When my boyfriend had surprised me with two round-trip tickets to Cancun for my birthday, let’s just say I was surprised. He’s in school for a Masters of Science in Environmental Management. I like to wax poetic about the benefits of ecotourism. Cancun, the infamous Spring break destination (thanks, MTV!) known for over-developed hotel strips, excessive water usage and lackadaisical waste management hardly makes it to any greenie’s get-away list.
The gem of a mid-sized beach resort is located south of Maya Tulum’s hotel zone, just beyond the bumpy, dirt road entrance of the Sian Kaan Biosphere–the largest protected area (around 1.3 million acres) in the Mexican Caribbean. This also happens to be a declared World Heritage Site
by the United Nation’s UNESCO program
Within CESiaK we found a completely off of the grid paradise, powered up by wind and solar, equipped with composting toilets and a rainwater harvesting system providing the water used for bathing and brushing teeth.
The charming, private cabanas (bedroom-sized tents covered by palm-thatched roofs) dispersed through the property’s snaking, jungle paths are elevated on stilts, providing roomy travel paths for iguanas, hermit crabs and blue crabs making their homes in the area adjacent to the Caribbean Sea‘s coastline.
No air conditioning, room fans or light switches here. (And trust me, I’d be lying if I said this discovery didn’t daunt me–Mexico in August is hardly the most comfortable time of the year.) But the ocean breezes that pour through our cabana deliver a surprisingly delicious respite from the Mayan sun and our nightly walk back to our cabana with battery operated lanterns provided at the reception’s front desk is romantic and fun. It’s complete, unadulterated wilderness and we are in love.
Local Food, Mexican-Caribbean Style
Our love affair doesn’t end, however, with the accommodations that only Emerson or Thoreau could’ve thoroughly appreciated. It deepens and grows with the local foodprepared with love from CESiaK’s local chef Fausto. We sample almost everything off of the restaurant’s menu devouring dishes like ceviche made with responsibly caught fish from local fisherman, ensalada de nopales (cactus salad), Sopa Azteca, guacamole, enchiladas and Maya Tulum’s best Margharitas. Dining to the rooftop view of the neighboring lagoon is also equally delicious.
We develop admiration for the on-staff guides who lead educational programs and low-impact excursions like lagoon kayaking and bird watching tours. Each guide has an expertise in some form or another. Like Rene who’s currently writing a guidebook about the local bird population or Jorge the charismatic ornithologist who has worked on restoring the local marine turtle population for over a decade–and who often sacrifices his sleep during nesting season.
One night Jorge gives us an educational talk about CESiaK’s turtle conservationefforts and allows us to accompany him on a nighttime marine turtle watch. Hours after retiring to our cabana he comes to wake us up. He’s spotted a mama Green Turtle making a nest and a separate nest of baby Loggerheads–no mom to be found.
In the pitchest of black (no lights or lanterns allowed), we trek out to CESiaK’s strip of private beach and help him record the giant Green Turtle’s shell before she barrels out to sea. We also set free the batch of baby loggerheads–who only have a 1 in 1,000 chance of surviving to adult age.
Watching the creatures leave land for their underwater destiny is like watching a piece of pre-historic history. It is beautiful–but overwhelmingly sad. We know that the fate of these baby turtles is grim but better then most. As we are reminded in our educational talk prior to the volunteer expedition, other less fortunate turtles born on more developed strips of hotel and resort beaches easily confuse the artificial lights dotting the developed strips for the moon. They end up walking away from the natural home they’re evolutionarily designed for, the ocean, thus making them more likely to be caught and killed by either a poacher or predator. Or killed even wandering onto nearby roads…
I had never known how much forming a personal relationship with a green-shelled reptile could re-ignite, inspire and motivate my take-action-ness. Not only for the turtles–for this entire environmental movement.
Eco-Tourism’s Real Purpose
CESiaK’s solar and wind power, composting toilets and rainwater harvesting wasn’t there solely for the sake of “being green”–like so many other eco-resorts I had been to touting little more than a vanity stocked with organic mini-soaps and where I left forgetting ecotourism’s real purpose.
Refreshingly, CESiaK’s educational programs, talks, and expert, eco-minded staff, remember to intelligently tie together the bigger picture. CESiaK exists for the turtles, the Yucatan Peninsula’s fragile, local, eco-systems and for us, the human race. As their website states, “Sian Ka’an faces the greatest challenge of conservation: to find a way to integrate human activities without compromising other forms of life contained within its boundaries.”