Rio LagartosA.G. Luke & J.D. DurandText & photos by A.G. Luke & J.D. Durand

Cancun pulsates and permeates Mexico’s Caribbean coastal region and excursions emanating from this exuberant tourist Mecca allow nature, culture and adventure to merge into an endemic eco-active experience.

For an interactive aquatic encounter we visited the Aquarium at the Plaza La Isla village complex along the Hotel Zone. A scuba diver in a tank greets you both visually and verbally from behind the glass with the aid of a special sound system. After viewing the Caribbean reef marine life presented, we experienced the contact pools where you can pet and feed turtles and small stingrays. “It feels like a creamy suede surface,” said a German tourist as he passed his hand along a small stingray gliding through the water. The gentle creatures feed from your hand, unlike the sharks that may prefer to feed on your hand. However, one can don scuba gear and be securely submerged into a shark tank. Spearing food on a steel rod, you watch the predators pass by the opening of the enclosure as they swiftly grasp the bait with their razor-sharp teeth, their black eyes concealing their intentions. To interact with a more amiable mammal, you can swim with dolphins in their designated pool area.

If you wish to extricate yourself from the captive enclosures of the eco-urban environment, just head due south along the coastline. Three hours from Cancun on the northern coast of the Yucatán, Rio Lagartos (Lizard River) offers a biosphere home to one of the largest flocks of flamingos in the western hemisphere. Signs warn of the essential quietude to be employed as you make passage into the wetlands recognized internationally by the United Nations. Many visitors are only familiar with the gaudy, long-legged lawn ornaments. However, seeing them skim across the surface of the water as their 1.5-metre wingspan slowly opens, I could really appreciate them as they became airborne. They survive and thrive here on the northern shore of the Yucatán Peninsula where their numbers exceed 8,000. This is an important reserve for pink flamingo nesting where they feed and breed in the salt pans. The pink colour of the water is caused by the prolific growth of diminutive crustaceans, while the flamingos’ pink plumage is derived from a diet high in alpha and beta carotenoid pigments found in the algae. “The mud here has medicinal qualities and is good for your skin,” our guide Miguel told us. As soon as the women in our group heard this, they proceeded to slather it on their bodies. Anticipating the benefits of a therapeutic mud treatment, I found I was surrounded by a tribe of eerie-looking entities encrusted with grey masks and body suits.

Driving further east along the coast we arrived in Holbox (Black Hole), part of the Yum-Balam (Lord Jaguar) biosphere. Our group boarded a boat and headed out 48 kilometres into the Yucatán Channel where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea merge. Here we spotted a pod of whale sharks which, individually, dwarfed the length of our 4.8-metre vessel.

Situated 36 kilometres south of Cancun is Puerto Morelos. Here you can participate in a natural eco-active adventure at one of the region’s oldest coastal communities. A century ago hardwood was exported from the region but today, Puerto Morelos is known for its varied lodgings and seafood restaurants.

Puerto MorelosA.G. Luke & J.D. Durand

EcoColors Tours will provide bilingual guides/biologists organizing tours of the region’s bio-diverse eco-system. Upon arrival at the Ojo de Agua (Water Hole) hotel/restaurant, you select your sea kayak and snorkeling gear. One of these springs is actually located at a nearby mangrove forest. These freshwater holes connect the precious mangrove eco-system to the reef and are popular spots to beat the heat and get refreshed.

Directional signA.G. Luke & J.D. DurandAs I balanced the shallow two-seater sea kayak for my cohort to get settled in, it quickly became apparent that our pseudo-rhythmic paddling was more of a slap-stick, or rather slap-paddle routine, as we negotiated the modest waves to the reef. Following our paddle, splash and clash technique, we arrived a few hundred metres out at the designated eco-friendly buoys and tied off, where we proceeded to take the plunge into the tepid teal tinted water.

The 960 kilometres of coral reef which constitutes the Great Maya or Meso-America Reef traverses four countries. It is the second largest reef in the world and is home to more than 400 species of marine life. Mayan traders used the watery lanes inside the barrier reef as they travelled along the scenic seastrand. The reef is part of the national park where you can view the multi-hued fish and coral in this natural aquarium that is teeming with truly tropical treasures. Afloat and adrift, the reef’s breakwater current carried us less than a metre above the craggy clusters of colourful coral.

A short distance south from Puerto Morelos is the Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Garden. The verdant tropical garden exhibits trees, plants and flowers of the Yucatan. Eco-Colors Adventures guide and founder, Kenneth Johnson, led us from our aquatic activities into a terra firma tour. All his capable guides are biologists working in research and protection projects in the Mayan World. They interpret what nature reveals in this forest sanctuary in an entertaining and informative manner. To ensure a happy and healthy hike we were told to avoid contact with the Chechem tree. “Don’t touch the tall slender tree, it is poisonous and can give you a fairly nasty rash,” Johnson told us. Strangely enough, the Chaca tree that provides the antidote is immediately (and conveniently) adjacent to it, offering nature’s neutralizer.

Rainforest ChicleA.G. Luke & J.D. DurandAnother tree identified has been instrumental in creating a popular product. Zapote, known as the Achewing gum tree@, produces a milky white sap (sicté). American entrepreneur James Adams converted the chewing gum (chiclé) into a commercial product in the 1860s. Adams added a letter at the end and developed what is internationally known as the Chiclet.

We departed for our home base of Cancun and passed through small towns where a smattering of vividly pastel-hued homes provided a refreshing eye-opener. Between the local towns are sections of the road that are dotted with vendors displaying colourful handcrafted wares.

Roadside VendorsA.G. Luke & J.D. DurandIt is encouraging to see that the region has surpassed that of a strictly sun ‘n’ fun destination. With 25 per cent of the Mexican peninsula land protected and preserved, people can actively engage in eco-friendly encounters in both urban and natural environments.

The 411
• EcoColors Tours: www.ecotravelmexico.com
• Interactive Aquarium: www.aquariumcancun.com.mx
• La Isla Shopping Village: www.laislacancun.com.mx
• Ojo de Agua: www.ojo-de-agua.com
• For further information contact the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau www.cancun.info

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