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The Maya Riviera, the northwestern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, alongside the turquoise Caribbean Sea is home to some of the most-visited Maya cities, Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza.
So it's no wonder that this area is turning into one of the main destinations to celebrate "the end of the world." The ancient Maya calendar ends on December 21, 2012, the Winter Solstice. It’s not the end of the world, really --as a some like to predict. Archeologists now believe it is simply the end of one calendar cycle and the start of a new one. Maya apocalypse or not, the debate and the headlines are good for tourism. And I could see that first hand during recent trip.
One of the special attractions set up to celebrate the ending of the Maya calendar is a new pyramid that's being constructed for doomsday, and beyond.
Mexican artist Xavier de Maria y Campos hopes the new b’aktunoob, or Maya calendar cycle, ushers in a new era of positive thinking and appreciation of nature and the environment, two things the Maya believed in. That’s why he is building a giant pyramid out of 700,000 recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water and soda bottles in Aldea Zama, between the ancient and modern cities of Tulum.
This Pyramid of Positive Thinking is to be completed on December 21, 2012, covered in jungle foliage and topped with a giant mirror that will reflect the sun's rays during the day and create an artificial light beam at night. Click for more here and here.
Visitors are invited to stuff a bottle with a little paper prayer or wish. Mine was that we use fewer plastic bottles. Visitors also can insert a wish contributed virtually via the pyramid’s website, a popular activity for school groups.
As the pile of bottles rises, the structure is planted with greenery. A gardener handed me a cutting, which I pushed into the webbing holding the pile of plastic in place. Eventually, this pyramid will look like just another hill covered with jungle growth, like the hundreds that dot the Yucatan, hiding Maya ruins which have not yet been excavated.
Tulum currently does not have a recycling program. Campos hopes for good cosmic karma from the positive thoughts inside the bottles, the act of getting so much plastic out of garbage dumps, and the eco-awareness his project is building. It couldn’t hurt.
Maya calendar aside, the Maya Riviera, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is also a destination for animal adventures.
Mid-May to mid-September is whaleshark season, when the huge animals feed where the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico meet, off Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Snorkeling with the sharks is big business, and you can sign up for a boat tour at the ferry ports at either end, or through your hotel concierge.
They are called whale sharks because they are sharks the size of whales, feeding close enough to the surface that you might actually land on one when you jump off the boat to swim with them. But that doesn’t happen, since tour boat captains and swim guides are experts at getting close, but not that close.
They also could be called polka-dot sharks, because their huge blue-grey bodies are decorated with grey-white polka-dots everywhere, except on their dorsal fins and tails. Whatever you call them, it’s like snorkeling with a submarine.
On my first two jumps, I focused on getting pictures and video with my underwater camera, which was dumb. It’s tough to see their widescreen glory when you are watching through a postage stamp viewfinder. So, on the rest of my jumps, I left the camera behind on the boat.
Each jump, my guide, Juan Carlos Coba, held my hand tightly and helped me power-swim after “our” shark. Be sure to ask how many people will be on your boat. Juan Carlos takes no more than eight people, so each of us had more jumps and more time in the water each jump than the other, larger boats with as many as 20 tourists aboard taking turns. Click for more at CruiseDivers.
The whale sharks were just one of my animal excursions.
On Isla Mujeres, I visited the Tortugranja, a government-supported breeding farm for endangered sea turtles. In the last decade, this small facility has released 1,000 Hawksbill and rare white turtles into the wild. Carefully, I held a week-old baby about the size of a large coin, before returning it to one of the attendants.
In Akumel, between Cancun and Tulum, I swam with adult turtles which hang out in the sea grass just offshore. My guide, Virginia Romano Franklin, grew up here and has been swimming with turtles since childhood. She found a pair feeding blissfully, a few hundred yards from a group of tourists acting like unruly paparazzi, closing in on a solo turtle who must have been terrified. Click for more at Riviera Adventours.
Romano Franklin also is caring for a baby spider monkey at her family restaurant, Oscar & Lalo, in Tulum. Lalito was found abandoned on the family ranch nearby, and wears an infant diaper – she cuts a hole in it for his tail – when he plays tag with guests. Just like a human toddler, Lalito is in constant motion, except when he stops briefly for a cuddle.
On other days, I swam with trained dolphins at Xcaret and at Xel-Ha, the two family-oriented, tourist-oriented nature parks in the Riviera Maya. At Xcaret, dolphins do their famous “foot push”, which is pushing a human visitor across the Olympic size enclosure.
I was instructed to float face down, my legs locked straight, hip width apart. An instant after the trainer blew his whistle, the noses of two dolphins were pushing the soles of my feet and I was flying across the pool with my arms outstretched, like Kate Winslet on the bow of the Titanic. At Xel-Ha, one of their tricks is to swim upright, so I could hold their flippers briefly and “dance” with them.
Yes, there is controversy about such captivity and training. The hope is that anybody experiencing these intelligent and beautiful creatures so closely will be moved to support protecting them in the wild.
Perhaps somebody has placed exactly that wish inside one of the bottles at the Pyramid of Positive Thinking.