Punta Laguna jungle
Quintana Roo, Mexico
You can see both spider and howler monkeys in their natural habitat in this jungle reserve, sitting on a lake.
The jungle reserve is called Otoch Ma'ax Yetel Kooh. In the Maya language it means the House of Monkeys and the Puma. The name indicates that you can expect monkeys here in the wild, and some jaguars (puma and black jaguar are the same animals). That is exactly what we came here for, to spot the howler and spider monkeys in the trees. We were not keen on jaguars, for obvious reasons, and we were told they were on the other side of the lake (being shy and keeping away from people). Uff! What a relief.
At reception we were offered the jungle walk by ourselves (for 150 pesos per person) or a guide (additional 500 pesos to the entry fee). We opted to walk with a guide. There were four of us, friends from Playa del Carmen, so we shared the cost. We came here in April, the day before Good Friday, so there were a few local visitors about. The reserve is a co-operative, run by the people from the village by the entrance. Our guide Roberto Canula was from the village and we found him very sweet. He spoke Spanish and Maya only but we had enough Spanish between us and I was interested to hear the Maya names of all the plants and animals. There were other guides who spoke English. If you need one, make sure you ask at reception. In total they have 14 guides here so although some pre-booked groups come here in minibuses, you will still be able to get a guide if you are an independent traveller.
In retrospect, I must admit that without the guide we would have not found the monkeys. They sit high in the trees but you can't keep your eyes on them because you have to keep your eyes glued on the rocky jungle path instead, not to fall. I actually kept wondering if the rocks were in fact ancient stone mounds from a former city here. So, with Roberto's help we saw a family of howler monkeys and a family of spider monkeys. To hear their loud, deep guttural cry, Roberto made the sound himself, and they responded. It is a rather scary sound, if you are not prepared for it. Roberto seemed to know their movements; he explained that there is one solitary male howler monkey who sometimes approaches the family but they always send him away.
Other typical species in the reserve are white-tailed deer, coati and ocellated turkey. We did not spot them although we know them from other jungles in Mexico. If you walk the jungle without a guide, do visit the small museum by the reception first. It gives you information about the local fauna, with some photos of monkeys and ocellated turkeys. As a matter of fact, I am using a photo of a monkey from the museum, as my mobile phone was not able to zoom enough to photograph the monkeys so high in the sky. I only managed to record the howler monkey cries. Roberto also pointed some plants out to us, such as the Elephant Ear Tree. Its seeds are starchy with a light peanut flavor, very nutritious and filling. Monkeys love these seeds. Maya people call this tree Piich. They used to eat Piich seeds as snacks (much like pop-corn) and rural Maya people still process the seeds to make flour for tortillas when corn crops are marginal. We also saw some varieties of wild orchids and bromeliads on the older Piich trees.
Along the jungle path we saw some Strangler Fig trees, Wild Tamarind, and many copper Gumbo Limbo trees (Chaca in Maya), which by now I know very well as they are omnipresent in the Yucatán jungle. Black Poison Wood (Chechén) is always near its 'red brother'. If you touch the sap of the latter you will get bad blisters, but the sap from Gumbo Limbo will cure it. It is a perfect antidote.
Roberto was talkative and jolly; it was such a pleasant walk. He also shared with us the history of the jungle reserve. His brother is one of four men in the village who have become assistant investigators, who started here in 1986. The jungle and the lake around create wetlands, which are now listed as one of the Ramsar sites in Mexico. It means they are of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. It is named after the city of Ramsar in Iran where the Convention was signed in 1971. Mexico currently has 138 sites designated as 'Wetlands of International Importance'.
Roberto explained that while the village is referred to as Punta Laguna (Lagoon Point) in Spanish, in the Maya language it is called Xul Há (the Point of Water). The settlement here and in the nearby village of Campamento Hidalgo (Camp Hidalgo) started about 50 years ago when three brothers called Ignacio, Marcos and Domingo Canul Tun came here from the village of Chemax (about 50km from here) to extract chicle resin from the zapote (sapodilla) tree. They were chicleros (chicle was used for making chewing gum). After three days of travelling they found the lagoon and they settled here. They sold the chicle gum for 7 cents per kg. It was the only kind of job that one could get in Yucatán in those days. They called the place Punta Laguna and the name stuck. Years later, Canul's sons continued working here as chicleros. Today about 30 families live in Hidalgo village by the main road and by the lake. They look after the jungle, which is susceptible to damage by fire and hurricanes, and they manage the co-operative. Some of them work at reception, others as guides, and yet others are in charge of the boats on the lagoon. If you want to combine the lagoon with the jungle, this is all feasible but the entry is separate (lagoon entry is 150 pesos per person; the boat is 200 pesos per hour). The women from the village sell their jewellery in a palapa shop, by the entrance to the jungle path. The village also runs a shop with snacks and cold drinks, and a restaurant.
Near the lagoon there is a small archaeological site composed of 36 structures, still hidden by the dense vegetation. It is pretty old, from the Late Preclassic Period (300 BC - 250 AD). We did not see it; we only walked for about an hour. However, we did pass a cenote, called Las Calaveras (the Skulls). A few metres from the entrance there is an altar with three crosses dressed in the local huipiles (blouses) and where the local villagers place offerings for the welfare of the community.
The cenote looked just like a dark hole, but Roberto explained that it widened inside. There is a drawing of it in the museum and it shows that it is in fact a bottle-shaped cenote, with the width of the bottom cave being about 30m. The water level is at 12m and it is 15m deep. The cave is difficult to access, only by rappelling or a steep ladder. It would have been used by the ancient dwellers here as a source of fresh water. They found about 120 skeletons here, most likely victims of human sacrifice from the nearby ruin site. The deceased always travelled into the waters of the cenote, which was considered the entry to Xibalbá, the Maya Underworld.
If you opt for the cenote experience, it will be accompanied by a Maya ritual ceremony. Another exciting experience is a zip-line over the lake, about 240m long. If you want to take the whole package (the jungle, the cenote, the zip-line and kayaking on the lake), count with about 700 pesos per person. If you come with an outside tour agency, it will be more, as transport will be included. There are supposed to be some crocodiles in the lake, but like the jaguars, they keep to the other side (the lake is large enough for them not to bother you). You can in fact swim in the lake, not just kayak. And it is the place for a picnic, with some great views of the water.
How to get there:
You will have to rent a car to get there. Follow the main highway (307) towards Tulum. When you reach the main intersection in Tulum, take a right and follow the signs towards Cobá. You will pass through many Mexican villages along the way. When you get to a roundabout in Cobá, stay right and take the first exit. The second one goes to Valladolid and the third one to the ruins of Cobá. About 20 minutes later (after you pass the village of Hidalgo), you will see the Punta Laguna reserve sign on your left.
MIX AND MATCH:
Definitely come here after visiting the ruins of Cobá.