Saturday, April 20, 2024

Hikes from Cancún for nature lovers

Cancún is a planned city, developed by entrepreneurs as an alternative to Acapulco. At its inception in 1970, the 22-kilometer-long island had only three residents, all caretakers of a coconut plantation. The name Cancún means “full of snakes,” and there used to be 60 species registered on the island, though today they are all gone, and Cancún is now full of hotels, which, in turn, are full of tourists instead.

Well, and tourist guides.

One of Cancún’s coolest guides is Darío Ferreira, co-founder of the Nature Geek Squad: local experts in creating ecologically responsible, off-the-beaten-path adventures.

“Tell me a bit about hiking in and around Cancún,” I asked Ferreira. “What would you recommend for people who love nature?”

“There are places to go walking or cycling in Cancún.” he replied, “and they are working on creating parks, but for me, this is not senderismo (trail hiking). So I’m going to tell you about a few places I love to go to, not far from Cancún, where you can really appreciate nature.”

Punta Laguna: monkeys and more

The first place on Ferreira’s list is Punta Laguna, the gateway to the Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh (Home of the Monkey and Puma) National Protected Area, a one hour 40 minute drive from Cancún.

Here you will find a vast array of plant species including sapodilla trees, which produce chicle (gum), and the ceiba, which the Maya believe is a pathway for souls to reach heaven, with its roots reaching into the underworld and its branches holding up the sky.

Punta Laguna also showcases deer, raccoons, armadillos, margays, coatis, agoutis, peccaries, and very elusive jaguars and pumas, but most people go to see howler and spider monkeys (which are an endangered species).

However, this park is also home to 158 species of birds, including the osprey, the great curassow, the toucan, and the very colorful ocellated turkey.

The park guides (whose services are highly recommended, but optional) all come from a nearby Mayan village which offers visitors a glimpse of a disappearing indigenous lifestyle,

The village is actually an ejido (rural co-op) called Najil Tucha and all revenue from tourism is divided among the families, all of whom speak Mayan. The guides say they are there to protect the environment from “human predators” who used to collect animals to sell them abroad. Some 35 families live in the village and since 1994 they’ve been monitoring the wildlife behavior and striving to preserve the environment.

Visiting hours are from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but around 3 p.m. is the best time to see monkeys.

If you plan to visit Punta Laguna, you ought to bring comfortable, lightweight clothing, long pants, and good hiking boots. Biodegradable sunscreen and bug spray are recommended, but, says Darío, should be rinsed off before you get in the water. Here you can also kayak in a lagoon and visit a fascinating cenote, so don’t forget to bring a swimsuit.

If you want to stay overnight at Punta Laguna, you have two choices. You can camp on a platform near the lagoon or stay in a Mayan “hut.” Note that they do have bathroom facilities (eco-bathrooms) on site.

In conclusion, says Darío Ferreira: “Punta Laguna is an incredible place!”

Muyil: Unwind into a moving meditation

Another of Ferreira’s favorite sites is Muyil, at the edge of a lagoon in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 153 kilometers south of Cancún. Here he and his fellow Nature Geeks have found wonderful places to hike and boat outside the established archaeological area.

“In the lush and tangled jungle,” explains Ferreira, “we begin with a boat ride through natural channels, slowing down to view intertwining mangrove roots eye to eye, home to nurseries of juvenile fish and host to many air plants such as orchids and bromeliads. Once we park the boat at a dock, we jump into one of the channels and let the natural current carry us through the magical mangrove tunnel. The water is fresh and just the right temperature, the shade of the trees is perfect and the calming sounds of birds and water allow us to let go and unwind into a moving meditation.”

Puerto Morelos Botanical Garden

Looking for blue butterflies? This morpho is waiting for you in the Puerto Morelos Botanical Garden. (Butterflieandmoths)

Only a 36-minute drive from Cancún lies the Puerto Morelos Botanical Garden –one of Mexico’s largest – where you’ll find two kilometers of trails introducing you to local orchids, bromeliads, ferns, palms, cacti, and Mayan medicinal herbs.

You’ll also find colorful birds and plenty of animals, including spider monkeys and iguanas.

Along your route, you’ll cross a 130-foot suspension bridge, and if you wish, you can climb a scenic lookout tower which will give you a great view of the jungle all the way to the sparkling waters of the Caribbean. 

You’ll also have a chance to visit a chiclero camp, which will take you back to the days when the sap of the chicle tree was extracted and boiled down into what we now call chewing gum.

The park is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The secret river

To this short list of outdoor sites near Cancún, allow me to add an underground attraction. Río Secreto is a gorgeous cave where you wade in crystal-clear water, winding your way through shimmering stalactites.

If you love nature and you’re heading for Cancún, I suggest you call Darío Ferreira – who speaks perfect English –  at +52 984 139 3271 (Whatsapp) or on his US number at 512 423 5975. He can organize a nature tour for you (including “a snake spotting hike”) but is also happy to give you tips at no charge about places you can visit on your own.

The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.

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