Fine white sands slide between your toes with each step, slow rolling turquoise waters meet a cerulean sky just as the deep red hues of sunset are staining it purple. There is a breeze, but just enough to blow your hair from your face romantically as you walk with a pair of designer flip-flops dangling from one hand. The other hand holds a drink…something tropical with a small paper umbrella stuck into the blended ice. Before heading back up the beach for dinner on the veranda of your sky-scraping resort hotel… you stop to watch the sun sink below the waves, you breathe out with a sense of victory and a smile… all this and for so cheap!
In the 1970’s Cancun was a small town on the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico – a small town with a beautiful climate, white sandy beaches and gentle waters. It was just too idyllic to leave alone and within the decade the Mexican government – according to the public statement – began to promote hotel development along the coastline in order to produce a tax revenue for Quintana Roo an area wrestled from Mayan indigenous communities in 1915 and registered officially as a Mexican state in 1974. Masquerading as an eco-friendly, well controlled plan the developers soon had title to the entire coastline and audaciously named it the “Mayan Riviera”.
Removing the soil-supporting shrubs and beach vines which retained the beautiful white sand, clearing mangrove forests which broke up the force of seasonal storms and subsequently adding intensely heavy structures has all led to severe erosion of the coastline. Apart from the complete alteration of the regional eco-system, erosion of beaches represents loss of tourism for the area and in turn loss of hotel earnings and ultimately jobs. It has recently been calculated that the money generated via tourism in the Cancun area produces 1/3 of the national total. So influential are those tourist dollars that in 2010, directly following an especially severe hurricane and an equally severe loss of sand from around 8 miles of its’ beaches, the Mexican government decided to invest the equivalent of 70 million US dollars into a project to replenish the sand by vacuuming the ocean floor. A hopelessly temporary solution and one that causes long-term damage, some scientists report, to the worlds second largest coral reef structure just off the same coastline, the sand was re-deposited onto the beaches in front of hotels and the tourists continued to arrive.
I had been living in Tlaquepaque for about a month when I met Jen at the university in Guadalajara. I was in the habit of ordering freshly made quesadillas and a cup of cafe de olla from the small kitchen on campus in the afternoons and sitting to read at a table near the open air courtyard and she began to sit with me. A Canadian, she was in Mexico studying soil erosion and dropping water tables at Lago Chapala, a large fresh water lake which had supplied the city for generations. We began exploring the city together, becoming regulars at a delicious Italian restaurant with wild mushroom pasta, a fair trade coffee shop, and the most delicious Sunday brunch. Apart from eating we had decided to do some traveling together. Our first destination was a remote beach named Maruata on the Michoacan coast. We took a highway bus, transferred to a local version and then jumped off at a small road sign with the beaches name.
Unclear about the full “lay of the land” and only seeing open-air hammocks, we accepted the offer of a friendly looking woman, agreeing to pay a fee for the night in a wooden shed behind her small restaurant. The rest of the day we enjoyed the beach and spent some time swinging lazily from hammocks strung in rows under palm from palapas. It was so beautiful, the weather was perfect, and we seemed to be the only travelers around. The postcard quickly disintegrated as we returned that evening to our dark shed, the flies and heat which were both trapped miserably inside and set to a soundtrack of stray dogs curious enough about our scent to circle the shed continuously – made for a deliriously sleepless and somewhat paranoiac night. As soon as the sun rose graciously above the horizon, we escaped the shed to scout for alternate options.
The charm of secluded beaches relies in part on their inherent lack of hotel selections. Apart from the random hammock, there were really no fixed hotel rooms for us to rent out. Except the ‘eco-cabanas’ built on perhaps the most privileged cliff side of the entire area and nearly three times our anticipated budget. Faced with leaving our packs unattended in sand while we swam and slept or the miserable shed we decided to stretch for a private cabana and move on with the day in paradise. Rocky islands reaching out into the water separated each of the three beaches and provided for distinct swimming environments. Incredibly, we had all three beaches nearly to ourselves. We gravitated to one of the beaches in particular and spent the rest of the day swimming. Sometime during the middle of the afternoon a woman balancing a large covered basket on her head approached us. Carefully managing the graceful loop from crown to knee, she displayed her wares… fresh-baked empanadas of all kinds. Miraculous! I could not understand the logistics of running an oven on the beach until… inviting me into her beach tent, she proudly revealed her sand-floor kitchen and small oven in question.
Our new accommodations included a private hammock strung up outside the room and overlooking one of the beaches. The second morning I woke early to enjoy the morning light bleeding into the sand below. My bare toes gripping cement, swinging quietly I contemplated my role as tourist in a place like Maruata. The light dispersed in a cool yellow, and I watched small groups of men help each other flip over fishing boats and push them through the sand into the waves. Later that day we would seek out a shady plastic table and one of their wives would plate their catch for us, perfectly aware that we had slept in the most expensive hotel in the area. I took a drink from a water bottle in my hand and thought about Cancun.