Mayan B&Bs offer up an authentic experience

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YAXUNA, Mexico -- Adding an authentic touch to tourism on the Yucatan Peninsula, rural cooperatives of native Mayan Indians in the region are starting their own ecotourism efforts, including bed-and-breakfast holiday villages and some adventure excursions.

Three such cooperatives -- at Ek Balam, Calcehtok and here at Yaxuna, 36 miles from the ruins at Chichen Itza -- plan to pool their resources to market their tourism product jointly via one unified office and Web site out of nearby state capital Merida.

Ancient Mayan ruins, such as Uxmal, Tulum and, most spectacularly, Chichen Itza, have drawn huge numbers of tourists to this part of Mexico for decades.

But modern-day descendants of the Native American builders of the monuments benefit less from tourism than do large Mexican and overseas tourism entities that transport, feed and entertain them.

Now, local tribes are trying their hand at hospitality -- in local style, but with a hip, ecofriendly twist designed to appeal to environmentally minded travelers.

Merida-based guide and local activist Carlos Sosa Estrada is helping the Maya cooperatives organize and market themselves.

[There is] an uncertain flow of tourists as the [B&Bs] are practically new and not so well known and [the cooperatives] are not trained and not capable of selling the product themselves yet, he said.

Thats why were planning the office in Merida to promote and sell -- without a government [aid program], he added. But we still have to look for a place, request a telephone line, build a Web page and hire people to staff the office.

Its a jungle out there

Centro Recreativo Ecologico U Najil Ek Balam is a village of ecological cabins and dining facilities.The Ecological Recreation Center U Najil Ek Balam opened in January and is composed of a village of ecological cabins, thatched huts housing kitchens and a dining room, a swimming pool and a temazcal, or Mayan sweat lodge, situated 800 feet from the temple ruins at Ek Balam.

On a recent visit, the entire complex -- a 17-mile drive north of the colonial town of Valladolid -- had been booked for 16 nights by a 40-person tour group from Italy.

The hosts at U Najil Ek Balam, Mayan for House of the Black Jaguar, serve traditional cuisine, display and sell handicrafts, and put on cultural performances.

In terms of activities, guests can participate in conservation efforts or avail themselves of jungle footpaths for walks, tours of the Ek Balam ruins with a local guide, or bicycle rides to the nearby Xcanche Cenote.

Cenotes, or freshwater sinkholes, were both vital and sacred to the ancient Maya of the Yucatan, a dry tableland with no major rivers or lakes.

Today, theyre popular with visitors. At Xcanche, accessible on foot or by bike and bike taxi, the local cooperative has built a visitor complex with a first-aid booth, an artifacts workshop,

a handicrafts shop, changing and showering rooms, a rest area with hammocks and a kitchen and dining area.

Visitors can descend to swim or snorkel in the 120-foot-deep cenote by assisted rappelling or -- for the fainthearted -- a wooden staircase.

The price, about $14, includes bicycle, life jacket and snorkel equipment and assisted rappelling by multilingual Mayan guides.

Guided walking tours of Ek Balam -- now considered a major archaeological site due to carvings unearthed in 1999 -- range from about $23 for two to four people to about $60 for groups of up to 30.

Excavation vacation

The bare-bones bed-and-breakfast operation at Yaxuna, on the village outskirts near a Mayan temple excavation, was being overhauled as of mid-September and due to reopen Oct. 21.

Ten thatched guest huts -- outfitted with bed, hammock, desk, chair, ceiling fan and bathroom with toilet, shower and hot and cold running water -- were being renovated. The kitchen and dining room were also being rethatched, cleaned and re-equipped.

All cabin furniture at Yaxuna is handcrafted by cooperative members. Other local arts and crafts, including embroidery and wood carvings, are sold in the village.

The cooperative also keeps honeybees at the complex in hollowed-out, resealed logs, according to Mayan tradition.

The two beekeeping areas, or apiarios, are connected to other local sights -- including the Xhauil Cenote, San Bernardinos and Joyas caves, colonial-era Hacienda Ketelak and Yaxuna ruins -- by a network of footpaths built by members of the cooperative.

There is a second, 200-foot-wide cenote, Lol-Ha, in the village center, accessible to swimmers by a stone staircase.

A visit to the barely excavated archaeological site, a half-mile from the B&B, is an opportunity to inspect Mayan ruins largely as they were found by 19th-century explorers -- half-buried and covered with foliage.

Excavations here began only 11 years ago, and three structures have been partially cleared. Also visible is the first stretch of a 60-mile sac be, or raised Mayan road, that once ran from Yaxuna all the way to Coba, in the state of Quintana Roo.

Although it was cloudy, thanks to rainy-season storms, on a recent visit, Mayan guides claim Chichen Itzas iconic ruins are visible from atop Yaxunas own, smaller pyramid, on sunny afternoons.

The third such cooperative, Parador Turistico Calcehtok, lies 30 miles south of Merida and three miles from archaeological site Oxkintoc. It was not visited for this report.

Its the oldest such B&B effort, started eight years ago. However, a strong storm in 2003 put the B&B out of commission, and Calcehtok only reopened to guests this May.

Keep it real

While a stay at Ek Balam, Calcehtok or Yaxuna can be a window into the worlds of ecology and traditional Mayan life, it also qualifies as roughing it. Prospective guests should be forewarned.

Ecological cabins are basically traditional Mayan huts, but with concrete flooring (no tile in bathrooms), bargain-basement mattresses and no air conditioning. Guests will be living much as local Maya do, albeit with catered traditional meals.

Those in search of plusher digs near archaeological sites in Yucatan can find world-class hotels and resorts in towns such as Merida, Valladolid and Tizimin.

Nightly rates at Ek Balam, Calcehtok and Yaxuna run from about $25 to $30 per double room, not including meals.

The central B&B booking office in Merida should open by this December, said Sosa.

For more information or to book U Najil Ek Balam, call (011) 52-999 994-7488, 986-6596, 189-2728 or 119-8242, or e-mail [email protected] or [email protected].  For Xcanche Cenote tours, call (011) 52-985 858-6506.  To book Yaxuna, call (011) 52-985 858-1482/4861 or (011) 52-999 923-9453, fax  (011) 52-999 924-0933 or e-mail [email protected].

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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