Final Reflections: Onions and Monumental Sculpture



“Tourism is often distorted and skewed in favour of the (relative) rich and powerful, whose interests control the destiny of many local communities as well as exerting a pervasive symbolic influence over toured cultures and ways of life” (S. Wearing, D. Stevenson and T. Young 2010 “Encountering the Other” in Tourist Cultures: Identity, Place and the Traveller.  Sage Press. p. 54)

In the narratives we shared during our first meeting of the Reading Group in the Fall of 2010, I wrote:

“I want to develop a holistic understanding of tourism…its impact (positive and negative) on our biological world and its peoples.  And I want to be able to stop feeling guilty of . . .my privileged position as an academic and explorer in economically depressed and politically oppressed parts of this world.”

I have come to understand the global phenomena of tourism a bit more now, thanks to the opportunity to visit the Yucatan with colleagues from the College.  Keeping the above quote in mind, I have reflected on my tourist experience by exploring the metaphor of an onion to explain Yucatan society and cultures, and Chichen Itzá as a powerful multi-vocal symbol (or symbol with “many voices”) drawn from contemporary Yucatan tourist culture.

The Onion:

The onion appeared in every meal we ate.  But the use of “onion” as a metaphor was very revealing.  First, the metaphor was used by Quetzil as we shared breakfast with him in Piste.  Then later Aldo relied on the onion to explain why we will never know about the beliefs of the Maya; an explanation accompanied with the motion of sealing his mouth with a zipper as his hands moved across his lips.

For both of these men, who themselves blend Mestizo and Maya in unique ways into their own lives, the heart of the onion is the Maya people, their land, and Maya traditions.  For the most part, the “true” Maya is found in the hamlets of the rural areas, or working at tourist sites as maids, gardeners, or other forms of low paying occupations.  These people speak Maya first, and then perhaps Spanish but rarely English or other languages.  The layers of the “onion” or society that encompass the Maya “heart” are a broad category of individuals of Mestizo ancestry:  restaurant owners and cooks, hacienda and Spa owners, tour guides, and other individuals who meet tourists directly within the tourist industries of the area.  These individuals claim ties to the “real” Maya in different ways and these claims help legitimize them as “authentic” to the tourists they meet.  The outer layers of the onion are the tourists or other representatives of global cultures.  While tourists may think they are truly touching Maya culture, at least in our experience tourists are only interacting with the layers between “authentic” Maya and the tourist industry.  How many tourists really speak one of the 29 Mayan languages or any of the 160 dialects currently spoken?

Quetzil’s field school (OESA) is unique for its placement of the “heart” of Maya culture first for students participating in the summer program.  This program is “Maya-centric”:

The program begins with intensive language training and a core seminar on anthropological theory and heritage that provides participants the linguistic skills and conceptual tools to conduct fieldwork in Maya communities on heritage issues. Heritage is conceived as an inclusive domain that includes social processes and problems involving archaeological heritage development, tourism, sustainability, community participation and control of development, state policy and strategies of tourism, intangible cultural heritage such as handicrafts production and art markets, Maya medicine and systems of health and healing, urbanism and environmental heritage. (Quetzil Casteneda; OESA documents; personal communication)


To increase the prosperity, well-being, achievement, tranquility, self-determination, and positive valorization of sociocultural communities that are located in or that have been forced into the political, economic, and sociocultural margins of today’s globally interactive humanity (OESA website)

This field school trains advocacy anthropologists; ethnographers who can perhaps represent rural Maya through their lived experiences in home-stays and a working knowledge of Mayan language. If the right College of Wooster student is looking for an off campus experience like the one offered by Queztil, we all agreed that we would recommend learning more about the Maya who live around Chichén Itzá with the OSEA.

I think that there is one significant drawback to using the “onion” as a metaphor to describe the peoples of the Yucatan.  “Layers” of social groups are never as clearly separated from each other as an onion’s layers are.  A “Maya” identity may be interwoven throughout all social or cultural layers as individuals continually redefine themselves in relationship to different groups of people.  Perhaps all indigenous peoples of the Yucatan are “Maya” to a global tourist.  I mean, can you tell if a person is completely “Maya” by looking at them?  Is Maya identity related to a particular phenotype?  Or a clothing style?  Or the language a person speaks?  There is much potential for further research in these questions.


Chichén Itzá as Multivocal Symbol:

Imagine this archaeological site of the ancient Maya crystalized as one symbol, that of the largest pyramid, called the Castille by the Spanish conquistadores.  The different vocalities of this symbol are found throughout the Yucatan in different cultural and social contexts.  When we consider them all together we can come close to what Chichén Itzá might mean.

  • Chichén Itzá the movie:

We first met this site when our reading group watched the movie  created by Quetzil 10 years ago.   Quetzil works with the Maya who live around Chichen Itza.  He speaks their language and seeks to celebrate their causes.  But in the movie, he is still refered to as a gringo, a non-Maya from the United States. In the movie abut this Maya site, we watched “traditional” Maya healers interact with a variety of New Age   pilgrims from the U.S. and abroad at the sacred archaeological site to await  the Spring equinox when the feathered serpent shadow appears on the side of the castillo (the Spanish name given to largest pyramid) and the universal cosmic harmonies aligned for all those had made the pilgrimage.  We were also shown how the “real” Maya vendors were not allowed on this sacred site while the tourists were there.

  • Chichén Itzá the book:

Our group met the site through our reading of Stephen’s book and Catherwood’s drawings.  As I read about the discovery by Stephen’s group of stones buried under verdant growth I was fascinated.  I felt the excitement of finding and uncovering yet another magnificent monument to a forgotten culture.  We found this book in tourist shops all over the Yucatan and we found Catherwood’s images from the book on menus in restaurants, in framed pictures on walls of hotels and museums, and as small curios for purchase in stores.

  • Chichén Itzá and our tourist visit:

The site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws thousands of tourists each year.  However, tourists can no longer climb the monuments, or even get  close to the ancient stones.  “Chichen Itza rose to regional prominence towards the end of the Early Classic period (roughly 600 AD). It was, however, towards the end of the Late Classic and into the early part of the Terminal Classic that the site became a major regional capital, centralizing and dominating political, sociocultural, economic, and ideological life in the northern Maya lowlands.”  (Wikipedia)  There are a few vendors, but as we learn later, those vendors who are allowed on the actual site actually used to live there.  When these Maya were removed from their homes, and the buildings were destroyed for the tourist site, they were given permission to return to sell to tourists.

  • Chichén Itzá on December 2012 or Fun Times for New Age practitioners  in the Yucatan:

“The solstice on December 21, 2012 will occur at 5.57 am (local time) in Chichén Itzá beginning the commemorative events. At sunrise, 6.31 a.m. the Maya New Age Monument and Calendar End-date Stele will be inaugurated.  Our planet will enter the winter solstice at 11:11:56 UT on December 21, 2012.  After the ceremony begins, five Maya H’menes [male shamen) will plant 4 Ceiba trees, symbolic of the Milky Way and mythical “bearers” of the universe, one at the end of each sacbe, the sacred roads leading to the four cardinal points radiating from the Maya New Age Monument; the Stele will be the “Central Tree” or zenith. When the tree-planting is finished, the H’menes will perform the millennial New Fire ceremony which will remain from December 21 through 23, 2012.  The celebration will be open to the world: in its countries, communities, regions, cultural institutions, etc. regardless of race, religion, gender, culture or belief. Because the Maya culture is universal, the 2012 event will be worldwide.  Every community within Maya geography will be invited to hold ceremonies simultaneously with the inauguration of the Maya New Age Monument:  a homage from today’s Maya to their ancestors, creators of their calendar, to their historical continuity beyond the Ages. The happenings of December 21, 2012 will be broadcast by diverse media including the Internet; for those following the events around the world, the Galactic Alignment will occur when the light from the rising sun obscures the stars. The transmission will include graphics showing the Astronomical Conjunction and images of the events in Chichén Itzá.” (

  • Chichén Itzá as tourist collectable

The Castillo, representing the archaeological site, has also come to symbolize all of the Yucatan.  It is printed on the front of t-shirts with the words “Maya”, “The Yucatan” or “Mexico” underneath the pyramid.  Tourists can purchase ceramic models of the pyramid with the site’s name and Mexico cast into the plaster.  Back at home, this object stands for the tourist journey, an exotic place far away, and the cultural, social and economic capital that allowed the tourist to visit that spot in the first place.

  • Chichén Itzá as contested site: a symbol of indigenous Maya political and economic oppression

Certainly this symbol reflects a proud heritage for indigenous peoples.  But it is one that also reflects their subjugation first by the Spanish and Catholicism and now by the tourist industry that is the predominate business of the Yucatan.  People at the “heart” of the social structure are also those least likely to benefit from the current political and economic system in which they live.

At any given point, and depending upon which individual is describing the Chichen Itza, some vocalities of this symbol will be celebrated over others.  Of course Chichen Itza is not the only multiple vocal symbol present in Yucatan cultures.  We could also talk about “water” or “the feathered serpent”. I suspect that those who are mediating between the “real” Maya and global tourists actively rely on these multiple constructions to help them shift identity in a complex world.

And woven throughout our experiences in the Yucatan was the echoes of ancient Maya religion with a general New Age syncretism.  Our reading group discussed the relationship between sacred areas and biodiversity conservation in “The Links between Protected Areas, faiths, and Sacred Natural Sites by Dudley, Higgins-Zobgib and Mansourian (in Conservation Biology, Vol.. 23, No. 3. Pp. 568-577).  As these authors argue, “faiths relate to protected areas through the more general influence they have on the way their followers view the natural world” (p. 568).  The stories we heard on our trip, from so many different people, worked to connect the ancient Maya spiritual beliefs and practices with a growing awareness of the potential devastation of global tourism on the social, cultural and biological environments of the Yucatan through New Age beliefs.  If we could all really be reincarnated Maya, as Aldo suggested, then we all have an obligation to help preserve the natural habitats (people, monumental sculptures, and biodiversity in natural habitats) from destruction.

Our group went to the Yucatan on our own unique pilgrimages for knowledge and for new experiences in societies and cultures different from our own.  I would like to think that we were the “good” kind of tourist; ones who understood our impact on the economy and environment of the region and who tried to understand the worlds of those we met. Since the Yucatan is organized in significant ways around the tourist industry, the people we met appeared to need our visit to contribute to their income.  We were even consulted as “experts” by two restaurant owners who were trying to make a success of their establishments in a very difficult social environment.

I believe we were successful in the challenge issued by Wearing et al.:  “to envision a more nuanced version of the tourist and the tourism experience — one which is capable of providing the basis for an undertanding of lived tourist cultures” (p. 8).  I believe that we attempted to employ  “a sustainable approach to tourism. . .where local environments and communities are treated with respect, and where human-to-human and human-to-environment interactions are given priority” (p. 15).  I guess we probably shouldn’t have used air conditioners, especially in traditional Maya huts with thatch roofs.  And I wish that some of us had been able to speak a Mayan language.

I would love to find a way to support the Maya and educate the world, especially potential tourists to the Yucatan, about the social and environmental issues impacting this toured area. The promise of a new “theme” park in the center of the Yucatan, replete with water slides, artificial beaches and multi-layered pools of water inside the convention sized hotels heralds a social and economic disaster for the area. What can we as scholars do to help avoid this future? Can there be such a thing as “advocacy tourism”?

We were very fortunate to be offered an opportunity to make this pilgrimage to this amazing part of our world. We worked very hard in a very beautiful (and hot) setting.  There is no doubt that tourists impact the areas they visit in many ways.  I would hope that the tourists return to their homes changed as well.  I know that I returned to Wooster full of new perspectives on the Yucatan and my place as a global tourist. And I look forward to sharing what I have learned with my students and with the College community.  I really want to thank my fellow travelers for this most excellent trip. My experience was enriched by being a member of our group as we toured across the Maya landscapes. Thanks!

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Two Sites: Sian Ka’an and Cancun

We pulled up in our boat from the lagoon to the beach at Sian Ka’an.  In a roped off area, flocks of terns were nesting.  Their busy chatter filled the air.  Our guide, Aldo, pointed to a pelican flying over the ocean just beyond the break of the waves.  “Look at her,” he said.  “She’s going about her own business.  No one is bothering her.” Then he asked us, “Imagine what this place would be like if the developers have their way.”  He told us of plans to expand the tourist area of Tulum, to make it into a second Cancun.  “They are trying,” he told us.  “We are fighting them, but there is a lot of corruption in the government and the developers have the money.  We are fighting them, but we need help.”

It was at this moment that I truly appreciated the profound threat and the bewildering problem that global tourism presents.  Not only has tourist development destroyed the ecology and the heritage of Cancun, but the place will soon become an environmental disaster.  Cancun is built on top of a shifting sand dune on a narrow peninsula.  Hurricanes and rising sea levels are washing away its white sand beaches.  Millions of  yards of sand have been dredged from the bottom of the Caribbean and pumped onto the beaches in hopes of protecting the coastline that is Mexico’s greatest tourist attraction — an attraction that earns about 3 billion dollars per year.  But the sand won’t stick and the dredging destroys the environment at the bottom of the sea.

Global tourism does threaten cultures and environments.  But it’s also the source of a stable life for many.  On this trip, we have encountered so many individuals who have a stake in the development of tourism in the Yucatán:  Carlos the guide at Chichen Itza, the workers at Mayaland, Beatriz, Manuela and Marcela at the healing spa, Quetzil the anthropologist, the owner of the Hotel MedioMundo in Merida, the guards at the museum, the Russian tour group at the restaurant near Uxmal and their guide and bus driver, Jessica who wanted more tourists to stop at her restaurant and drink her marvelous Chaya refreshments, the workers of the Hotel Posada Yum Kin, the tourists at that hotel, the chef at the Slowteria, Aldo, the guide at Sian Ka’an, the pelican, the terns, the thousands of swallowtail butterflies, the banana orchids waving in the wind high over grasslands, the mangroves.

Who owns the Maya?  Who buys and sells the Maya and what do they do with their purchases and profits?   What are the costs of this trade in sun, sand, culture, healing, and archaeological and natural wonders?

Heath said that when he was watching the birds on the beach at Sian Ka’an, he thought that all this might be gone in twenty years.  He was grateful to see it now.  What should we do in the face of global tourism?  As a teacher, I’ll still encourage my students to see the world, but I’ll encourage them to travel with light steps, to travel modestly, to study the history of places, to realize that history shapes the way that places are traveled, to go without expecting the comforts of home, to take less traveled roads.

I’d like to thank the Hales Fund for supporting this trip and my wonderful traveling companions for our rich conversations.  Their insightful perspectives on the people, the places, the sites, and the texts that we encountered made this a fascinating trip.  Their pleasant company made the journey a true pleasure.

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How Green Is The Yucatan? Concluding Thoughts

I have a few final thoughts on the Yucatan’s “eco” status that will best be articulated by answering some of the questions I asked in my first post.  I should say quickly that the Yucatan promotional literature does not necessarily sell the entire peninsula as any kind of eco paradise — green in the broader sense, sure, because it is so, well, green; but eco tourism is merely one type of tourism in the Yucatan, and not even the dominant one (that would be sun-sand-surf-and-debauchery tourism).  But because the peninsula is fairly dominated by natural ecosystems, and because by virtue of their socioeconomic status most people live much more lightly on the land than does the average American, and because a growing portion of tourism there is billed as green, it is worth taking up several of these queries:


Do the hotels offer plastic water bottles?

Not just the hotels, not just the restaurants — the entire peninsula seems to operate on bottled water, at least from a tourist’s perspective.  It’s hard to say how clean and safe the tap water is without more data, but plastic bottles of water are consumed in great number.  It doesn’t help that the extremely humid atmosphere necessitates rehydrating oneself constantly.

Does “eco” translate only to a solar panel on the roof, a recycling bin, a fuel efficient van – or does it account for the full cycle of production, consumption, and waste?

There are some intriguing signs that a holistic environmental consciousness is emerging, though it is in fits and starts (as it is pretty much everywhere).  There are windmills producing electricity up and down the coast; many of the small hotels in places like Tulum feature solar panels and compostable toilets (although it’s as likely to be out of necessity due to a lack of reliable electric/waste management infrastructure); there are fascinating paired trash bins even in large cities like Merida that distinguish compostable waste (“organica”) from normal trash (“inorganica”) — although, as one might cynically expect, one sees plenty of trash in the compostable bins; and even though we did not see a recycling bin in a single one of our hotels or at any of the tourist sites we visited, on the highway we passed by a large truck whose trailer was filled with crushed plastic bottles headed towards a recycling plant.  Certainly the actual eco tour we took in Sian Ka’an was highly eco conscious (though we were speeding around in a motorboat).  Is the entire peninsula evolving towards some kind of green haven?  Hard to say — but baby steps are better than no steps at all.


Where is the food produced that they serve?

Here the peninsula has an easy leg up on the US, although again it may have as much to do with availability as conscious choice.

We ate a lot of fresh fruit, and all of it was grown regionally.  The meat we ate seems to have been produced on the peninsula for the most part, particularly the chicken and pork.   Corn for the corn tortillas?  Beans for the refried beans?  Avocados for the guacemole?  Probably produced somewhere in Mexico.

Local pork (and a meat grinder!)

Who are the eco-tourists themselves?  Are they a subset of the sun-and-sand tourists who flock to Cancun, or are they distinct? Are they exclusively elite members of the North American and European middle classes? Are they all white?

I can’t comment on the “subset” question because we did not get a chance to talk to tourists specifically on eco tours, but anecdotal evidence from the tour guides themselves indicates that, yes, they are almost completely dominated by Americans and Europeans (particularly Germans), and yes, they are almost all white.  This is not a huge surprise, given what we know about the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the environmental movement throughout the developed world — but it’s a little disheartening from the point of view of an environmentalist already aware of the charges of elitism often leveled at the movement.


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Some Observations on Agriculture in the Northern Yucatan

1.  My observations of the countryside, which are, granted, confined almost entirely to what I could see from the car window (and a good swathe from the plane window on the way in), did not reveal much agriculture to begin with, which only confirmed what some had told us:  the land is extremely rocky and the climate dry and fickle.  In a word, agriculture is extremely risk-prone.  Our resident historical expert Heath says that one out of five years of non-irrigated agriculture on the peninsula is likely to result in complete crop failure, most likely from drought.  So most of what you see is scrubby forest and more scrubby forest.

2.  The few examples of what look like milpa plots confirms something stated by the website referenced in my first

An old milpa, now in a fallow state (the yellowed stalks sticking out of the green undergrowth are old corn stalks)

post:  these plots are left fallow for several years (eight, to be precise) after being cultivated for two.  The plots we did come across that were recognizable as milpas had corn stalks that were at least a year old, whithered and a dull yellowish tan, nearly lost in the tangle of other herbaceous plants that had grown up since.

They look pretty lowly and pathetic in this light, but of course this is actually evidence of their sustainability:  the only way to replenish the soil nutrients originally removed by the corn in the first place short is a fallow period, other than turning to commercial fertilizers or large amounts of animal manure, which does not seem to be locally available.

The two striking current (i.e., green) corn plots we did come across confirmed the other key fact, which is the centrality of water to growing anything in this area.  One came out of nowhere as we were driving the back roads from Uxmal to Tulum – a little

A currently cultivated milpa plot

plot carved out of the iron-red soil, seemingly haphazard in the way that garden plots often seem.  Some corn plants, some other vegetables or tree species set apart by a small ring of stones…. and feeding the whole plot, an old-fashioned windmill (think Amish), at the base of which was a concrete trough funneling the water pumped up by the mill down into the plot.  A fascinating glimpse of local, sustainable, and very small-scale farming.

An old-fashioned windmill pumping up water from the ground

The other was far more extensive – rows and rows of corn, a vibrant green in the middle of a parched landscape.  Even more interesting, some of these plants were already at near maturity stage – how was this possible given that it’s only May?  And even more interesting than that, the plot seemed to be divided into sections of rows, some of which were distinctly shorter than others.  A look behind us solved the mystery, and underscored the centrality of water – this was a field research site set up by the state government of Yucatan, and what are they doing research on?  Why irrigation of course!

Experimental plots of irrigated corn

A sign announcing the state-run irrigation project

3.  But does this mean that farming is alive and well in the peninsula?  Undoubtedly there are areas where it is, but my impression coming away is that those areas are few and far between.  It’s certainly telling that out of the hundreds of miles we covered in five days, far and away the best looking agricultural site (and indeed, one of the only agricultural sites) was not run by campesinos but by the government.  Given the climate, the soil conditions, and of course the opportunities available in the tourist sector, I don’t think the Yucatan will ever be a hotspot for farming, sustainable or otherwise.

YOU try growing crops in these conditions!

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Should Mexico Pave This Road?

Our last day proved to be one of our most memorable, taking us 15 kilometers south of Tulum along the coastline and into one of Mexico’s twelve UNESCO-sanctioned “biosphere reserves” (the most stringent category of land protection in the country, surpassing even their national parks).  The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is an area of over one million acres of freshwater lagoons, mangrove swamps, brackish tidal waters, perfect white-sand beaches with the finest grained sand I’ve ever encountered, and a most amazing phenomenon constructed 80% by natural forces and 20% by Mayans some 1000 years ago:  a long, snaking canal cutting right through the extensive mangrove thicket for miles, just deep and wide enough to navigate a boat through or, as we did to for the last segment of our guided tour, float down on your back, letting the current carry you along, tranquilly shaded by the mangroves arching over the canal edges on both sides.

If Jo was this happy at the beginning of the float, imagine her after 40 minutes of bliss!

The reserve is almost completely undeveloped (there are still some private properties along its edge, holdovers grandfathered in when the reserve was purchased by the government in the 1980s), and add to this the rich mix of nutrients provided by a calcium-laden bedrock substrate and a constant swirling together of brackish and fresh waters where ocean meets lagoons, and you have the ingredients for a high rate of biodiversity (faunal, if not necessarily floral due to the complete dominance by the ubiquitous mangrove).

Our able tour guide Aldo talking birds on the beach

Jenna kept a list of all the animals we saw in our ~5 hours in the reserve, ably guided by our tour guide Aldo:  several basking alligators, amazing needle fish, and lots of birds (see this earlier post by Jenna).

At dinner later that night, our last meal in Mexico, we looked back on our short but packed five days together and asked what the best and worst experiences were.  The biosphere tour, and especially the float down the canal, ranked towards the top for everyone.  It was an experience amazing not only for the natural beauty we witnessed, but for how relatively rare it is, especially compared to being at a heavily touristed site such as the ruins of Tulum or, god forbid, Cancun.  A tiny fraction of all the tourists to the Yucatan make it down to Sian Ka’an, which adds to the feeling of uniqueness that goes through you after getting a tour of it.

The road doesn't look like much of a hassle, but this is not gravel, it's just limestone substrate, and it's really rough.

Which leads to the question posed in the title to this post.  The road from Tulum down to the Sian Ka’an visitor’s center is, shall we say, rough.  It’s not paved, and it’s filled with ruts and holes.  It’s bumpy and dusty and it took us around 45 minutes to travel less than 10 miles – not fun by anyone’s definition.  And this led to an interesting discussion on the way down:  what would happen if the state were to decide to pave this road?  The answer is undebatable and was confirmed by our guide Aldo:  it would instantaneously open the reserve to streams of tourist suddenly unencumbered by the headache of a 45-minute bumpy ride.  The trickle of tourists who make their way down there – by my estimates, not more than 20 per day judging by the number of tour companies (3) and the number of tourists they give tours to (6 or less per company per day, limited simply by space in the tour boat) – would turn into hundreds, perhaps thousands.  The pristine beach, with its nesting terns, would be invaded (even with the tiny amount of people who currently come into or inhabit the reserve, we found enough trash on the beach to fill three plastic bags).  The ecological impact would be undeniable.  And who knows what else might follow…. A loosening of development restrictions?  A hotel resort?  Jet skis in the canal?  Commercial fishing of the lagoons?

Turquoise blue lagoon

Turquoise blue lagoon

So for now the road stays rutted and imposing, and to what end?  Only a small fraction of tourists can come down it, all of them privileged enough to have access to a car that can make the trip, ecologically interested enough to already want to go, and wealthy enough to afford the guided tour (which costs more than a hotel room, though it does include complementary snacks and beer).  And, it’s worth mentioning, for those who do make that trek, the ride is really unpleasant!  But this is the price we have to pay for having and preserving these ecologically near-pristine sites, and I’m not saying we should not pay it.  Certainly I’m willing to bear 45 minutes of rattled teeth for the experience itself.  Am I willing to bear the idea that the reserve is effectively closed off to anyone without means?  Well I don’t think the conversation has to end with an open-ended question – it’s not necessarily a zero-sum game, as a slight rewriting of the rules could allow access to people of all income levels without altering the ecological integrity of the site (for example, a series of free visits to local community members doled out with some kind of quota system).  But until that happens, I don’t think we should merely celebrate the beauty and uniqueness of this site without acknowledging the social inequalities that it rests upon.

Panoramic view of the bioreserve, with unnecessary human in frame

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Birds (and the occasional reptile) of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere

American crocodile








Double crested cormorant

Black vultures above a termite nest

















Great white heron

Pelican flying. . .








Pelican landing. . .

Pelican in the sea










Sea tern nesting grounds

Frigate bird!

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New Age Religion on a 1,000 Year Old Canal

We had an amazing trip through a variety of wetland habitats and ancient Maya ruins in the biosphere of Sian Ka’an. It was expensive and hard to get to, but well worth the trip in so many ways.

Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka'an

Our tour guide Aldo is an interesting man. Born and raised in the area, he is Mestizo; a mix of Mayan and Spanish blood and many cultures.  His wife is German and she assists him in running the tour business.  She has an advanced degree in Global Tourism.

His five hour tour features a boat ride through a variety of habitats, hiking through an archaeological site, lunch in Maya ruins at a spot where the ancient Maya had a post to help control trade through the canal, and finally a leisurely “float” down the canal.

Mayan Trade Route Outpost...and Our Lunch Site

Beginning the Real Water Tour


I couldn’t be in the sun as much as my traveling companions, so I opted to stay in our boat in the shade with Aldo and hear his explanation for why tourists come to this, and other Mayan sites.  Aldo turned out to be a passionate New Age believer.  Relating his beliefs to the ancient Maya Long Count calendar and the date of December 11, 2012, Aldo explained that the cycles of the cosmos are coming to an end.  But unlike many New Agers from the United States, Aldo takes a Mayan perspective on this cycle.  The world will not end, but enter a new phase when “cosmic power” will come down and move all people to the next cycle.  Those individuals who vibrate on a higher “frequency” (the “good” more advanced people who recognize the need to care for the people and environments of the world) will move on to a better and special place created for them that is different from the place that those operating on a “low” frequency (or bad people who take advantage of others and pollute the environment) will find after the cycle changes.  Aldo explained that all civilizations rise and fall, so what use is material wealth.  We should enjoy life now; take things as they come.

He believes that many tourists are drawn to his tour, and indeed other Maya sites for reasons that they may not completely comprehend.  It is possible that those tourists who seek out ancient Maya sites are actually reincarnated Maya from the past, those who may have lived here and return to find that these buildings remnants of civilization are familiar because of their previous lives here.  Aldo sometimes thinks he hears voices talking in Mayan.  It also might be that these archaeological sites are doorways to  alternative dimensions; perhaps in another dimension the Maya did not fall, but are still inhabiting these sites in balance with the land.  I now understand the growing literature on “mystic tourism” that our conversation beautifully illustrates; a syncretised belief system that explains the toured and the tourist in a very different way that other materials we have read this year.

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On Local Development and Mexican Food (Part 2)

In a very interesting comparative experience to our time at Kilometer 50 Café in the little town of Jose Maria Morelos, in the much larger, beachside, entirely tourist-oriented city of Tulum we stumbled upon something we did not expect to find:  a restaurant dedicated to Slow Food.  It began with a classic gringo tourist experience:  I was standing on the sidewalk and a young white woman approached me and said in a vaguely Germanic or Scandinavian accent, “Hola. Hello. Bonjour.  You speak English?”  When I told her I did, she handed me a flyer for a little restaurant that had just opened called La Slowteria.  It was run, she told me, by a young chef who had worked in high-end restaurants but who had recently taken an interest in the local and regional cuisines of his native Mexico.  It didn’t take much convincing for the group to decide to dine there that evening.

The place was unlike any Slow Food eatery you are likely to find elsewhere, in part because it is so new and being run on a shoestring by a very young chef who until last week was cooking at a tiny palapa thatched-roof food stand on the beach with no electricity or running water.  This should give you some sense of his passion.  The café itself is extremely modest in appearance, with a thatched roof and wooden sticks for walls, a couple of tables outside in a makeshift courtyard and a couple more inside the cramped dining room with the even more cramped open kitchen two paces away.  It’s also located behind a bus depot, and part of the unusual ambiance of the place is that every 5 or 10 minutes a huge passenger bus heaves past the café with a diesel huff.

The chef came out to greet us and personally tell us the story behind the café, the very unique menu, and each item on it.  He had grown dismayed, he said, that the only thing most tourists, and even an increasing number of Mexicans, seemed to know about Mexican cuisine was tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas.  He wanted to reinvigorate cuisine – or at least, tourist cuisine – with a sense of local ingredients, local specialties, and the more time-honored traditions of foods being made from scratch, on the spot, with few if any processed ingredients.  The menu was based on a series of playing cards from a game called El Lotto that was introduced to Mexico from Europe in the 18th century.  Each dish on the menu is named after one of the cards, and in keeping with the overall stress on aesthetics, what absolutely stunned us about all of the dishes we ordered was the presentation.

We started by splitting El Sol, a seafood soup for which the chef brought a small cast iron soup pot filled with broth to the table, proceeded to dump each of the ingredients in one by one – fresh tomatoes and onions, fresh herbs, a large leaf of chaya (“the local spinach” as he called it), a little salt, and of course the giant prawn – then a large piece of volcanic rock that he had just heated up on a direct flame, then he covered the pot.  He came back 4 minutes later to remove the rock, and voila it was cooked.  We all passed it around and sipped it with large spoons.

The Mexican salad (“La Estrella”) came next, multiple local vegetables including lettuce, shaved carrots, and pumpkin-seed sprouts with a mango-lime vinaigrette, all served inside a green wine bottle with the base chopped off.

Then came the main dishes.  El Mundo featured a fresh coconut opened with a machete (we watched him do it on a small chopping block), hollowed out, then filled with a mixture of the coconut meat, some local vegetables and herbs, a giant prawn, and tequila.  It was good though not great, mostly because the coconut meat itself was surprisingly bland.

El Musico featured three different meats – a thin strip of steak, a chunk of bacon, and a piece of pork chop, all cooked in a hibiscus reduction sauce in which the hibiscus flowers are kept rather than discarded as most chefs would do – because, as he told us, he likes the texture that the flowers add – and one chunk each of 12 different local vegetables lightly braised.  Delicious and simply unique.  Please note the Mexican wrestler whose head is inserted in the food on the right.

La Luna (“the moon” – see photo for why it’s given this name!) was a delicious black bean and cheese quesadilla where the “dough” was more like a crust made of sesame and sunflower seeds pressed together.

Jenna had El Pescado, a grouper caught fresh from local waters, marinated in fresh lime juice and roasted salt, and served with three seashells each filled with a different condiment – guacamole, roasted vegetables, and black beans.  When Jenna first saw the fish as it was being served she thought she’d have to ask for lemon or lime juice to season it, but she insists it was so perfectly seasoned that no extra juice was required.

But we’re not snobs.  For dessert I trotted over to the bus depot and had a chocolate-covered ice cream bar.

What does all this have to do with anything other than a foodie’s dreams?  Well this young chef is trying to do something pretty unique – marrying a renewed focus on authentic traditional Mexican cuisine, with an emphasis on slow and traditional preparation methods, with a subtext of local, sustainable agriculture (he has started a small garden just behind the restaurant to grow some of the vegetables he serves).  Think of the economic development possibilities if he succeeds – other restaurants take a greater interest in the local and the authentic; new restaurants open to occupy similar niches; small farms pop up to grow produce for them; Tulum becomes known as a hotspot for lovers of good, fresh, localized cuisine. . . .

On the other hand, he can’t entirely extricate himself from the same dilemma faced by Jessica, the proprietress of Kilometer 50 back in the countryside.  To take this route is to cast your lot with the tourist industry, for surely it will be wealthy foreigners who will be the largest and most consistent customer base.  Or will it?  As we sat there, a large party of eight arrived and proceeded to have what seemed to be a grand and slow old time out in the courtyard, smoking, talking, laughing, and waiting for this food to come out one dish at a time.

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Tulum and Encountering the Other

In our reading of Wearing, Stevenson and Young’s chapter “Encountering the Other”  from Tourist Cultures:  Identity, Place and the Traveller (Sage, 2010), the authors remind us that “in developing nations the indigenous inhabitants are often used as servants by the tourism industry” (p. 57). They also argue that the tourist interaction with local cultures “expose[s] relationships of inequality that are grounded in race, culture and class. . .unveiling the often concealed power relationships that privilege individuals from the Western industrialized — touring — nations” (p. 61).  

As I sat and watched the chaperoned crowds of tourists move through the site of Tulum, I realized that I saw no living Maya in this contemporary scene.

Tourists at Tulum

But wait…there were three: one man raking leaves into a garbage bag, and a man and woman who came to collect the plastic the first man had separated from the rest of his “trash” and then moved on.

A Mayan Worker at Tulum

Did any of the other tourists thronging this site see them?  I think not, as one man from Italy walked over and stood on the corner of the garbage bag to get a better shot of the pyramid behind us.  He didn’t even apologize for interfering with the Maya man’s work.  These tourists, down for the day from Cancun, were inappropriately dressed for exploring an archaeological site in their bathing suits and sandals.  Was it only my perception that these tourists seemed to be offended by the control their tour guides and the ropes on all the paths were attempting to exercise over their progress.  If I spoke Mayan, I would have apologized to the man working next to me with the garbage bag for all of us who were invading this Heritage site that belonged to the workers in ways tourists can never really understand.

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Postcard from Tulum: Bare Feet at the Ruins

Tulum is the only archaeological site that I have visited where tourists walk around with bare feet.  Here the beach is part of the archaeological zone; a swim is part of the tour.

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