Israel Leal  /  AP file
Tourists enjoy the beach near the Mayan ruins of Noh Hoch, also known as The Castle near the Mexican caribbean resort town of Tulum.
updated 10/11/2006 1:27:00 PM ET 2006-10-11T17:27:00

Beyond Cancún and the booming Riviera Maya, adventurous travelers to the Mexican Caribbean find lush landscapes, empty beaches and traditional ways of life.

People say they want to get off the beaten track, but they really don’t,” said Hilario Hiler, a self-described “Mayanist” who leads custom tours of the ruins and villages

hidden in plain sight around the fringes of Mexico’s burgeoning Riviera Maya coast.

“But the farther south you go, the more beautiful it gets, and the people are nicer.”

I met Hilario, a longtime friend of my traveling partner, photographer Macduff Everton, during a late lunch in Puerto Morelos, a fishing village just 10 minutes south — but a world apart — from Cancún. The two men originally alighted here at the end of the ’60s when there was no beaten track, just coconut plantations, virgin sites to free-dive, villages and mystical ruins that had not yet become attractions for bussed-in tourists. They lived on the beach in Tulum and in forest villages, caught their food on the reef, learned the ways of the Maya and became family with them. Macduff even worked his way around the Yucatán with a traveling circus, playing the surreal role of Commandante Macduff — grandson of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, leader of a NASA frogman team. “We had the time of our life,” said Hilario.

While we devoured an endless stack of warm corn tortillas with black beans and stewed chicken, washing them down with cold beer mixed with fresh lime juice, the two amigos reflected on the changes that have occurred along their beloved coast. Cancún’s first hotels sprouted up in 1974 and have multiplied to total 27,000 rooms, with a local population of 750,000 dependent on tourism. A recent burst of development along the Riviera Maya — the 73-mile stretch from Cancún south to Tulum — has given rise to another 24,000 rooms. And several whopping resort projects are in the works, ensuring the boom will proceed at mach speed.

Which is why we were talking about getting off the beaten track. The more the coastline becomes parceled out and built up, the more challenging it gets for visitors to experience the environment and its culture in their undisturbed states. This swath of Mesoamerica is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity, yet the barrier reef, the mangrove littoral and the underground rivers are highly vulnerable to contamination from runoff, waste and overuse. Conditions are just about perfect for an ecological nightmare.

There is, however, a formidable roadblock to runaway development. In a remarkably prescient conservationist stroke, a former governor of the state of Quintana Roo proclaimed the country’s largest nature reserve here 20 years ago. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, includes 68 miles of coastline in its 1.3 million acres of dunes, bays, wetlands and forest. Home to some 2,000 people, the reserve was established as an experiment to see whether conservation could be compatible with human residents’ social and economic well-being. Lobstering is the main livelihood, but tourism is a growing industry.

Try to get here before sundown, so you can see what it looks like,” said Cameron Boyd, founder of CESiaK (Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an), one of a few small lodges located in the reserve. So after lunch, Macduff and I barreled down Highway 307, past the construction sites of sprawling Playa del Carmen and the funky-but-chic hotel zone in Tulum, and onto the sandy road that led through the park gates. Before we even checked in, Macduff bolted up to the rooftop terrace, wound a spool of film into his hefty panoramic camera and started shooting as intently as a photojournalist covering breaking news. Which, in a sense, he was: There would never be another sunset precisely like that one.

Our vantage over the shallow treetops revealed that we were on a long, thin strip of bush- and palm-covered dune that separated a big lagoon from a steely mass of dusky sea. The western firmament appeared grand, dramatic — worthy of the name Sian Ka’an, which means “gift from the sky.” The dropping sun was obscured at first, but its radiance emanated from within bulky gray cloud clusters. Descending, it blossomed in a final blaze of glory that threw a deep orange wash over the glassy surface of Laguna Campechén.

At last I knew what Sian Ka’an looks like, after years of wondering about this prime chunk of terra incognita. It looks peaceful, and very wet. Think Everglades, but throw in a healthy stretch of barrier reef, ruins from the Maya heyday early in the last millennium, five kinds of cats (jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarundi) and 345 types of birds. Few roads intrude, and those that do are sketchy at best. Boats are the preferred mode of transport, and water-based activities are the main attractions for tourists. There’s snorkeling, diving, bird-watching and naturalist tours, and the fly-fishing here is considered world-class for bonefish, tarpon and especially permit. But for all that, Sian Ka’an struck me as a subtle place, perhaps better suited for being than for a whole lot of doing.

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And that was the perspective of another guest at CESiaK, a young woman with a busy life in Manhattan who was making her second retreat to the lodge in a year but still hadn’t taken a day trip on the lagoon or swum a cenote. Long morning runs and ocean swims primed her for hours of reading and sunbathing on an all-but-deserted beach and dining at the lodge’s restaurant, the only one accessible without a car. Freedom from decision-making was to her a big part of CESiaK’s appeal. It’s the kind of place where guests quickly become familiar with one another and the amiable staff, and the mood is more cozy camp than mind-your-own-business hotel.

The camp motif is carried out explicitly in the accommodations, 15 spacious safari-style tents pitched on platforms atop the dunes among sea grapes and palms, with exposure to sea breezes and views. The elemental, organic effect goes beyond the atmospheric. Ablution facilities are communal and environment-friendly, with composting toilets and rainwater showers and taps; wind and solar energy fuel the lights and appliances. Boyd isn’t just trying to go by the book on eco-tourism, he’s trying to help rewrite it in order to show neighboring property owners how sustainable technologies can work in this fragile environment. (He’s not kidding around: If you want to go swimming in a canal through the marsh during one of CESiaK’s daily boat tours — never mind about the 15-foot crocs, they’re shy — forget about applying sunscreen beforehand, as it’s a potential pollutant.) CESiaK’s anti-commercial ethos and primo location inside a rarefied reserve have been its strongest selling points since it opened two years ago.

The unpaved road that runs the 30 miles down the skinny peninsula linking Tulum beach to the fishing village of Punta Allen is famously potholed, and it was impassable when we were there in the early aftermath of October’s hurricane Wilma, which merely buffeted this area while it hammered Cancún mercilessly. But we had to take a day trip to Punta Allen, not simply to satisfy our natural curiosity about the town at the end of the road and the fruits of its lobster catch, but because Boyd had called it “the soul of the reserve,” the bellwether of Sian Ka’an’s ability to balance environmental protections with the needs of a resident community that makes its living from the environment.

Commandante Macduff and I circled inland through Tulum Pueblo, a lively town of 10,000 that’s a stop on the backpacker trail, and steered south on the highway. Fifteen minutes down the road we came to Muyil, an archaeological site that’s the off-the-beaten-track alternative to Cobá, Chichén Itzá and Tulum. The spectral beauty of the place — a campus of restored pyramids, temples and palaces fringed by dense forest — was enhanced by solitude; we shared the grounds with exactly two other sightseers, young lovers strolling hand in hand.

From there we plunged deeper into Sian Ka’an, taking a water taxi across Ascensión Bay, one of two huge bays in the reserve. As the skiff pulled into Punta Allen, we passed a trio of young men stripping bark from branches to use in building a home. I took it as a sign that we had arrived in a place that hadn’t lost touch with tradition.

Our water-taxi driver escorted us down the sandy lanes of the town past modest, weather-beaten homes made of cinder block and wood. He took us to a simple restaurant in a palapa by the sea that was part of his tourism co-op, where we drank frosty beers and ate grilled lobster that came out of a freezer — all the live ones had taken off for deeper waters because of the recent storms. With the road closed and the lobsters out of reach, there wasn’t much work to be had, which explained the Saturday-afternoon vibe that permeated the town that Thursday. A group of men drifted from a storefront cantina to the soccer field for a short game and then to another bar, laughing all the way. Bouncy Mexican dance music blasting from a home stereo enhanced the holiday feeling, and I felt like I was in a good place to be, with not a lot to do but dig the ambience. Mañana would be another day — but this one was pretty good, too.

As we polished off the lobster tails, we chatted with a snorkeling and fly-fishing guide named Victor Barrera who said that the town of 500 receives around 2,000 tourists a year and is eager for more — but not if it means interference by outside interests. “You can find Punta Allen like a virgin,” he said proudly.

When it was time to leave, we had to wait for a team of men to unload from the boat a delivery of many, many cases of cerveza. “El elixir de la vida!” one of them shouted, and I took that as a good sign, too.

The next day we left CESiaK and drove a few miles back up the road to Cabañas La Conchita, a friendly little hotel in Tulum’s beach town. It’s along a healthy strip of boutique hotels — some with good restaurants — that has caught on in recent years with a cosmopolitan clientele (split roughly fifty-fifty between Europeans and North Americans) for all the right reasons: It’s got uncrowded beaches, the building styles are authentically Mexican, and there’s a low-key hip factor. Just as Playa del Carmen has long been a refuge from Cancún for the type of traveler who’s not seeking lots of stimulation, Tulum is further down the laid-back trail than Playa.

Jorge Rosales and Cynthia James, La Conchita’s owners, explained that Tulum is holding onto its character largely because it’s still off the grid; the lack of utilities keeps things quiet and small-scale. They rely on solar power, but there are more than a couple of so-called eco-hotels that run generators willy-nilly, and there’s a debate among local hoteliers about whether to pull electricity into the area. Cynthia and Jorge are against — “It’s what keeps us unique,” she says. But they despair that Tulum as they know and love it will stay the same for only another five, maybe 10 years. Seen in that context, Cameron Boyd’s efforts to demonstrate the viability of sustainable water, waste and energy systems take on a particularly relevant urgency.

The next morning, after a fantastic breakfast at La Conchita, we were picked up by another Jorge. A guide for an eco-adventure outfit called Alltournative that caters to hotel guests on the Riviera Maya, he promised a “day of culture and adrenaline in the jungle.” His angular features, braided ponytail, multiple wooden-peg piercings and self-administered tattoos gave him a tribal-piratical mien. Not just another tour guide.

We drove inland from Tulum and turned north at Cobá, headed for three Maya villages where Alltournative has set up zip lines and rappelling facilities. En route, Jorge pulled over at a neatly tended homestead with several kinds of animals in and around the house. A sweet young girl picked up a long-haired, pig-like peccary in the yard and gave it a hug. A tiny deer was inside the house, where mama and a baby girl swung peacefully in a hammock. A tepezcuintle — a grotesquely overgrown hamster — cowered in a cage.

I naively thought it precious that the family kept these exotic-looking creatures as pets — until Jorge explained that the menagerie was in fact bush meat, future table fare. Such are the hardscrabble exigencies of subsistence for the Maya, who mainly rely on barter, fruit trees, and the corn and beans grown in their milpas (gardening plots). Because they lack viable industry, utilities and medical care as well as adequate education, their only other option is to leave their backwoods homes and find menial employment in factories, the hotel zones or cities. And that’s why Alltournative is bringing tourists into the area: to bolster the local economy and help maintain the communities, their traditional culture and the land they look after.

We pulled into Tres Reyes, pop. 500. First we received a blessing from an elder shaman, with incantations and incense and a sip of honey-flavored hooch called balche. Catholic and Maya catechism and symbolism were intertwined in the prayer and on the altar. When all was said and done, I learned that I had been inoculated against the alux, characters lurking in the forest and caves who, like leprechauns, come out at night to do you good or ill, depending on what you’re up to.

Herculano, the shaman, told us he’d always survived and even earned some money from what he could grow, but NAFTA provisions devalued his cash crop, and his milpa had been wiped out in the storms. “We can only make money from tourism now,” he said in Spanish.

Nearby Punta Laguna is famous for a reserve called The Home of the Monkey and Panther, and for a pristine, spring-fed lake. Just for those adrenal kicks we’d been promised, we rode a 200-plus meter zip line over a corner of the lake,  then we paddled canoes around the perimeter where we were able to observe a few clans of spider monkeys in the shoreline trees.

Lunch was a feast prepared by the women of the village, a buffet of vegetable soup, chicken mole made with 10 types of chilies, picadillo (ground beef and vegetables) and handmade tortillas. Afterward I bought a Coke bottle filled with subtle, locally harvested honey at a stand where huipiles (embroidered blouses) were also for sale.

A solar panel mounted on a pole outside a hut was powering a computer and printer inside, where a couple of village men were selling photos of tourists on the zip line. “To me that’s incredible,” said Macduff, not just because the technology is anomalous in that setting, but because the Maya own and operate that business in partnership with Alltournative. Their future viability depends on such enterprise, said Macduff.

In the afternoon, Jorge took us for a swim in a cenote called Chi Much, or Frog’s Mouth, named for the shape of the entrance. One of the most remarkable things about this cavern was a six-foot-long stalactite that looked to have been sculpted as an ornamental serpent’s head — complete with a tree root growing from its mouth like a flicking tongue.

“This is sacred water,” Jorge said as we prepared to get wet, explaining that all of the Yucatán’s thousands of cenotes are connected by an underwater river network that the Maya regard as a circulatory system. “We believe this is the place closest to the heart,” he said. We swam in perfectly cool water pure enough to drink.

With sunlight streaming in through the frog’s mouth, the underground room took on a moody, mystical aspect. I may have been skeptical about the alux, but the serpent’s head certainly set an otherworldly tone, and it wasn’t hard to embrace the concept that this “sacred water” flowed through Mother Earth’s arteries.

Our visit to a third village was blocked by a flood; the road that leads into and out of Pac-Chen, where some 500 Maya live, was completely inundated. We joined a mother with her young children sitting on a log by the end of the road waiting for her husband to paddle a canoe out from the village to pick them up. When he arrived, Deciderio Pech Pech told us that the village was dependent on the tourist business Alltournative brought and that being cut off put his family and community in desperate straits. Their only hope was a plan by Alltournative to cut a new road through the forest to restore access.

On the ride back to Tulum, Jorge said the company was good that way; it had even sent a truckload of relief supplies to his own home village in the faraway Lacondón forest of Chiapas after tropical storm Stan blew through. He himself is half Indian, he said, and identifies strongly with the lot of the Yucatán Maya. Their struggle for survival, he said, is part of the wider fight for Indian welfare, which he used to support as a Zapatista rebel.

“It’s a pleasure for me to be able to speak for my people,” he said. “I used to do it another way, but now I can do my little part like this.”

Damn, I thought, riding through the Maya forest with a Zapatista tour guide and Commandante Macduff, NASA frogman — it doesn’t get much more off-the-beaten-track than this.

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.   

Photos: Marvelous Mexico

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  1. Tempting Tulum

    The Mayan City of Tulum, Mexico is located on the Caribbean Sea coast of the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Ml Sinibaldi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. View from Palenque

    Tourists sit atop a pyramid in Palenque, set in the foothills of the Tumbal mountains of Chiapas Mexico. (Marco Ugarte / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Blessings in Chiapas

    A tzotzil child walks in front of the church of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. (Matias Recart / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Luxury in Puerto Vallarta

    The terrace on the Celestial Suite is seen at Hacienda San Angel in Puerto Vallarta. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Ancient stories

    This photo shows details of a Maya stone, relating the coming to power of governor Sir Jupiter Humenate and dated 613 AC, found in Tonina, Ocosingo, Chiapas. (Janet Schwartz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico magic

    Mexico City, the capital city of the nation of Mexico. (Diego Goldberg / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Musical Mexico

    A mariachi band play on a punt at the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Cool Cancun

    Cancun, Mexico is ranked as one of the top international vacation destinations. The beaches of Cancun have been completely restored following damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Travelers will find its newly renovated resorts, restaurants, beaches and attractions better and even more accessible than ever. (Business Wire) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Isla bonita

    The ferry landing on Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Isla Mujeres is a tiny island mere miles from the Yucatan coast, and feels a world away from Cancun's hustle and bustle. Isla Mujeres, thriving in its own tourism, manages to maintain the feeling of a small fishing village. (Anja Schlein / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soccer and bullfights

    Estadio Azul (left), a soccer stadium; and Plaza Mexico, the world's largest bullring, in Mexico City. (Danny Lehman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Azure Cortez

    People kayak in the Bahia de Loreto National Park, in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. (Terry Prichard / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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