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Natural Attraction: For the Dedicated Ecotourist, Mexico Has It All

As more meeting and incentive trips incorporate environmental and social responsibility, ecotourism is becoming more popular. And with 22 biosphere reserves, 47 national parks and nine protected areas, Mexico has much to offer in terms of ecotourism.

Depending on the demographics of your meeting or incentive group, there’s a Mexican destination that’s ideally suited to their interests and desires. Those who love trekking can discover the fascinating habitats of thousands of indigenous species. Participants can do research, go on photo safaris, or simply observe and appreciate such species as the gray whale and the monarch butterfly.

For just about any “ecotourist,” taking a trip across the country and witnessing the forest, jungle and desert landscapes provides a crash course in geology. You might come across ancient fossils or see a meteor shower; and you’ll develop a greater appreciation for animal and plant life and the importance of environmental education in this vast and varied country.

The indigenous people of Mexico also make “ethnotourism” possible, as they allow you to come in close contact with their local cultures and become involved in their lives as they go about their daily routines in rural areas.

Here are some of the many places you can experience ecotourism in Mexico:


Cancun is a paradise surrounded by jungles, parks and nature reserves. Here you’ll find numerous exotic birds, endangered animals and abundant and spectacular marine life. You can also explore sinkholes, underground rivers, caverns and caves where bats and other species live. At crocodile farms and turtle sanctuaries, you can learn about the reproductive processes and lifecycles of these species, as well as help protect the region’s hawksbill turtles.

Located about 40 miles fom Cancun off the Cancun-Tulum Highway, the natural and manmade attractions at Xcaret offer a wide array of activities – you can swim in underground rivers as you admire ancient rock formations, visit a tropical aquarium, watch an enactment of a Mayan ball game, or gaze at flamingos.

A little further south you’ll find Xel-Ha, where the turquoise-colored waters of the lagoon, the relatively calm rivers and the lush jungle offer a truly unique environment by the sea. Within the jungle area, you’ll find various sinkholes that were once used in ancient Mayan rituals.

Separated from the mainland by the Yalahan Lagoon, Holbox Island is far enough removed from civilization to allow you to forget about everything and enjoy some quiet relaxation. To get there from Cancun, head north about 100 kilometers/62 miles to the town of Chiquila. There you’ll have to cross Yalahan Lagoon in a boat to arrive at the island. The inhabitants are fishermen, and they can guide you around the island. In the morning, on a stroll along the beach, you’ll see dozens of pelicans and seagulls hunting for fish. Later, you’ll spot them perched on rustic piers in a perfect setting for those who like to observe indigenous plants and animals.

Isla Contoy is a nearly uninhabited island. The only way to get there is by taking a tour boat from Cancun. It’s the most important bird reserve in the Mexican Caribbean, with more than 115 aquatic, migratory and indigenous species. Sandy dunes and bushes predominate. It also has various shallow lagoons that attract numerous animal species.

Akumal, located 105 kilometers/65 miles south of Cancun, is a quiet place where different marine turtle species arrive to lay their eggs. This is the ideal place for those looking for the calm and balance that nature offers. In this area there are also more than 200 underground caves, some 150 meters/500 feet deep. Akumal is also a great spot for snorkeling, kayaking and hiking.

Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Reserva Ecologica de Sian Ka’an has 23 archaeological sites, as well as more than 859 plant species, such rare species as the jaguar and the mantled howling monkey, and 47 kilometers/30 miles of coastline near the second most important coral reef in the world.

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Puerto Vallarta

Puerto Vallarta has a lot to offer nature lovers – reserves, hiking, sea turtle sanctuaries and an abundance of flora and fauna. The splendid natural scenery is one of the main attractions of this destination, supported by the wide variety of wildlife inhabiting its marshes, which serve as breeding grounds for fish and crustaceans. Crocodiles and birds also nest there, hiding in the foliage of the vegetation.

From November through April, you can take a boat out to see whales and their offspring, or perhaps witness their mating rituals. If you’re lucky enough, a curious young whale may come right up to your boat and let you touch it. You can also have the captivating experience of swimming with sea lions and dolphins.

In Islas Marietas you’ll find such indigenous species as the blue footed booby and the green military macaw, which unfortunately are in danger of extinction. You’ll also have the opportunity to see the blackthroated magpie jay, the duck-billed frog, or even the simple green frog. From December through March you can also go whale watching.

Los Arcos is a nature reserve with a fascinating landscape that’s known for its three arch-shaped rock formations. Here you’ll find all the lush vegetation of the Sierra Madre – pines, oaks, oyamel firs and junipers. There are also 366 species and 10 subspecies of birds – a real treat for bird watchers.

The turtle sanctuary at Boca de Tomates allows you to actively contribute to Puerto Vallarta’s nature conservation efforts during the months of July and December by helping protect marine turtles and their offspring during the hatching process. The eggs recovered from the beaches are incubated in special nurseries, where they remain protected and safe from danger for 45 days.

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Los Cabos

Unparalleled beauty is Los Cabos’ strongest attribute. And ecotourism is a truly unique experience in Los Cabos, thanks to its rich ecosystem consisting of desert landscapes, dunes, cacti, abundant marine life and estuaries where turtles make their habitat. What’s more, each year the gray whale migrates from the cold waters of the Arctic Ocean to mate along the warm coast off Los Cabos and spend the winter.

Located on the East Cape, slightly more than 60 kilometers/35 miles from San Jose del Cabo, Parque Nacional Marino Cabo Plumo is home to the only living coral reef in western North America. The area boasts 13,000 marine animal species, including the gray whale.

Estero del San Jose del Cabo is a protected area in the heart of San Jose del Cabo, about 992 kilometers/615 miles south of Guerrero Negro. This tropical sanctuary is home to more than 150 bird species, including the frigatebird and brown pelican.

You get to Bahia Magdalena by departing from Puerto San Carlos or Puerto Adofo Lopez Mateos. This nature reserve is a breeding ground for gray whales, which arrive there between January and March to produce offspring. The area is often referred to as the gateway to the Pacific, it’s estimated that 20,000 gray whales migrate to the Mexican coast each year.

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Is ‘Group Ecotourism’ a Contradiction in Terms?

Ecotourism has been a key component of the “greening” phenomenon that’s recently begun to gain favor in the business sector. But can ecotourism and business travel (specifically, meetings and incentives) peacefully coexist – or are they a contradiction in terms? First, consider these facts:

  • 38% of respondents in a recent survey said that environmentally-friendly tourism is a consideration when traveling.
  • 34% said they would pay more to stay at an environmentally-friendly hotel; 25% are willing to pay a 5%-10% premium, while 12% would pay a 10%-20% premium.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans say it would impact their decision on whether to stay at a particular hotel if they knew the property was using solar or wind energy to supplement its existing power supply.
  • 52% say they would be willing to donate a small portion of their vacation budget to “help save the environment” when booking a trip.
  • 72% want rental car companies to offer economical, environmentally-friendly hybrid vehicles, and 48% say they would be willing to pay a premium for a “green” rental.

So it’s clear that travelers are inclined toward more ecologically-friendly destinations and practices these days. But what about on the corporate side? A survey conducted by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) found that only a third of companies have corporate policies that promote sustainable travel, and just 20% of respondents say their firms encourage staff to use travel providers with lower carbon emissions or a proper environmental charter. In addition, only 20% of company travel departments are required to produce carbon emissions reports for senior management.

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September/October 2010

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