Where the Sky is Born

Isolated silvery beaches, dazzling wildlife, impossibly laid-back locals and cool cocktails. Nic Havers discovers a sensual, earthly paradise that is Mexico's far southern Caribbean coast.

By Nic Havers on 01 August 2005 in Travel Articles

I would never have fallen in love had I not visited the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Our eyes met across a crowded room, mine and a beautiful, svelte stranger, our gaze locked for unspeakable moments ... and we knew. My British sang froid melted away by Latino spirit. Together, we travelled south from Cancun, my romantic/adventurous inner-self drawn to the wilds known in Mayan as "where the sky is born".

Southern Quintana Roo has the power to bewitch: passion, love and beauty is everywhere, around every corner. A 90-year old woman hands me a red paper heart as a gesture of welcome, the mariachi bands regale lovers with their tunes, the voluptuous strands beckon for two sets of footprints on their virgin sands.

Too many tourists confine themselves to the busy northerly resorts of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, when a fast highway could take them to traditional Mexico. Just two hours south lie untold coastal gems.

The jewel in the crown is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. Sian Ka'an means "where the sky is born" in Mayan. It's reached by a 15-km dustbowl road south of Tulum. Biospheres were developed in the 1970s by UNESCO to protect natural areas and wildlife, combining scientific research with sustainable development for locals.

Sian Ka'an consists of 1.3 million acres, with 62 miles of coast protected forever in its pristine condition, including the second longest reef in the world, beaches, a lagoon, savannah and rare wildlife. It is home to a thousand fisherfolk. There are no hotels, no swimming pools or malls, just glorious scenery.

Boca Paila Camps is a small-scale eco-lodge run by the Centro Ecologico de Sian Ka'an, a group involved in research and education programmes funded by two tours. Our `room' there is a capacious tent-cabin, raised on stilts and reached by sandy lanes winding through the palm forest. There is no electricity; instead, just two lanterns.

For its simplicity, it has a high level of comfort yet feels part of the jungle. On the verandah, there is a hammock made for two. We drink in the view -- below us, the Caribbean Sea is coloured the most exorbitant turquoise, not outshone by the beach.

Our feet sink deep into white, quartz-rich sand that feels as soft as flour. This is the true romantic ideal of nature unsullied by man: Robinson Crusoe beaches so vast you get lost on them, lush jungles, only howler monkeys, the odd crocodile and exotic birds for company.

At noon, we eat at the lodge's restaurant. Xikilpaac is a traditional Mayan recipe, a thick, brown paste, consisting of seeds of pumpkin, boiled-down tomatoes, oil and coriander, served in an old stone pot, eaten with tortillas. Its flavours are intense and wholesome. My fingers sting from the lime juice that I squeeze onto the tortillas.

I see someone I immediately assume to be the guardian of the lodge, taking a siesta. He has skin burnt the colour of mahogany, wears a panama hat and a bright Chiapecan jadestone hangs round his neck. A Spanish guitar rests at his feet and beside him is a dog, also asleep, among tables painted red, blue and yellow. On the walls are flora and fauna charts and maps of the coastline.

Steps lead up to a roof-top observation point, with views across the inland lagoon, its waters swimming-pool blue and jig-sawed with mangroves; on the seaward side runs the beach. Neither man nor dog stirs as I pass. Their presence epitomises the way of life here - that of the pleasures of nature, simplicity and absolute relaxation.

David Reynoso is our knowledgeable naturalist guide. He takes us along a path to a speedboat. We sail out into the vastness of the lagoon. David cuts the engine close to a reed bank and he points at a baby crocodile.

We drift into a maze of mangroves and jade-green water. This is an ancient Mayan trading channel, used as a trade route 800 years ago, linking the three-pyramid city of Muyil with the sea. It's lined with bromeliads, orchids and red mangrove.

The Maya traded honey, green and blue jade, ceramics, quetzal feathers, tobacco, onyx, sea snails and shells (for dyes), sharks' teeth, sharp black obsidian, red cinnabar dust, turtle carapaces, and the most prized object, the skin of the jaguar.

We jump ashore at an island that has a 1,000 year old Mayan temple. In ancient times, the exterior was painted red and the interior painted blue. A carving of a crocodile is prominent. The Maya feared crocodiles. When there were deaths due to crocodile attacks, Mayan culture held interesting beliefs. When the Maya die, they enter the Underworld, where there are different gods. One of these gods is the God L, who appears seated on a jaguar-skin throne, wearing a Moan bird hat and smoking a large cigar.

Nowadays, the crocodiles have fled to the main lagoon, so we throw our life-jackets into the water and effortlessly float on currents along the channels, observing the giant mangrove roots and brown pelicans dive-bombing for fish. The jaguar, puma, margay and jaguarundi, as well as tapir and 300 species of birds are present in the savannah.

The beaches are visited by loggerhead and leatherback turtles, and rare but placid West Indian manatees may be seen offshore.

Time passes slowly in Sian Ka'an. There are no clocks, watches or alarms here. We rent mountain bikes and head off along the rough road to the south to reach dozens of deserted beaches, to kayak, bird-watch or just doze in a hammock.

Days later, we leave Sian Ka'an for Copal, an `eco-chic' retreat, three miles from the reserve's northerly entrance. Eco-chic means ecologically-friendly and ultra-chic. If you enjoy yoga at dawn, lucid dreaming courses or consulting a shaman to heal you, this place has it all. We try a traditional temazcal. For hundreds of years, Mexicans have practised this purifying steam bath or sweat-lodge, using fire and water inside a low, white dome-building. The sensation aferwards is of euphoria: we're floating several feet above the ground. Cosmic wedding ceremonies are offered using holistic messages taken from nature to unite a couple. I love Copal for its atmosphere; it's endowed with pleasures for the senses.

Dinner is lime soup and a heavenly Yucatecan fish dish, while seated at a heart-shaped table, illuminated by gourds inset with colourful stones. We retire to our huge, isolated room by way of a jungle path that is washed with moonlight and dotted with flickering candles exhaling incense. Our room has a giant bed of billowing sheets and the only sound is the ocean.

Next morning, we head south, taking a boat-trip on the Lagoon of Seven Colours at Bacalar, its waters multiple shades of blue. Further south is Chetumal, with its excellent Museum of Mayan Culture. Within easy driving distance is the outstanding Mayan site of Kohunlich. Its Temple of Masks dates from 100 to 900 AD, covered in carvings of open-mouthed gods, and has a ball-court and wonderful views over the jungle.

We reach Majahual, a peaceful fishing village ideal for snorkelling and diving trips out to the Chinchorro Reef, the largest atoll in Mexico and home to tropical fish and a ship's graveyard with both galleons and modern cargo boats.

Majahual snoozes in a tropical stupor with its isolated beaches, cool cocktails and romantic moonlit walks on the beach. The best place to stay in town is Tio Phil with spacious cabanas and traditional meals, where you'll get a warm welcome from Raul and his wife - catch your own fish from the beach and Raul will cook it.

Walking along the sandy village street, we feel thoroughly chilled-out. We see dogs snoozing in hammocks, locals call hello, we pass an old house hung with sea-buoys. Village women sing at the end of a jetty, watching the lights of their husbands' fishing boats draw nearer.

The ocean is so shallow the waves are only ripples. We sip mojitos, cool and minty, while watching the sun go down, reflecting on the magic-realism of all we have seen. And, at that point, I know that I'm truly in love...

FACTFILE: To plan holiday: The Mexico Tourist Board in London: www.visitmexico.com, 0207 488 9392; or Bristol-based www.Mexperience. com, 0773 6543776.

Information about the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - www.cesiak.org, email: info@cesiak.org or tel 0052 984 871 2499

Boca Paila Camps, Sian Ka'an, www.cesiak. org, tel 0052 984 871 2499. Copal: www.cabanascopal. com and its sister properties Zahra, Maya Spa and Azulik, www.ecotulum.com, tel 0052 984 871 2481

Cabanas Tio Phil, Majahual tel 0052 983 834 5822, email tiophilhome@hotmail.com

Best times to go: November-April

Take Lonely Planet Guide to Yucat?n and Lonely Planet Mexican Spanish Phrasebook

There are direct flights from the UK to Canc?n International Airport.


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