If you smile at a crocodile…

In the heart of Cancun, Laguna Nichupté is another of the regions natural wonders. It is a system of lagoons that comprise over three thousand hectares, it has seven lakes and communicates to the Mexican Caribbean ocean through two channels. Nichupté is full of mangroves and an astonishing biodiversity of plant and animal species. Including large crocodiles known to have attacked dogs, a few distracted tourists and silly pedestrians who don’t mind the warning signs. So best see the Laguna Nichupté from the safety of a boat.

Entrance to the underworld

The South of Mexico is rich in history and natural beauty. Mayans inhabited this area of the country and studied natural phenomena. Even though they were great astronomers and scientists at their time, they also believed in many Gods and explained some natural events with beliefs.

Cenotes were used as both, source of water; and, for Mayan people they were believed to be the gateways to the underworld or afterlife and their god Xibalba. Being sacred, these water wells, were protected by the Mayan people with Alux – a clay made spirit. Mayans used to perform sacrificial offerings in cenotes.

Cenotes are limestone cave-pools with crystal clear water due to the slow filtering through the ground of rain water. The word derives from the Mayan tz’onot or ts’onot, which means water well or abyss.

Near Cancun, Gran Cenote, a semi-open cenote, provides access to the second-largest cave system in the world, Sac Aktun – with over 215 km mapped passages. The opening of the cave has enough light to see the underwater columns of stalagmites and stalactites while still being in the dark. In the cave you can see bats flying around and the refreshing crystal clear water makes it possible to see the small turtles and fish swimming around.

Hurricane approaching

Tulum is an ancient walled city perched on the edge of a cliff in the Mexican Caribbean. A city of its kind in its era for it is the only archeological site close to the sea. Tulum is believed to have been a major trading and religious center between the 11th and 16th centuries. Goods like turquoise, jade, cotton, food, copper bells, axes, and cacao beans were traded here.

It is estimated that the population of Tulum was once 1,600 people and was one of the few Mayan cities that were still inhabited when the Spaniards invaded Mexico. Its population was, however, mainly wiped out by diseases brought by the Spanish and the rest killed by the intruders.

The word Tulum means “wall, trench or fence” in the Mayan language. A fitting name as the wall around the city is three to 5 meters (16 ft) in height, 8 m (26 ft) thick and 400 m (1,300 ft) long on western wall parallel to the sea. Though the original ancient name of the city is said to be Zama, meaning “dawn” or “sunrise”.

Mayans were superstitious and feared thunder and lightning but were amazing astronomers and scientists which meant they predicted astronomical manifestations with stunning precision. The wind temple in Tulum is said to whistle whenever a hurricane is coming.

Eventful history of a beach resort

Perched at the top of the Caribbean, around 23 kilometers of white sand beaches are the home of 700,000 residents and attract a few million of tourists every year. Cancun beaches are actually made of crushed coral, this the sand will generally feel cool underneath bare feet – despite the weather.

These white beaches and turquoise crystal clear waters see thousands of turtles return to their original home to lay eggs around May. The turtles nests are located right in the middle of the Hotel Zone in Cancún. Fortunately, the eggs are protected and safe from harm as residents, hotel owners and tourists alike are encouraged to participate in this labour.

Cancun’s history has been eventful. The development of the resort area for tourism began in January 1970. Before then, it is said that only 3 residents called this island a home. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hit Cancun and wrecked almost half of the beaches. Over $70million was invested into a restoration project, which dug up gallons of sand from the sea bed to rebuild the white beaches of Cancun.

Additionally, Cancun has been battling with sargassum seaweed for the past several years; especially this past year was a very difficult year for the tourism sector. Sargassum is a naturally occurring phenomenon in the summer, but it has increased over the last several years. Its increment is an indication of pollution and increased damage caused by human activity.

This rapid intensification of sargassum represents a latent threat for the destruction of reefs, the erosion of beaches, the tourist contraction and an impact on an important income of the national Gross Domestic Product for Mexico. Despite the allegations of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who does not consider the seaweed to be particularly problematic. Even after the government has contributed $2.6 million USD towards removal efforts.

It is not all gloom though. Sargassum has triggered research and experimentation for its uses and recycling. It recently has been used in the preparation of blocks or bricks to be used in construction, where it is ecologically more friendly and economically more profitable than its alternatives. Other uses for the sargassum are in the pharmaceutical and textile industries, or the seaweed has been converted into biofertilizer. 

With all its ups and downs, for now, Cancun remains a favourite holiday destination. Though beware of the season for it will define the type of fellow tourists you share these white sandy beaches with.

The black panther

There are actually two species that are referred to as black panthers: black jaguars and black leopards. If they didn’t live so far apart they would be confused with each other. In fact the only easy difference is that jaguars, in their yellow colour, have spotty spots. Jaguars have black dots inside some of their spots (rosettes), whereas leopards don’t. However, this “easy” difference becomes quite hard to see when these cats are melanistic, that is, a black coat or entirely black. Whilst the spots are still visible, distance makes them harder to distinguish.

About six percent of jaguars will be all black. In the same way, there are also jaguars that are all white or albino jaguars. Both black and white jaguars are exactly like all other jaguars in every other way; they are just a different color.

There is a big need for conservation of these rare black cats. They need to be taken seriously as they are at a high risk of becoming extinct with an estimated population of only around 600 worldwide.

Royal village of Chiapa

At 2100 meters above sea level, and one hour from the capital city of the state of Chiapas, lies San Cristobal de las Casas. This iconic Mexican city is seated at the center of an ancestral Mayan region hence why there is a high density of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples. The city is even still known by its indigenous Tzotzil name, Jovel.

San Cristóbal de las Casas was first established as a settlement in 1528 by the Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, who named it Villarreal de Chiapa. The city still preserves its stunning and unique colonial architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and roofs covered in red clay tiles, pedestrian only streets, bright and colourful houses, and its singular 16th century baroque cathedral which overlooks the main square in the centre of town. This cathedral has an unique façade, broad mishmash of architectural styles, and has become a symbol of this city and the state of Chiapas. Anyone who has grown up in this corner of the world will know they are home at this the yellow and red sight.

Like the Mayans

The place of origin of tamales is disputed amongst many countries, however it is true that corn is from Mexico and it was Mexicans who taught the world how to cook it and its many uses which makes one assume that tamales were probably originated in this country. Even the name comes from the náhuatl tamalli, which means wrapped.

This dish is originally indigenous, prepared with corn dough (masa) with a filling and wrapped with corn, banana, maguey or avocado leaves depending greatly from the region they come from. Most tamales are steamed to cook. Tamales are popular for festivities, christmas posadas, day of the dead ofrendas, Candlemas day or birthdays.

Chiapas has the greatest variety of tamales and there have been found mayan hieroglyphs of tamales and traces of tamales in tombs highlighting the importance of this dish for the “Chiapanecos” since prehispanic times. Such is the variety of tamales in Chiapas that even how the masa is prepared and used changes the name of a tamal.

As with many dishes in Mexico, the effort of making tamales is proportional to their deliciousness. And learning the fine art of tamal-making certainly gives one a different appreciation for this exquisite dish.

The lung of the city

Surrounded by concrete, Joyo Mayyu is said to be the lung of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Opening before sunrise, and together with the park Caña Hueca, it gives early risers a space to exercise and a free space for families to gather.

Joyyo Mayu, “flower of May” in Zoque, has two natural waterholes and a lake that are home to fish off the region; it is also full of endemic old trees of Zapote, Matilisguates y Mango and other smaller plants of the region providing shade and refuge to anyone who wishes to escape the heat of the Chiapas capital city.

Nowadays people can visit the air park, paddle in boats in the lake, canoodle under the giant trees or simply stroll and breathe some fresh air.

From generation to generation

In Nahuatl, mulli or molle, in english, sauce. This sauce is possibly the most iconic of the sauces of Mexico; though not everyones cup of tea or chocolate in its case. The complex and rich taste of mole is strong and divisive, either it is loved or hated; it can be said that its taste can be classified as “acquired”. Regardless, it is a popular sauce in many parts of central and south of Mexico and has gained popularity worldwide as it is part of Mexico’s culinary and cultural identity.

There are many legends about the origins of the iconic dish called Mole. Some say it was created by the cook fray Pascual in the convent of Santa Rosa to receive the visit of the viceroy of the New Spain. The cook accidentally mixed all ingredients when trying to put some order in the kitchen. Another story says that a nun, in the same convent, ground in a metate many different chillies and condiments to create a dish for a celebration; the result, something so delicious that even on its own in a tortilla was delicious. But the most commonly told story is a mix of those stories, saying that a bishop was visiting a convent. Due to bad weather, the nuns couldn’t go to the market and had to make do with what they had mixing whatever they could find in their pantry together. The nuns then ground all ingredients in a metate to make a sauce. The result we now know as mole.

There are different kinds of mole. The most commonly known is the Poblano – named after Puebla, the city where mole originally comes from; moles from the south of Mexico like Oaxaca and Chiapas are much darker and thicker as they have more chocolate and nuts than chillies, therefore is sweeter. There are other varieties and colours: green mole, black, yellow red mole. However, Mexican households have their own family recipe that is passed down from generation to generation.

Whatever the chosen recipe, making mole from scratch takes some serious dedication, a time-consuming labor of love, effort, and ingredients, sometimes 30 ingredients, sometimes even 100.

Whatever the type or way of making mole, it is something reserved for special occasions and it is always the family recipe that is preferred.

Night butterfly caterpillar

Mexican indigenous consume more than 200 insect species die to their high nutritional contents (somewhere between 10 – 77% of protein depending on the species). Amongst most of the Tzetzal speaking towns, the Arsenura Armida, commonly known as zats or tsats, is enjoyed between June and August when it is easiest to pick. The word zats or tsats means worms in Tzotzil even though it is really a caterpillar for the nocturnal butterfly.

The worms are found in rubber trees mainly in Chiapas in the municipalities of Chilón, Ocosingo, Huitiupan, Simojovel and Yajalón. They are cleaned, ie. the bowels removed, and cooked in salty water for at least an hour. Some deep fry it and add salt, lime and chilli. The sats are then enjoyed as a snack or in a taco and sometimes bought in the street markets. Maybe one day I will venture to try them…