Ridin' the Riviera... in Mexico

Playground of the Gods
By Keith Rockmael
  |  Gorp.com

The next day was a make or break one for me, biking 43 miles on a not-too-friendly highway. Not quite halfway, I stop in at Xel-Ha, the 200-acre water park that operators tout as the "place where water was born." According to legend, the Mayan gods created Xel-Ha as something that would unite the best that nature could offer in one place. Once it was created, the gods were so pleased with their work that they decided to allow the mortals to enjoy it.

Ironically, this is the place most in danger of growing out of control: An entrance fee, a supermarket, jewelry store, Mexican-craft shops, beachwear stores, and souvenir stands are just the beginning. Throw in some cheesy, thatched-roof cars, Mexican restaurants, and a dolphin swim, and you have the Riviera Maya's most ambitious effort at the tourism side of ecotourism.

But it's also being developed with an eye to what happened in Cancun. Get beyond the souvenir shops and Xel-Ha is more like See World than Sea World. I jump into the water, snorkel through ocean water, then gradually swim into freshwater and underground rivers, inlets, and lagoons. Within each zone, the marine life changes from hearty seafaring creatures to colorful freshwater fish. I see gigantic sea turtles and barracuda and feel like Jaques Cousteau Junior. There's a healthy respect for nature here; for example, operators maintain an environmentally sound floating bridge across an ocean inlet. Walking paths, too, were built with the environment in mind. They snake around trees, which might explain why I smacked into a few of them. All is well for now, but won't this area become like spring-break central to the north? "Cancun has gone overboard," says Mirka Balam, head of Xel-Ha public relations. "They disregard nature, they even paved it over. Here, we're more respectful of the environment."

The great Mayans didn't steamroll nature but incorporated it into their lives, and it appears that their descendants—both the locals and tourist leaders of the Rivera Maya—want to do the same. Tour buses continue to chug among the fast-food restaurants of Cancun and out to its nearby ruins, but it's more rewarding to wipe sweat from your brow after two-wheeling through the jungle's sweet smell. If Rivera Maya locals and the Mexican government continue this pact with Mother Nature, the local expressions might be more like "welcome to paradise" instead of "do you want fries with that?"

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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