YUCATAN PENINSULA, Mexico — We were floating on our backs in a swift current toward the sea, treading water lazily as the canal carried us through a bulrush marsh that stretched as far as the eye could see.
The turquoise shoals of the Caribbean lay six miles east, while an equal distance behind us the marsh turned first to mangroves and then to the dense, steaming rain forest where our journey had begun.
In between, the crystalline waters of this remarkable system of lagoons and canals, carved into the limestone shelf that forms the entire Yucatan Peninsula, carried us along its ancient wetland course--exactly as it carried the Mayan traders who dug the canals a millennium or more ago.
Rounding a bend, my fantasies of a time warp were shattered by a call from the boatmen 30 feet behind us. He was frantically pointing to a spot along the canal just ahead of me, flapping his arms and speaking in a rush of Spanish too fast for any of us to understand. "Jabiru, jabiru, jabiru!" he seemed to say.
\o7 Jabiru? No comprendo.\f7
An ear-shattering screech from an overhanging tree not five feet above my head provided the answer. Scrambling to stand against the current, we looked up to see two huge, gaping, screaming beaks attached to balls of downy brown feathers, both leaning out from their nest in a hissing, screaming, spitting display of indignation.
Vaulting into the boat for a camera, we managed to snap off a few shots before the current carried us away. The birds, the boatman explained, were very rare baby jabiru--storks--and the mother has a wingspan of eight to 10 feet (hence the flapping of arms).
Hearing this, we decided that the better part of valor was to put some distance between us and the little ones before mom decided to pay us a visit.
They call it Sian Ka'an--which is variously translated from the Mayan as "Gateway to Heaven" or "Birth of the Sky." What it is is a miracle by any definition--a 1.3-million-acre "biosphere" that contains a richness of archeological, cultural and ecological treasures that would have made the conquistadors' unfound pot of gold appear silvery pale in comparison.
More than 30 Mayan archeological sites have been officially identified here, including numerous pyramids, temples, canals, highways and entire cities. Experts believe some of the best finds might yet remain hidden under the forest canopy.
Some 350 species of birds--including the endangered stork, a variety of rare parrots, keel-billed toucans, ibises, flamingoes, pelicans and great blue herons--call Sian Ka'an home at various times of the year, as do four of the world's eight species of endangered sea turtle.
Sea manatees and spiny lobster thrive along Sian Ka'an's two big coastal bays and inside its coral reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere. And the forest and mangrove swamps shelter a menagerie of rare and wondrous wildlife--jaguars, howler monkeys, miniature deer, tapirs, ocelots and crocodiles.
Unfortunately, of course, the 16th-Century conquistadors did find Sian Ka'an and its once magnificent cities. But they lacked the vision to see the real treasures here, and they settled for merely conquering, converting and infecting the peoples they found before repairing to their fortresses to the north.
For the next 400 years or so, Sian Ka'an and the other centers of Mayan culture to the west and the south were left much to their own devices, carrying on their ancient, if Christian-influenced, traditions, speaking their own language, eking out a miserable but independent existence through subsistence agriculture and fishing.
It wasn't until the early years of this century that the Mexican government even attempted to exert its influence in this part of the Yucatan.
Today, only about a thousand Mayans remain in Sian Ka'an, scattered in tiny, inaccessible villages in the dense jungle of the interior and a few coastal centers, where they have formed farming and fishing cooperatives.
But thanks to their own wisdom and the dedicated efforts of environmentalists who have won limited protections for Sian Ka'an and other Mayan centers, it now appears that these mysterious people and their beautiful, rich land may survive, and even accommodate, the latest and most threatening incarnation of the conquistadors: the 20th-Century variety known as tourists.
The threat is real, and it grows closer every day. It comes from the inexorable pressure for raw materials, cheap labor and untouched expanses of glittering Caribbean beachfront emanating from neighboring Cancun, just 80 miles north of the northern boundary of Sian Ka'an.