Ridin' the Riviera... in Mexico

The Yucatan in Transition
By Keith Rockmael
  |  Gorp.com

The clear agua washes over my toes as my feet sink slowly into the soft white sand. Waves crash. Tranquility reigns. I gaze out to the blue Caribbean, imagining myself floating atop a bed of blue. Then I turn around and—poof!—my dream becomes a nightmare. High-rises. McDonald's. Bars. Cars. Spring breakers. A huge sign that says "Welcome to Cancun." I came to Mexico looking to visit ruins and swim with tropical fish—not bodysurf with badly dressed tourists and shop at the Gap. I turn back to the beautiful ocean and take in Cancun's split personality.

Cancun is the unsightly gatekeeper for the Yucatan peninsula, the region that was once home to perhaps the most important civilization in the Americas—the Mayans. Only 30 years ago, the city used to be a natural paradise. But the government spotted a golden opportunity for tourism, and party central was born.

Now, 25,000 rooms and three million visitors per year later, there's nowhere left to build. And finally, Mexican authorities are waking up. As a result of the Cancun mess, and through pressure from NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy and WWF, the number of protected lands has been on the rise. President Vicente Fox, who took over in 2000, has pledged to develop a Mexico with an environmental conscience, enforcing existing laws and creating new ones. Without these laws, the rest of the Yucatan peninsula—full of rainforest, rivers, cenotes, caves, beaches, and some of the world's most diverse flora and fauna—may look more like a strip mall rather than a natural paradise.

But with a struggling economy, Mexico needs the estimated $8 billion that travelers bring, and tourist officials, keen to attract more people, have changed the name of the Yucatan's Caribbean coast from the bland "Cancun-Tulum Corridor" to the more inspiring "Rivera Maya," capitalizing on its two big draws—gorgeous shoreline and ancient ruins. It's the classic battle that all eco-destinations are waging. But can ecotourism make it here, or will Mickey and Pluto soon be welcoming visitors to Mayan monuments?

To find out if the environmental and cultural preservation experiment is working, I jump on a mountain bike and head south into the rainforest for a 191-mile ride.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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