The Maya Riviera is more than spring break in Cancun, or parties in Playa del Carmen, or even the wonders of the ancient Maya civilization! The Maya Riviera has amazing variety of wildlife, spectacular natural features and rich diversity of cultures all in one place. It attracts millions of tourists every year from all over the world – However, the consumer driven development of the Yucatan’s pristine coastline and lush jungles have greatly impacted the environment and the way people live in the region. This seminar will focus on environmental and cultural issues of the area caused by the ever increasing influx of tourists.

The seminar will be based in Akumal which is located about 70 miles south of Cancun – the heart of the Maya Riviera. Students will discuss and reflect on issues raised by the readings, by site visits to several archaeological sites and natural parks, and by learning about Maya and other Indigenous worldviews of the environment. Students will visit ancient Maya archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Coba, learn about Indigenous worldviews of the environment, participate in seminars on environmental sustainability, learn about local eco-systems and water quality, and explore the Yucatan’s fringe reef system, lagoons, and caves (cenotes).

Students will be hosted by the Centro Ecológico Akumal (CEA), a small non-profit environmental protection and research organization (see their website at: CEA will provide lodging, some meals, educational content and several community service learning projects in and around Akumal. Community services learning projects include a research project involving efficacy of constructed wetlands, public beach and park clean-up, and “Bay Watch,” a program to protect the fringe reefs and marine life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

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Today we focused on community service. The goal was to build a plant nursery behind the dorms here at CEA. We also started working on the piñatas for the children that hang out at the library after school. Unfortunately the only rainy day since we have been here was also today! As soon as we got outside to start working on the plant nursery it started pouring rain. Personally, I enjoyed the rain so it was fun to be working building something during a downpour. When Alma showed us the picture of what we were supposed to be making for the plant nursery it looked nearly impossible. It just looked like it required much more work than we would be able to do, but I was surprised by how much we were able to accomplish. The picture Alma had was of a fountain like garden space with rocks dividing the garden into three tiers. Instead of using rocks however, she said we would use glass bottles that had been set aside to be recycled. I didn't really understand how it would work, but began to work on it. We placed the bottles neck down into the soil and then filled each teir with compost and covered it with sawdust/wood chips. I was surprised by how cool it looked when we were finished. What was most rewarding about it was the fact that the garden we had created was made out of all recycled materials. It was just so cool to see the things you can do with recycled materials. It made me want to get much more creative with the things that I recycle. When I think about all the artistic things one could do, and how cool they end up looking it's a wonder people don't use recycled materials to do more creative arts and crafts.


We felt really accomplished at the end. It also made us think back to some of the lectures we have had that have talked about how everything we consume ends up going back into Mother Earth. It felt good to have participated in an activity that recognized that aspect and worked to put consumed "waste" back into the Earth in a way that made it not "waste" and was meaningful. We hope to be able to see what the garden looks like when the plants grow. It would be really cool for CEA to be able to produce their own vegetables in a sustainable manner so that not only will their program talk about sustainability in terms of marine life but also in terms of the food the volunteers and workers consume, because ultimately the food we are eating ends up back in the ocean and the Earth.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

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(Torrey) Today we all woke up bright and early and traveled north of Akumal to an underground river/cave system known as Rio Secreto. Once we arrived we were talked to and briefed about our upcoming tour of the river system, which would involve some walking, and some swimming. After we were briefed we loaded another van and were driven back into the jungle about 20 minutes where we would start our tour. When we arrived to the entrance we were all given wet suits, life vests, and helmets with lights on them. Once the class was ready to begin the tour we followed our guide Rafael into the jungle a little ways where we would begin our descent into the cave. Our guide was very knowledgeable and knew an incredible amount of information about the stalactites and stalagmites. Went we entered the cave I don't think anyone completely realized how dark the cave was going to be. It was a complete blackness not being about to see your own hand. The tour lasted about 1 to 1 ½ hours. After we finished the tour we were served lunch. The lunch consisted of some nachos and quesadillas. After we finished our lunch we loaded the van back up to head towards the exit. Once we arrived back to the gate we exited their van and loaded up in our van. We then traveled back to Akumal where we all pretty worn out and decided to just relax the remainder of the day. Some of us took naps and other put in a few community service hours, such as decorating piñatas.
(Allison) Today we went to Río Secreto. It is an underground cave/river system and wow is it amazing. It is 75 feet or 25 meters underground. It was discovered in 2007 and has only been open for touring for 2 years now. Prior to exploring the cave we put on wet suits and helmets. Our skin has chemicals on it that will pollute the water and as this is an eco-friendly tourist destination we were required to take a shower to rise off any chemicals on our skin that would pollute the water. We saw the start of stalactite and stalagmite formations. We were also told not to touch the formations and we could not bring anything in. This was to help preserve this amazing geological structure for as long as possible. However, our guide did not adhere to these rules at all times. He dug up some of the sandy bottom of the cave in order to show us some layers and explain why the cave floor was so uneven. This particular guide gives tours twice daily. If he alone does this for every tour he gives the cave's pristine condition won't be so pristine within a few years. However, they do give tours from different entrances and through different tunnels. Our group leader Mark told us that last year the group that came down here for this same course had a different tour. This must be to protect the cave. If tours were led through only one set of tunnels these would quickly become polluted. We were required to swim through some tunnels with very low ceilings. A couple members of the group hit their head on the ceiling above. Thus, why the use of helmets was required.

(Torrey) After being exposed to such a beautiful and crazy environment it was time to take everything we saw in. The experience in general meant a lot to everyone. The cave itself has been around for thousands of years and was just recently discovered about 4 years ago. The cave will now be able to be explored by thousands of people.
(Allison) We were also taught a bit about Maya culture. At the entrance to the tunnel we entered through we saw a cross. Our guide told us that the horizontal piece represented the earth, the upper part represented the heavens and the bottom part represented the underworld. It is their circle of life.

(Torrey) To me personally the entire experience is one in a million. It was one of the most amazing structures I have ever witnessed in my life. After the tour I was in complete awe. The tour is definitely something everyone should experience in his or her life. This completely changed the way I look at the earth now. I look at the earth differently now because of not knowing that such amazing structures existed until recently. I would enjoy coming back in the future to see how much the place has changed given it has only been open for about 4 years.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

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We began today by returning to the library to continue our community service work there. We finished sorting the donations in the English part of the library and then cleaned up the bookshelves. After that, we went to the Spanish part of the library and dusted all of the books there. It was a very hot day so we were all exhausted once we finished and had some time off before our lecture at 1:30.

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The work we did in the library is important because the local kids use it to facilitate their language learning and as a main source for reading material. By organizing and shelving the books, we made the library usable and made it more likely that the children will stop by for books.

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I was very interested by the fact they had a section of the library for books in English in addition to the Spanish section. They are being taught both languages simultaneously while they are growing up which makes it much easier for them to learn it. I did not have this opportunity to learn another language as a kid and I wish I would have. I had taken Spanish in high school but it would have been much easier if I learned it as a kid. Meghan has had no Spanish lessons and has a hard time learning new languages. She also wishes she had had the opportunity to learn Spanish when she was young.

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In the afternoon we had a lecture from Mark about water quality in Mexico, especially in the Yucatan Peninsula. We discussed how the aquifers flow through the mainly limestone rock in both directions. Deep well injection of chlorine treated sewage causes contaminated water to get into the water system. Fecal coliforms have developed in many areas and life is being destroyed by higher levels of nutrients, which promotes algae growth and chokes out other life. We also watched Troubled Waters, a movie about the causes and consequences of pollution in the Mississippi River.

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These issues tie directly into the reason why we came on this trip. They give a clear example of how our actions are having a huge impact on the environment; sewage draining is a huge problem for large hotels and other tourist areas. We also connected the water issues here in Mexico to those we have back home. This comparison helps us identify with the issues here and take our new knowledge of conservation back home with us.

Although much of the lecture was a review from Monday, it was useful to hear the information again. We felt like we absorbed more the second time around and actually understand the issues he talked about. We both found the video really interesting and thought it enhanced our understanding of conservation issues. Although much of the video was also a review, we thought there were interesting points about different types of fertilizer and farming methods that are environmentally friendly.

Meghan & Ryan

Monday, January 10, 2011

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This morning we had a guest lecturer named Mario. He was kind enough to educate our class on Yucatan Geology. Through his lecture, we learned how the "Ring of Cenotes," was formed and we were surprised that it all began when a meteor fell onto the Yucatan Peninsula thousands of years ago. We also learned about how putting our waste back into the environment kills off important organisms that our world needs. Whatever we put into our bodies eventually comes back out and goes back into the environment; this includes everything from water to estrogen. Learning about pollution and contamination levels in different bodies of water was also interesting because their contents can vary greatly.

This lecture tied in perfectly with Melinda's water quality research. Through her research, she has found that when it comes to the waste water gardens in Akumal, there is generally more pollution at the outtake than the intake. This means that the water in the waste water gardens is not flowing fast enough and/or as efficiently as it should.

Through this experience, we have learned that more research and experimentation needs to be done on waste water gardens in order for them to function properly and successfully. The concept of waste water gardens seems to be a good idea; however, if they are causing more bad than good, this is a problem. We are hopeful that as time goes on and technology advances, people everywhere will be able to create and maintain effective waste water gardens.

Some students will be using the information learned from today's lecture back home when they plant their own gardens. Although many of us do not have access to actual waste water, we can be conserve more of our earth's fresh water supply and be more ecological by collecting rain water to water our gardens at home.

We also had the chance to help organize and put away donated books in the local Library this afternoon. The selection of books was very diverse ranging from romance novels to self-help books in a wide variety of languages including Spanish, German, English, and French. We were impressed on the strong impact that donations have on the community and realize that we could easily help with projects like this back home too.
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Thursday, January 6, 2011

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In the morning we helped clear out CEA's office as they are in the process of renovating the space. Other CEA staff then painted the office. After lunch we split into two groups of 5 to prepare presentations on the book "Life Under the Tropical Canopy" by Ellen Kintz. One group decided to prepare a game of jeopardy to review the material on modern Coba. This was a lively game ending with Mark being the winner. The second group had a more traditional approach and each member of the group presented information from the chapters on ancient Coba. Overall we realized that ancient and modern Coba have many similarities due to the fact that modern Coba has reverted back to familiar ways of living. For example, extended families still exist and corn remains an important crop. Kintz informs us that some changes in Coba have been the expanding traditional roles for women and how the young men view the gods differently than older generations.

After the presentations we had a free afternoon to get much needed shopping done. Some of us went to Wally World in Playa del Carmen. Melinda continued to carry out her water quality sampling. She has been testing two of the constructed wetlands here on CEA property. One is behind Paul's house, the director of CEA, while the other is located by Imelda's restaurant, where we eat lunch and breakfast everyday. These wetlands serve to naturally treat the wastewater as the plants uptake nutrients for growth. However, the samples from the intake and the outtake both show very high counts of total coliforms as well as E. coli. This demonstrates that the wetlands are not performing as expected and within the coming days she will finish her sampling and analyze the results. On Wednesday she is also hoping to take samples from Yalku lagoon nearby to determine the bacteria levels of the water being discharged from the underground rivers.

Week Two

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This week has been our busiest week of the trip. We began the week with a guided tour of the Tulum ruins. It is one of the newer cities of the ancient Maya empire. According to our guide, it was first settled about 200 BC, but never came to its own until just before 1500. Just in time to face the conquistadors from Spain. Tulum, Maya word for "wall." Is the only ancient Maya cities that was surround by thick walls. Only the elite royal and religious leaders lived within the walls, most of the other 10,000 citizens lived outside the walls. They were traders, farmers and fishermen. Like all the great Maya cities, they would add new layers to their plazas, new façades over existing buildings or build new additions to their temples every 52 years to coincide with the Maya short calendar because each new cycle was a new beginning.

Following our Tulum tour, we stopped by Xel Ha, an environmental park, for a well deserved afternoon of rest and fun. Even though we enjoy the all you can eat restaurants, we snorkeled, floated down the river in tubes, jumped off cliffs, crossed the rope bridge, and napped in hammocks, there was an educational piece too. Students learned despite millions of visitors every year, they park was environmentally friendly. They enforced the rules to use only bio-degradable sun block, composited their waste, recycled their plastics and had porous walkways.
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On Wednesday, we venture across the Caribbean by ferry to the nearby island of Cozumel. We had guided snorkeling tour of three protected reef areas ranging from 15 to 40 feet deep. The water was very clear and the reef system seemed very healthy. Unlike Akumal, the reef areas were on the protected side of the island, were much deeper and the currents were much stronger. These factors help keep the reef waters clear of pollutants and algae. I also noticed that there were three large cruise ships at port in Cozumel. In inoder to better balance these large ships a sea, they take on large amounts of water. Before docking at the next port, they release the water. Often new species, like the lion fish, are introduced to new areas when the ships take on or release these waters. This important because the lion fish has no natural enemies and are becoming an increasing problem in Akumal Bay.

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Friday we visited the Coba ruins and swam at a nearby cenoté. Our guide told us a story much different from our previous guides at the other ruins. He told us that the winners of the ball games were sacrificed. Our previous guides suggested that they were not actually sacrificed, but were symbolically sacrificed instead. No matter who you talk to, the truth is that we really don't know that much about the ancient Maya people.
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After our tour, we went to the Tamcach-Ha Cenoté for a refreshing swim. This cenoté was about 40 feet underground in a cave. They had platforms mounted at 24 feet and 15 feet for guest to jump into the water. The water was anywhere from 15 to 40 foot deep. It was the most clear refreshing water we've seen so far.

Friday Jan 7th: Allison and Anna

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Today we webt to the ruins of Coba, an ancient Maya city. It was the last of the Maya ruins on our itineray to be visited. Coba contains the largest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. There are pans to close off the pyramid to climbers as early as next week; our group was one of the last to be able to scale its crumbling limestone facade. The view from the top was amazing. Our group leader, Mark, later told us that he could hear our indiviuals voices from the top of the pyramid. This brought images of centuries past of ancient Maya kings/ leaders speaking to their subjects from the pyramid's top. We had a guided tour of the site again. Our guide told us a different story than our guide at Chichen Izta about the ball court. Our guide at Chichen Itza told us that the players were not sacrificed; whereas our guide at Coba told us that the winners died for honor. After the guided tour we rode bikes between ruins. It cost 35 pesos or approximently 3 U.S. dollars to rent a bike. We thought it was very worlthwhile and would recommend it to anyone.
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After Coba we went to another cenote, this one was underground and had two jumping platforms. The taller was approximately 30+ft. The lower wasn't nearly as terrifying. Fun was had by all. It was an amazing experience to swim beneath stalactites in clear, fresh water.
We found it interesting that we got two different stories regarding the ball court. We believe this is because no one really knows what happened or the details of the ancient Maya culture. Also, the tour guide will give whichever version of history they think you want to hear because at the end of the day, if you did not enjoy their tour, then they are less likely to recieve more buisness. The pyramid is being closed to climbers for safety reasons and to preserve the delicate limestone ruin.
We have mixed emotions regarding the closing of the pyramid. The experience of climbing like the ancients, and then taking in the amazing view at the top was something we won't soon forget. However, the fragile nature of limestone as well as climbers rubbing it away is detrimental to the ruin for future generations.

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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

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Today we all hopped back in the van and headed to Playa Del Carmen. From there, we took an hour long ferry ride to the beautiful but touristy Cozumel. After we arrived, we had a little bit of free time to grab some lunch and go to a few stores. Then we all met up again and jumped on a glass bottom boat to go snorkeling! While snorkeling we were able to see many different and colorful fish along with more colorful coral compared to what we have seen already. Included in this assortment were; a spotlight parrotfish, sergeant majors, rock beauty, trumpet fish, sea fans, brain coral, squirrelfish, bluestripe grunts, and a green moray eel. There were a few notable differences between snorkeling in Cozumel vs. Akumal. One of the main differences was that at or day or time, you can find sea turtles hanging out in Akumal. The coral in Cozumel is also much more bright and vivid and we went to deeper parts in Cozumel, upwards of 40 feet in some areas. This made visibility seem much better than it is in Akumal. After about two and a half hours, we went back to the island where we were set free to explore all that Cozumel has to offer.
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While exploring, we were heckled by every vendor in sight. "Come over here,""Buy this," "Are you hungry," "eat here." It was so overwhelming that it was impossible to enjoy shopping anywhere! The vendors even followed a group of us to a restaurant; where we were heckled numerous times while trying to enjoy dinner. As much as we wanted to say "no," it can be tough sometimes, especially when you see a woman struggling to make a living with her four children at her side.

Through this experience, I have seen what poor, hungry, and desperate looks like. It upsets me to see how much harder these vendors lives are than mine and how differently we live. This was a huge difference compared to the lives of people in the states. I have seen how far someone will go to provide for their family and I am left with two questions; "How did this person get in this situation," and "how can they get out of it?"

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

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Today we started off our morning with a quick breakfast before we hitched a ride to the Maya ruins of Tulum. When we arrived, we were greeted by our tour guide, who then took is through the walled city of Tulum and explained to us the importance of this Maya port city. The complexities of Maya trade routes and economy were explained, as well as an extensive introduction to many of the various Maya gods. Tulum was the only walled city of the Maya, and was one of the first port cities that the Spanish ever bore witness to, calling it "a city that would rival that of Seville." After the tour, we were given time to explore on our own. Some of us climbed down the stairs of the cliff that the city sits on to the beachfront, while others opted to stay on the edge of the cliff for its outstanding photo opportunities. After the exploration at Tulum, we were picked up and brought to Xel-Ha, an "ecologically friendly fun-park" just a few minutes from Akumal. Xel-Ha is billed as a minimal impact tourist destination, with eco-friendly attractions. We spent hours snorkeling, swimming, floating, sliding, and even catching a nap in the sun at the park.

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Tulum was an important economical center for the Maya, due to its close proximity to sea, and its protected ports. The Maya traded with each other throughout their empire from the Yucatan to Guatemala. It was also a highly educated city, with religion and astronomy highly valued and practiced within its walls. The structures in the city were filled with astrological symbolism just as the ruins in Chichen Itza were.

Modern Xel-Ha is an important tourist site because it shows that the lucrative tourism business can still be ecologically responsible. This is important because its is a model for how the tourism business can work hand in hand with environmental conservation efforts. Xel-Ha does this by incorporating an extensive recycling program at their park, including an organic compost system. The park also has low flow and no flush toilets to reduce water use, and enforce the use of biodegradable sun screen, so that the chemicals do not washout into the river system and effect the fish and plant life there. Xel-Ha is a Silver Level certified ecologically friendly attracting, with numerous other awards that attest to their eco-friendly efforts.

We felt that we could envision life in Tulum more than in any other ruin that we have visited. Where as Chichen Itza was a religious center focused around the main temple, Tulum was spread out and residential buildings with beds could be seen.

Xel-Ha seems to be a good model for responsible tourism. We were wondering how successful their efforts to be ecologically responsible have been, especially in comparison to other tourists parks. Receiving over 5 millions tourists a year seems like it has a huge impact on the environment, just by sheer volume of guests.

Meghan and Tom

Monday, January 2, 2011

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After a relaxing weekend off we woke up and had breakfast. Then we had a lecture about the fundamentals of Native American science and how it differs from science as we commonly think of it. We talked about what science means and what it means to truly know something. After that David gave us an introduction to the Bay Patrol program and explained it in more detail. We the split into two groups and picked times to do Bay Patrol. After a short break we had lunch at noon and then had some free time before our shifts.

It was interesting to realize how different the Native American view of the world is compared to a more Western view. They see themselves as a part of their environment while we usually think of ourselves as separated from it. They also see spirituality and prayer as something that is continuous instead of regimented like going to church on Sundays. We realized how different these views are and will try to see other perspectives in the future.

Shortly after class everyone had set up a time to do the Bay Patrol program that David had recently informed us about. I (Jessica) did my time at around three in the afternoon so it was relatively cool and many of the people had gone in. However, there were still some large groups of snorkelers and several people snorkeling on their own. It was sort of difficult at first because our job is to sort of protect the bay and prevent people from harming the organisms that live in the ocean. I was surprised to see how many people really did not follow the rules. There were a bunch of people that were chasing turtles, standing on the reef, and even one person blatantly touched a turtle right in front of me! I was frustrated by it and was wondering why they don't follow the rules. Do they not understand them or what??? I was thinking also about how they could improve the manner of distribution of the rules, but I guess there's not really too much they can do. There will always be some arrogant people that think the rules don't apply to them.

Also I was surprised by how much paper work was involved in the program. When we finished in the kayaks we had to copy down the boats that left the bay into several different books. Also during the watch we had to keep track of how many boats left the bay and how many people were in the boats because a lot of people try to leave without reporting to CEA so that they don't have to pay a tax. Again, that is sort of surprising because you would think people would realize that CEA is really just there to help.

Ryan & Jessica