We passed through Tulum, then stopped at the reserve entrance to pay for admission, about $2 a day. Hotels and houses, ruined by one hurricane or another, sat moldering beside the road. Soldiers assigned to drug smuggling-watch along the beach, wearing hot boots and uniforms, hitchhiked along the extenuated peninsula. It had rained recently, turning potholes into swimming pools filled with standing water high enough to reach the Suburban's door handles. Every time we launched through one, Pedro grinned determinedly and Luis laughed. "I like this," he said. "It's an adventure."
About 10 miles into the reserve we crossed a wooden bridge over the cut near Boca Paila Fishing Lodge, where Pedro pointed out a manta ray undulating by a stanchion and a roseate spoonbill stalking fish on a flat. The lodge there is one of the more upscale of about half a dozen around Ascension Bay, and the place where bonefishing was introduced to the area about a decade ago, just as lucrative spiny lobster harvests seemed to be falling off.
Once the "gray ghosts"--as bonefish became known--were discovered here, North American fly-fishing experts came south to teach Punta Allen lobstermen and lodge guides the tricks of the trade. Locals had to learn how to cast and tie flies, and at first thought the whole catch-and-release enterprise crazy, says Sonja Lillvik, who opened Cuzan around 1985 with her partner, Armando Lopez. Now, guiding bone fishermen in the winter and spring is an important source of income for the people of Punta Allen, besides summer harvesting of lobsters, which are coming back.
There, on the tip of a fish hook, is what Sian Ka'an--and other biosphere reserves selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization--is about: balancing preservation of some of the world's rarest, most biologically diverse places with the need of indigenous populations to survive and prosper.
Sian Ka'an was decreed in 1986 and enlarged in 1994, and now is operated by the Mexican federal parks system, with extensive help from the Amigos de Sian Ka'an, a not-for-profit group created by environmentalist Barbara MacKinnon de Montes, who was born and raised in the U.S. but is a naturalized Mexican citizen. Though pressure to develop the reserve has been mounting, they have instituted a slow-growth plan for Sian Ka'an, emphasizing low-impact eco-tourism and limiting the number of hotel rooms to 1,500. "I would prefer not to see any development," MacKinnon says. "But the area is a biosphere reserve and thus 'sustainable' development is an integral part of the management plan."
To that end, MacKinnon's group and other conservationists encourage traditional cottage industries such as honey harvesting and hammock weaving. They support reforestation and crocodile monitoring efforts. And, perhaps most important, they teach some of the more than 800 residents of Sian Ka'an how to serve as eco-tourist guides. Catch-and-release fly-fishing fits nicely in the program.
Thankfully, the reserve is, as yet, too rough and off-the-beaten-track to be in imminent danger of overdevelopment. A third of it is tangled mangrove islets, swamps and mirror-like flats. Another third is Caribbean coast, looking out to the long reef that borders the Yucatan. The rest is machete-dulling tropical jungle, virtually untrammeled since the time of the Mayans, who left 23 ruins and a streak of proud independence to their descendants in the area.
Bumping around in the back seat, I tried to read a guidebook about the fauna of Sian Ka'an: crocodiles, jaguars, snakes, manatees, tapirs, pumas, leatherback sea turtles, howler monkeys, almost 250 species of birds--including jabiru storks, parrots, toucans, egrets and flamingos--and all the fish of the bay, reef and deep. Suddenly the Suburban came to a stop. We were finally at Cuzan, though by now it was too dark to see anything beyond a large, round, palapa-roofed restaurant, where lights glowed and the sand floor invited bare feet.
Inside, I met Cuzan's owner, Sonja, a transplant to the Yucatan from Northern California, the cook Jose, bartender Ruby--an expert mixer of strong, limey margaritas--and a serendipitous collection of guests. I'd half-expected to be the only person staying at the 14-room lodge, but there were eight of us around the dinner table that night, including a California couple who'd driven the road in a little Nissan to tour the bay, two adventurous young Czech backpackers with scant English, and a father and son from Oklahoma who had come, like me, for bonefish.
In that castaway place, we made a surprisingly cosmopolitan group. The woman from California happened to be the daughter of Czech immigrants, so the backpackers had someone to chat with. Sonja talked about her early days in the village at the end of the road, when she learned how to treat shock because the only people who came to Cuzan were shipwrecked yachters.