Don’t give in to the call of the stun­ning beaches in Mex­ico’s Yu­catan. Head in­land to stay with the lo­cals for an un­for­get­table ex­pe­ri­ence.

Friday - - Contents -

Af­ter din­ner, Juanito and I sit talk­ing. Out­side is all the clam­our of the jun­gle night. We talk about the big ho­tels on the Yu­catán coast, an hour away by bus. Had he ever been in­side one of them?

Juanito is 64 and has twice been pres­i­dent of the vil­lage tourism co­op­er­a­tive, but he shakes his head. ‘I’ve heard about them from lo­cal peo­ple who go and work there, but I’ve never vis­ited.’

The Yu­catán penin­sula’s east coast is one of the world’s big­gest beach des­ti­na­tions, at­tract­ing more than five mil­lion vis­i­tors in 2015. It stretches south from Can­cun (‘nest of snakes’ in Mayan) for about 130km to Tu­lum, and much of the coastal high­way is lined with mas­sive ho­tels, each at­tempt­ing to outdo the rest in grandios­ity: from min­i­mal­ist chic to mon­u­men­tal mock Maya, a plas­ter pas­tiche that might im­press 10-year-old In­di­ana Jones fans.

The irony is that on these colos­sal sites, where ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to mine the lo­cal her­itage is taken, the near­est vis­i­tors get to real Maya cul­ture is in the unseen room cleaner. And that per­son has prob­a­bly trav­elled from a vil­lage in the jun­gle like the one where I’m stay­ing.

Juanito’s house, called Takkbil’ja, near the town of X-Can, does not much re­sem­ble those palaces. There are two build­ings, one with a tin roof and the other thatched. There’s a flock of noisy chick­ens. And then there is Juanito, a wid­ower, and his grand­chil­dren, who he is bring­ing up. They all sleep in ham­mocks un­der the thatch. And now there is a room for vis­i­tors – of which I am the first.

The gue­stroom has bright blue walls, a cup­board and a big bed. This is the hum­ble start of an am­bi­tious ef­fort to bring the ben­e­fits of tourism to the real Maya, to liv­ing peo­ple who have seen scant re­ward from an in­dus­try largely owned by out­siders.

I look at that bed with its new sheets. ‘Juanito, have you ever ac­tu­ally slept in a bed, rather than a ham­mock?’

He laughs. ‘Yes! I once stayed in a five-star ho­tel in Aca­pulco. The

gov­ern­ment sent me there to train in tourism. It was amaz­ing. Any­one could or­der food to their room – even in­dige­nous peo­ple.’ The com­ment hangs in the air. ‘And the bed?’ He chuck­les rue­fully. ‘I tried it for two nights and it de­stroyed my spine. I had to put my ham­mock up.’

I en­joy a men­tal image of the room ser­vice per­son’s face. ‘You know, that is a beau­ti­ful bed,’ I say, point­ing across the room. ‘But I think I’d pre­fer a ham­mock.’

His face lights up. I think I’ve just risen a few notches in Juanito’s es­ti­ma­tion.

Next morn­ing at dawn, we head off for a bird­watch­ing walk through a part of the vil­lage’s 22,000 hectares of jun­gle. Juanito’s en­thu­si­asm lev­els would match any 10-yearold’s. We spot spi­der mon­keys and lots of birds. We don’t see any aluxes, a kind of guardian spirit of the for­est that Juanito has warned me about. ‘Once I was hunt­ing too much and they came in the night and told me to stop. I never hunted since then.’

He points out sev­eral use­ful plants: the chew­ing gum tree, the orchid whose roots help kid­ney dis­ease, and the tree whose branches run with wa­ter when cut. When we re­turn, we find En­rique, lo­cal or­gan­iser of the ‘ham­mocks and break­fast’ pro­gramme

wait­ing, with break­fast.

‘The big ho­tels do pro­vide jobs,’ En­rique tells me, ‘but they are the me­nial ones. The work­ers are bussed in from vil­lages and fam­i­lies of­ten suf­fer: chil­dren and old peo­ple are ne­glected, and there is a lot of al­co­holism. What we want is an al­ter­na­tive that lets peo­ple stay in their vil­lage and gives the visi­tor gen­uine con­tact with Maya peo­ple.’

This is not only an op­por­tu­nity for eth­i­cal tourism, though: the vil­lage has some­thing spe­cial up its sleeve. Af­ter break­fast, we meet Ed­win, cur­rent pres­i­dent of the tourism co-op, and head out into the jun­gle.

Some of the big at­trac­tions of the Yu­catán lie be­low its sur­face. The lime­stone is rid­dled with cracks and cav­erns, but its big fea­ture is gi­ant col­lapsed sink­holes, called cenotes. This sub­ter­ranean world was deeply sig­nif­i­cant to an­cient Mayans: it con­nected them to the rain de­ity Chaac and pro­vided drink­ing wa­ter in a land­scape with­out rivers or streams. Cenote swim­ming is big in Yu­catán. Many sites have been sani­tised and turned into Dis­ney­land-type pools, but that is not what I am go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence. We wan­der along a jun­gle path and drop down into a deep chasm where spi­der mon­keys send shiv­ers through the canopy. ‘Our an­ces­tors used this place for wa­ter,’ Ed­win tells me while one of the group per­forms a short cer­e­mony to grant us ac­cess to the sub­ter­ranean realm.

Then we pull on head­torches and pass through a dark en­trance be­tween the roots of a gi­ant tree. Steps lead down to a cav­ern where tiny blind cat­fish haunt pools of clear wa­ter. From there, we fol­low a rope into a chest-deep river and swim, our lights flick­er­ing across banks of sta­lac­tites, all glit­ter­ing with crys­tals. Af­ter a few hun­dred me­tres we reach a dry cave where we sit in dark­ness, med­i­tat­ing for a few min­utes.

‘When we first ex­plored this place,’

Some of the BIG AT­TRAC­TIONS of the Yu­catán lie BE­LOW its sur­face. The lime­stone is rid­dled with cracks and cav­erns, but its big fea­ture is GI­ANT COL­LAPSED SINK­HOLES called cenotes

says Juanito, ‘there were 18 of us with one torch – and most couldn’t swim!’

My in­tro­duc­tion to Yu­catán tourism, grass­roots-style, has be­gun. On my next stop, I get a swift les­son in what tourism can mean here. On the coast near Tu­lum, I meet Ta­mara Adame , a diver who wants to show me a par­tic­u­lar cenote. It’s on a busy track be­tween ma­jor ho­tels and is threat­ened by the pro­posed con­struc­tion of a 3,000-room re­sort com­plex.

This cenote is not spec­tac­u­lar, but it is a nurs­ery for small reef fish who later slip through nar­row tun­nels into the open sea and grow to be the big spec­i­mens that thrill snorkellers and divers. We see tar­pons, mo­ray eels and schools of tiny fish.

‘What the devel­op­ers fail to see,’ says Ta­mara, ‘is the big­ger pic­ture of the en­tire ecosys­tem.’ By bring­ing divers here, she main­tains a pres­ence and mon­i­tors any at­tempts to start con­struc­tion.

En­rique gives me a lift to my sec­ond Maya home­s­tay, Ki­ich­pam Kaax, near the small town of Chun­huhub in the re­mote jun­gle of cen­tral south­ern Yu­catán. Its founder, Damian Gomez, was a bar­man in big Can­cun ho­tels for 17 years. He ex­pe­ri­enced the dam­age mass tourism can in­flict: sink­ing into al­co­holism and watch­ing his home com­mu­nity slowly die. Even­tu­ally he re­signed, bought a hectare of land back home, and started build­ing. Now there is a busy restau­rant and a string of com­fort­able cab­ins on a lovely or­ganic farm, of­ten staffed by for­eign vol­un­teers.

Damian turns out to be a man who re­ally un­der­stands what the more cu­ri­ous visi­tor might want. Very early on my sec­ond day, we jump into his pick-up and rat­tle off to an area of thick pri­mary jun­gle. Af­ter a half-hour trek, we be­gin to wind up a strange little hill in this other­wise flat land­scape. It gets steeper and steeper un­til we are grab­bing at tree trunks and lianas to haul our­selves up.

Don Severo is a 75-year-old CHICLERO, or chew­ing gum col­lec­tor. Once, the RESIN of the wild chi­cle tree was the ba­sis of all GUM, but AR­TI­FI­CIAL SUB­STI­TUTES have largely re­placed it now

Only as we ap­proach the sum­mit do I no­tice that the path is ac­tu­ally a flight of stone steps that has al­most been buried in jun­gle leaf-fall. Damian grins. ‘Yes. This is an an­cient pyra­mid – one of many. No ar­chae­ol­o­gist has ever ex­plored this place.’ We emerge on the top, a small stone plat­form with a cen­tral hole now choked with veg­e­ta­tion. All around are mag­nif­i­cent views of rain­for­est: rags of cloud hang in the tallest trees, a tou­can flies over and a dis­tant tree shud­ders as a gang of mon­keys feed. We stand in awed si­lence, watch­ing the sun rise.

On our route back we pass through very tra­di­tional-look­ing vil­lages: most houses still neatly thatched. At one house we stop to buy rare and de­li­cious melipona honey, made by a stin­g­less Yu­catán bee. We meet Don Severo, a 75-year-old chiclero, or chew­ing gum col­lec­tor. Once, the resin of the wild chi­cle tree was the ba­sis of all gum, but ar­ti­fi­cial sub­sti­tutes have largely re­placed it now. ‘There used to be hun­dreds of us chi­cleros,’ Don Severo says. ‘I would spend weeks out in the jun­gle with my fa­ther.’

He takes us into the jun­gle, iden­ti­fies a chi­cle tree and, with as­tound­ing agility, shins up it to make a se­ries of swift cuts to the bark with his ma­chete. Leav­ing the resin to gather, we make our way to a nearby cenote, called

Ja’am Tu’un. Af­ter an ex­hil­a­rat­ing leap into the deep turquoise wa­ter, I clam­ber out up a rick­ety bam­boo lad­der. I’m just dry­ing off when a party of lo­cals ar­rives: they are stu­dents from the nearby vil­lage and one of them in­vites us back to the fam­ily home.

It’s the fi­nal hours of the Day of the Dead cel­e­bra­tions and the house is busily pre­par­ing to re­ceive vis­i­tors. The women are mak­ing mas­sive meat pies un­der the thatched roof, while the men get the fire pit ready. Af­ter sun­set, a Maya priest ar­rives to say prayers. Friends and neigh­bours gather; lol­lipops are handed out, then cof­fee in gourd cups fol­lowed by plas­tic beakers hold­ing boiled pump­kin and sugar cane. Older women in tra­di­tional em­broi­dered smocks ap­pear.

I sit back and en­joy the scene: the ta­ble laden with pies, the chat­ter of chil­dren, and the dogs and chick­ens hop­ing for crumbs. The peo­ple’s faces in pro­file carry echoes of an­cient stone re­liefs on lost tem­ples.

I re­call some­thing Juanito had said, about how the Maya were never de­feated by the con­quis­ta­dores, that they just re­treated into their jun­gles and waited. Now I see what he meant. The real Yu­catán is still there, hid­den from the con­crete jun­gle of the coast, the so-called Riviera Maya, and it’s wait­ing to be re­dis­cov­ered.


Ek’ Balam, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site in Yu­catán, was the seat of a Mayan king­dom

Cul­tural tra­di­tions and rit­u­als are kept alive by Mayan dance troupes

Af­ter ex­plor­ing ruins, vis­i­tors can en­joy a tour of a rel­a­tively mod­ern street in Merida, the largest city in Yu­catan

Yu­catán is a trea­sure-trove of pris­tine beaches, street per­for­mances and nat­u­ral won­ders like cenotes (far left) and spi­der mon­keys (be­low)

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