Ecotourism in Cancun: Wilder Than We Expected!

In a Mayan village, a new sign proudly proclaims the name ecotourism in Cancun.
In a Mayan village, a new sign proudly proclaims the name.

Caving and Meeting Mayans outside of the Resorts on Ecotourism Excursions

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Sunrise at Me By Melia, Cancun. photos by Max Hartshorne
Sunrise at Me By Melia, Cancun. photos by Max Hartshorne

After so many years of traveling around the world, I had never set foot in nearby Mexico. I am happy to report that in January 2009, I finally made it, and returned vowing to stock up on the very reasonable Mexican peso in anticipation of a return visit next year.

We flew into Cancun, that man-made destination that was born in the early ‘70s in the vast and lightly populated Yucatan Peninsula. Here you can visit ruins from the glorious Mayan civilizations, and even meet with Mayans who live in the region today. There are also many chances to get some adrenaline going, and view deep dark places that you’ll never forget!

Though Cancun is best known for its famous Hotel Zone, with more than 145 hotels and a staggering 28,000 rooms, just down the coast we found another place that brings travelers a taste of what Mexico’s Riviera Maya used to be… it’s called Puerto Morelos.

Snake’s Nest

Cancun means ‘snake pit’ in Mayan, and the earliest explorers here were almost undone by the swarms of biting mosquitoes and other insects plus the prevalence of poisonous snakes.

The planned tourist city was created with filled in sand. The earliest Spanish explorers said it was a nightmare, and their diseases managed to kill off far more natives than their swords.

One French scientist said that the average Mayan’s intestines were like a museum of microbes. So many tiny bacteria that would in the years to come make many visitors sick.

Meeting the Mayans in the Yucatan
Meeting the Mayans in the Yucatan.

The Mexican government’s planned city in 1971 had few models in those days…one was Brasilia, the capital built in the distant jungle and spurned by nearly everyone in Brazil who wanted to stay in Rio. Fortunately, Cancun has not suffered such a fate, and today more than one million people live here.

Mexico has battled an image problem in 2009, with terribly high murder rates along the border, and an out-of-control drug cartel that spares no one.

But as we were told again and again by people in tranquil Yucatan, these problems, while serious, are thousands of miles up north. Here, more than 90 percent of the locals are working in the tourist business and that means that most speak English and are happy to help out gringos they meet on the street or on the beach.

A recent article in (February 2009) in the New York Times scared a lot of people because the reporter maintains that there are drug-fighting soldiers carrying out operations right near the beach bars.

Dealers Fighting Dealers

Despite this, I maintain that most of the problems in the drug war involve drug dealers fighting cops and other drug dealers. And that tourists are still safe here in Cancun and the Yucatan.

Making friends in Nuevo Durango
Making friends in Nuevo Durango.

I asked Roger, our Mexican friend, which hotels are the most swanky, and what the Spring Break scene is here. He answered pointing to the impressive JW Marriott beachfront hotel, and the Ritz Carlton. “These are the five-star properties, as well as the Grand Coral.”

The hotels all sit on prime beachfront locations, and you can tell they are vulnerable to hurricane damage. In 2005, one of the century’s worst storms damaged just about all of Cancun’s hotels.

Most have been rebuilt, some rebranded into smaller more boutique-style properties, giving Cancun a diverse assortment of hotel choices.

Meeting Mayans

While we enjoyed our time relaxing by the pool at our hotel, Me by Melia, our time in Yucatan would be marked by more exciting activities. We met our guides Jesus and Elise who run an NGO called Kanche.

They work with Mayan families in a string of small villages helping them develop alternatives to farming this rocky, unfertile soil. We were headed for a village of just 45 families in the heart of the jungle called Nuevo Durango. There we would get a chance to see how they live and take a trip down into a cave to explore.

We passed by tree after tree that was felled by 2005’s terrible hurricane and found out that damage was widespread even in the interior of the region. We hiked in on a path hacked out of the jungle and made it to a hole with a sign over it that said “Caverna Nueva.” Then we heard the story behind this cave.

Rapelling down into the cave
Rappelling down into the cave.

Arsenio Hau’s uncle was picking pumpkins when they found a big hole in the field, covered by vines. He fell part of the way in, and he got trapped. When he was rescued with ropes and they shined flashlights down the hole, they discovered the Vida or New Life cave.

About 84 km from the bustling Cancun hotel zone, we were introduced to a family of Mayans who now leads tourists on excursions to exotic places like Caverna Nueva Vida.

Down in the Cave

We rappelled about 30 feet down into the mouth of the cave wearing miner’s lights and gloves and then hiked about 100 feet among eerie stalagmites and stalactites, jagging down from the ceiling. Stooping to avoid hitting our hardhats on the ceiling, we clambered through the moist chambers. A bat clung to one and flew off when we inspected him closely.

Enjoying a ride on a zipline at Selvatica, near Cancun, Mexico
Enjoying a ride on a zipline at Selvatica, near Cancun, Mexico.

At one point we sat in a circle and turned off our lights. The silence was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was like being blind, absolutely devoid of any light, and no one shuffled or coughed.

We sat there for what felt like a very long time, alone yet together in the consuming silence and inky blackness.

It was strangely comforting, yet I began to have a twinge of claustrophobia and wanted to go back up. That involved hooking up to the ropes and waiting as we were inched back up into the light.

Then we joined our guide with his relatives in their tidy cement home. Out back they had a pen with deer they were raising and a pen full of turkeys and a few geese.

The ground was hard to walk on, so littered with rocks large and small. Our guide told us that farming here is damn hard, just trying to get something to grow among these prolific rocks and the sand in between.

They had cooked us a chicken underground, in the Mayan traditional method, using hot stones and wrapping the bird, onions, and squash in banana leaves. It was delicious!

American visitors can arrange to visit the Mayans by contacting Kanche. We returned to the village later and got a chance to take a hike in the forest where spider monkeys live. Way up in the trees, these round-faced, long-tailed primates romp and play swinging from limb to limb.

The Mayans who profit from a small admittance fee and from guide fees have names for all 28 of these monkeys.

On to Puerto Morelos

Inside the cave near Nuevo Durango, Mexico.
Inside the cave near Nuevo Durango, Mexico.

Later in the week we moved to a smaller hotel, called Ceiba del Mar, about 15 kilometers south of the city of Cancun in Puerto Morelos.

This fishing village of about 6,000 residents, has a traditional town center with a square lined with cafes and shops, and there are two larger hotels under construction.

Today this hotel is a nudist and adult “lifestyle” resort.

The hotel where Ceiba del Mar was once located was destroyed in 2005, and the owners decided to build a smaller more boutique property with just 88 rooms instead of the 150 that originally were there. As a result, it is spacious and lovely, and all of the rooms have a beautiful view of the sea.

We were about to find more elements to ecotourism in the Yucatan…with a visit to two other attractions that harness nature to provide enjoyment for visitors.

Adrenaline and Fun

Selvatica offers a package of adrenaline and fun. The company is billed as Trip Advisor’s Number One attraction near Cancun. They pick you up at your hotel and the excursions include a three-pack… zip-lining over the jungle, a short mountain bike trip through a jungle path, and then a plunge into a blue cenote, or natural pool. They include a meal of rice and beans and chicken all for around $80.

Climbing up the tower to get to the top of the first zip line station, I asked our buff guide if he’s ever seen any wild animals in the jungles down below. “I saw a jaguar about three weeks ago,” he said. The ziplining is fun, but some of the guests like to get a little crazier. They mount themselves on the line and zip down the whole way upside down, accompanied by a guide making sure they don’t bang their heads.

Sometimes your better half (I mean your girlfriend or your wife) isn’t up for the big adrenaline pounding, she came down to Mexico to sit in a beach chair and drink a big cocktail with fruit coming out of it. In my case, Cindy my partner was happy to stay in the hotel during my ziplining. But she was sure glad that she decided to join me at our last ecotourism stop.

Underground in Rio Secreto

Jumping into the blue water of the cenote, at Selvatica, in Mexico
Jumping into the blue water of the cenote, at Selvatica, in Mexico.

This ecotourism attraction has only been open for about a year and already has had thousands of visitors. What they offer is a swim/hike underground in the cavernous underground chamber where we hiked for a quarter-mile.

When we couldn’t hike because the water was too deep, then we swam, wearing life preservers and miner’s lights. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites grew from the thousands-of-years-old limestone that ran between the forest floor and the cave’s roof.

After the vigorous hike and swim, we repaired to a picnic area where they served us a simple Mayan lunch.

The beauty of the cave, where there are still thousands of yards of unexplored caverns, was striking. Of course, they offered the chance to catch photos by trailing us with a photographer, who was able to get great shots despite the lack of any light except our helmets.

Excursions like Rio Secreto, Selvatica, and the Kanche program with the Mayans gave us a wonderful taste of just some of the fun we can have down here in Mexico.

While it may be in vogue to be afraid of the people here, it’s wiser to just be cautious yet still enjoy spending time exploring this part of the world. Mexico is probably the most pro-US country we’ll ever find south of our border, and they deserve our tourist dollar and our support in their war against the drug cartel.

Get more information from Cancun Tourism

Contact Kanche to arrange your own visit to the Mayan communities of the Yucatan. We stayed at Me By Melia, a swank, modern hotel with a sophisticated charm that would be great for people who don’t have kids. The music at the pool area is loud but kind of cool, and the two restaurants, Salt and Spice, are top-notch.

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