Punta Laguna lake
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Swim in the wild, paddle a kayak, zipline over the lake, listen to howler monkey cries in the jungle.
Our car is packed with food, towels, drinks and smiling faces. There are four of us, four friends from Playa del Carmen. We seem magnetised by the call of the water. Yes, we are driving to Punta Laguna. Tomorrow is Good Friday (2019) so there might be crowds at the lake but we don't mind. It is one of those rare trips where you can enjoy 'wild' nature and we are determined to have that experience.
When we arrive, it is immediately clear that nature has not been modified much here. Well, the lake has a pier, which is useful for accessing the lake for swimming or kayaking. And there is a watch-tower. I am sure it provides nice views of the lake, which has an hourglass shape, although I did not climb the tower for the view. The middle of the lake seems shallow and it is marked by some hammocks hanging on wooden poles. People who kayak here like to stop there; it is a nice photo op.
Otherwise, the villagers guard this lake and the whole wetland area, but without changing the landscape. There is a dilapidated building on the shore that once served as bar, a watch tower, and there is a reception, museum, shop and restaurant at the entry point. No other alterations happened here.
We opened our picnic and immediately got into that calm and peaceful mood, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment when we are near water. Maybe it is the attraction to the colour blue or perhaps the sound of water in a slight breeze…It is not just us who react positively to water. There were a few Maya families doing the same, having a picnic and a swim, and all having that happy grin on their faces. I felt we were all connected. The family picnicking next to us even offered us some fried fish and ceviche, to complement our own picnic. I find the Maya people so friendly and hospitable.
The lake sits within the 5,000-hectare reserve Otoch Ma'ax Yetel Kooh (House of the Monkey and the Puma, in the Maya language). The name indicates that you can expect monkeys here in the wild, and some jaguars (pumas and black jaguars are the same animal). Well, jaguars are actually shy of people so you won't meet those. The forest around the lake supports populations of spider and howler monkeys, as well as a variety of birds, and contains small, unexcavated ruins and a cenote. Local guides run morning and afternoon tours to spot monkeys. We were able to see both howler and spider monkey families. I think that without a guide it would have been difficult to spot them. It's so difficult to look up when you're concentrating on the rocks and roots under your feet.
We did the jungle walk first thing in the morning, to see the monkeys, and then we had a picnic by the lake, followed by a swim and kayaking. It was a fun afternoon. For swimming, we reached the lake from the pier steps. The bottom of the lake is surprisingly sandy, no rocks. 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).
Kayaking was not easy for us. We went in circles and we blamed the wind. In all honesty, while were actually warned by the lake staff not to go too far as the wind was strong on that day, we could have done a better job with our paddling. On the other hand, we watched other people and a few had the same problem. In any case, we were pleased that we tried it, circles or not. We went to the opposite shore where the zipliners land, and back to the pier. It took us about half an hour.
The land here contains one of the most important systems of surface water in the Yucatán peninsula, included in a list of international importance under the Ramsar Convention from 1971. Wetlands are indispensable because of the benefits they offer, such as fresh water and food, and they help to mitigate climate change. The interaction between coastal wetlands and back-barrier lagoons forms a unique environment that provides a habitat for innumerable species. The mangrove forest provides important ecosystem services and protection from extreme weather events. The beaches and sea grasses provide food and a breeding habitat for migratory birds and sea turtles.
The lagoon was discovered by chicleros from the nearby town of Chemax, about 50 years ago. These are workers who extract chicle resin from the zapote (sapodilla) trees, used for making chewing gum. In the 70s, a road was built to the archaeological site of Cobá, by Hidalgo and Cortes Company. They installed a camp here near a quarry where they extracted lime gravel for the road. The workers built cardboard huts for living while they worked here. When they left, people from Chemax moved to their camp, known as Campamento Hidalgo. The community has gone through several changes and now about 31 families live here, in a traditional Maya way. Their houses are made of wood and have palapa roofs (made of dried palm leaves). They cook on open fires, like their ancestors. The village accepts visitors so if you have time after your swim, you can go and visit the Hidalgo village itself. It is a little bit like stepping back in time but certainly worth seeing people who are closely tied to nature and live from what it gives them. It is this community that looks after the reserve here and they run a co-operative that offers eco-tourism in a sustainable way.
The entrance to the lake costs 150 pesos per person and the boat is 200 pesos/hour. If you opt for the jungle walk, the entrance fee is the same (150/person) but the guide is 500 pesos. If you want the cenote experience, it will be accompanied by a Maya ritual ceremony. The cenote entry is via a steep ladder but you will get some protective gear. 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 a minimum 700 pesos per person. If you come with an outside tour agency, it will be more, as transport will be included, as well as the agency guide.
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 & Match:
Definitely come here after visiting the ruins of Cobá.