Newspaper article The Observer (Gladstone, Australia)

Mexico's Gate to Heaven

Newspaper article The Observer (Gladstone, Australia)

Mexico's Gate to Heaven

Article excerpt

Byline: MICK WEBB INDEPENDANT

IT wasn't the most elegant way of getting close to Mexican nature, but boy, was it relaxing. With my legs through the arm holes of a lifejacket, making it into a passable imitation of an armchair, I was being propelled by a gentle current down a canal that had been dug by the Mayans a millennium earlier.

The water was the temperature of a pleasant bath and clear enough to see shoals of small fish. On either side, mangrove trees Co robot-like with their arching tubular roots Co were decorated with brightly-coloured and very vocal birds. Zopilotes, a kind of vulture, cruised overhead, but the crocodiles (the only local beasts worth worrying about) were a good few kilometres away, on the coast. And, in any case, when the 45 minutes of floating was over, there was a motorboat waiting to speed me and other members of my tour group back across two turquoise, freshwater lakes to terra firma.

We were in the middle of a huge protected area: the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka'an, just below Mexico's Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of the YucatEi Peninsula. A mere 200km to the north is the mega resort of CancE[degrees]n, which is as close as you can get to Las Vegas-on-Sea in this part of the world.

The journey from there to the almost shocking contrast of this wilderness entails a drive down the coastal road (the N307), passing hotel developments, the mushrooming resort of Playa del Carmen and a clutch of Disney-like water parks. Finally, beyond the low-key town of Tulum, with its spectacular cliff-top Mayan ruins, you reach Sian Ka'an. In the language of the original Mayan people, this means: C[pounds sterling]Where the sky is bornC[yen] or, even more appropriately: C[pounds sterling]Where Heaven beginsC[yen].

The reserve, 120km long and 50km wide, is a Noah's Ark of southern Mexico's flora and fauna, for which it has been recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site. Its mix of tropical savannah grasslands, tropical forest and lagoons shelters the region's five big cats Co jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay and jaguarondi Co as well as howler and spider monkeys, four kinds of turtle, crocodiles and manatees. We'd been luckier with birds: Eduardo our guide, a biologist with a particular interest in migratory animals, had pointed out egrets, an ibis, yellow king birds and a very noisy brown jay. But this is just scratching the surface of the bird life in Sian Ka'an: around 350 species have been spotted here, including the gorgeous, rainbow-hued mot-mot and the massive but very rare jabiru stork.

The tour had started at Muyil, a right turn off the N307, 15km south of Tulum. This is one of the five entry points to the park and the one that is generally least used. The forest is higher than in most of the YucatEin, where scrubby bush is the norm, but even here the soil is very shallow, supporting a relatively small number of varieties, such as palms, fig and acacia. …

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