A Richer Tourism Experience

Just two hours south of the glitzy hotels and shops of Cancún, Mexico, lies the Zona Maya, a stretch of lush jungle dotted with the ruins of ancient Maya temples. Jaguars and pumas roam the precious forests and scarlet macaws flit across the sky. The Zona Maya is also home to communities whose languages and traditions predate colonial contact. While these cultures remain vibrant, the local economy does not: 25% of the population in the Zona Maya lives in extreme poverty, earning less than US$1.25 a day.

Maya purification ceremony

Tourists can experience traditional Maya purification ceremonies like this one.

Photo credit: Mayaka'an

Now, however, thanks to an initiative to provide indigenous peoples with ways to make sustainable livings, local people are boosting their livelihoods by sharing their rich heritage with tourists. Visitors to the Zona Maya can participate in a purification ceremony in a temascal (sweat lodge), learn how to work the old-style looms, listen to a community elder tell ancient myths, observe ancient dances, and enjoy other Maya traditions. Locals also offer tours of the beautiful canals and lagoons, opportunities to swim in cenotes, kayaking adventures, and visits to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), as well as to Maya ruins—including some smaller, lesser-known temples.

A group tours one of the many canals used by ancient Maya as a trade route

A group tours one of the many canals used by ancient Maya as a trade route.

Photo credit: Yessenia Soto

It’s all part of Maya Ka’an, a project aimed at giving rural and indigenous people in the Zona Maya a way to make a living through sustainable tourism. A joint effort of Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONAP), the Ministry of Tourism and the local NGO Asociación Amigos de Sian Ka’an (a member of the coalition Mesoamerican Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), a coalition of organizations that promotes the conservation of the Mesoamerican Reef through sustainable tourism), and funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Maya Ka’an is made up of 14 cooperatives from nine indigenous communities, all of whom participated in training workshops provided by the Rainforest Alliance, also a MARTI member. In the trainings, cooperative members learned about business management, customer service, sustainability, and marketing.

Rosa Tzab of the eight-member Sijil Noh Ha cooperative, which now receives 1,500 to 2,000 tourists per year, said, “It makes me proud to show visitors our origins, our culture, and everything we do here at the cooperative.” And for many tourists, what Tzab and the members of all the cooperatives of Maya Ka’an offer make for a rich, memorable travel experience.

People collecting dirty river water

Around the world, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.