Celestún, Yucatan – When I was first invited to spend four days in a high-end eco-tourist biosphere resort in the middle of the Yucatan jungle, I have to admit I was skeptical.
Frankly, I am definitely a city girl and not all that into outdoor life.
In fact, the mere prospect of un-air-conditioned accommodations with primitive plumbing and electricity coupled with hordes of mosquitos, flies, tarantulas and God-knows-what-else potentially invading my sleeping space at night is about as enticing to me as the thought of a trip to the dentist for root canal treatment.
But my hostess assured me that Xixim, a 32-bungalow Mayan boutique hotel located on a 500-hectare reservoir along the Gulf of Mexico with five kilometers of virgin beach, had the best of both worlds — a true, back-to-nature experience with all the comforts of home.
And when I discovered that Xixim was just 10 kilometers away from the Ría Celestún biosphere reserve, winter home to more than 100,000 flamingos, I decided to accept the invitation and, with industrial quantities of broad-spectrum SPF 50+ sunscreen and an even larger stash of insect repellent in hand, I hopped on a plane to the Yucatán capital of Mérida and set off on my jungle adventure.
At this point, there are two things I should clarify:
First, I had visited the Celestún biosphere about 20 years ago, and it was one of the most beautiful and unforgettable places I have ever been.
At that time, the reserve was relatively unknown to tourists and not at all developed, so I had hired a small motorboat and guide to maneuver me and my companions in the early dawn into the marshy feeding ground of these graceful and rosy-plumed fowl.
The flamingo constellation of the area is mostly populated by adults, since Celestún is not the birds’ breeding ground (that’s in Lagartos, in the north of the Yucatán), but when I went, there was a small colony of white fledglings feeding to one side of the adult population.
As we approached the birds, our guide turned off the boat’s motor to keep from spooking the flamingos, but once they noticed our presence, they began to take off running in military formation, charging across the shallow waters until they gathered enough speed to take flight.
As they flooded the air, the flamingos created an awe-inspiring giant cloud of pink that soared elegantly overhead.
The ruby color of the flamingos overhead juxtaposed brilliantly against the dark red sky of the Yucatán dawn, creating a spectacular vision that has stayed with me to this day.
The second observation I want to make is that I have extremely sensitive and pale skin (we are talking two shades short of albinism, which means I burn at the slightest exposure to sun) and I seem to be a universal magnet for insects of all species (even in Mexico City, I sleep under a mosquito net because if there is a fly or mosquito anywhere within a 10-kilometer radius, somehow it is going to find its way to my body).
Given that reality, I was not thrilled by the idea of going to the Yucatán jungle in the middle of the rainy season (which is also the mosquito season), but I just couldn’t resist the idea of seeing the Celestún flamingos once again.
The two-hour flight from Mexico City to Mérida was in itself uneventful (except for the classic two-year-old future tenor who spent the entire 120 minutes screaming at the top of his lungs).
I was invited to Xixim as part of a group of travel writers from across Mexico, and since not everyone was flying from the Federal District, although most of us arrived at 6:30 at night, we ended up waiting around Mérida for the reporter from Tabasco, who landed three hours later.
As a result, it was pitch dark during the two-hour trek to Xixim, the last 10 kilometers of which were through an unpaved road speckled with massive potholes and giant puddles of water that slowed our pace to a crawl and made us all appreciate the four-wheel-drive torque of our minivan.
By the time we arrived at Xixim, it was midnight and, for all intents and purposes, the hotel was closed for the night, but several members of the staff graciously received us and ushered us into our respective bungalows, tiny thatched-roof huts nestled into the jungle with an open patio with two hammocks.
All of the cabanas are located at about 300 meters from the white sandy seashore, with thick thatches of jungle in between, which allows for a hint of an ocean view, but not a whiff of ocean breeze.
Inside, there were two double beds draped in mosquito nets and a small sofa and coffee table.
Off the back of the cabana was a bathroom with a screened-in, open-air shower that was sheltered by a garden of palms and a rustic wooden fence.
In the toilet area, there was a small broom and dustpan which I was told was to sweep up any stray insects that might wander into my quarters so that I could release them back into the jungle.
(At this point, I was tired and already being attacked by mosquitos, so I was not particularly keen on the idea of catch-and-release insect practices, so I made a mental note to myself that should I come across any bugs in my room, I would offer them the same welcome wagon they would receive back in my home in Mexico City, a full-on shower of Raid or a splat of the heel of my shoe.)
The girl who led me to my hut informed me that in the morning a pot of fresh coffee would be left on a table in the back of the bungalow (I requested that it be substituted by a pot of black tea, which, to my delight, was exactly what I got each morning).
The air-conditioning, which had only been installed a few days earlier and which is only available in a few of Xixim’s cabanas, worked fine, but I cannot say the same for the soft screens on the doors and windows of the hut.
Despite having applied nearly a liter of my perfume de jour, eau de Off, I was now apparently the main dining attraction for Xixim’s 20 zillion mosquitos.
The mosquito nets on the bed did little to protect me from their attacks, which lasted all night long.
The next morning, I was pleased to discover that the shower had hot water and that the rest of the plumbing was functional.
I made my way to breakfast in the hotel’s dining area off the open-air lobby, which is enveloped by two well-kept swimming pools, one for families and one (supposedly) just for adults.
The food at Xixim is all locally sourced and well prepared using regional cooking styles, albeit far from gourmet.
The staff is extremely friendly and accommodating, which is, besides the natural beauty of the place and the attractive Mayan-style architecture, one of Xixim’s main draws.
After breakfast, we all climbed into small motorboats and set off for a four-hour line-fishing experience, with a brief detour at a decrepit 19th century lighthouse.
Catching fish without a pole is not easy, and it can hurt your hands when you try to reel in a fish without a rod.
The experience is interesting, but a little line-fishing goes a long way, and four hours of open sun intensified by the placid waters of the Gulf of Mexico wreaked havoc on my skin, as well as that of most of the other journalists in the group.
We then got to spend 45 minutes watching the hotel’s chef gut our catch on the open patio of the family pool as thousands of flies infested the fish carcasses (an experience not unlike watching sausages be made, and just about as appetizing).
Finally, the chef decided to take the remaining fish inside and finish preparing the rest of our meal.
Not feeling particularly hungry after the gutting exercise, I headed back to my cabana and came face-to-face with a six-centimeter-long spider in my bathroom.
I have to admit that despite Ximim’s constantly repeated lectures on its “leave-nothing-take-nothing” zero environmental footprint philosophy, while I did grab the broom the staff had left for me there, I did not apply it in exactly the same way they had recommended.
I wrapped the spider’s carcass in a bit of bathroom tissue and gave him an appropriate insect funeral in the waste bin.
In the late afternoon, there was supposed to be an optional excursion to the mangrove swamps to convene with crocodiles, but I chose to sign up for a massage instead.
The hotel has a small gym, a yoga room, a juice bar and a massage room, none of which are air-conditioned.
A heavy rainstorm put a damper on the crocodile outing, so, as it turned out, no one in the group got to coalesce with the reptiles (except for the multitude of iguanas that populate the gardens).
As for the massage, it was relaxing, although not very professional.
At Xixim, most of the members of the staff are jacks of all trade, masters of none, so the cook doubles as a chambermaid and the masseuse also works as a receptionist.
This multitasking makes for repeated encounters with staff members, all of whom are eager and willing to accommodate the needs of Xixim’s guests.
In the evening, we had dinner and more rain, this time in a heavy downpour that drenched everything, including the inside of some of the cabanas.
There are no televisions nor other forms entertainment at Xixim.
And the internet only works intermittently in the lobby or outside the dining hall.
This makes Xixim an ideal place to write a novel or to read a thick one, say, like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Day three entailed a rather disappointing trip to the non-crocodile-populated mangrove swamps and the Ría Celestún biosphere to see a handful of flamingos (the flamingo season is between November and March, and we were there in late June).
The mosquitos and flies were so abundant and aggressive that most of us were too uncomfortable to enjoy the outing.
Also, the stagnant, muggy heat was stifling.
Personally, I felt like the Peanuts comics’ character Pigpen with my own personal entourage of flies and mosquitos that accompanied me every step of the way into the muddy flamingo feeding ground.
Later, we made our way through a breathtakingly beautiful winding mangrove forest and took a dip in a pool of sweet water shrouded in mangrove trees.
After a lunch of fresh seafood along the Celestún city shoreline, we headed back to Xixim to discover that the resort’s previous inviting quiet had been violated by an influx of several families, all with three or four children to whom the concept of inside-voice was alien.
I tried to take refuge in the adults-only swimming pool, but the mosquitos were incessant and one of the families decided that the “Adults Only” sign did not pertain to them, so the tranquility of the azure pool was disrupted by eight-year-old cannonballs.
I finally retreated to my hut, only to discover that the newly installed air-conditioning system had suffered a voltage surge and was now out of order.
I spent the night in the stifling heat being the main course for a horde of mosquitos and awoke with welts on virtually every part of my body.
By day four, I was ready to return to the comfort of home, sunburned and covered with giant bug bites that, even a week later, are still torturing me.
Let me be clear: Xixim is not my cup of tea.
The landscape and tropical rainforests are beautiful, as is the unique architecture of the resort.
And while roughing it in pseudo luxury — which by the way, does not come cheaply, since a single bungalow runs nearly 5,000 pesos a night for two people, not including meals — may appeal to a certain eco-minded tourist market, I am not a part of it.
Clearly, Xixim is a destination for those with tougher, more mosquito-resistant skin.
But for those who want to savor a hands-on experience of life in the jungle without having to sacrifice the urban luxuries running water and electricity, it is an ideal option.
What I would strongly suggest to anyone considering visiting Xixim is to go during the winter season, when there are a lot more flamingoes to see in Ría Celestún and when there are less heat and mosquitos, not during the dead of summer, as I did.
And be sure to pack your sunscreen and repellent, because even in winter, there are plenty of bugs that will let you know that you are invading their territory.
Xixim is located along the eastern coast of Yucatan, 10 kilo0meters from the Ría Celestún biosphere reserve, at Kilometer 10 of the Viejo Camino a Sisal. (tel: 01 988- 916 2100)
For reservations and more information, consult the hotel’s webpage at http://hotelxixim.com/en.