Yucatan's Natural Draw

New emphasis placed on area's many eco-adventure options

By: Lisa Jennings

Promoters of the Riviera Maya are stepping up efforts to market the region on the Yucatan Peninsula as a hot destination for eco-tourists.

The coastline of the state of Quintana Roo in Mexico is known for its uncrowded beaches, tropical forests, cenotes, underground rivers and ancient Mayan ruins. But several programs developed over the past few years have become popular attractions that also help protect the environment.

The Marine Turtle Protection Program, instituted in 2001, was created to care for the nesting grounds of endangered green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles along the Bahia Principe Tulum and Akumal coastline. So far, the program has protected an estimated 1,062 turtle nests, and freed an estimated 93,776 newly born turtles.

From May through September, members of the Bahia Ecological Foundation patrol the beaches to protect female turtles and relocate newly laid eggs to a protected zone, where they are placed underground for incubation. Later, the baby turtles are carried to a safe location on the beach with no reefs, so they can reach deeper water more quickly and avoid predators. Visitors can watch the release of the tiny hatchlings and their first attempt at sea life.

The turtle protection program has been so popular among visitors that another environmentally conscious tour was designed with tourists in mind: The Riviera Maya Coral Reef Protection program. Designed to preserve the reef along the coast by prohibiting development, which would eventually destroy the coral reefs, the program includes guided snorkel tours along the reef by members of the Bahia Ecological Foundation. A $10 donation to the foundation includes snorkel gear, a life vest and free T-shirt.

The Bahia Ecological Foundation has also begun offering guided ecological walks from the Tulum/Akumal tower, which offers panoramic views. The tour in both English and Spanish - includes a nature walk through the jungle to learn about indigenous plants, animals and insects, with a stop at a sweat lodge and traditional Mayan house. The walks are free, but a donation to the foundation is appreciated.

And another program, the Riviera Maya Recycled Paper Workshop, aims to reduce deforestation and to promote conservation by facilitating recycling programs at area hotels.