There is a lot to learn and explore in Riviera Maya, if one chooses to go beyond the tourist areas. Having lived in this region for six years, I have personally gained valuable insights in terms of downsizing my life. Simplifying our lives does not mean that we have to let go of quality. Downsizing can be liberating, and can help us become more at ease with our lives during the current times of economical and ecological “cleansing.” We have to ask ourselves, what do we really need? Knowledge and experience gained through travel lasts for a whole life and beyond; material gains are subject to the law of impermanence.
Insider Tips on Traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula
Probably the most outstanding feature of this part of the globe is the Caribbean Sea with its turquoise waters and white sandy beaches. If you are into snorkeling or scuba diving, you will love this place: the world’s second largest barrier reefs runs right in front of our noses. You can also snorkel and dive in regional cenotes, sweet water sinkholes that are typical for the Yucatan peninsula. They are openings in the limestone and are connected to a giant subterranean river system that flows into the ocean. Guided cave dives are offered in various cenotes.
If you feel like escaping to an island, visit Cozumel, which is among the five best places in the world for diving, or enjoy the Caribbean charm of Isla Mujeres. On the more peaceful islands of Contoy and Holbox, you can swim with whale sharks.
There is an abundant offer of things that you can do to reconnect with nature: ocean or lagoon kayaking, snorkeling, kite surfing, catamaran cruising, horseback riding, exploring jungles and mangroves, or just enjoying an endless beach walk. The Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve was declared UNESCO world heritage in 1987, and is a bird watcher’s paradise. The Bacalar lagoon is said to be of seven different shades of blue.
Considered one of the Seven World Wonders, Chichen Itza is the most popular archaeological site of the Yucatan peninsula. Overlooking the ocean, the Tulum temple served as a calendar to indicate important dates. Ek Balam’s ruins are not as well known, but you will be surprised in what excellent condition the wall paintings are.
Mexican Riviera Maya Today
The Riviera Maya has evolved tremendously in the past six years. Playa del Carmen has made it into the Guiness Book of World Records as fastest-growing city in Latin America. Today, the Tulum ‘hotel zone’ is an outstanding example of solar and wind-powered small lodges and beach cabanas, appealing to backpackers as well as high-end travelers.
New living communities are designed to comply with green building criteria, and workshops are offered in a range of sustainability practices from composting and recycling to bio-architecture, to alternative energies. Locals offer many natural, organic, and biodegradable products. Eco park staff does not allow regular sun block in the water, and will send tourists to the shower. Beach cleaning and turtle conservation initiatives are strongly supported.
In recent years, several eco-conscious, annual expos (such as Think Green Expo and Green Expo Tulum) have been launched, attracting exhibitors and attendees from across the nation, and from beyond the national borders.
Project Mayan Encounter
As one of the supporters of ecotourism in this region, I have launched Project Mayan Encounter in 2008, to offer group tours and escorted trips to Riviera Maya, with the primary goals of promoting ecotourism and making available the unique experience of the rich Mayan culture and nature reserves to active seniors, students and special needs groups. Our trips can be adapted to wheelchair users and travelers with other physical needs.
Due to our individualized service, we see travelers from all walks of life. Our tours always include healthy food, and sufficient time left to enjoy some of the world’s top-rated beaches. We work with guides certified by INAH (Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History), for tours inside the archaeological sites, and with Mayan natives and biologists in the nature reserves. We offer small group tours (no larger than 20 travelers) to ensure each participant can follow the guide’s presentation inside the archaeological sites, and that our impact on the local Mayan communities is kept as low as possible.
In January 2010, we launched a new small-group 8-day Study Trip, which is primarily geared to school classes, but equally fitting for active seniors or any adults who love to learn. The focus of this trip is to learn about the unique ecosystems of the Yucatan peninsula with its underground river network and cenotes, rich marine life and the world’s second largest barrier reef, as well as Mayan history, culture, and archaeology.
Our goal is to help students interpret Mayan history and sharpen their analysis skills and chronological and spatial thinking. Depending on the age group, tours are designed to match school curriculum requirements, and we set the focus accordingly.
The following is an example based on California’s state curriculum:
History & Social Science:
5th grade: The entrepreneurial characteristics and aims of the early explorers of the Americas, technical development of navigation instruments, caste war, and epidemics.
6th grade: World history and geography, ancient civilizations and archaeological studies; geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures during the development of Mayan civilization.
7th grade: The geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the Mayan civilization; landforms and climates of the Yucatan peninsula, and their effects on economies and development of urban societies; Mayan class structures, family life, warfare, religious beliefs and practices; and Mayan achievements in astronomy and mathematics.
8th grade: The relationship between neighboring nations Mexico and the US.
10th grade: World history, culture, and geography; Mexico’s roles in the modern world and patterns of global change in the era of New Imperialism in Latin America.
11th grade: The origins and geopolitical consequences of the Cold War and the Latin American Policy.
Geography and Earth Science:
5th grade: The underground river system (cenotes) and water conservation, the barrier reef, hurricanes and their effects, and Mayan astronomy.
6th grade: Ecosystems and cenotes.
7th grade: The solar system and Mayan astronomy, and the importance of Venus.
9th-12th grades: Astronomy, ecology and the geographical uniqueness of the Yucatan peninsula.
Stefanie Baeker, Founder, Project Mayan Encounter
I grew up on the North Sea coast in Germany, where green tourism prevails. Visitors find peace on the islands and in the wet lands along the coast, hearty locals and honest food. My understanding of tourism, coupled with my passion for the outdoors and nature, and my knowledge of wellness and the teachings of ancient high-cultures, as well as the experience gained through my work in the special needs field, have led me to launching Project Mayan Encounter in 2008. I have lived and worked in the Riviera Maya for several years, and have found that there was not much offered for mature or physically impaired travelers, who want to spend some quality leisure time. In collaboration with some environmentally passionate, multilingual nature guides, I decided to fill the need and designed eco-cultural tours, with an emphasis on learning.