Along the coast road of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, about a two-hour drive from Cancún, are the remains of the Maya city of Tulum, which enjoys one of the best settings of any ancient ruin in the world.
This walled city sits on a cliff overlooking the bright blue Caribbean, facing the sunrise, and is so picturesque with its white sand beach and green palms that it is a regular poster child for Mexican tourism. With a population of up to 1,500, it once sheltered an important port and prospered between 1200 and 1500, dying when Spanish invaders brought Old World diseases that killed off its people. Like Chichen Itza, probably the most famous Maya site in the world, its Temple of the Frescoes also features Maya motifs such as Kukulkan, but its “El Castillo” pyramid was also a lighthouse where two torches helped guide ships through the reef.
Beyond Tulum are seven kilometers of bright white sand, ending in the 650,000-hectare Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Sian Ka’an is Mayan for “where the sky is born.” It spans 120km from north to south, nearly one third of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, and preserves mangrove lagoons, 23 Mayan sites and natural habitats that include nesting areas for sea turtles and many wading birds. Jaguars and puma are among the five species of big cat found here.
The reserve also extends out to sea to protect 110km of the world’s second largest barrier reef. About 2,000 people live here, mainly in the villages of Punta Allen and Punta Herrero, where a small fishing industry thrives. The Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an (CESiaK) offers eco-friendly cabins with wind and solar power and composting toilets-with-a-view. Cesiak also runs kayak, fly-fishing, canal and sunset tours where you can follow Maya trade routes dating back 1,200 years.
Pastor Caamal Uitzil is a trilingual Maya who works with the reserve’s Community Tours. As a child, he collected chicle in the forest with his family and is an authority on reading the signs of animals large and small, and on the birds of the jungle. Chicle will burn the skin badly if it drops on it and blind you if it gets into your eyes but Caamal shows off a natural antidote for such inflammation from the bark of another jungle tree, the chacá. “Some people call it the ‘tourist tree’ because its bark is red and peeling, like sunburnt tourists,” he jokes. Other trees provide food, drink, flavoring or pain relief.
As Caamal shows me how much of the jungle is a larder or medicine cabinet for the Maya, no fine words are needed to understand how important it is to preserve this great gift of nature.