“They built the doorways low,” says Antonio, our guide, as we approach a Mayan ruin in the middle of the mangrove, “to force us to bow as we enter.” I bend at the waist and enter the center door of the temple. It’s cool and dim. Bats are roosting in the inner chamber. “It is a place of power,” Antonio murmurs. “Can you feel it?” I nod my head softly. I’m in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest protected areas in Mexico, and suddenly I believe in ghosts.
Three hours earlier, I’d arrived at a small office in the sleepy two-rode town of Tulum in Quintana Roo State. Time runs differently here. Printed schedules are regarded as admirable things, but no one expects to follow them. I wait, chatting to Miguel who is the reserve’s unofficial spokesman. Like all the people who work here, he is passionate about the environment. “We teach the local children how to preserve their land,” he tells me. “We show them how to retrieve hatchling turtles that have fallen to the bottom of the nest. Once you’ve saved a turtle you’re an environmentalist for life.”
Finally, we’re on our way, motoring along a road so dusty that the surrounding jungle is tan. We’re a small group, just six and our guide. The reserve is serious about conservation. We stop briefly in the midday heat to cool ourselves in a cenote, a sinkhole filled with shockingly cold water. I peer through the crystal clear depths and can’t see the bottom. The cenotes of Quintana Roo form a network of underground rivers and caves that stretch for miles. Much of it is still unexplored. As I walk away from the sinkhole, I imagine there are many places in Sian Ka’an where spirits can hide.
A brief trek through the jungle takes us from the Caribbean to the milky green waters of Lake Capechen, a freshwater lagoon fed by underground wells. We board a boat and our captain, an expert helmsman with the inscrutable expression of an Easter Island stone head, steers us into the heart of the mangrove. Ancient Mayans travelled these narrow channels, floating logs downstream, bringing skins and woven baskets to trade with seafarers from the East. It’s so quiet you can hear yourself breathe. A blue heron perched on a tree is so still that only his color gives him away. We find ourselves slowing down along with the birds, bending to the tide of this vast, wetland wilderness.
By the time we come upon the ruin, everyone in the boat is speaking in whispers. We alight onto a small dock and walk straight into the past. Perhaps it’s the sudden change from water to land that makes us lightheaded. Perhaps it’s the heat. Part of me wants to curl up in the temple’s inner chamber and sleep. This place is old and long-abandoned, but you can still see scraps of blue paint on its sun-bleached walls. You can still feel its purpose.
We’re reluctant to leave. Antonio, our guide, knows this and has a final surprise up his sleeve. “Into the water,” he tells us, handing out lifejackets. “We’re going to float downstream.” I jump from the dock into the channel. The water is as warm as lemonade left out in the midday sun. I open my mouth to taste. It’s sweet and fresh, filtered by the limestone bedrock and the salt-thirsty leaves of the mangroves. The current tugs me, and I close my eyes and mouth, lean back, and float toward the sea.
Later we’ll re-board the boat and be whisked to a perfect white-sand beach for dinner. We’ll eat corn chips with pumpkin seed salsa, and locally caught fish. We’ll drink mango juice as rich as wine as the sun sets over the lagoon. For now, though, I give myself over to the mangrove, letting its shadows and scents charm my senses. Sian Ka’an is Mayan for “where the sky is born”. This is a fact and I’ll not argue with it, but I humbly contend that it also means “where the spirits carry you away”.
Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO World Heritage site. For information and details of its guided tours visit: www.cesiak.org. Or contact them at: (52) 984-871-2499.
Fly into Cancun Airport: www.cancun-airport.com/ and stay in one of the ten cabanas at the reserve from $65 a night
2009 Travel Writing Contest:HONORABLE MENTION
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