The Hacienda Tres Rios resort was designed to blend in with the natural environment. // © 2011 Hacienda Tres Rios
Bulldozers and cement trucks are common sights along the Riviera Maya’s highway where it seems like the construction never ends. One might expect that the whole coastline would have been gobbled up by now — the jungle paved over and the sand covered with thousands of lounge chairs.
Fortunately, builders and biologists have come together to protect the Riviera Maya’s most precious assets: coral reefs and mangrove lagoons, as well as dense jungles harboring crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and more than 400 species of birds. Cities, villages and resorts are more conscious about recycling, composting and solar power. Environmental groups hold recycling classes and events. Hotels and resorts have become models of sustainability.
Mayakoba, the Riviera Maya’s poshest enclave, has received numerous awards for its efforts to protect the development’s 1,500 acres of jungle, lagoon and beach. The development’s three luxury hotels are also models of sustainability. The Fairmont Mayakoba employed an Ecology Manager and Green Team leader while the resort was under construction in 2006 and keeps biologists and naturalists on staff, constantly monitoring and improving the Fairmont’s eco-sensitivity. The Rosewood and Banyan Tree properties also have strict environmental rules in order to protect their surroundings.
The Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa undertook the task of creating an eco-friendly, all-inclusive resort in 2000. Ten years later, they evaluated their many programs and came up with more ideas. In September 2011, they introduced 99 new ecological rooms with low-energy air conditioning, solar water heating, water recycling systems, internal LED lighting and furniture made of wood from certified forests.
Located at the edge of the Riviera Maya’s most densely populated areas around Playa del Carmen, the Sandos resort is a refuge for agouti, coatimundi, raccoons and other creatures displaced by development. An on-site veterinarian cares for the animals, including the feral cats, which are multiplying everywhere. (Cats on the resort’s grounds are sterilized and vaccinated and have a special area where they get food and water.) A free-flight aviary protects scarlet macaws, cormorants and other displaced birds.
Nearby, Hacienda Tres Rios Resort, Spa & Nature Park continues to shine as an inspired model of carefully planned eco-awareness and sustainability. The resort’s innovative architecture and environmental practices include impressive energy conservation and water reclamation. Guest activities include kayaking in the resort’s three rivers, swimming in freshwater cenotes (underground caverns) and taking guided nature walks through the resort’s 326-acre nature reserve. Eco-consciousness is the operating principle here — from recycling bins placed all around the property to individual portions arranged in the buffet lines to keep from wasting huge amounts of food. Cultural activities help with the resort’s efforts to be a part of the larger community, as does the choice of cuisine — the resort always includes Yucatecan and Maya dishes in the meals.
The Riviera Maya’s older hotels are emphasizing eco-awareness as well, working to restore and preserve natural habitats. The granddaddy of all eco-projects in the Riviera Maya is Akumal, where Pablo Bush Romero, the Jacques Cousteau of Mexico, founded the Mexican Underwater Expeditions Club. For more than 50 years, nature lovers have taken residence at the Hotel Akumal Caribe at the edge of Akumal Bay, where sea turtles swim and nest in summer. In the past few years, the hotel has been making an effort to become even more eco-friendly, instituting recycling efforts for staff and guests. The hotel is now part of the Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative, with workshops for each department to help further efforts toward becoming an ecologically responsible resort.
The Tides Riviera Maya, which opened as Ikal del Mar in 2002, was among the first hotels to take advantage of the jungle setting by the sea. The original, indigenous habitat was preserved as villas with private terraces, woven thatch roofs and plunge pools. The villas were built in a way that makes them blend in with the natural settings. It’s so quiet here — even the resident spider monkeys seem to feel safe. A recent renovation added 11 luxury villas that exhibit the same careful planning. Guests can choose to use purified water provided in permanent glass containers rather than plastic bottles — an idea that could benefit all hotels one day. The area’s Maya culture is evident throughout the property, from the shaman greeting new guests with a Maya blessing to the resort’s enchanting Maya weddings on the beach.
Throughout the region, hoteliers have realized the importance of protecting the very essence of what brings tourists to their resorts in the first place: the unique natural beauty, local culture and environmental diversity of the area.