Meeting the Mayans of the Yucatan
Kevin Rushby reports in The Guardian on a new style of tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula that promotes “home stays” with local residents.
After dinner, Juanito and I sit drinking beer. Outside is all the clamour of the jungle night. We talk about the big hotels on the Yucatán coast, an hour away by bus. Had he ever been inside one of them? Juanito is 64 and has twice been president of the village tourism co-operative, but he shakes his head. “I’ve heard about them from local people who go and work there, but I’ve never visited.”
The Yucatán peninsula’s east coast is one of the world’s biggest beach destinations, attracting more than five million visitors in 2015. It stretches south from Cancún (“nest of snakes” in Mayan) for about 80 miles to Tulum, and much of the coastal highway is lined with massive hotels, each attempting to outdo the rest in grandiosity: from minimalist chic to monumental mock Maya, a plaster pastiche that might impress 10-year-old Indiana Jones fans.
The irony is that on these colossal sites, where every opportunity to mine the local heritage is taken, the nearest visitors get to real Mayan culture is in the unseen room cleaner. And that person has probably travelled from a village in the jungle like the one where I’m staying.
Juanito’s house, called Takkbil’ja, near the town of X-Can, does not much resemble those palaces. There are two buildings, one with a tin roof and the other thatched. There’s a flock of noisy chickens (climbing a tree for the night). And there is Juanito, a widower, and his grandchildren, who he is bringing up. They all sleep in hammocks under the thatch. And now there is a room for visitors – of which I am the first. The guestroom has bright blue walls, a cupboard and a big bed. This is the humble start of an ambitious effort to bring the benefits of tourism to the real Maya, to living people who have seen scant reward from an industry largely owned by outsiders.
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