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It takes a lot for me to be “outdoorsy.” Ask anyone who knows me—I have nothing but respect for Mother Nature and her glorious landscapes, from Ireland’s seaside cliffs to South America’s rainforests and beyond. But I also have a weird fear of reptiles and a tendency to get lost, so despite my wanderlust spirit, I prefer to view the majesty from behind floor-to-ceiling glass windows, on a boat, or at my most adventurous, a guided walking tour.

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So on my recent trip to Grand Velas Riviera Maya—a palm-fringed, all-inclusive resort in Playa Del Carmen, with rooms bigger than my Miami apartment, Michelin-star chefs, and an infinity pool with a swim-up bar I called home for four days—it shouldn’t surprise you that I was a little reluctant to leave Paradise to go on something called a “photo safari.” What’s a photo safari, you ask? I wasn’t sure. But apparently it would take five hours, was outside and required clothes that could get dirty. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical; but I threw on my sneakers and yoga pants and ran through the scorching Mexican heat to meet my group anyway.

When I got to the lobby, introductions were already underway. Our leaders, a new company called “Bushman Photography,” divided our group of 12 in half and led the way to their two SUVs. I followed the Founder/CEO, Mario Dib, into his and off we went to our first stop: the Sacac Tun cenote.

Having been to Mexico a handful of times before, I had seen my fair share of cenotes, or naturally formed swimming holes formed by sinkholes. But I hadn’t seen anything like this. We drove into the thick of the jungle until we couldn’t drive any farther. All that surrounded us were tall trees, bushes, and to our left, a family; apparently they owned the land we were about to explore. Mario immediately started pulling out Canon DSLR semi-pro cameras and camera bags, each with two lenses, and gave one camera to each team of two. He showed us how to set them up, how to choose the right ISO and focus, and led us down a dirt pathway maze that had been carved out of the natural rock. When it looked like we were on the edge of a cliff, a rickety wooden staircase appeared almost out of nowhere and we delicately descended two floors into the cave below. The wood creaked beneath our feet as Mario instructed us to stay quiet, silently motioning for us to photograph birds perched above, ready to fly away.

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When we got down to the bottom, the only thing in front of us was the cenote itself: a deep natural pool that flooded into the darkness of its surrounding underground cave. Once again, we thought that was the farthest we could go, but Mario pushed us farther. Before I knew it, I was waist-deep with my camera in the cold groundwater of of the Yucatan Peninsula, where the only light came from a small hole, shining over a tree sprouting from the dark waters in a way none of understood. Of course, that was exactly what Mario and his team wanted us to see; so they showed us how to focus the camera and take the perfect shot of this natural wonder—a mystical site we wouldn’t have otherwise found.

Cenote | Photo courtesy of Jennifer Agress

At this point, I was hooked. I mean, I’m no nature girl, but having come this far, I wanted to keep exploring. Fast-forward ten minutes and I was even farther into the jungle, climbing down a steep ladder, through a narrow hole in the rock, to take photos of a bat-ridden cenote 30 feet below ground. I was blown away—both by what I was seeing and myself for actually doing it.

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From then on, that feeling only grew. As we drove towards Coba Ruins, Mario enlightened us with facts about everything from trees, animals and Mexican history, to the daily lives of the locals who lived in the surrounding villages. As an environmentalist, historian and cultural enthusiast, his passion was obvious as he spoke. But what stood out more was his perspective. When we passed the rustic village of Francisco Uh May on the way there, he pointed to the community’s shack-like homes and asked us to appreciate it. “Don’t look at them as poor,” he said. “They don’t have social media to connect them to the outside world, so this is all they know. If you change your perspective, you’ll realize what you’re seeing is real Mayan culture. They’re happy.”

We pulled over at a house in Nuevo Durango, and mingled with a family of 10-plus who slept in huts and lived off their handicrafts. We wandered through the Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh monkey sanctuary at dusk, hopping over off-the-beaten-path roots and rocks while monkeys of all shapes and sizes whooped loudly in the trees above us. Just after sunset, we emerged from the jungle on the other side, admiring the massive Virgin Lagoon hidden behind it. While we took pictures of its still waters, the Bushman Photography team popped open a bottle of Prosecco and we celebrated our day together with a toast on what felt like Mexico’s undiscovered turf.

Monkey Sanctuary | Photo courtesy of Mario Dib

Through their tours, Bushman Photography aims to show you the “other” side of Mexico; not what you see at the resort and now what you see on TV. Powered by the tools at their disposal, their cameras, they use their surroundings to give us something better than a tour: They give perspectiveabout our world, our environment, and how to care for the people and ecosystems that exist in it together.

“Photography is my way to bring awareness about earth; it’s my window for wonder,” Mario says. “When you visit a place for the first time, a camera is an excellent tool to use to focus on what you are looking at. When we have a camera, we’re subconsciously forced to disconnect from our thoughts and connect with the place we are actually at. The picture you take, then, is the mechanism that helps you share that experience and immerse everyone else in that same feeling you felt as the photographer.”

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And while we were done taking photos for the day, we weren’t done learning. We never would be. As we sipped our Prosecco by Virgin Lagoon—completely unbothered by the fact that we had been gone for almost 7 hours, instead of the previously-dreaded five—we listened intently as Mario shared his truth: To continue seeing beautiful ecosystems like these, we first have to make a point to preserve them.  

“Every other culture in history has told stories of being connected to nature; nature was their mother, their father, or the source of their existence,” he told us. “Now we tell stories that we are separate from nature and we are superior to it. I think that sense of alienation has let us to degrade the earth.”

And as Mario points out, all we really have in this world is planet Earth… and each other.

Soho Virgin Lagoon | Photo courtesy of Mario Dib

“We are all one species; one single individual. We exist as a single species on this planet. Every different creature, atmosphere, soil and ocean work together, and through history, life on earth has kept the optimal conditions for evolution to continue. When you look at the earth in a more profound way, you realize the whole planet is really just one, single living system,” Mario says. “To preserve it, we need to open our hearts to the awe of existence, and most importantly, once again connect with what we really are.”

Bushman Photography offers both private and public tours for groups of 2 to 12. Pick-up and drop-off points are chosen by the client. Full-day excursions include lunch at one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s premier local restaurants, and every participant gets to take home the memory card with all of their photos. For more information about Bushman Photography, visit www.bushmanphoto.com.

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Tagged: Cancun, Mexico

Jennifer Agress

Jennifer Agress

Jennifer is a Miami-based writer and editor who loves good food, a better martini and traveling every chance she gets. She writes about luxury travel, dining and lifestyle for Travel Weekly, Private Air Luxury Homes, Preferred Travel, Modern Luxury Weddings, INDULGE Miami, Thrillist, NUVO Magazine and more. When she’s not on a plane, she’s likely plotting her next adventure—follow @JenniferAgress on Instagram to see where she lands.

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