Eco Mexico- Earth Day article
By Sue McGarvie and Blaik Spratt, Clinical Relationship Therapists, Travel Journalists

Mexico in the past hasn’t been known for its recycling programs or environmental concerns. Recently that has been changing in a big way. Eco tourism, while not a new concept has really begun to take off.

As the planet celebrates Earth Day we went looking for examples of Green Mexico during a recent eco-minded trip to Tulum. Known as the “eco coast”, Tulum is home to a few large resorts and many small, six to 20 room boutique hotels. It is an area of authentic Mexican feel, lots more wilderness, and a bohemian, Jimmy Buffet laid back lifestyle. Many of the Tulum resorts have an emphasis on being green. Driven by the close proximity to the Mayan reservation and the indigenous “spirit led” Mayan Shamans, there is a movement afoot to respect the land. Tulum is in the heart of Mayan (or native Mexican) country.

This part of the Yucatan is home to beatnik travelers, authentic Mexican music and amazingly fresh and healthy food. The Eco Tulum is a chain of resorts made up by three villa hotels Azulik, Copal, and Zahra. The concept is to provide huts on the beach, and blend in as closely as possible with the natural environment. In fact, the whole resort fits into the landscape better than anyplace we’ve ever visited. There are no lights, no outlets (so leave your hair dryer at home), and a generator powers a ceiling fan during the day. The rest of the time you are feeling a bit like you are in an episode of Gilligan’s Island. If you are looking for an accessible, convenient, well groomed hotel- this isn’t it. Eco Tulum is the opposite of a “big box resort” and we heard again and again how much guests were looking to stay anywhere but at one of the typical all inclusives. Each hut was unique, the pathways were made of sand and the stairways to climb into the hut were not for anyone with a disability. Some of the stairs were downright scary, but they had muted lighting at night, and the area had a very safe feel. The rooms were beautiful, clean, entirely made of wood (including a huge bathtub made out of a hollowed log) and offered a beach that would rival anywhere in the world.

There are iguanas on your deck, and gekkos in your room. The pelicans, ospreys and other large sea faring birds cast shadows over the patio canopy beds all day. We were woken up by spider monkeys on the thatch roof along with the nocturnal Kinkajou (a monkey-like mammal). Dolphins are known to swim up and down the coast, and crocodiles are common in the neighbouring mangrove swamps.

Eco Tulum has now introduced a recycling program and had separate recycling boxes out for batteries. And you needed to bring batteries. The downside of rooms with no power is that you had to set up your candles in advance of going for dinner otherwise you returned to pioneer-like blackness. It is a way to get in touch with your circadian rhythm (we were in bed by 9 pm and up with the sun). We found the candle light too dim to read by, and would strongly recommend packing flashlights or head lamps for walking. The wind blows constantly from the sea, and the waves ranged from gentle to spectacular during the week long visit. With Tulum’s wild coastline, it would be an astounding place to be in a mild storm.

One of the most notable things about a movement to more eco understanding in the Yucatan is the appreciation of the native Mayan peoples. The eco Tulum resorts and it’s adjoining Mayan Spa had both a Shaman and holistic healer on staff. They use only organic products, and many of the treatments are done with natural plants picked from the spa garden just minutes before treatments. They are known throughout the area for their traditional Mayan Temascal. A Temascal is a native sweat lodge that has been used for both healing and ritual purposes in Mexico for thousands of years. Throughout the Temascal, the Shaman used different herbs in conjunction with red-hot stones, misting, chanting and singing to cleanse the body and spirit. It is an interesting two hour (or longer) process that is to leave you feeling re-born.

The municipality of Tulum has been putting in bike paths to encourage this form of transportation. Biking really is the way to get around eco Tulum. They have them for rent inexpensively all over. You can tour the Tulum ruins, or head off to discover one of the 3,000 cenotes (fresh water sinkholes) in the area. Think of a limestone lagoon that opens up into underwater caves as part of the underground water table. They are all different, and the one we visited was like a small, deep lake filled with fish. It reminded us of swimming in a fish tank. We were able to snorkel, and see the entrance to the underwater caves that are so popular with divers.

In keeping with the eco-theme of this trip, we opted to go on the highly recommended Sian Ka’an community tour. This tour absolutely made our trip. Sian Ka’an is a protected natural reserve of 630,000 hectares that crosses traditional Mayan land and is now a UNESCO heritage site as well as a wildlife reserve. Sian Ka’an Community Tours is an international success story. Many Mayan’s had been living in “reservation-like” communities in the jungle without a source of income. Many Mayans didn’t speak Spanish (only their local Mayan dialect), and despite vast knowledge of the jungle and various biospheres, they were just eeking out an existence. With the aid of a couple of non-profit NGO’s (including Equator Initiatives) that help indigenous peoples with sustainable development, the Mayan community near the Sian Ka’an reserve got together and started a business giving tours. They did intensive training in English, and business management. All of the money from this low cost tour ($99 per person including lunch, snacks, park fees, and transportation) stayed locally. It was a great education and we left feeling like we contributed to the local community.

Our seven hour tour included a guided hike through secluded jungle ruins. It followed with an adventure into an underground Mayan passageway built in 300 BC (where we got up close and personal with some fruit bats). We then went into the jungle on the Mayan reservation where we tasted edible roots, smelled copal bark, and burned dead termite mounds as a bug repellent. We climbed a 17 meter tower to observe all eight biospheres in the park before jumping into boats to re-enact a 1000 year old trade route crossing across two crystal clear lakes. After lunch we did a river float along a natural passageway through the grass savannah. We floated peacefully four kilometers an hour for a few kilometers at the edge of the mangrove trees- nursery to millions of baby fish. During our section of the river we saw vultures, a variety of multi-coloured song birds, and countless tropical fish. We ended the day with a snorkeling trip to a nearby cenote with an opportunity to hand feed schools of fish.

The final piece to our eco holiday came in a unexpected place as we made our way back up the coast to Cancun. We made a point to stay overnight at the El Dorado Royale resort in the Mayan Riviera to see their organic greenhouses. The El Dorado is one of those huge all inclusives and is changing the way produce is grown in Mexico. They currently produce over 1.5 tons of fresh vegetables a day. They supply all of their El Dorado and Azul chain of hotels, sell vegetables and herbs at reduced cost to employees and are now able to sell more to other neighbouring hotels. Besides the awe inspiring volume of food produced in the automated greenhouses, what is cool is that the growing medium is crushed up coconut shells and beach sand. The agronomist on staff is using abundant natural products to produce tomatoes the size of grapefruit along with a plenary of other herbs and vegetables.

Our eco holiday was affordable, personal, and left us feeling healthy (actually down a pound or two given the exercise and fresh foods). It was also a feel good story as we left Mexico feeling we had connected to the people, culture and land that is Tulum.