known for its influence as a model for the construction of later lighthouses on the coast of the British Isles, was completed in 1759. The current lighthouse was designed in 1882. It is still in use and was automated 100 years after the date of its inauguration. The tower has been modified by the construction of a heliport at the top.

Over time, lighthouses evolved in the way they emit light. From the old fires, it was passed to oil and petroleum. Kerosene came and later propane and acetylene gas. Finally, modernization was present both in building materials and in electricity, which later became the source of energy for lighthouses. One of the first lighthouses of cement and steel was that of Dungeness, in the extreme southwest of England, off the coast of Belgium, built-in 1961.

During the 19th century, plans were established in several countries, especially in Europe, Asia and America, for the construction of lighthouses along the coasts, and international standards were developed for the maritime signaling system. At the beginning of the 20th century, any route with reasonable traffic was marked so that no vessel was out of reach of a lighthouse. True lightning began with the Modern Age, thanks to the increase in trade relations and naval traffic. There were no longer enough lights in the ports. It was also necessary to install beacons and buoys on the coasts, which usually had a lower range of visibility.

Less than 1,500 lighthouses are currently in service worldwide, as modern navigation methods based on Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites are making them obsolete. As already mentioned, 135 lighthouses are active in Mexico, distributed along its three coasts. The oldest ones are made of masonry, there are others made of concrete, and the most recent ones are very solid structures, mainly made of steel.

Types of lighting and signage

Still, in the 17th century, lighthouses were nothing more than towers where fires of wood, coal, tar, or pitch were lit. However, there were already some lighthouses in which oil lamps or systems with wicks based on tallow were placed.

In the 18th century, the first metal lanterns were invented, which were better able to withstand the heat. In 1786, the French engineer Joseph Teulère introduced the quinqué, invented by the Swiss Ami Argand, which was built with glass and sheet reflectors and a mechanical rotation system. Thus were born the first catoptric devices and the first rotating lights. In the 19th century, the lighting of lighthouses underwent important changes with the invention, by Augustin Fresnel, of the stepped lenses that concentrate and intensify the light beam. Fresnel's lens was first used in 1823, at the Cordouan Lighthouse, in the Gironde estuary, near the Port of Bordeaux, France.

In Mexico there are three types of lighthouses:

Landing lighthouses: They are installed in the most convex places of the ports or points of great importance in the coasts or islands with numerous maritime traffic and they are used to facilitate the arrival or landing of the ships to those ports or points to recognize.

Intermediate lighthouses: They operate in known points of the coast so that they work as a complement to the previous ones, that is to say so that the navigator can help himself with them. They generally have less range; they are also placed in those ports where maritime traffic is of less importance.

Situation lighthouses: They are used to indicate notable accidents or danger for the navigation in the coast or reefs, tips, capes, islands, etc.

As far as their operation is concerned, there are two types of lighthouses: those that require one or more people to operate them (headlight guards) and the automatic ones, which do not require anyone to operate them.

Currently, the National System of Maritime Signaling has three types of signals: visible, acoustic, and radio. As its name indicates, the visible ones are those that can be seen from any ship at a specific distance. These are also classified into three types: lighthouses, beacons, and floating buoys.

Lighthouses are towers, usually conical or cylindrical, with a light mechanism at the top to make them visible. They are of different ranges according to the importance of the place they point out. On the other hand, the beacons are smaller structures to help navigation, which indicate dangers or affiliations, and their most common shape is pyramidal, rectangular, cylindrical, or tubular. Their light signal operates automatically. Finally, the buoys are blind or flashing light floats, attached by a chain or cable to a body that by its weight is affirmed on the bottom of the sea. In this way, they do not change their position by the force of the currents or the waves. The buoys are used to mark navigable channels, natural or artificial submerged obstacles, shallow bottoms, or sunken vessels.

The acoustic signals have the same structure as the previous ones, but they emit, in addition to light, a sound that can be easily identified when triggered by the waves, the wind, or electronically. Their use is necessary when visible signals are not sufficient; for example, in regions where weather phenomena, such as fog, reduce or prevent visibility. The main acoustic devices are bells, whistles, sirens, and electric sound emitters.

Finally, the radio signals use electromagnetic waves, transmitted by one system and received by another, which allows the sailor to know his position at sea, near the coast, or at the entrances to the ports. They also warn about the existence of dangers, obstacles to navigation, or points on the coast that have this device.

In the case of lighthouses, it is important to distinguish between their geographical and luminous range. The first is the maximum distance, expressed in nautical miles, at which a signal can be observed during the day. Their power is a function of the height of the signal and that of the observer above sea level. The light range is the maximum distance, also in nautical miles, at which a light can be observed in the dark. This range is a function of its luminous intensity, the coefficient of atmospheric transmission, and the threshold of illuminance in the eye of the observer.

From the ocean, the ships not only see the lighthouse lights, which warn them of the proximity of the coast, but also the intervals and the colors of the light beams, which have a code, through which it is possible to recognize in front of which point of the coast they are. Thus, the luminous characteristics of a lighthouse are the peculiarities of coloring and the rhythms of light flashes. The color, duration of flashes, and eclipses have been established based on national and international standards, to give each light signal a characteristic appropriate to its function. The number of flashes and eclipses of light in a given time is called "period". Flashing light signals are classified according to the relative length of the periods of illumination and obscuration.

The meaning of navigation

The Atlantic Ocean has been explored since the first human settlements on its shores. The Vikings, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish were the most famous explorers of the American coasts and islands. After the feat of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the voyages from Europe accelerated rapidly and new trade routes were established. A constant transit between Europe and America began, the Old and New World were united by ships leaving a port in search of the light of a lighthouse.

The Atlantic Ocean has contributed significantly to the economic development of nations. In addition to being an ocean that has transported conquistadors, pirates, invaders, starving immigrants, political exiles, and traders, today the Atlantic offers abundant deposits of oil in the sedimentary rocks of the continental shelf and valuable fishing resources. For this reason, the Mexican Atlantic has many historic and important ports for the development of all these activities.

The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in September 1513, when he crossed the isthmus of Panama. A decade later, Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Tenochtitlan, established a shipyard on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where "bajeles", the name given to ships in the 16th century Spain, were built. When they were launched into the sea, they discovered the islands of the Baja California peninsula, where they gave their name to the inland sea between the peninsula and the mainland. They called it the Sea of Cortez in honor of the conqueror who led the expeditions that departed from the distant shores of the Gulf of Tehuantepec.

As a guide for the return of that maritime adventure, the Spaniards erected in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, specifically in the Cerro del Morro de La Ventosa, a small stone and mortar structure at the mouth of the Tehuantepec River. That work was the first lighthouse that was built in the waters of the Pacific Ocean that bathed the American continent.

For five centuries, the small inlet of La Ventosa was one of the Oaxacan ports where some of the pages of Mexico's history were written, beginning with the maritime expeditions of Spanish navigators.

Thus, an old shield of the city and Puerto de Salina Cruz, Oaxaca, highlights since then the importance of the well-known Lighthouse of Cortes, located in the already named Cerro del Morro de La Ventosa. From there the stories of sailors multiplied. In 1533, Hernando de Grijalva, on the ship San Lazaro, traveled the coasts of Chiapas and Oaxaca. A year later, another expedition set sail from Tehuantepec to California, again under the command of the same Grijalva.

Shortly before, Diego de Becerra, also on orders from the conquistador of Mexico, set sail for Baja California but was killed by his crew. The ship captained by Ortuño Jiménez managed to dock in the bay of Santa Cruz de Baja California, where when disembarking to get supplies, almost the entire crew was murdered by the Indians. The few survivors, terrified, wounded, and battered, managed to reach the coast of Jalisco on their vessel.

In 1535, Don Antonio de Mendoza, designated viceroy of New Spain, arrived in San Juan de Ulua. He tried to prepare the islet to attack the ships, sheltering them from the violent winds. In 1542, the construction of the first dock on the islet began - next to the place where the Container Terminal is located - and soon after, a small observation tower where the Soledad Fortress stands, from which the long wall of "Las Argollas" started to hold the ships on the side facing the beach.

The transit of the merchandise when leaving the port was done by primitive roads, which later would become permanent lines of communication, on which many sales were founded and very soon cities like Cordoba, Orizaba, Puebla, Xalapa, and Perote. This is how commercial traffic between the great capital and the Port of San Juan de Ulúa was established.

In 1795, in the Port of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, it is recalled that originally the ships were guided by fires, at some time placed in the Tower of San Pedro del Castillo of the Fortress of San Juan de Ulua. It was in that year when astronomer José de Mendoza y Ríos designed the first modern lighthouse in Mexico.

It had more than 40 lamps and with a rope, they opened and closed the blinds that gave the flashes. It was finally installed in 1796 at the same Tower of San Pedro del Castillo and is currently preserved at the Museum of the Navy Secretariat in Mexico City.

In 1872, the lighthouse was moved to the tower of the old church of San Francisco and, after a few years, was replaced in 1910. The building of the old lighthouse of the San Francisco Church is now known as the Reform enclosure because between 1858 and 1860 Benito Juárez enacted the Reform Laws in this building. During that time, Veracruz was for the first time the capital of the country.

From the 16th century and still, up to the 19th century, the Spanish influence on the Pacific Ocean was predominant. The Pacific thus saw countless expeditions that crossed and exploited it. Cosmographer, sailor, and explorer Andrés de Urdaneta y Cerain made the first voyage from the Port of Acapulco to Manila City in the Philippines. Since then and until the beginning of the 20th century, enormous Spanish galleons set sail and arrived from and to the most important ports of America and the Philippines. These voyages united Acapulco and Manila.

Mexico, due to its strategic geographical position in the world, has been a determining factor throughout the history of maritime trade, since the 16th century. The oil resources of the Gulf of Mexico and the wind resources of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, as well as the dynamism of trade, migration, and tourism, make the Mexican lighthouses and ports, today and tomorrow, key factors for the development and modernization of the country.

Source: Ministry of Communications and Transport