PUNTA LAGUNA, Mexico—Howler monkeys alert the world that it’s time to wake up. It’s 6 a.m. and the jungle around Punta Laguna is already illuminated by the blazing sun. We can see them roaming through the trees, vocally making their presence known. Mist rises from the lagoon that is part of a wildlife sanctuary. We light a camp stove and heat water for tea.
I’m with Detroit editorial photographer Jenna Belevender, whom I’ve dragged here likely beyond her better judgment. Last night, we slept in a van. Down by the lake. In the middle of the jungle. Pitch black by 7 p.m., the site seemed a bit eerie. Our guide navigated the bumpy roads to get in, and then slept atop the observatory post, in a hammock with a mosquitero “mosquito net,” of course. Mosquitoes, among myriad other insects, are mighty prevalent here. It was silent with the exception of the song of tree frogs, and we fell asleep around 9 p.m., as it would go for the next few days. The jungle never truly sleeps, but when the sun rises, it goes into full gear. And even in November, on the decline of the dreaded hot season, the Yucatán peninsula bakes under a perpetually scorching sun.
Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula makes up a large part of the ancestral home of the Mayan people. It is dotted with archaeological sites that exhibit the architectural prowess of the ancient Mayans as well as their superior grasp of astronomy and mathematics; it is said they are the culture that invented the concept of “zero.”
Below the surface, literally, is Mexico’s largest quantity of freshwater, in the form of underground rivers that pool up into thousands of cenotes: divine natural reservoirs that entice swimmers and divers alike and where ancient burial sites have been located. Adventurous (or let’s say bat-shit crazy, adrenophilic) divers follow these narrow ancient rivers from cenote to cenote. The waters are created by eons of rainwater filtration through the thin limestone crust that makes up the vast majority of the Yucatán’s geology, since it was hit with a giant asteroid, said to have been the cause of the extinction of dinosaurs 66 million years ago and which left behind the Chicxulub crater.
While the Mayan sites and cenotes have long been a major draw to the three states that the peninsula comprises, the region has become tourism-heavy since the ’70s, when Cancún, once a quiet fishing village, gained recognition on the international scene and developers ate up the opportunity, and the land. That’s happened across the Riviera Maya, a roughly 80-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline encompassing resort areas and beach towns, including Playa del Carmen and Tulum, which have both become synonymous with foreign and national party-goers, and where the accommodations and restaurants continue to test what their spending limits could be.
We came to camp in the jungle with a local campervan rental company called Van Balam, owned by our guide, Lutgardo García Escalero, and Omid Khayyam. Balam signifies jaguar in the local Mayan dialect. The campervans are equipped with mosquito nets, solar powered electricity (for plugging in your electronics), a gravity shower, camper stoves, and storage space. There is an organic compost bin to separate waste and return it to the pachamama. Even the dish soap is biodegradable, and there are reusable shopping bags on board. Khayyam and García Escalero are avid kitesurfers and nature lovers, and their goal is to share the beauty of the Yucatán with adventurous travelers in a way that doesn’t further exploit the region.
This all said, most Mexicans will tell you that camping in a van around Mexico is not advisable. Of course there are designated campsites in certain areas, but there are few regions as consistently safe and secure as Yucatán. It’s something I myself had reservations about, having spent several years living in Mexico.
“Mexico is not yet positioned in the world as a destination for campers,” Khayyam said. “However this region, being a funnel of travelers from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, already has a significant influx of adventurers. We ourselves feel like we are part of this tribe, and our goal is to fulfill the dream of many.”
We met Lut and Omid and picked up the van in Tulum, then headed out on the highway west toward the colonial city of Valladolid, stopping at the Nojoch Keej, an animal sanctuary in Nuevo Durango in the state of Yucatán.
Following a hurricane some years back, local man Don Manuel found a jaguar in the streets of his village. It had escaped from the flooded jungle that surrounds the small Mayan village. His neighbors were conspiring to kill it, as they were afraid it would attack humans. Being an animal lover and recognizing the majesty of the jaguar, he decided to capture it and keep it in safe housing until it could return to the jungle.
Years later, he’s now turned the land (ceded to his family following Mexico’s agrarian reform in the early 20th century) into an animal sanctuary for native species that are in threat of extinction. While disoriented or ill wild felines pass through from time to time, it’s mostly a refuge for the region’s over-hunted whitetail deer, ocellated turkeys, endemic plants and vegetables such as the rare chahuaik chile pepper, and several species of bees.
As we dine on handmade tortillas, omelets, pickled onions, habanero salsa and fresh pineapple juice prepared for us by his family, Don Manuel tells us that he had recently been approached by an “adventure” tour company from the Riviera Maya that offered 1,000 tourist visits per week if he and his family agreed to dress up in “traditional” Mayan clothing. He declined the offer. “We just want to live here with nature, respecting nature,” he told me. “We are happy to greet visitors who come for the right reasons.”
Our next visit was close, as the zopilote (vulture) flies: a cenote located about an hour from the rural highway, down a bumpy dirt road, and part of a roughly eight-mile cave system used for ritual practices among the Mayans for centuries. Needless to say, it’s not on the map. This may have been the most divine dip I’ve ever taken, and I’m from the Great Lakes region where cool, clear freshwater abounds.
Aurelio “El Bronco” Xiu, the property’s owner, discovered the underground oasis after seeing a jaguar emerge from a hole in the ground. Shimmying into the hole himself, with a rope and flashlight, he followed the course of the pitch-black cave to this sublime pool. Now open for visitors, the cave is equipped with steps and flood lights for optimal swimming pleasure.
Don Manuel and El Bronco are two examples of local people who are not directly involved in the region’s tourism explosion. Actually, many locals are not involved in it. They’ve been priced out of any potential accommodations: Beach towns like Tulum cater to upscale tourists who can afford resorts costing a minimum $300 per night, while local authorities and foreign investors continue to ignore environmental regulations and close off the beaches to all except high-roller guests. Tulum particularly has come under fire lately for its blatant disregard of the region’s ecology and the rampant corruption that permits such abhorrent behavior. The depredations are severe enough to have inspired a new documentary, The Dark Side of Tulum.
But the Yucatán Peninsula, sprawling across 76,300 square miles, is obviously much more than its resorts. That’s what Van Balam hopes to show, and it was certainly what we witnessed.
“To have the freedom to move around between the hundreds of hidden gems that are available on the campervan map, to be able to change plans in an instant,” says Khayyam. “To plan a day or two on the beach, then be given a tip about a hidden virgin cenote, pack the van and go. There are campsites across the peninsula where you can rent space and get food from local families, where you can wake up to the sound of the monkeys and birds; beaches where the reef is vibrant, and meet local people who share a piece of their lives with you, this is why we are here. And this is what we hope to share with others. Others who choose to be respectful of the epic place they are visiting.”
On our last morning with Van Balam, we woke up with the sun shining through the mosquito netting of the van’s open rear doors and glistening over Bacalar: a lagoon known as the lake of seven colors. This 26-square mile freshwater wonder was once a pirate looting ground, close to the border with Belize, and a place where you can find one of the greatest reservoirs of the Yucatán’s freshwater. We camped at the stunning Cayuco Maya property, about a 10-minute drive north of the village of Bacalar, where you can find rustic cabins and a kitchen. Occasionally there are yoga retreats, mostly attracting city-slicker Mexicans, especially during Semana Santa vacation, when the two weeks surrounding Easter see the place turn into a wild party zone.
But on this occasion, we were the only people there and found ourselves in pure tranquility. There’s a small kitchen run by some local women where our mouths were set on fire from the habanero pepper salsa, only to be soothed by fresh guanabana juice.
Heading down to the lake in the morning to take a refreshing dip in its calm waters, looking across into the pure jungle, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could be willing to let this natural paradise be lost to greed. It also made me grateful that the way I had been able to experience this region was through camping on my own terms: depending on the food and hospitality of the local people—and at the prices they dictated. It’s far better than the resort alternative.
But the resorts will only proliferate with the arrival of the proposed “Tren Maya,” the atrociously ecocidal high-speed tourist train set to tear through the jungle from Cancun into territory previously attainable only with some determination and at least a basic Spanish vocabulary. Even Bacalar is already seeing a rush to develop, with new luxury hotels being built in anticipation of the arrival of foreign dollars.
Cancún expanded with ease. Playa del Carmen and Tulum went up in smoke rapidly once Cancún had lost its bohemian appeal, a result of the never-ending search for the next “hidden gem.” And all we can hope is that someone with political power stands up against it. The Mayan people, whose ancestral name is so offensively emblazoned on the train’s destructive cars, have spoken out against having their territory slaughtered. So far, the Mexican government hasn’t listened.
Megan Frye is an independent journalist and translator living in Mexico City. She has a history of newsroom journalism as well as nonprofit administration and works with international and Mexican publications.
Photographer Jenna Belevender is based in Detroit and has a strong background in editorial, documentary, and environmental portraiture.