Going Natural along the Riviera Maya

Cancun is stunning and stark at the same time. I was there for two weeks in December, and most of my views of the beach were from buses to and from the United Nations conference on climate change. But I did get out one day, and headed south to the Riviera Maya.

My guide for the trip was Cesar Barrios, a biologist with the group Amigos De Sian Ka'an. It's a nonprofit that runs a nature preserve in the area. Before we visited the wilder little sister of Cancun (meaning less developed, meaning fewer resorts, for you spring breakers) we stood on a patio in the downtown shopping district. From there you see nothing but pure, white beach and blue sky.

Barrios told me this was all mangrove forest before the government decided to develop Cancun as a tourism haven about 40 years ago. The gnarly, viney, marsh trees were mostly cut down because hotels wanted to build right on the sparkling turquoise water. But that meant when Hurricane Wilma swept through in 2005, there was nothing to hold the beach in place. It washed away. And the government has had to spend millions to haul in new sand from other areas.

We drove from Cancun along a the one coastal highway. You don't see as many hotels up close here, but giant roadside signs belie mega-resorts set back from the road.

Barrios, an avid SCUBA diver, moved to Riviera Maya area around 1990. He says back then there were less than 2000 hotel rooms. Today, there are almost 40,000 - a 20-fold increase. And it's expected to double again in the next decade. Where we stop for lunch, though, feels old school, and it is. The Akumal Dive Shop has been around about 30 years as a resource for snorkeling, diving, and fishing.

Its main attraction is a nearby sea turtle nesting site. The site is called Centro Ecológico Akumal, and it "helps to create models for sustainable tourism development in the Mexican Caribbean, through research, education and outreach."

Turtle-watchers and reef hounds don't even need a boat. They can swim to the sites from the beach.

After lunch we headed to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Our van turned off the highway and down a jungle path to a marshy waterfront. Barrios said this was what much of Cancun's shoreline looked like before development.

Motorboats were waiting to take us across the shallow lagoon to a 1,200-year-old Mayan canal.

Traders dug this channel for carrying goods in narrow boats.

But we got to play in it, letting a stready freshwater current carry us along the waterway. We floated past tall mangrove trees, orchids and bromeliads, and ended at a boardwalk with a view of the vast, marshy grasslands.

Our boats were driven by native people who live on the reserve. I asked one whether he wishes more people took eco-tours like this. He actually said no. "Because we need to protect this place. The number of people coming now is probably even too many." It's a very different mindset than the local developers, and residents hoping for more jobs. But when I thought of having the clear, quiet lagoon, the canal, the discovery of a wild orchid all to myself, I could see his vested personal interest in tempering development.

Back on shore, Cesar Barrios pointed to the areas his group is working to preserve. It was a long, hard battle to get the Sian Ka'an Biosphere protected. And while his group pushes for more land to be reserved, they also understand the need to push for a more sustainable model of tourism development. The hotels won't stop being built, but they can be built smarter, he said.

You can hear Eve Troeh's report for Marketplace Morning Report here.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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