Plenty of digital data indicates tourism will boom back when the COVID-19 pandemic finally ends. For more tangible evidence that the build back of travel is already on its way, see what took place at Mexico’s annual tourism conference, Tianguis Turistico, in November.
Held in Mérida, the capital of Yucatan, the conference attracted more attendees than any previous edition, according to organizers. Tour agents and travel media arrived from 56 countries to learn about what travellers may find when they begin to visit Mexico again in droves.
As the host state, Yucatan had the opportunity to showcase its “Rebirth of Tourism” campaign. Sustainability and Indigenous tourism will be the cornerstones of the plan that includes a Mayan Villages program that offers visitors a chance to spend time in the many small communities that retain a lasting connection to ancient ways of life.
“Tourists can have an experience with Mayans that is truly real. It can be with cooking or crafts or language. And you can help those communities. That may be the most important thing. You can encourage Mayans to preserve their heritage and architecture by giving them the incentive to keep going and showing they are valued,” says Michelle Fridman Hirsch, Yucatan’s dynamic minister of tourism.
The experiences she talks about can be found throughout Yucatan. Near the small town of Tekit, an hour’s drive from Mérida, the San Anastacio village welcomes visitors to explore the small huts where the hilltop community of about 50 Mayans live on farms. You can prepare tortillas under the tutelage of elderly women and learn how generations of families live under one roof that is reminiscent of the long houses used by some Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States.
In Acanceh, a larger village with paved streets and a number of storefronts, travelers can find out how Mayan textiles are made and see how the cultures of Mexico meld. A Catholic church is the main attraction and its traditions integrate with Mayan beliefs. During the Festival of Guadeloupe, the fabricated head of a white-tailed deer plays a central part, a nod to the sacred animal of Mayans in the region.
The star of Yucatan’s Mayan Village program will no doubt be the Xibalba Reserve, a new eco-tourism attraction scheduled to open to the public in June 2022. Along with crowd-pleasing features like a hammock zipline and a series of cenotes — exquisite watering holes formed naturally around calcium rocks —, the nature park designed by Grupo Xcaret has eight Mayan casitas where artisans work at their crafts.
A stunning place, Xibalba features Grand Canyon-esque stone walls with two rivers curving between them. Visitors will be able to paddle dugout canoes and swim in cenotes that have importance to Mayan culture. The Cave of Daggers features holes in the calcium rock that allow light to knife into the water. The House of Jaguars, which has one large circular opening like a sunroof, was once home to hundreds of its namesake cats, according to legend. The park’s spaces are created to tell the story of two heroic Mayan twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, and give visitors the chance to connect with the ancient heritage that is still thriving in Yucatan.
Mexico also mixes its colonial and Indigenous cultures more readily than other places. The attraction’s restaurant is in a Catholic church, which will be used for weddings and other celebrations. The food includes Mayan and Mexican dishes, like chicken tamales and empanadas stuffed with cheese and chiya (a spinach-like plant that’s key to Yucatan cooking).
“We work with investors like Xcaret to develop new experiences and build Mayan villages that help the communities,” Fridman Hirsch points out. “We’re finding that balance between how much can tourism bring opportunities and how much can it destroy something that is precious. We decided that there are no hotels in the Mayan Villages program. They can be built close to the community but not inside. Inside, there will be traditional houses where visitors can have the chance to stay if they wish, and that gives an even deeper connection.”
Xibalba is a $250 million USD park that covers 627 total acres (123 of which have been developed). It is the latest development of Grupo Xcaret, which has erected numerous environmentally focused projects in the region. This latest one is about a 90-minute drive from Playa del Carmen and Cancun in the state of Quintana Roo.
While Xibalba has major financial backing, less extravagant locations are also rewarding for visitors. The park at Santa Cruz Homun has multiple cenotes, including a long, narrow underground one that is accessed only by a series of ladders. Once on the floor, the calcium rock glimmers and the warm water of the swimming pool invites you to dip in. Above ground, the larger cenote is an exotic beauty. Santa Cruz Homun also features small cabins for rent and a casual restaurant.
About two miles west is the more luxurious Santa Rosa cenote, featuring a much wider pool that sits beneath a restaurant on the edge of a plunging rockface. The pool resembles a European-style grotto with broad stone steps leading down to the water. It is among the more picturesque cenotes you can visit in a region that has 10,000 pools fed by underground lakes formed from a meteor strike millennia ago. The restaurant has quality food and artisan shops round out the Santa Rosa experience.
The genuineness of the Yucatan experience extends to the number of home cooks who invite customers into their homes for meals served without frills but with lots of heart. Called fondas or cocinas economica, the home kitchens will be especially pleasing to foodies who want to learn about essential ingredients in Yucatan cooking. In Tekax, one of the numerous Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) located in Yucatan, Mirna is a cocina economica that will delight with its empanadas and accompaniments, including delicious habanero chile and smooth, spicy guacamole.
Tekax is also home to a viewpoint with modern amenities that overlooks the town. Located 75 miles (120 kilometres) south of Mérida, Tekax has an attractive town center that includes a hike up to the municipality’s highest point — La Ermita Hill. The site’s namesake landmark is a circa 1640 chapel atop the 285-foot (87-metre) summit. Modern touches include a bridge that leads to a gazebo behind the chapel and an elevated platform, with lights around its staircase, where visitors can linger and view the town as it turns from day to night.
Like many other places in Yucatan, Tekax is where you get a sense of Mexico’s blend of cultures and the entrepreneurial desire in the state to energize its Mayan initiatives. Yucatan’s first language is a regional dialect of Mayan, its leading attraction is Chichen Itza, and the proposed Mayan Train is among the most ambitious tourism infrastructure projects in the world and will be a massive boom for the state once it’s finished. As travelers plan their visits with greater concern for the natural world and sustainable tourism, Yucatan becomes an attractive option in Central America. The land of the Maya endures and adapts, too, for the times.
MORE ABOUT VISITING YUCATAN
Getting There: 10 North American airlines service Mérida International Airport, including United Airlines and WestJet (offering seasonal service from Toronto). Aeroméxico is the largest airline to the airport. Short flights from Cancun airport are available. The drive westward from Cancun to Mérida takes about four hours.
COVID-19 Regulations: Mexico has a strict mask mandate and Mérida follows it closely. Mexico continued to welcome travelers through the pandemic and doesn’t currently require negative tests before entry. As of December 4, approximately 50% of its population has received two vaccine doses to protect against the spread of COVID-19. Check with airlines and your home nation’s re-entry rules to be aware of the latest COVID-19 travel-related public-health regulations.