Ridin' the Riviera . . . in Mexico

A Country in Ruins
By Keith Rockmael
  |  Gorp.com

One of the Yucatan's great draws, of course, is its Mayan ruins, and the place to see them is in and around the 1.5-million-acre Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, an area protected since 1986.

I cranked another 20 miles on the odometer and got to the edge of the reserve, a virgin wilderness with tropical forests and coastal wetlands that's home to 350 species of birds, as well as alligators, manatees, sea turtles, and jaguars. Also living here are 5,000 people who live off the lobster harvest, not tourism. In fact, many areas of the reserve are off-limits to travelers. Sian Ka'an is also home to more than two dozen ancient Mayan sites, lying in various states of ruin.

To fully engulf myself in the natural experience, I jump into one of the canals (one sans alligators), follow the slow-moving current, and enjoy the view. Mangroves here, termite nest there. The float feels like one of those water rides at an amusement park, except this is nature's own park — and the locals hope to keep it that way.

Outside the reserve, of course, it's anyone's game: here, the ruins must coexist inside a burgeoning travel center. A must-see on the Yucatan ruins circuit is Tulum, the ancient walled village built on an impressive cliff, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Everyone from Gray Line Bus Tours to Harley Davidson Motorcycle Tours bring visitors here from Cancun, and those who want to stay can easily find resorts with swimming pools and spas (lymph-node drainage, anyone?).

Still, more and more places are focusing on the eco side of ecotourism. Small, enviro-friendly bungalows are catching on. And the Mexican government may ban construction of huge, 1,000-room tourist hotels. They're following the lead of Oswaldo Losa Seijo, secretary of tourism for the Rivera Maya, who tells me that while tourism's financial value is undeniable, the Mexican government must place a higher value on"protecting and preserving the jungles, beaches, and mangroves, as well as historical sites like Tulum."

When I enter the walled city it's easy to appreciate the value of places like this. There's no masseuse, just the majestic Mayan ruins. After checking out impressive murals at the Temple of the Frescoes, I saunter down to the unspoiled beach. Beachgoers are scattered around the narrow sandbar, but it's impossible to mistake this place for Cancun. The focus is on the ancient world, not the present — something locals aren't keen to change. They could easily erect souvenir stands here and make some quick tourist cash. They haven't.

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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