Mexico’s Riviera Maya has been known for its white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters and, as a result, clients traveling to the region may feel limited to traditional tourist activities such as scuba diving and horseback riding along its shores. However, those seeking a different vacation experience will be happy to know that various Riviera Maya tour operators are offering innovative ways to showcase the region’s wonders. Several beyond-the-beach activities, in particular, allow clients to give back to local communities.
English-speaking local guides are experts in the native flora and fauna of the region.// (C) 2009 Kanche
Playa del Carmen-based Dos Palmas Ecotours understands that there is a difference between a tourist and an experienced traveler and makes certain that visitors leave the Riviera Maya feeling like the latter. Through its Mayan Ceremonial Night tour, Dos Palmas ensures that local Maya families do not have to move far from their villages in order to find work. On this tour, clients interact with the native community to experience a temascal (ancient Maya sauna bath) and undergo an ancient warrior rebirth ritual.
To begin, a shaman describes how the Maya learned to work with and interact among nature and its elements. A purification ceremony takes place inside a low, circular rock wall, where participants summon elements of nature and, one by one, are fanned with incense. Guests then move to a sweat lodge, where they encounter preheated volcanic rocks before they are splashed with herbal tea infusions for light and strength.
Afterward, visitors walk to a nearby cenote for a refreshing, nighttime dip. Post-swim, a traditional dinner is prepared by the women of the Maya village. Clients feast on Maya-style chicken cooked with achiote, rice and handmade tortillas. The tour operates Thursdays through Saturdays, all for the price of approximately $75 for those staying in the Riviera Maya region.
When not immersed in performing ancient rituals, clients can discover ecotourism at its best in the Riviera Maya. As an ecotourism specialist, Cancun-based EcoColors aims to protect and preserve the unique ecosystems in the Riviera Maya while promoting travel to the area.
“Our company has 12 years of experience and, from the very beginning, we have given visitors the personalized attention of a biologist or naturalist guide,” said Kenneth Johnson, EcoColors general director. “We also allow them to visit exclusive protected areas with very few visitors, which enhances the wildlife experience.”
The Wildlife Safari Tour is a prime example of this type of service. The eight-day journey allows its guests to participate in conservation projects in secluded areas of the Maya jungle and to camp on protected ground. As educational as it is entertaining, a sample of the tour’s itinerary includes a night hike in the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, a snorkel with whale sharks and a kayak expedition to observe pelicans, flamingos and egrets. Tour dates vary across the summer, and the cost is $1,500 per person; a percentage of each guest’s fee is donated to projects that protect Maya nature.
In a similar fashion, Playa del Carmen-based Alltournative lets travelers engage in a mix of adventure and access to local Maya culture through its Jungle Crossing tour. In the span of a single day, travelers will ride in a four-by-four, all-terrain vehicle to Rancho San Felipe, a small Maya family community where one of the longest underground river systems in the world (the Nohoch Nah Chich cenote) is located. Here, a snorkeling adventure in the river system and caverns precedes a learning session about the local biodiversity found along the mangroves. What’s more, guests will get the chance to swim in Yax Muul, a natural pond, before filling up on a feast prepared by a local Maya family that has inhabited the jungle location for the last 30 years.
Clients who book with Alltournative will help sustain several ecotourism projects established by the tour company to promote the economic, social and cultural development of various Maya communities. Tours are available five days a week, with rates of $99 per adult and $89 for children ages 6 through 12.
Making sure travelers enjoy their vacation to the fullest while also giving support to the local people is a top priority of Kanche Civil Association, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization based in Cancun that invests its tour profits into socially oriented projects in Maya communities. Two of its programs, for example, involve tackling the severe waste management problem that affects the region, as well as creating a cultural center as a space for the promotion of natural and cultural richness.
“Kanche takes you to the community-based alternative tourism network called Puerta Verde. This network is made up of 14 community groups that are making a way of life through sustainable development,” said Jesus Mesa del Castillo Bermejo, Kanche director of communication. “When you visit these communities you contribute to the local economy not by assistance but by consumption because these are their own businesses.”
At the price of $700 per person, clients can take advantage of a four-day Complete route, a tour that combines all of Kanche’s single-day trips with a visit to seven Maya villages in the jungle and by the sea. Of special note is the up-close-and-personal interaction guests can enjoy with Maya locals. Highlights include a Maya musical concert of ancient legends; a night spent in a rural cabin of traditional architecture; an embroidery workshop; a traditional medicine demonstration with community women who create exceptionally well-made soaps and ointments; and meals hosted by local families in their own homes.
“Our tour is about getting access to Maya culture. Small groups allow visitors to truly share experiences with the local people. It’s not the same Maya culture you find in Maya ruins like Coba or Chichen Itza; it’s the present Maya culture that is still alive and trying to make a way of life,” said Mesa del Castillo Bermejo.
Interacting with the Maya community is also important to Community Tours Sian Kaan, a Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve-based tourism service alliance of three tour operators located in the area.
Fernando Garcia Flores of the Community Tours Sian Kaan said, “We provide the most valuable visitor experience in Sian Kaan not only because of the beauty of the area, but because of the friendly, knowledgeable and professional bilingual staff.”
The tour company’s itineraries — such as its Mayaking ($60 per person) and Muyil: Forest and Float ($99 per person) tours — offer boat rides and swims through ancient lagoon systems and provide one-of-a-kind experiences. By employing people from the community as guides, the company provides travelers with a genuine opportunity to engage in cultural exchanges with locals.
“We envision this company as a tool for local development and, for that reason, part of the profits of this company are dedicated to providing training to locals, diversifying the Maya livelihoods and overseeing several conservation projects,” Flores said.