The Riviera Maya is a pretty special place. And because of that, as we’ve mentioned, the population in the area is growing at a pretty rapid rate. Last I heard, Playa del Carmen is the fastest growing city in Latin America. That kind of growth brings lots of opportunities to the area, including lots of jobs and lots of money all based around tourism. Currently, though, the tourism seems to only stretch so far and is managed (and profited from) primarily by big corporations. There are large sections and people of the Yucatan Peninsula going ignored and undiscovered. Which is a huge shame because there are people and cultures and communities with stories to tell, experiences to share and hand made goods to purchase if people are willing to step just a bit off the beaten path.
Recently we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to take a step off that beaten path and visit a community in the Maya Zone of the Riviera Maya called Señor. Yes, the name of the town is Mr. (I would say it’s the best town name I’ve come across here but a few weeks ago we drove through the town of Poop, so for now it gets second place). In addition to the really cool name, we found out that it’s also a really cool place to visit. Señor is located about a 2.5 hour drive from Playa del Carmen so to make it a single day trip we had to head out super early.
Our trip was organized through Ojos Mayas, an organization that is trying to revitalize community tourism by connecting tourists and travelers directly with the communities and people in the Maya Zone. The goal of community tourism is to make sure that the money generated from tourism goes directly to the people who are providing the services. Our small group of 8 was led by our guide Marcos who spoke Mayan, Spanish and a little bit of English. Thankfully we also had an English translator, and not just because I’m learning Spanish at a very slow pace. Have you ever heard Mayan spoken? Very cool sounding, but also very hard to understand.
First stop was at the local doctor’s office. And by doctor, I mean the local healer. The closest doctor that offers westernized medicine is more than 30 minutes away and can be an expensive trip via cab or bus. So everyone in town visits the traditional healer. She claims she has plants and herbs that can cure everything from bad breath and smelly armpits to snake bites and breast cancer. One plant that she shared with us was extremely poisonous. She told us that for teeth problems a tiny dot was applied to the hurt tooth. which makes it immediately stop hurting. Sounds great right? Then she told us that several days later tooth basically breaks apart and falls out. Well, I guess that’s one way to deal with a cavity.
Next we headed to the home of Don Abundio, an elder in the town. He estimates his age at 94 or 95, there’s no record of his birth so he’s not sure. His secret to longevity? He told us he doesn’t drink any Coke and doesn’t eat azucar (sugar). I ignored the cigarettes that were never far from his hand, I figure if you can make it to that age you can do pretty much whatever you want. He sat in his hammock and gave us an oral history of the area dating back to the Caste War fought between the Spanish, Mexican and Mayans. I had no idea, but the Yucatan area was not actually part of Mexico until relatively recently – recently being the 1900s. Truly fascinating and eye-opening stuff. His Dad actually fought in the battles. While some of his stories seemed a bit….stretched…he is a natural born storyteller and gave a good historical perspective and struggles of the area.
The one thing that Jason really wishes we had in our apartment? A hammock. Fortunately we met this guy who showed us how one is made. It’s woven out of sisal, a variety of the agave plant. So hammocks and tequila come from the same category of plant. Genius. This just makes so much sense.
The community also has melipona (stingless) bees for honey production.
The area is also awash in cenotes and freshwater lakes. We stopped by nearby Laguna Azul to cool off. I’ll admit, for a moment I got a little homesick, it is strikingly familiar to a lake we used to spend a lot of time at back in the United States (palm trees aside).
After all of that we had worked up quite an appetite and headed to a lunch prepared by the locals. And oh my god, the food that they served? Amazing. Eggs, beans, vegetables and freshly-made tortillas. So simple and so delicious.
Before we left we took a moment to check out some of the items that the people in the area have created using the goods and tools we had just learned about. Beautifully crafted and the best part about purchasing things here is that the money went directly to the person who had created them – no middle man.
When we were driving back to Playa (while everyone else was sound asleep) I was thinking about the hundred other towns that we have driven through on our adventures throughout Mexico. I have no doubt each one of them has a story to tell and an experience to share. While we couldn’t stop in all of them, I’m wishing we had stopped in at least a couple of them (especially Poop). Ojos Mayas is planning to add additional destinations to communities in the Maya Zone in the near future. I can’t wait, sign us up!
The Ojos Mayas tour to Señor is $1500 MX and includes round-trip transportation, guide, the tour and lunch. A good deal that goes to a great cause.