Mar 31 2009

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Go green: eco-friendly Mexico vacations

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Mexico vacation By Lena Katz

Whether you’re heading straight to Cancun or taking a jeep to an undeveloped beach village, Mexico vacations have endless eco-travel adventures that will amaze and engage. And since you can’t see everything — in one trip or a thousand — here are some I think are the best, just to inspire you in time for Earth Day.

The Riviera Maya is best known for Cancun, but moments away from that highrise heaven, some of Mexico’s biggest and best “green” attractions await. Taking the spotlight this year is Tres Rios, the ecological preserve eight miles outside Playa del Carmen. Though Tres Rios has existed for 8 years, it’s garnering worldwide attention right now because of the opening of Hacienda Tres Rios, a beautiful and tranquil eco-hotel located right on the beach, at the convergence of three rivers and the Pacific Ocean.

Hacienda Tres Rios sets a new standard for “green” luxury: no longer defined by furnished “tent-alows” or boutique spa retreats, this category now encompasses large properties with gourmet restaurants, shops and wonderfully comfortable guest rooms featuring mini-bars and balcony hot tubs. The property was designed and constructed from the ground up to conform to rigorous sustainable tourism standards; the developers conducted studies and observation for four years before breaking ground. Now nearing completion, the 326-acre Tres Rios property includes 150 acres of nature preserve, much of which is open to visitors. Features include ten cenotes (natural spring pools fed by underground rivers), a kayak-able river, interpretive nature walks and an offshore reef.

Long before developers considered “greening” Playa del Carmen, the tiny island of Isla Mujeres (Isle of Women), just a stone’s throw off the eastern coast of the Riviera Maya, was destined for sustainable tourism. This idyllic little island was sacred to pre-Columbian Mayans for centuries…and after Europeans discovered it, it was used primarily as a pirate getaway and a fishing village. These days, it’s a very popular daytrip destination, with the main activities being snorkeling, beach volleyball, exploring on foot or by golf cart (there are no cars), and swimming with whale sharks. Popular visitor attractions are El Garrafon Marine Park, the sea turtle farm on Sac Bajo, and  the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple to the moon goddess, Ixchel.

Mexico vacation Though most people only think of Cozumel as a cruise ship stop, this island is actually a renowned diving destination that’s determined to keep its on- and off-shore landscapes pristine — and also to protect its rare flora and fauna. Dedicated conservation programs within the island’s parks and preserves protect the marine turtles, crocodiles, nesting birds and mammals. Chankanaab is the largest park on Cozumel. Faro Celarain is an eco-reserve known for its sea turtle sanctuary. San Gervasio is the site of Mayan ruins — like Isla Mujeres, sacred to the moon goddess Ixchel.

Though among the most crowded of the Riviera Maya’s attractions, the ruins of Chichen Itza outside Tulum are absolutely amazing and belong at the top of every Mexico vacation “must-see” list. Ditto for the Gran Cenote that’s next-door-neighbors with Tulum. Annoyingly, motorized transportation is the only logical way to reach the ruins or the cenote — and tour buses seem to be most people’s favored vehicle. Have patience, head a little further south, and you’ll reach 1.3 million acre Sian Ka’An Biosphere Reserve, the largest reserve on Mexico’s eastern coast. Massive Sian Ka’an has five public entrance points, 23 archaeological sites, and is an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you’re fully surrounded by the jungle, the sea and the legacy the Mayans left behind.

Xel-Ha and Xcaret are two aquatic theme parks that are family-friendly in the extreme, ecologically and culturally conscious, and easy to spend a day in apiece. The multi-faceted natural glory of the Riviera Maya is neatly collected and presented for guests of Xel-Ha. Enjoy the River Float, the Turtle Camp, the Grotto El Dorado, the Mayan Cave… At Xcaret, a Mayan village has been re-created at the water’s edge. By day, guests swim in the natural lagoon, play with dolphins, and float down underground rivers. At night, they witness a one-of-a-kind stage spectacular performed by a cast of hundreds.

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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and food, but her heart belongs to NYC.

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