Botanical gardens Puerto Morelos
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Jardín Botánico is more of a tropical forest than a botanical garden. The gardens are not manicured so the more fitting name would be a nature reserve.
If you fancy a walk through some coastal jungle filled with iguanas and birds, this is the place to go. You may spot local birds such as Motmots, Trogons, Yucatán Jays or Flycatchers. With a bit of luck you can spot the spider monkeys as well. The trails in the forest have signs letting you know what the various trees and plants are. The area of the garden is pretty large, 150 acres, which you would not guess when entering it. It is actually the largest botanical garden in Mexico.
Living in the beach resort of Playa del Carmen, I am always on the lookout for a small but proper jungle walk (check my other posts in the jungle category). I don't like going to commercial eco parks with crowds of people; for me it is much more interesting to go to an authentic jungle. It is extremely hard to find a bit of real nature, as the forests in Yucatán are suffering extensive deforestation (due to expanding tourist resorts). It took me a good two years to discover this place as they don't advertise it much either. This garden is perhaps the only land that has been set aside for conservation in the corridor between Cancún and Tulum.
The 'garden' is now named after a local professor and botanist born in Merida. The garden's full name is Dr Alfredo Barrera Marín Botanical Garden. Back in the 90s the gardens were called Ya'ax Che and the locals still refer to it under that name. Ya’ax Ché means Ceibain Mayan, their sacred tree of life. The concept of a tree of life or sacred tree is widespread in ancient mythologies and cosmologies. World trees embodied the four cardinal directions and a symbolic axis mundi (the world centre), connecting the planes of the underworld (roots) and the sky (branches). In essence, the Maya believed that the soul of a deceased person travels down to the underworld and then it is reborn through the centre of the tree on the way up to the sky (heaven).
So what is the native ecosystem like in Yucatán? I came here in 2015 with a small group of seven: my friend Claudia, my husband Rhod, our son Rhodri and a few of his friends. We spent the morning wandering the trails in the quiet of the jungle by ourselves. It was so serene, it felt as if we were entirely alone. At some point I actually got lost and separated from the group, a bit of a scary moment. We had to reconnect over the phone. While the paths are marked, you can go off in certain places so if you are in a group, try to keep together. There are in total about 3km of marked trails so you will need to set aside 2 hours or so, particularly if you want to watch birds (there are 220 species here).
The habitats range from mangrove swamps to semi-evergreen tropical forest. Apart from the sacred Ceiba you can find trees such as Copal (used for incense), Sapote (used for chewing gum), Baalche' (used for fermented drinks), Mahogany (precious hardwood), Dogwood tree (used for female medical treatments). Watch out for the Black Poisonwood tree called in Mayan Chechén, which produces beautiful decorative wood for carving but has a highly irritating sap as a form of defence. If you touch the sap, it causes red skin and blisters. The Red Gumbo Limbo or Chacá tree usually lives right next to Chechén as the bark extract can treat those blisters (it is generally used for inflammatory treatments). The Mayan legend has it that they were two brothers in love with the same girl. They fought and killed each other and the gods turned them into the two trees, to live forever in harmony.
In the tropical heat, the garden is a cool and well-shaded oasis. There are sections dedicated to specific plants, such as a cactus garden, palm garden, orchid garden, ornamental plants, traditional Mayan living quarters and a bee apiary. Native plants are fostered in the nursery where you will find local medicinal and culinary herbs. The gardens also contain a Mayan ruin named the Altar that dates to the post-classic period (1400 AD).
In this place it is easier to imagine how the ancient Maya lived in the past, rather than at the official ruin sites full of tourists. You can see not only the ancient ruins, but also reconstructed Mayan houses where they lived (and still do), their gardens full of medicinal herbs, and there is even a re-creation of a chicle camp. Such camps were set up throughout Yucatán where the sap of the sapote or 'chicle' tree was boiled down and then used for the production of chewing gum. The ancient Maya used it for teeth cleaning or breath-freshening.
There is a 'reading area' with hammocks and chairs inside a cottage with nets where you can eat or rest (you need to bring your own water and snacks as there is nothing on sale at the reception). The park attracts a range of wild creatures. Apart from iguanas, if you’re lucky, you might spot an agouti. We were lucky to see a cluster of spider monkeys, this was by around 2pm (apparently a good time to spot them is the afternoon while bird watching is better in the morning).
The paths are mostly even but in places the terrain gets a bit rough. The highlight of our walk was the wooden suspension bridge. We risked the canopy walk; it was pretty swinging and for me it was a little unnerving as I was not sure how well the bridge was maintained (I don't handle heights that well either). At the time of our visit the garden in places looked a little bit underfunded (neglected) but I heard from a friend recently that the bridge is now under repair. My friend Claudia crossed the bridge with confidence and I managed to take a photo of her doing so. In the photo the bridge does not look scary but it is pretty high, at tree-top level with the mangrove underneath. After we crossed the bridge, we climbed a scenic lookout tower. The reward is a vast panoramic view expanding from the mangrove forest to the sparkling sea!
How to get there:
It's hard to spot the entrance to the gardens when travelling north from Playa. It is located at the turnoff for Puerto Morelos on Highway 307 at Km 38. When you are approaching Puerto Morelos, just get in the right-hand lane and slow down. On your immediate right is the archway into the gardens. Make sure there is no car behind you when you are slowing down and pulling in, as the drivers behind you won't expect you to make that sudden turn here. There is no car park space outside the gate; go all the way in with the car.
The garden is open from Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm (last entry is at 4pm). They are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. The entry fee is around 6USD. Bring mosquito repellent, solid shoes (not flip-flops), and lots of water.
They do have restroom facilities. Use the restroom by the parking lot before you start on the path because once you start down the path there's only one other restroom (outhouse), and it is towards the beginning.
MIX AND MATCH:
After the stroll in the gardens, you can go to the beach in Puerto Morelos or visit one of the cenotes across the road, on the Ruta de Cenotes.