With resort and hotel development nearly filling the length of Cancun Island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, travelers are looking south to the 60-mile coastal strip between Cancun and the ancient walled city of Tulum.
Much-traveled Route 307, which connects the two cities, is now being widened from two lanes to four. And not surprisingly, about half an hour south of Cancun on 307, in the area around Puerto Morelos, a trio of roadside attractions has sprung up.
What is surprising is that these nature-based exhibitions, while modest in scale, are well-designed and distinguished more by their orientation to conservation than by kitsch. It's not exactly eco-tourism, but the three stops provide a good sampling of the peninsula's fauna and flora--especially for children too young to snorkel or not interested in touring the ubiquitous Mayan ruins.
The first attraction is Aquario Palancar--a small, privately operated aquarium now in its third year of operation and much-improved from its first. Named for the reef off the nearby island of Cozumel, it is well lit and there is soft classical music playing. There are more tanks in operation now--framed by bamboo matting--featuring parrot fish, turtles, eels, crustaceans, angel fish and the inevitable piranha.
Unfortunately, all of the informative tank captions are still in Spanish only. It takes only 15 to 20 minutes to see everything now on exhibition in the rectangular building, and the cost is about $2.35 per adult. Since it is indoors, it's not a bad place to wait out the periodic downpours that replenish the Yucatan habitat.
Next door to the aquarium is Croco Cun, a reptile breeding station that is now five years old, built over a cenote --a freshwater spring covered by a limestone dome. Although privately owned, it operates in a cooperative arrangement with the Mexican government, which helps the owner, who is a veterinarian, acquire endangered crocodiles and caimans from their habitats for breeding purposes and then return their progeny to the wild. The various crocodiles and alligators come from Mexico's Gulf, Pacific and Caribbean coastal areas.
Croco Cun, whose insignia is a baby croc hatching from an egg, has about 30,000 visitors a year, many of whom come on buses making the one-day excursion from Cancun to Tulum during the winter high season. There are about 300 reptiles on display at the well-laid-out attraction, including Morelet's crocodiles, Central American caimans and American crocodiles. Admission is about $3.35 per adult and a self-guided tour along cobblestone paths, part of which is shaded by trees, takes about half an hour. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with tropical trees, plants and flowers, many of which are labeled in Spanish and Latin.
For obvious reasons--numerous signs warn you to watch your children--the stucco walls around the reptile pens are about four feet tall and topped with wire fencing, often intertwined with red hibiscus. That means that small children will need to be boosted up to see. And when it is very hot--at midday for example--there is not much activity to see, except for the imperceptible breathing of the crocs.
The actual breeding is accomplished in climate-controlled rooms, but several outdoor pens--croc daycare--are stocked with scores of offspring that staff members will occasionally handle for visitors. One staff member offered our 2 1/2-year-old a chance to pet one of the juniors, but he declined.
A guide pointed out a large earthen mound covering eggs in one pen, carefully guarded by a large mother croc. Before hatching, the eggs are removed, under the angry glare of the momma, and carried to closed rooms, where, according to the staff, the sex of the offspring can be influenced through controlling the room temperature.
Hurricane Gilbert did considerable damage to Croco Cun in 1988, according to its director, Dr. Eduardo Rio Aguilar. About 50 reptiles were lost, including 20 dead and 30 escapees. Some, but not all, were recaptured by the staff. Among the missing, said the director with a smile, is one very large croc whose tracks are still spotted in the area. "I don't think I'd want to meet up with him," he said.
In addition to the reptiles, there is a fenced-in deer park with a dozen well-camouflaged white-tail deer, usually with spotted fauns. There is a wild black boar in a pen, and parrots, kinkajous and monkeys in thatched cages. (One of the latter is a spider monkey orphaned by the hurricane, named Gilberto.)
Next to the gift shop and restrooms, at the entrance, is a small cantina area with tables and chairs where you can sip cold drinks and eat popcorn popped in an old-fashioned cart.
Jardin Botanico, just south of Puerto Morelos, is the latest addition to the exhibits, and, at $2, the least expensive. Just inside a large stucco archway that forms the entrance, you find yourself in a parking lot shaded by a green canopy of tall hardwoods. With the Spanish/English map that accompanies your admission ticket, you can decide how ambitious a hiking circuit you want to take. There's no telling what animal life you might encounter along the various packed-earth and limestone paths, but you are probably more likely to see a skittering iguana than one of Croco Cun's escapees.
The 150-acre park, which is owned by the Mexican government, provides an opportunity to see what goes on in the impenetrable jungle scrub otherwise visible only from the road or the air or with the aid of a machete. The habitats range from mangrove swamp to semi-evergreen tropical forest. While the tours are self-guided, English-speaking guides are also available for a $5 fee.
The tree and plant tags are in Spanish, English and Latin. Among the areas to visit are plant nurseries, some ruins from the Mayan post-classic period, a reconstructed chicalero camp--demonstrating how the chicle extract is harvested from the tree for chewing gum. There is also a contemporary Mayan home, which includes a thatched hut, cooking area, hammock and cultivated fruit trees.
One word of caution: The mosquitoes can be fierce, especially after a rain, so wear long pants and sleeves and take insect repellent.
Puerto Morelos, a small fishing village with a friendly ambience between Croco Cun and the botanical garden, is best known as the port for the three-hour car ferry to Cozumel. There's a small children's playground and basketball court in the treeless square, named for former Mexican President Benito Juarez. Hotel and condo construction in Puerto Morelos has just started to pick up.
It's also a good place to stop for lunch or dinner at one of several open-air restaurants on the beach--try the delicious bocanetti snapper--and go for a refreshing swim.
Getting there: Most people who come to Yucatan's Caribbean coast stay in Cancun. From there, the three roadside attractions in the Puerto Morelos area are about half an hour's ride south on Route 307. Tour buses to Tulum frequently stop at Croco Cun, and municipal buses run regularly. Daily car rentals are available at most hotels, but half-day rate for a taxi and driver is less, about $60.
Fast facts: Hours of operation are Aquario Palancar, 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Croco Cun, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Jardin Botanico, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mondays). The attractions are not far from a number of other quiet beaches, coves and lagoons that are ideal for sampling off-the-beaten-track Yucatan. These include Punta Bete, Playa del Carmen--where the fast ferries to Cozumel depart and some Caribbean cruise ships put in--Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Kailuum and Akumal.
For more information: Contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8151 or (800) 262-8900; Cancun Hotel Assn., 011-52-988-45895, or Fonatur in Cancun, 011-52-988-40610.