On the first trip I made with my family to the Yucatan in 1973, tourism was virtually unknown. It was prior to the building of the Cancun airport and the only people who ventured down to this part of the world used cars or trucks on the little traveled roads. Those existing roads were rarely paved once you got off the main two-lane highway.
From where we were staying, about a half an hour south of Puerto Juarez which later developed into the international resort of Cancun, Tulum was another two hours further south. Except for the phenomenal archeological site, there was little else there. The long sand road south to the end of the peninsula, called Punta Allen (pronounced Punta A-yeem by the locals), was deeply rutted. About half way down was the fishing resort of Boca Paila. In order to get there, you had to drive over a rickety bridge and hope for the best.
Except for the scattering of small ranchos on the pristine sands along the coast, there were very few other structures. If you were to make it down to the end of the stretch of sand road and found yourself in the somewhat desolate outpost of Punta Allen, you would be at the approach to the Bahia de Ascencion that we’d long been hearing so much about. However, there was another way of getting there.
For a number of years, we had been hearing about the splendor of this area, described to us as being one of the natural wonders of the sea world in its untouched beauty. After one aborted trip which involved hauling a boat whose trailer tire gave out in the middle of the empty road in the depth of night, it wasn’t until the following year when once again we discussed making the trip south. This time there would be no boat of our own. We would, instead, rent something when we got to wherever it was we were headed. We brought along water and fruit and some hard boiled eggs as well as fishing gear and coolers. It was just the two of us and our friend and guide, Alonso, embarking on one of his famous adventures. For us it was a little like being accomplices to a crime that we had no knowledge of, but were kind of along for the ride.
Rather than take the road to Tulum and then travel the beach road, which would have been extremely challenging, especially in the late day (these adventures often seemed to take place in unusual hours for reasons obvious to Alonso but totally mysterious to us), we continued south on the main two-lane highway. Just before we got to the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, somewhat inland, we turned down a road leading to the beach. When we arrived just before nightfall at our destination, the small settlement of Vigia Chica, we found a couple of small palapas (thatched roof structures). In one was a man hunched over a radio set, looking like a villain out of a C grade movie, replete with a missing finger, heavy dark eyebrows and an extremely intense expression that we found more than a little intimidating. Just to add to the atmosphere, coming over the radio was a voice shouting hell and damnation.
With Alonso spending the night in a hammock at this house, we retired to our Jeep and stretched out in back, unsure of whether or not we would live to see sunrise. But live we did, and early morning found us on a small boat embarking on what turned out to be all that was described as one of the natural wonders of the world. We explored small islands, one of which featured scores of manta rays along the shallow shore, one that was home to the loon-like birds with throats that swelled to balloons when taking off in flight, another crawling with snails and still another that was home to the birthing of sharks. It seemed that nature had provided an individual habitat for each species.
After an amazing encounter with Alonso hauling in a small shark and an assortment of fish, he finally settled on an island for us to spend the night. He immediately cleared a path across the small island for the breeze to pass through and used a particular kind of palm frond to weave mats for us on which to lie on top of the sand.
With Alonso a little way down the small beach and out of sight, we settled down for the night. The constant rustle of the hermit crabs whose home territory we had invaded was somewhat disconcerting, but apparently we fell asleep eventually because we were startled into wakefulness by the sound of nearby voices. It was late at night and there we were out in the middle of the ocean on an unknown, tiny island. No one knew where we were. After a brief few moments, as we shook ourselves awake, Alonso appeared with another man, whiskey bottle in hand, who turned out to be the one at the radio transmitter, although we didn’t recognize him at that point. How could he have found us? What was he doing there? With a distinct feeling of paranoia, we were convinced that he was up to no good. It wasn’t until the following morning that we found out that he had seen the light of our fire and when we didn’t return, set out to look for us, thinking we might be in trouble!
I’m glad we got to visit those primeval waters before they were known to outside visitors. Today that area is part of a protected Biosphere Reserve known as Sian Kaán and an important destination south of the developed beaches of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Although some of that beach area is now tamed with hotels, restaurants and gift shops, I was there at a time when the only visitors to those waters were the occasional fishermen. An amazing adventure that seemed to be out of National Geographic, it was there where I learned to face my hidden fears and not let them stop me from a life of travel and exploration.
Susanna Starr, freelance writer, photographer, artist and author of Fifty and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well Being has extensive experience as a speaker, appearing on many talk radio shows. Among other venues she has been an editor for Let Life In and a contributor to Your Life is a Trip. She also is Albuquerque Cultural Travel Examiner for Examiner.com, as well as contributing writer for Global-Writes.com and various other publications. She resides most of the time in a small community near Taos, New Mexico and part time between Oaxaca and Laguna Bacalar, Mexico.