On Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, A Thoughtful Approach to Tourism Is Emerging

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It was a hot, bright afternoon in the Place Where the Sky Is Born. This is one of several translations of the Maya phrase Sian Ka’an, the name for a 1,080-square-mile biosphere reserve on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. A gentle current pulled me west down an ancient canal to the sea. The water was crystalline and just cool enough to be refreshing as I drifted past a centuries-old Mayan customhouse and the high white arcades of mangrove roots, convenient perches for darting purple martins, gray crowned cranes, and pink bromeliads with their spiky fronds.

It was nearly silent despite the fact that Tulum, a once-sleepy town that has struggled in recent years to navigate the challenges brought on by mass tourism, sat barely 40 miles to the north. Tourism in the reserve has grown too, but the process has been slower, in large part because of careful management by Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a cooperative that generates income for the local communities of Chumpón and Muyil while working with government agencies to restrict the flow of visitors. Community Tours Sian Ka’an is one of eight visitor-focused cooperatives operating in Maya Ka’an, a new destination in the state of Quintana Roo. It aims to generate local income across the Yucatán Peninsula without the cultural, social, and environmental damage that often accompanies large-scale tourism.

Quintana Roo, occupying the eastern third of the Yucatán Peninsula, is not an obvious place to seek out sustainable travel. Other states in Mexico have created solid infrastructures for such, particularly those with prominent Indigenous populations like Chiapas and Oaxaca. But Quintana Roo, recognized as an independent state in 1974, owes its very existence to the all-inclusive resorts of Cancún, founded four years earlier to drive economic growth in the region. Since then, the so-called Riviera Maya has extended south through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum, creating jobs but also degrading the environment and displacing Indigenous communities. It was an obvious, but also shortsighted, means of generating income in the peninsula. Until well into the 20th century, rubber tapping and plantations for the agave fiber called henequen had been the motors of the regional economy. The collapse of both industries left behind a substantial workforce with few opportunities close to home. Hotels, bars, and restaurants solved the immediate problem of economic growth while deepening problems of economic segregation in urban centers and depopulation in the rural interior. Even today, tourism in the Riviera Maya remains one of the few steady sources of income. Workers from across the Yucatán often lose touch with rural traditions once they’ve reached the city, says Jimmy Alexander Pat Chuc, an eco-tourism adviser at Síijil Noh Há, a mirrorlike lagoon set deep in Quintana Roo’s inland jungle. “When they go to Cancún,” says María Eugenia Yam Pérez, who runs logistics for Síijil Noh Há, “it’s out of necessity.”

Maya Ka’an, founded in 2014, was conceived to help obviate that necessity, to make staying home a viable option. As I drove from Sian Ka’an to Síijil Noh Há, it became increasingly clear why someone might make the choice to stay; if Sian Ka’an feels removed from the bustling hubs of the northern coast, then Síijil Noh Há, only an hour’s drive south, feels worlds away.

Síijil Noh Há is both modest and entirely self-sustaining. There are seven spartan cabins, a handful of hiking trails, a simple restaurant under a high thatched roof. Arriving there at dusk, I climbed a 40-foot lookout tower to watch the sun set over a string of shallow lagoons set into the canopy like jewels in a diadem. At dawn the next morning, I slipped into a kayak and rowed out over the lagoon’s pale blue waters, where a cenote—one of the fathomless, water-filled sinkholes that dot the peninsula—opens like a chasm just below the surface. Floating over that surreal cobalt pit set into the lagoon, I saw the sun come up over a low fringe of trees, reflected perfectly in the water.

After a breakfast of scrambled eggs and fresh tortillas, I drove 40 minutes north and inland to the village of Señor. There I spent a relaxed morning with a local cooperative called Xyaat, which focuses on Indigenous traditions that are rapidly disappearing in more urbanized communities. I met a traditional doctor who applied chilled aloe to my sunburn, learned about the uses of henequen, and met the remarkable 114-year-old Don Abundio Yamá, who told stories passed down by his parents of the Guerra de Castas, or Caste War, an Indigenous uprising that lasted from 1847 until 1901. Though often ignored by history curricula in Mexican schools, that war set the stage for the uprisings among sugarcane workers in central Mexico that, in 1910, exploded into a decade-long revolution: the crucible that forged modern Mexico.

The Caste War began, according to local lore, around the colonial village of Tihosuco, another 30-odd minutes from Señor. Abandoned in 1856, after the Mexican army blew the façade off its spare but graceful church, Tihosuco sat empty, lost to the forest, until the 1930s, when Indigenous families from a nearby town reclaimed its ruined houses from the jungle. The village, recently declared a Historical Monument Zone by the government, is home to four small tourism cooperatives, including U Belilek Kaxtik Kuxtal. That cooperative was established in 2003 by local farmer Carlos Chan Espinoza, with the aim, he says, “of getting people here to recognize our great cultural wealth as an opportunity for work.” Others, like Tihosuco Histórico la Casa de los Batabes, cofounded in 2019 by a young guide named Felipe Neri Dzidz Poot, offer bird-watching walks through the surrounding forests that end with a precarious descent down dangling tree roots into a cenote otherwise inaccessible to outsiders.

Few of these villages are equipped for luxury travelers. Many, though, are easy to visit on day trips from the pretty colonial city of Valladolid, about 60 miles inland from Tulum. There, locally owned businesses like the craft-beer-and-taco bar Idilio Folklore Cervecero and the charming three-bedroom hotel Verde Morada have popped up behind the pastel-hued façades along the Calzada de los Frailes. In the evenings, when the thick peninsular heat subsides, the streets surrounding the central plaza fill with stalls selling lechón (a regional specialty of suckling pig) and, for dessert, crisp batons of crepe batter stuffed with Nutella and cheese, called marquesitas.

An hour southwest of Valladolid, just off to the road to Mérida and shockingly close to the archaeological site at Chichén Itzá, sits the village of Yaxunah. With its 1,000-year-old ruins and pristine cenote in the center of town, it’s home to one of the peninsula’s most successful cooperatives. The community tourism program there has grown considerably since 2017 when René Redzepi hired several of the village cooks to prepare handmade tortillas at his Noma pop-up in Tulum. Despite its brush with Redzepi’s outsize fame, the village itself remains a low-key place, its broad central plaza lined by workshops where local artisans fashion chains and pendants from polished bull’s horn and weave cotton hammocks on wooden racks. At the simple community-run guesthouse, steps away from the cenote, a dozen women take turns managing the kitchen. While there, I tasted what may well be the peninsula’s finest cochinita pibil, the iconic Yucatecan dish of pit-roasted pork smeared with a rust-red mix of spices.

As much as any community on the peninsula, Yaxunah has seen firsthand the benefits that come from slow, conscientious development. Ruby del Rosario Canul Mex, the leader of the hammock-weaving cooperative, told me that craft and tourism have opened doors for women to take on a greater role in the village’s public life. Competition has been replaced by a culture of cooperation, says the tourism program’s director, Orlando Uicab Canul. The local income from community tourism more than doubled between 2018 to 2019 alone. Despite its success, Yaxunah still does not rely entirely, or even principally, on visitors for its survival. This has been a buffer of sorts against the immense challenges posed by COVID-19 in a country whose economy relies substantially on tourism.

Wandering through the ruins just outside of Yaxunah, Holga Tamay Canul, one of the stakeholders in the cooperative, told me that these programs aren’t just about preserving the past or opening it up to outsiders, but also about laying the groundwork for a more robust rural life in the present. “A lot of us look at our kids and think, We didn’t pay for an education for you to work in the fields,” she told me as we passed the gateway that 1,000 years ago would have connected this city to others. “Now we need to teach parents that studying agriculture and working in the country can also create earnings, not just culture.”

Some young people have already taken that lesson to heart. On the evening I spent in Tihosuco, Poot, who developed the idea for Tihosuco Histórico during his undergraduate studies, took me on a nighttime walk among the colonial houses that dot the village’s compact center. The cooperative now employs 12 young guides, helping to cover the cost of transportation to larger towns for their education and inculcating a knowledge and pride in a regional culture and history that the Mexican state often treats as secondary.

We finished our walk in Tihosuco’s plaza, below the damaged church, the cavernous gap left by its missing façade illuminated against the black sky. “Our community is small, yes, but if we keep thinking of this as just a small village, then nothing will ever change,” Poot says. “Our job is to recover our history and to find a way to support people here.” He glanced up at the statue of Jacinto Pat, one of the great Mayan heroes from the Guerra de Castas. “But I think we have to play by our own rules.”

This article appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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