Thursday, August 25, 2011

Sustainable Development in the Mexican Caribbean

Untouched tropical jungle, pristine beaches, crystal-clear cenotes and the Mesoamerican Reef are the main attractions for millions of visitors to the Mexican Caribbean each year. Travelers flock to the Riviera Maya and Cancun to enjoy natural beauty, to relax, to discover their adventurous side or to delve into the culture of Yucatan Peninsula. The 1.3 million inhabitants of Quintana Roo (the state of Mexico where Cancun is located) rely solely on tourism for their income and to feed their families, tourists are not simply welcomed, they are a necessity for the survival of all. It is easy to say "more, more, more", more tourists, more mega resorts and more dollars in everyone's pockets today, but the reality is that the future must be taken into consideration.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." - Brundtland Commission, 1987

There are many definitions of sustainable development and tourism, but the basic principles are all the same. Take care of what we have today in order to maintain it for years to come while providing for the economic needs of the present.  Protecting natural resources and culture are vital to the long term survival of any destination and certainly Cancun and the Riviera Maya need to work towards continued long term success. Government organizations like SEMARNAT (the secretary of natural resources and the environment) and PROFEPA (federal agency for the protection of the environment) work together with non-profit organizations to ensure that the economic needs of the population are met while protecting the beautiful natural resources that attract tourists here to begin with.

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere

The Sian Ka'an Biosphere is a beautiful example of sustainable tourism in the Mexican Caribbean. The name "Sian Ka'an" is Maya for "where the sky is born". Established in 1986 as part of UNESCO's Man And Biosphere Programme, the federally protected Sian Ka'an covers approximately 1.3 million hectares of protected land and spans 120 km of the coastline of Quintana Roo. Within the biosphere there are 23 known archaeological sites, 103 known mammal species and 336 known bird species. The site is ideal for nesting wading birds and the endangered sea turtles that come to shore each year to lay their eggs. The variety of habitats found within the reserve is quite astounding, coral reefs and cenotes, dunes and wetlands, beaches and lagoons, mangroves and tropical forests. Tourists may visit and explore the region through guided tours, paddling kayaks through the channels looking for crocodiles or peering through binoculars on bird watching trips. CESIAK provides very basic, eco-conscious lodging inside the reserve, a place of peace to reconnect with the natural world. "Amigos de Sian Ka'an" is a non-profit organization devoted to education, investigation and conversation of the ecology not only of the biosphere, but of the entire coast of Quintana Roo. 

While for me it can be frustrating to see more and more concrete being poured in Cancun, I do hang on to hope that through the cooperation of government, private sector and non-profit organizations, we CAN preserve the beauty of Quintana Roo for many years to come while at the same time ensuring employment for the people of the state and profit for investors. It's all about balance, learning from past mistakes, making a commitment to improvements and to enforcing the laws, and a maintaining a bright vision of the future.

I would love to hear your thoughts, is choosing a resort that uses eco-friendly practices important to you? When choosing a vacation destination do you think about the environmental impact of your activities? What can be done to compel the tourism industry to do more for conservation and preservation of our natural resources?

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula

It is August, it is HOT in Cancun, it is most definitely a cenote weekend. Going to the beach is great (I'll probably do that too), but when it is demon hot I dream of crawling inside a cool cave and submersing myself in the clear, chilled waters that run through it. Eating a picnic lunch in the lush jungle. Snorkeling to check out the small fish slipping around the stalagmites and boulders. Watching the butterflies flutter by and listening to the birds calling and a chicken squawking nearby. Refresh.

Cenote Azul

A cenote (seh-noh-teh) is a natural limestone sinkhole that occurs mainly in Mexico in the
Yucatan Peninsula and in parts of Central America. The word "cenote"orginates from the Maya "dzonot" meaning "well" or "abyss". The ancient Maya placed great importance on the cenotes as the only source of potable water in a region with few lakes and almost no rivers. They drank from their waters and used them as a place to honour the rain god Chaac. The "Cenote Sagrado" at Chichen Itza is an enormous crater, valuable objects and human skeletons were found in its depths during early 20th century excavations leading to the speculation that the Maya may have practiced ritual sacrifice.

The jump off point at Cenote Cristallino

There are thousands of cenotes throughout the Yucatan, each with their own unique characteristics. An "open" cenote is found at ground level, appearing like a pond in the jungle. "Semi-abierto" cenotes are half open and half in caves, the result of a partial collapse of the limestone shelf. Some cenotes are only accessible by small openings in the surface that lead to large, gorgeous chambers characterized by stalactites and stalagmites formed over millennia. Still others are found deep inside dry caves, quite a distance underground. The water found in cenotes is rich in minerals and appears crystal clear and turquoise.

A catfish swims through the stalagmites

Given their beauty and history, cenotes are naturally an attraction for tourists to Cancun and the Riviera Maya. The curious will enjoy a trip to one of the cenote parks, with ample facilities like rest rooms, showers and restaurants. The adventurous may seek the lesser known cenotes marked only by cardboard signs on the side of the road or go scuba diving in the underground cave system. Many tour companies include a stop at a cenote as part of their day trips. Visitors to Chichen Itza may stop at Il Kil, one of the largest and most stunning cenotes in the region.

Cenote Il Kil

Any regular readers of my blog know that I am a cenote junkie, seeking out hidden spots on the weekends with my son and visiting the big parks as part of my "day job". I always bring my visitors on at least one cenote adventure. Being they are one of my very favourite things in Mexico, I ask of you this. Respect the cenote and it's connection to all the underground rivers, tying pueblos and cities for kilometers around and providing them fresh water. Do not use chemicals on your skin, you will be in the shade, no need for sunscreen and if you must use bug spray, please ensure that it is eco-friendly. Do not ever ever ever touch a stalactite or stalagmite, the oils on our skin will stop them from growing. If you bring garbage in, take garbage out. Leave no trace and the cenotes and the waters that flow through them will continue to provide refreshment, life and pleasure for years to come.

It's still a hot one in Cancun, who's up for a cenote adventure with me this weekend?

Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own

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