Where the sky meets the sea in Quintana Roo
By Catherine Dunn Original Print Publication: July, 2008
Cameron Boyd was on vacation ten years ago when he discovered the 405-meter stretch of white beach. At the time, the oceanfront property was home to the ruins of an abandoned hotel and some chital palms. It sat just south of the Tulum archaeological site in the state of Quintana Roo, inside the Sian Ka’an Biosphere.
Boyd bought it and turned the land into what is now the Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an (CESIAK), a collection of fifteen tent-cabins on stilts, a restaurant, and the launch point for tours of the Biosphere’s mangrove-filled lagoon, once part of a trade route in the Mayan empire. The business’s revenues maintain a staff of thirty-four and pay for environmental educational programs for schoolchildren in Tulum, beach cleanups, and staff to monitor the four turtle species that nest here beginning each May.
The founding principle of the project was to combine ecological and economic sustainability. He was interested, he says, in “a way to combine some income- generating activity with conservation work.”
As a commercial venture inside the Biosphere, CESIAK has to abide by a lengthy list of strict rules. “We’re very much regulated in everything we do— which I think is a positive thing,” Boyd says.
For example, CESIAK’s structures can cover only 1 to 2 percent of the total surface area of the property. All of their equipment, down to the kayaks, is documented, registered, and insured. Voluntarily, CESIAK captures rain water, runs mostly on wind and solar power, and employs composting and special waste treatment systems—all while catering to about 500 people per month who sign-up for kayaking, boating, bird-watching, and fishing tours.
“I think the answer is ‘Yes, it can work’,” says Boyd, 34, who wrote a college thesis on protected lands in Africa before becoming an environmental sciences teacher.
In addition to CESIAK, he now owns a similar ecological center in Belize.
“Certainly no one’s getting rich off of it,” he adds, “[but] it is self-funding.”
Sian Ka’an, which means “where the sky begins,” encompasses about 657,000 hectares that include the coral reef in the turquoise Caribbean Sea off the coast, the powdery beaches, and the lagoon on the other side of a narrow dirt-packed road. The area became a UNESCO biosphere in 1986, and is regulated by the Mexican government according to the United Nations’ “Man and the Biosphere” guidelines. A core zone—“where no activity can take place whatsoever,” Boyd explains—is surrounded by a buffer zone of palm-dotted land, lagoon, beaches, and coral reefs.
CESIAK leads its tours in this buffer zone. My cousin and I were signed up for one on a windwhipped day. We looked to the skies and questioned whether we should be venturing into the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve by boat. But no matter: our guide Jorge, an ornithologist who has been working as a researcher in the biosphere for ten years, picked us up at our hotel in Tulum, and the van bumped down the road from Sian Ka’an’s northern entrance.
Over the next several hours we explored seven ecosystems on foot, by boat, and floating in life jackets through the mangroves. Starting with our backs to the roiling sea, we picked our way along the spongy, damp floor of the chital forest, where blue crabs scurried sideways and termite nests clung to tree trunks. We came out from the chital and found ourselves among the gray-button, white, and black mangroves before boarding a small motorboat that took us into the labyrinthine channels of mangrove and savanna islands. We spotted orchids, cormorants, herons, and stopped at a little Mayan temple. The Mayans traded fruits and cacao along these waters, from the Yucatán peninsula to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize.
By the time we circled back to CESIAK for lunch, we were thoroughly soaked—not just from our swim through the mangroves, but from Tropical Storm Arthur, which broke while we were on our tour.
In fact, hurricanes pose the biggest threat to CESIAK’s business. Tourist traffic drops after one strikes, and there are high rebuilding costs. If a hurricane were to destroy part of the center, they could rebuild, but unlike the proprietors of hotels and bungalows just a few kilometers away on Tulum’s tourist strip, they would have to pass through a rigorous review and permit process all over again. Boyd says it certainly would have been easier to set up a straight tourism venture outside the biosphere. And there are times when the financial risk can seem “scary.” But the business is standing on its own legs, the turtles are nesting, and hundreds of school kids are learning about their neighboring ecosystem.
Boyd thinks he’s stayed true to the vision he had a decade ago.
“I’m pretty proud of that,” he says