The Greening of the Yucatan

Eco-paradise

The Greening of the Yucatan

The Yucatan Peninsula offers an eco friendly vacation paradise. Check out how eco tourism is flourishing in Mexico.

They’re knee-high, bad-tempered, and given to mischief. Aluxes—think leprechauns with a tan—are the jungle spirits of Maya lore. And, for better or worse, I’m poised at their front door, peering into the inky black of a Mexican cave with a local eco-guide and 12 other travellers.

A Maya shaman, dressed in white and carrying a smoking chalice filled with sacred incense, offers up a blessing for the group. We’re about to descend into a cenote, one of the underground caverns that riddle the soft limestone bedrock here in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Purified, protected from the aluxes—we hope—we file down into the dark, heading for a crystalline pool that beckons from the depths of the cave.

Back to nature

The aluxes, it turns out, have every right to be ornery. Here on the Yucatan coast—where jungle and mangrove meet the turquoise water of the Caribbean—not all travellers tread lightly. Once an Edenic backwater, the Yucatan city of Cancun is now a seaside Vegas. High-rise hotels, mass-market getaways, and discount margaritas have taken a toll on the fragile coastline.

But along the Riviera Maya, the delicate and coveted stretch of coast just south of Cancun, a new generation of eco-pioneers is trying hard not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Back at the cenote, guide Emilio Galvez escorts our group down and down to the water’s edge, where we don snorkels and masks and jump into the bracing aquamarine subterranean lake.

Filtered by limestone, the water down here is impossibly clear. Whiskered catfish and bright-coloured tetras glide by, curious and unafraid. With G?ez leading the way, we swim into an underground tunnel, emerging a minute later into a sunny forest lagoon, in the land of the living once more.

Only later do I discover that live threats more pressing than jilted spirits lurk in Riviera waterways.

“Let’s see if we can find a crocodile,” says Luis Ortiz, director of environment at the Fairmont Mayakoba, a green resort that might easily pass for a nature reserve. Ortiz and I are aboard a small boat, plying a network of canals in the mangroves and forests that blanket 75 percent of the seaside complex.

In a reversal of conventional practice, the Mayakoba opted to protect its mangroves rather than clear them for beachfront accommodations. The result is a cluster of small-footprint, eco-friendly cabanas integrated right into the surrounding forest.

As we venture deeper into the canals, wildlife grows increasingly extravagant: lumbering striped iguanas, blue-eyed cormorants, oversized American storks. Suddenly, Ortiz jolts up. He’s found what he came for. I follow his pointing finger to the pebbled hide of a juvenile crocodile, floating silently along the bank with an unlucky fish clamped tight in its jaws.

Eco co-operation

Among the more progressive initiatives at the Mayakoba is a partnership with a local eco-tour group. Owned and run by members of a small Maya village, Community Tours brings visitors deep into the expansive Sian Ka’an reserve, 1.3 million protected acres of ruins-strewn jungle, lagoons, and the last untouched stretch of Caribbean coastline in Mexico.

“Many people believe that the Maya disappeared, but I am right here,” says guide Alberto Cen Caamal, who lives in a traditional straw and wood palapa on the edge of the reserve. Our small group hikes past pyramid after pyramid—ancient customs houses, priests’ palaces, shrines to gods and goddesses.

The massive ruins tower above the treeline and predate Christ. Yet so extensive is the network of pyramids left by the ancient Maya that those at Sian Ka’an still remain off the tourist map, abandoned and nearly unvisited.

Along with 23 separate temples, the forests here are also home to 103 known species of mammals, 336 known bird species, and thousands upon thousands of hungry mosquitoes. When our repellent gives out, we make a dash for the lagoons, a chain of turquoise freshwater lakes stretching for miles. Millennia ago, the Maya linked these lagoons with man-made channels cut into the limestone. Today this network of channels makes for a kind of primeval lazy river ride.

One by one, we plunge into the clear, waist-deep waters (thankfully croc-free). The gentle current does its work, tugging us slowly into the wetlands. Mangroves hang low overhead, orchids and bromeliads flourishing in the branches. On and on, late into the afternoon we float, slipping deeper and deeper into the crystal heart of the Riviera Maya.

Your carbon footprint

For eco-tourists, air travel represents a moral quandary. Visiting the planet’s beautiful, pristine places almost invariably requires expending the same fossil fuels that degrade the environment. Carbon offsets offer a compromise for those eager to reduce their travel footprints.

How it works
In essence, the idea of carbon offsets involves paying green companies to “unpollute” on your behalf. Say, for instance, you fly from Vancouver to Cancun. The 8,934 km round-trip flight releases about 1 ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (A convenient carbon calculator is available at carbonfund.org.)

What it costs
To go carbon neutral, you’ll need to purchase one “carbon offset” for every ton of carbon dioxide released. Price varies dramatically—anywhere from $3 to $40 per offset and up—as does reputation, so make sure your provider is independently certified (see “Carbon Offsetting & Footprint” at ecobusinesslinks.com).

How it helps
The provider then uses your money to support ventures that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, including renewable energy projects, reforestation efforts, and the disposal of harmful industrial pollutants such as hydrofluorocarbons.

Details

Getting there
Air Canada and WestJet fly direct from major Canadian cities to Cancun International Airport.

Getting around
Few buses serve the Riviera Maya. For those interested in exploring the region, the best option is to rent a car.

Where to stay
Arguably the greenest resort in the Riviera, the Fairmont Mayakoba (fairmont.com/mayakoba) is set in a lush mangrove forest with a network of canals on the property that provide habitat for hundreds of endangered species.

The small coastal town of Tulum has numerous intimate retreats, including many focused on yoga and wellness. Try Maya Tulum (mayatulum.com), which offers accommodation in simple, thatched-roof cabanas and twice-daily yoga classes.

What to do
Alltournative (alltournative.com) partners with local Maya communities, enabling visitors to experience hidden lagoons, pyramids, and extreme jungle treks. Try its Maya Zip-Line adventure, which includes swimming and snorkelling in a cenote, as well as forest zip-lining.

Community Tours (siankaantours.org) offers guided treks into the vast Sian Ka’an reserve. Its Muyil Forest and float tour includes a trek past ancient pyramids and an afternoon spent swimming in the reserve’s crystalline canals.

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