Always with my environmental hat in tow, we explored the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico’s last spring. As in past years, there was litter strewn about throughout; although the touristy Playa del Carmen did have a few “litter crews” grooming the beaches and parks, making them much more pleasing. I’m guessing all that retrieved litter is a combination of surf offerings and sloppy beach loungers.
While visiting Progreso, a more obscure beach town frequented by Mexicans, litter crews didn’t exist, so we picked up along a mile stretch of the beach. This was obviously not typical of tourists as we received varied responses – stares, thank yous, and a couple children even helped us! Although a valiant effort, we eventually just concentrated on the worst offenders – all things plastic – straws, bottle caps, 6-pack rings, forks, and plastic bags. At least for a period of time, those birds won’t mistake plastic as food along that stretch!
Some of the more touristy cities offered public recycling; otherwise, it appeared recycling opportunities were limited. Although, recycling appears to be happening, as it was common to see older women or men digging through the trash harvesting recyclables. Drinking tap water is questionable, so we always buy bottled water in Mexico. Given the dearth of recycling opportunities, at least while we traveled by car we toted along a returnable 5 gallon container of water, filling our smaller bottles. We also noticed, when beer bottles weren’t twist-offs, those bottles were returned and refilled.
As for wildlife, while it was quite different to not see squirrels, rabbits or deer, other animals filled the void. We saw our first coatis from the raccoon family, camouflaged iguanas throughout, and many colorful birds. One highlight was boating through the mangroves along the protected bio-reserves where we saw flocks of Caribbean Pink Flamingos – thousands of them! They were even more mesmerizing when I relinquished the camera! We embarked on this amazing experience from Rio Lagartos where many guides await to fill their boats with nature enthusiasts every morning.
The bio-reserves boat trip included a chance to experience a Mayan mud bath. Of course, I was all in. First we floated a bit in a salty water reserve to open our pours, then we lathered ourselves with mud, and garnished the look with a mud crown and mangrove leaves. I was promised I would then look much younger!!
We enjoyed a vast variety of colorful fish along with beautiful sponges, corals and fan while snorkeling off a beach in Cozumel; experiencing the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The Meso-American reef system spans between the Gulf of Mexico and Honduras – almost 175 miles. As for beach walking, the white powdery sand and the clear turquoise waters went on for miles!
Interestingly, there are no above ground rivers on the Yucatan peninsula since the upper layer is soft limestone. Instead there is a large web of fresh underground rivers forming caves and cenotes, natural pits or sinkholes formed when the limestone bedrock collapses, making for great swimming holes. Mexico is filled with amazing Maya archaeological sites. While there are many amazing Yucatan archaeological ruins, most notable the largest Chichen Itzas and the beautiful coastal ruin of Tulum, we had already seen them so this year we just visited a small ruin we happened upon the way – Xcambo, a major salt provider for the Mayan Empire.
While traveling around Mexico, we typically travel by public bus with the locals, but this year we rented a car for a spell so we could take a closer look at the coastline, countryside and colonial villages. Mexican villages always have a local gathering point in the middle of town – the central plaza bordered by a block-long massive ancient church on one side and their municipality building on another. During the evenings, the plaza always buzzes with activity; people watching at it’s finest.
As always, we enjoy sampling local culinary fare. We enjoyed pescado (fish) almost daily, fresh squeezed orange juice, avocados, mangos, lime peanuts, and Mexican pastries. We always visit the local Central Mercado overflowing with fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, seeds, spices, cornmeal, and everything imaginable. While big box stores are slowing gaining a foot-hold throughout Mexico, there are always ample shoppers swarming the Central Mercados and small Tiendas (small corner stores) about. Sadly, once quite common panaderias, neighborhood bakeries, are becoming harder to find. Central plazas and beaches are generally filled with merchants selling a wide variety of food and such. Some balance a tray of goods on their head, while others have carts propelled by muscle power or a small motor. It appears the economy is doing much better as we notice nicer cars and now it’s less common to see small children sell Chiclets for a few Pecos.
Although we enjoy eating outside, at times we retreated inside for air conditioning. We are thrilled smoke-free dining is becoming common-place all throughout Mexico. While visiting Holbox Island, we thanked a cigarette butt picker-upper, diligently digging through the sand capturing those toxic butts. He proudly, and sadly, showed us several two-liter bottles filled with butts. As it turned out, he had a small restaurant, as in a small shack and modest outside grill, where he whipped up one of our tastiest meals of the trip!
While Mexico is trying desperately to protect their heritage, corn, there is much pressure to accept GMO corn. Mexico has much to lose as corn originated in Mexico and the Mesoamerican region. At risk is their biodiversity and cross contamination, more than 60 indigenous varieties. Corn is central to Mexican culture; corn tortillas or chips are served with every meal. After two years of 93 appeals from the Biotech Industry, Mexico’s 2013 ruling banning GMO corn was sadly overturned last fall, now in the appeal process. Opponents have many concerns – loss of biodiversity, culture, and health concerns due to pesticide exposure in their air, food and waterways.
Pemex gas stations dot the landscape, Mexico’s state-owned energy provider. While Pemex has been the only company allowed to develop their oil and gas for years, just recently this industry has opened up to private sector investors. Mexico’s goal is to generate 35 percent of their total electricity from clean sources by 2025. Roof-top black passive solar water tanks are quite common, but we didn’t see any windmills and only an occasional solar panel. Perhaps they are conflicted, as I have read Pemex provides one-third of their federal funds. Given Mexico’s apparent abundance of wind, solar and geothermal potential, renewables could be a boon for the economy, environment and people alike.