I am floating down a slow-moving river bordered by mangroves and seagrass, the water so clear I can see to the bottom. I have nothing to do but sit back and let the current take me. There are hardly any people around, only the occasional bird.
Welcome to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve — the name in Mayan translates to the Entrance to the Sky — just south of Tulum, Mexico and a little less than two hours from Cancun. With 1.3 million acres, it's the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean and part of UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Program and unique for its diverse geography and biodiversity. Not only is this place home to some 330 species of birds, it's also an archeological park with Mayan palaces dating back thousands of years.
Locals and tourists scoff at the notion that they might not be safe here or along the Riviera Maya, which stretches south of Cancun to Tulum. "Mexico is a big country and the violence is so far away from here," explains cab driver Fernando Morales, who has lived in this area all his life. "Once people get here, they relax."
It's hard not to, especially in places like Sian Ka'an, where you can learn about the ancient Mayans, tromp through the jungle and commune with nature. Our guide, Antonio Caamol Vitzil of Community Tours, which is Mayan owned and operated, lives in a small Mayan village within the reserve called Muyil. Tours like ours are new to the village.
Thanks to help from the Mexican government and the Fairmont Mayakoba resort located about an hour away in Playa del Carmen, the Muyil community is trying to grow a sustainable tourism business that can employ people in their community and showcase Mayan culture. Soon, there will be a restaurant and a museum partially funded by Fairmont.
"We need to develop strategies so that guests can experience the region even when staying at a big hotel," said Veronica Escobar, a spokesman for the 400-plus room resort spread out on 47 acres of indigenous jungle which, according to tourism officials here, has led the charge for green initiatives — there is even an onsite biologist to direct the efforts — as well as cooperative partnerships with local Mayan communities.
Biologist Lyn Santos took us on a boat tour through the mangroves — the majority of the hotel is not oceanfront, though there is a nice beach, but built behind the mangroves, home to some 160 species of birds, which provide a natural buffer between the ocean and the buildings. The hotel takes green initiatives seriously. Some $500 million was spent just on the canals, which preserve the underground river system and on replanting as much vegetation as possible — more than 1,500 trees and 10,000 plants.
Kids at the Kids' Club — each child gets three free hours daily — are taken on a tour of the hotel to see how machines in the laundry use less water and electricity and how paper is recycled into notebooks. The Kids' Club also recycles paper into brightly painted checker pieces and play food.
There are family cooking classes, complete with a walk through the chef's organic garden, and menus that offer a variety of sustainable options, including the Caribbean lobster, captured in a sustainable manner, which comes from a co-op within Sian Ka'an.
Sweet spa treatments
I love that the profits from the Mayan handicrafts sold at the resort are returned to the local communities; the honey from the local sting-less Melipona bees used in one of the resort's signature spa treatments also comes from a local Mayan village.
Certainly you have your choice of hotels in this region — more than 300 from tiny 16-room beachfront hotels like the Playa Azul in Tulum to small deluxe resorts like The Tides, ideal for a honeymoon or special adult getaway, to intimate all-inclusives like Ceiba del Mar outside the fishing village of Puerto Morales where I met happy vacationing families playing on the beach. There are also upscale condos like the Condo Hotels right in the heart of the tourist action in Playa del Carmen.
Most first-time visitors, though, think massive all-inclusives are the only option. And even larger hotels like the Fairmont (check out the deals that can save you up to 30 percent on room rates, spa treatments, resort credit and more), just 45 minutes from the Cancun airport, can provide a different kind of vacation.
"We want to support the authentic local experience," explained Santos. That's not to say you won't also enjoy the five pools (the kids we met certainly were enjoying the water slide), the beach, the golf course and the spectacular spa.
Our Mayan guide Vitzil, for his part, wishes more large hotels would support such efforts — and that more tourists know that they exist — so that more people in his village (just 300 people) could find work here. (The $99 fee for our all-day tour, half for kids, seems reasonable. Other trips that include kayaking, birding and snorkeling are less expensive.)
I can't think of many places that offer the chance to learn about an ancient culture and experience nature at its best. Before we jumped into the river, our small boat passed through two narrow canals just three feet deep — one built by ancient Mayans to facilitate transportation between the inland Mayan cities and the ocean. We even stopped at an ancient Mayan military checkpoint.
Earlier, we'd toured the archaeological park in the jungle where some 50 ancient palaces and temples have been uncovered, though many remain just big piles of stones. My favorite is the one that is 60 feet high, home to a fertility goddess.
By the side of the lagoon, we ate a traditional Mayan lunch prepared by a local chef — ceviche (the best I've ever had with shrimp, fish, mango and pineapple marinated in lime juice), avocado salad and panyuchos (fried tortillas with black beans, meat and cheese). We sipped wine and quizzed Antonio about life in his small village where they still speak the Mayan language. One of the challenges of growing the tourism business, he explains, is that locals must learn English.
We took a final dip in a cenote — a freshwater swimming hole that is part of the underground river system crisscrossing the peninsula — as a local family played in the water.
Just as ancient families did long ago, I thought as I jumped in.
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