The Maya Riviera along Mexico's Caribbean Coast is one of the world's most popular sand-and-sun destinations, and it just kicked into high season. As a visitor to the Maya Riviera, you're jumping into the middle of a complex ecosystem and culture. A little bit of preparation and sound information will help you minimize your impact on the land so you can return again and again to its unspoiled white sand, turquoise water, and crystal-clear cenotes. Here are four tips to keep in mind while planning your trip and while traveling, to help support the region and its people with more than just your hard-earned vacation dollars.
1. Switch your sunscreen
Many of the water parks along the Maya Riviera and tours to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve ask that you use only biodegradable sunscreen. At the cenotes, you'll be asked to swim without any lotions or creams on your skin at all.
Your average sunscreen is composed of a myriad of chemicals and compounds formulated to protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays. The FDA has deemed them commercially safe because human skin is strong enough to resist absorbing them, but over time they can poison fish, sea plants, and other delicate marine life. In fact, exposure to sunscreen has recently been shown to advance coral bleaching.Though sunscreens may advertise themselves as "sweat proof," they all inevitably sluice from your skin and into whatever water you are swimming in. Ever notice the oil slick in your hotel pool? These chemicals do not dissolve easily in water and eventually degrade the water quality and the local ecosystem's capability to sustain life. Your hometown pool and gym asks you to shower off before diving in -- why shouldn't you do the same in the Caribbean?
Your trip to the Maya Riviera will likely include a swim in one of the Yucatán's fantastic cenotes -- naturally occurring freshwater wells, unique to this region, connected by underground freshwater rivers to the ocean. Cenotes are the Yucatán Peninsula's only major source of fresh water. When you swim in them with lotion on your skin, chemicals inevitably enter the local population's drinking water supply.
The Maya Riviera receives more than 2.5 million visitors every year, many of them drawn to its rare marine environment -- a unique combination of cenotes and the world's second-largest coral reef. A few ounces of sunscreen multiplied by 2.5 million is equal to a substantial amount of harmful chemicals suspended in the ocean and freshwater. Every few ounces less helps ensure a more stable future.
Will everyone be using biodegradable sunscreen? Unfortunately, no, but Xcaret and Xel-ha water parks require it, and many tour operators request it. Xcaret gives out biodegradable formulas to those guests who don't bring their own; Xel-ha charges US$16 for it in their gift shop.
The label of a biodegradable sunscreen should state that it is 100% biodegradable (and only 100% will do). Xcaret and Xel-Ha have banned the following ingredients: octocrylene, benzophenone, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, hexyldecanol, dimethyl capramide, cetyl dimethicone, methylparaben, polythylene, propylparaben, and butylcarbamate. Check out the ingredients list of your favorite sunscreen.
Admittedly, biodegradable sunscreen is not easy to come by. Mexitan (www.mexitan.com) and Caribbean Sol (www.caribbean-sol.com) are two brands available online. Otherwise, your best bet is to search your local health food store.
2. Make room for sea turtles
The entire stretch of Caribbean beach along the Yucatán Peninsula is prime sea turtle nesting ground. As sea turtles lay their eggs in the sand at night, they are frightened and confused by light. Thus many hotels, resorts, and villages along the coast protect them with a "lights-out" policy after dark. None of the hotels in the Tulum hotel zone have 24-hour electricity, and they all turn out their lights in the evening. Similarly, visitors are discouraged from carrying flashlights on the beach or partying on the beach late into the night. Marine biologists and researchers monitor the beach at night to guard nesting turtles and to dig up their eggs and move them to a safe place for incubation. When the turtles hatch, scientists return them to their original nesting spot and release them there. If you wake up in the morning to find a large hole in the sand in front of your hotel, you know a turtle was nesting there the night before.
To learn more about sea turtles and local efforts to support their population, contact the Centro Ecológico Akumal (Akumal; tel. 984/875-9095; www.ceakumal.org; US$10 programs, free admission to exhibits) in small-town Akumal, 21 miles south of Playa del Carmen. Reserve a spot on a turtle night walk (www.ceakumal.org/1029.html) in the hope of spying on a mother turtle as she makes her nest; call ahead to find out if the center will be releasing any baby turtles during your visit. The main nesting and release season lasts from May to September. Centro Ecológico Akumal also has opportunities for long-term volunteers, who live in simple dorms in town and work at the center.
3. Renew your energy
For an opportunity to learn about renewable energy, check into the Tulum hotel zone -- specifically, the stretch of small-scale eco-hotels along Tulum's beach. All the hotels and businesses here generate their own power with either generators or a combination of renewable resources such as wind and solar power. As you drive through the hotel zone, look up on the inland side of the street and you'll see a few wind turbines spinning above. You'll also notice that this stretch of beachside road doesn't have electricity poles or power lines either -- a rare sight in today's world -- given that the Tulum hotel zone doesn't have 24-hour electricity. To keep the beach a safe haven for nesting turtles, the hotels as a group are committed to the aforementioned lights-out policy despite the modern inconvenience. Las Ranitas (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila KM 9; tel. 984/877-8554; www.lasranitas.com; from US$100 low season, to US$350 high season) uses both solar energy and a wind turbine to run a power generator; the hotel also maintains a rainwater collection and water recycling system. Dos Ceibas (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila KM 10; tel. 984/877-6024; www.dosceibas.com; from US$80 low season, to US$200 high season) runs completely on solar power. Moonlight provides the rest.
4. Be choosy with your tour company
Dozens of outfitters and tour companies offer a daunting variety of tours and excursions along the Maya Riviera. You can support the local people, culture, and villages by choosing a homegrown tour company that fosters a sense of responsibility toward this fragile land.
Alltournative (tel. 800/507-1092 toll-free from U.S. and Canada, 984/803-9999 in Mexico; www.alltournative.com) is the big name in ecotourism and sustainable travel in the Maya Riviera. One of the first companies to invest in the local culture and people, Alltournative partners with a Yucatecan village to create a unique opportunity for locals and visitors alike. You can visit the Mayan community of Pac Chen on the Maya Encounter tour (US$124). The day includes a tour of the Cobá ruins, a jungle hike near the village, zip-lining, rappelling, a blessing with copal incense, and lunch. With the extra income earned from tourism, Pac Chen is able to live with subsistence cultivation, without resorting to slash-and-burn farming in the surrounding jungle. Residents earn sufficient income in the village, so they don't need to abandon their homes for jobs in the bigger coastal cities in mass-tourism. Though the experience is a little different from stumbling upon a village on your own, it's is a great opportunity to learn about sustainable tourism and its benefits for all involved. Note: Alltournative asks all its guests to use only biodegradable sunscreen.
Community Tours Sian Ka'an (Avenida Tulum s/n, between Orión Norte and Centauro Norte, Tulum; tel. 984/114-0750; www.siankaantours.org) is a consortium of local guides and boatmen who run tours into the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, at the southern edge of Tulum. The guides grew up in Sian Ka'an and the neighboring villages, and share an innate knowledge of the flora and fauna that outsider tour operators simply cannot duplicate. Their groups are kept small, which means you get more face-time with your guide and ensures your group will have a smaller impact on the reserve compared to the mega-groups of 20 or more people. Choose from a snorkeling tour of the Punta Allen peninsula (US$110), a hiking and river tour in the interior of the reserve (US$95), or bird watching (US$75). Be sure to bring your biodegradable sunscreen.
Like Alltournative, Dos Palmas (Calle 11, cnr. of Avenida Constituyentes, Playa del Carmen; tel. 984/803-2462; www.dospalmas.info) lets you experience the customs of a secluded Mayan village. You can book a night tour to attend a traditional cleansing ceremony and temazcal. A guide picks you up at your hotel and drives you down a pitch dark, rutted dirt road into the jungle to the village of Dos Palmas. Here, you get the chance to meet a shaman and receive his blessing and his permission to enter the temazcal, a traditional sweat lodge, which represents the womb of mother earth. The temazcal experience lasts only a half hour (compared to the traditional 4-hour rite), but it's a fantastic way to gain an insight into Maya spirituality. You emerge from the temazcal reborn -- and then plunge into the village's spectacular cenote. The ceremonial night costs US$90 and includes a traditional Mayan dinner (complete with Coca Cola).
A multitude of thanks are due to Itzel Olvera of the Maya Riviera Destination Marketing Office for all her help in researching this article.