Having just made my way from the fertile Carribean shores of the Costa Maya, Mexico down to the conservation-conscious paradise of Belize, I thought it was high time I reviewed some of the critters on the trail – and the places you are most likely to spot them.
Bizarre Creature: Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Habitat: Akumal Bay
Beginning in Playa del Carmen, the third largest city in the Quintana Roo region, you can enjoy some of the heady pleasures of its increasingly European trendiness combined with more natural Mexican delights – like swimming with sea turtles. If you’re hostelling, stay at the Rio Playa which offers daily tours to Akumal Bay, because it’s a good way to meet people. If you already know lots of people or are feeling antisocial, wait to get to Tulum – a town further down the coast – buy a snorkel and catch a local minibus to Akumal bay for around 30 pesos. No guidance is needed to enjoy this relatively organic turtle swimming experience, since they are sculling around in the shallows of the bay gorging on sea grasses, everywhere. Unable to decide whether they are beaky, bovine or look like someone’s granddad, my love of turtles has ballooned. I just feel a little sorry that their conservation area has been monopolised by molly-coddling tourists – like me.
Bizarre Creature: Sophomoric Fuck Lump
Habitat: Bottom of Rum-Taurine Beach Bucket
Azure ocean, champagne powder sand, condo complexs and sinful nightlife are all things to lose yourself to here, at least temporarily – and you must do it properly. Shots not shortcuts. The affectionately named Sophormoric Fuck Lump will have lowered inhibitions, wear board shorts and have at least one tribal tattoo. A common sighting of this now-native specimen is in mid-air jumping into a resort swimming pool screaming: “U S A, U S A!”. Accompanying one of these creatures on a nocturnal hunting spree is to be indulged in only once, for your health, says David Attenborough.
Creatures: Tropical birds, Crocodiles, Panthers – if you’re very lucky
Habitat: Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Tulum’s most renowned universal value is probably found in the Cenotes, deep natural sinkholes full of spectacular plunging stalactites and playing host to an etherwordly underwater experience. If you want to feint away from the beaten track and spot some creatures though, organise a trip to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. With its Mayan name translated as “Origin of the Sky”, this is one of Mexico’s largest protected areas, a eco-network of interlinking wetlands, mangroves, lagoons and tropical forests. Driven by our biologist tour guide Renee, we were jerked over twelve kilometres of bumpy rainforest track to four cayaks on the water’s edge. To our alarm, we noticed that the otherwise serene marshlands were dotted with crocodiles, who eyed us lazily (or hungrily). Assured by Renee that no one had ever been torn limb from limb, we climbed into our cayaks for three hours of rowing through pristinely entwined waterways, spotting Spoonbills, Herons, Osprey, Egrets and White Ibis along the way. After a much needed bite of vodka from a homemade Caipirinha (provided by our guide – I am jealous of his house and life), he told us the sad story of his dog: on one occasion Renee had stood between his pet and a surprise visitor – an elusive Black Panther obviously thinking it had stumbled across a snack. On another occasion, during the days that followed, the dog wandered into the surrounding rainforest and never came back. I spent the ride back to our hostel banging my head on the roof of the 4×4, and squinting into the dark for a glimpse of a Panther. Also keep an eye out for other native mammals – Puma, Ocelot, and Central Americal Tapir. These relaxed tours with knowledgable guides can be booked through The Weary Traveller hostel.
Habitat: Walls of ancient Mayan ruins/ everywhere
There were two reasons why I was excited about visiting Chichen Itza. One was of course the prospect of spiritually attuning to the ghostly presence of an ancient Mayan prophecy and gasping at the majestic remnants of this lost civilisation. The other reason was that Karl Pilkington had spent one of his finer moments there on the Sky TV series An Idiot Abroad. Karl had a moment of warm profundity with one of many giant black iguanas living among the ruins. Feeding the lizard not one but two hobnobs, which it seemed to enjoy, he considered the irony of feeding the iguana something which a Mayan human would never have tried. I tried to build such a connection with a particularly fat one basking on a wall, without food as a prop, but it just stared at me with indifference, blinked and waddled away.
Place: Caye Caulker – Belize
Creatures: Manatees, Nurse Sharks, Sting Ray
Habitat: Hol Chan Marine Reserve
The Belizean ocean is home to the second largest reef in the world, and Caye Caulker – a tiny island off northern Belize – happens to be a relaxed paradise of friendly Creole speaking locals and happy, stoned tourists. There are two main things to do in Caye Caulker: drink at The Split – an aptly named channel separating two halves of the island, which was blown apart by Hurricane Hattie in 1961, and snorkel/ dive. Although diving in the Blue Hole is widely considered to be some kind of naturalistic rite of passage, snorkelling here takes some beating too. Within only a three hour tour exploring the Hol Chan in our goggles, we saw a vibrant cross-section of marine biodiversity: harmless nurse sharks, curious tropical fish, gardens of coral, aggressive moray eels, serene turtles, and with an hour still left, our boat’s Captain passed me a large sting ray like it was a newly ironed shirt. I stood very still as it rested in my splayed arms for a good minute before sweeping away into the distance. With half an hour to go, we found ourselves floating in a broken circle around two wild manatees – a mother and a calf. This was a rare treat, since these elusive lumpy whiskered giants usually vacate the area with any sign of human presence. Eventually they got bored and swam away, the young manatee almost brushing past me as it left the circle of onlookers.
Creature: Whale Shark
Habitat: Way out in the blue deep
A two hour turbulent boat trip out into the middle of the ocean from the island of Isla Mujeres might turn your stomach, but it will be more than worth it. As I climbed from the small boat into the gaping vastness of the ocean, I felt both nauseous and slightly nervous as the ship crew and tourists started dispensing pantomimed hand gestures at my friend Sarah and I (admittedly we were holding hands). Confused, I dipped my head into the azure abyss and my view was suddenly consumed by a dark, yawning cavern mouth with white rubbery lips.
For a brief second, despite my knowledge otherwise, I thought it would swallow me whole. Panicking, I kicked my legs as hard as possible, moving from its path by mere inches. As the fright ebbed away, I was left staring at the organic submarine gliding past with wonder, its spotted skin skimming the glass of my mask before leaving me stunned in its strangely still and silent wake. Among these plankton grazing giants, with the unfathomable reaches of the ocean falling away beneath me, I experienced a kind of weightless euphoria, leaving me adrift and inarticulate. Stay at Pocna, Isla Mujeres and book your Whale Shark trip through the hostel for the lowest cost option.