Secret Mangrove Swamps of the Mayan Riviera

White sands and turquoise sea beckon seductively, but turn your eyes inland: the Yucatán peninsula holds some truly sweet – or at least less salty – treasures.

text & photos: MARCK GUTT  @gbmarck
       

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For most folks, Cancún means hammocks, total relaxation and Piña Coladas that seem to appear out of nowhere. And they’re not wrong! Mexico’s most popular tourist destination has worked hard to earn a reputation that is rightly a source of pride.

But for others, Cancún is a gateway to a world of underground rivers, pyramids camouflaged in the jungle and tiny fishing villages that not even Google Maps knows about. On this trip, we trade the rush of the waves for lesser known rivers and mangrove swamps in the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and the Mayakoba eco-tourism complex.

 

Heaven in the Jungle

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Sian Ka’an isn’t the most famous spot on the Mayan Riviera. In truth, if you saw an image of this biosphere reserve out of context, it could easily pass for an exotic destination in the remote South Pacific. And yet, this collection of islets and crystalline lagoons is nowhere near Tuvalu, Fiji or Samoa.
Less than 100 miles separate the Cancún Airport from the easternmost biosphere on the Mexican mainland, where local communities have formed co-ops that offer boat excursions, jungle treks and exhibitions on local culture. Two hours on the highway are all you need to reach this place, which as its Mayan name suggests, is “a gift from heaven.”
It’s nine in the morning, and a van waits to take us from the hotel area and into the jungle. We head south, to a place where wet T-shirt contests aren’t even a consideration.

Although it’s near Cancún, the central coast of the state of Quintana Roo has nothing to do with luxury resorts and all-night parties.  

Past Tulum, pristine natural surroundings take over, and the soundtrack changes from Beyoncé to the sounds of the jungle. Muyil, an ancient Mayan complex built 1,500 years ago, welcomes us with the caws of birds and the buzz of insects. There are no brightly lit shows or soccer matches. Instead, you’ll enjoy the jungle in its original state and one of the least-explored archeological areas open to the public.

“Welcome to the Sian Ka’an reserve,” says our guide, who introduces himself in Spanish and Mayan before offering to spray us with biodegradable insect repellent. “You’re going to need it because the bugs here are as serious as the sun.”

The ruins of the ancient city are an essential stop on the way to the much-awaited lagoon. The road runs through jungle in its purest state, past the vestiges of the Mayan complex, a pyramid known as El Castillo and plenty of surprises along the way. “What was that five-foot-long thing that just crossed the road?” I ask, petrified. “I didn’t see it,” says the guide, who seems more concerned by the time than any creatures on the ground. “Here, it’s common to see iguanas, herons, butterflies, monkeys, frogs… and snakes.” Nature in its purest, slithering state.

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Now on foot, we head down a trail into the jungle. Not far off, a boat is waiting to take us on to the Muyil lagoon and the turquoise waters of its channels. Along the way, our guide tells us about sources of local pride like the sapodilla tree, which produces a sticky resin used to make chewing gum, and melipona bees, a species without stingers that makes a honey with healing properties. The guide also recounts his interpretation of the reserve’s name. Amid the howls, trees and humid air, there’s a tower more than 50 feet tall. “It’s our lookout, our doorway to heaven,” he says. The structure looks rudimentary and a little questionable in terms of stability, but it’s impossible to come so close to heaven and let the opportunity slip by.
A boat waits for us upon our return. We head out in search of a canal that the Maya constructed more than 1,000 years ago to unite Muyil with the neighboring Chunyaxché lagoon. The route, which was designed to promote trade, now serves as a perfect swimming spot. The canal runs along nearly seven miles of mangrove swamp, where the water is temperate and the current ideal for enjoying the scenery at a leisurely pace.

Along the way, you can see stone constructions that the Maya used for customs on the trade route. And if you’re lucky, you’ll also see natural wonders like colorful fish, giant crabs and the occasional toucan.

 

Swamp Deluxe

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After our excursion on the canal, we approach another mangrove swamp, which may sound like a repeat of the morning’s adventure, but Sian Ka’an and Mayakoba are very different from one another. The former is a biosphere reserve where nature reigns supreme; the latter is an eco-tourism reserve noted for its luxurious amenities.
In fact, three of the top luxury resorts on the Mayan Riviera are found in this complex, located between Cancún and Playa del Carmen.
We are head to the Fairmont Mayakoba, a hotel with its own vegetable garden, bike paths, access to the beach, a spa with cacao-based treatments and enough pools to be able to choose a view of the sea, a view of the mangrove swamp or to be completely out of sight.

Guests of the resort can choose from a range of activities, including cooking classes and kayak rental. The dining options run from guacamole to sushi, from lobster to grasshopper tastings. Exotic, yes, but not unique: what makes Mayakoba truly special is its location, which lets you visit the jungle, the mangrove swamp or the corral reefs of the Caribbean in a snap.
It’s just a few minutes before sundown, and we have to catch the last boat of the day. The hotels that share the mangrove swamp also share a boat-taxi system. The idea, rather uncommon in the world of resorts, is that guests at one hotel can eat at the restaurant of another.
We’ve heard wonderful things about the Thai restaurant Banyan Tree and the Italo-Mexican fusion of the restaurant at the Rosewood, but our boat excursion has a different purpose: to greet the cormorants, monkeys and sea turtles who will be our neighbors over the coming days. in

 

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