In pursuit of the Yucatan Peninsula’s gray ghosts

Welcome to the end of the road. If you’re going to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, it stops here, near the tip of a long, skinny peninsula about 100 miles south of Cancun. Scrub jungle encroaches on the village, fishermen wait for the opening of lobster season, the town drunk sleeps it off, dogs bark, flies swarm, flotsam surfaces on the beach and bread rises in the panaderia.

That’s about it for Punta Allen, which promises nothing to visitors seeking parasailing, shopping, golf and other Cancun-style diversions. Development, which has crept down the Yucatan coast during the last 10 years and turned stretches of wild beach into a self-styled Maya Riviera, hasn’t yet reached Punta Allen. And it isn’t likely to soon because the construction of tourist facilities is strictly limited in the roughly 1.5 million-acre ecological reserve that surrounds the drowsy Mexican village.

If, however, you lust to catch a bonefish with a fly and rod, Punta Allen may be one of the most exciting places on earth.

The bonefish, Albula vulpes, is a creature only a fly fisherman could love--small (3 to 8 pounds in this area) and too bony to eat, which is why they’re generally pursued on a catch-and-release basis. They populate the shallow, mangrove-fringed flats of Sian Ka’an’s 20-square-mile Ascension Bay. The balmy habitat makes an appealing change of scenery for fly fishermen used to braving the elements on North American trout streams, but it gives the fish a critical advantage: They are almost impossible to see without the help of expensive polarized sunglasses and the trained eyes of a local guide. And even if your casting is precise, the tricky devils are strong and fast, as people who hook and then lose them are dismayed to discover.

“It’s the ultimate trout fishing,” says the owner/namesake of Bob Marriott’s Fly Fishing Store in Fullerton. The travel department at Marriott’s store sends anglers to several small resorts in the area between Sian Ka’an and the Belize border. It is one of the best places in the world to fish for bones, together with the Bahamas, Los Roques in Venezuela, the Seychelles and Christmas Island.

Before heading to Sian Ka’an last fall, I took casting lessons with Kevin Bell, a fly-fishing instructor and general manager at Marriott’s store. By the pond in a Fullerton park, he showed me how to keep a tight loop in the line and apply power at the end of a cast. It’s harder than it looks, a completely clumsy enterprise for a novice, until you get the hang of it. By the end of two lessons, I was making reasonably well-formed casts. Of course, I still had no idea of the complex tactics required to hook and land a bonefish. Nevertheless, my teacher seemed upbeat about my chances, though I could tell he thought it strange for a rookie to go after bones, which, I guess, is like someone who’s just learned how to ride a bike entering the Tour de France.

The truth is, I just wanted an excuse to visit Punta Allen, which, on a visit to the Yucatan peninsula 10 years ago, had lodged in my memory as one of the world’s great end-of-the-road places. I had taken a VW Bug on the perilously potholed, unpaved 30-mile road that scratches its way down the peninsula, often within sight of both the Caribbean to the east and Ascension Bay to the west, but had turned back when the going got too rough.

The average Cancun vacationer never catches wind of Sian Ka’an and the lost world of jungle, beach and reef that lies between the Maya coastal ruins of Tulum, about 60 miles south of the international airport, and the Mexico-Belize border. Then, too, the infamous Boca Paila Road to Punta Allen culls out all but the most determined.

“Some people make it some of the time,” Manuel Sabido, the office manager of Cuzan Guest House, where I stayed in Punta Allen, told one of the guests. Everyone at the table laughed uproariously, but all the new arrivals had bruised behinds and glazed looks from the drive.

Knowing the road’s rigors, I had Sabido book me a transfer to Punta Allen from the airport, where I was met by a beat-up white Chevy Suburban. Pedro, the driver, and his blase young sidekick, Luis, looked as though they could handle anything, so I kicked back and watched the scenery along Highway 307, which follows the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula all the way to Belize.

The last time I drove the road, nothing interrupted the low, thick jungle, though the area south of Cancun had just been designated a development zone by the Mexican government. Now there were resort entrances every few miles, all grandiose faux-Maya, attracting Europeans for sun-and-sand package vacations. In Playa del Carmen, I saw new fast-food outlets and shopping malls. Formerly a sleepy village with little more than ferry service to Cozumel, it is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

We passed through Tulum, then stopped at the reserve entrance to pay for admission, about $2 a day. Hotels and houses, ruined by one hurricane or another, sat moldering beside the road. Soldiers assigned to drug smuggling-watch along the beach, wearing hot boots and uniforms, hitchhiked along the extenuated peninsula. It had rained recently, turning potholes into swimming pools filled with standing water high enough to reach the Suburban’s door handles. Every time we launched through one, Pedro grinned determinedly and Luis laughed. “I like this,” he said. “It’s an adventure.”

About 10 miles into the reserve we crossed a wooden bridge over the cut near Boca Paila Fishing Lodge, where Pedro pointed out a manta ray undulating by a stanchion and a roseate spoonbill stalking fish on a flat. The lodge there is one of the more upscale of about half a dozen around Ascension Bay, and the place where bonefishing was introduced to the area about a decade ago, just as lucrative spiny lobster harvests seemed to be falling off.

Once the “gray ghosts"--as bonefish became known--were discovered here, North American fly-fishing experts came south to teach Punta Allen lobstermen and lodge guides the tricks of the trade. Locals had to learn how to cast and tie flies, and at first thought the whole catch-and-release enterprise crazy, says Sonja Lillvik, who opened Cuzan around 1985 with her partner, Armando Lopez. Now, guiding bone fishermen in the winter and spring is an important source of income for the people of Punta Allen, besides summer harvesting of lobsters, which are coming back.

There, on the tip of a fish hook, is what Sian Ka’an--and other biosphere reserves selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization--is about: balancing preservation of some of the world’s rarest, most biologically diverse places with the need of indigenous populations to survive and prosper.

Sian Ka’an was decreed in 1986 and enlarged in 1994, and now is operated by the Mexican federal parks system, with extensive help from the Amigos de Sian Ka’an, a not-for-profit group created by environmentalist Barbara MacKinnon de Montes, who was born and raised in the U.S. but is a naturalized Mexican citizen. Though pressure to develop the reserve has been mounting, they have instituted a slow-growth plan for Sian Ka’an, emphasizing low-impact eco-tourism and limiting the number of hotel rooms to 1,500. “I would prefer not to see any development,” MacKinnon says. “But the area is a biosphere reserve and thus ‘sustainable’ development is an integral part of the management plan.”

To that end, MacKinnon’s group and other conservationists encourage traditional cottage industries such as honey harvesting and hammock weaving. They support reforestation and crocodile monitoring efforts. And, perhaps most important, they teach some of the more than 800 residents of Sian Ka’an how to serve as eco-tourist guides. Catch-and-release fly-fishing fits nicely in the program.

Thankfully, the reserve is, as yet, too rough and off-the-beaten-track to be in imminent danger of overdevelopment. A third of it is tangled mangrove islets, swamps and mirror-like flats. Another third is Caribbean coast, looking out to the long reef that borders the Yucatan. The rest is machete-dulling tropical jungle, virtually untrammeled since the time of the Mayans, who left 23 ruins and a streak of proud independence to their descendants in the area.

Bumping around in the back seat, I tried to read a guidebook about the fauna of Sian Ka’an: crocodiles, jaguars, snakes, manatees, tapirs, pumas, leatherback sea turtles, howler monkeys, almost 250 species of birds--including jabiru storks, parrots, toucans, egrets and flamingos--and all the fish of the bay, reef and deep. Suddenly the Suburban came to a stop. We were finally at Cuzan, though by now it was too dark to see anything beyond a large, round, palapa-roofed restaurant, where lights glowed and the sand floor invited bare feet.

Inside, I met Cuzan’s owner, Sonja, a transplant to the Yucatan from Northern California, the cook Jose, bartender Ruby--an expert mixer of strong, limey margaritas--and a serendipitous collection of guests. I’d half-expected to be the only person staying at the 14-room lodge, but there were eight of us around the dinner table that night, including a California couple who’d driven the road in a little Nissan to tour the bay, two adventurous young Czech backpackers with scant English, and a father and son from Oklahoma who had come, like me, for bonefish.

In that castaway place, we made a surprisingly cosmopolitan group. The woman from California happened to be the daughter of Czech immigrants, so the backpackers had someone to chat with. Sonja talked about her early days in the village at the end of the road, when she learned how to treat shock because the only people who came to Cuzan were shipwrecked yachters.

Chuck Goldenberg, an endearing septuagenarian who ties flies in his spare time, and his son John, a businessman currently in London, proved something my Marriott casting instructor had told me: You meet a more ethical class of people when fly-fishing, the sort that takes pleasure in the hunt, not the kill. Chuck dreamed of catching a bone, tarpon and permit fish, a fly-fishing grand slam, but he and John had gotten only three small bones and a 24-inch barracuda, and that was by trolling.

I had booked a three-day package, with all meals included. Jose delivered one plate after another, starting that night with delicious lentil soup, then the house specialty, grilled lobster tails, and flan for dessert. Everything was cooked in a palapa adjoining the dining room, including terrific breakfasts of huevos rancheros and French toast made of freshly baked bread from the panaderia. One afternoon, I saw a huge red snapper suspended outside the kitchen, which showed up again on my plate at dinner.

It was late by the time we’d scraped our plates and drained our margarita glasses. In pitch black, Sonja led the way to my room, which was actually a blue-hulled houseboat in dry dock under a palm tree, about 10 feet from the water. Sonja said she and Armando never got around to making it seaworthy, so they turned it into the lodge’s funkiest suite.

It had easy chairs on the deck and two plywood-lined rooms, one a bath with a sink and shower dispensing hot and cold water. The sleeping chamber had generator-fed electric lights, louvered windows, a cooler of purified water and a double bed regally draped with mosquito netting. I read by flashlight, slept lightly and dreamed bizarrely. At night, the wind usually kicked up, moaning through the palms, and it rained hard off and on. But my little ship always weathered the storm, basking in first-day-after-creation sunshine by the time I awoke.

Early the next morning, I walked around the village, which was quite spread out. It has a primary school, a basketball court overlooking the water, an open-air church, offices of fishing collectives and a handful of small shops, all peaceful and good-natured. Even the stray dogs looked healthy. It struck me as a good, safe place to raise a family, though Sonja later said that Punta Allen attracted a strange crew of gringos, including the occasional on-the-lam American felon.

At breakfast, I met my fishing guide, Carlos. He was 31, with a wise look beyond his years, had a Maya grandma and had just married a gringa who had worked for a time at Cuzan. Carlos had already loaded fishing tackle and a lunch cooler into the boat, which bobbed by the pier. He started the quiet four-stroke engine and we shot south, past the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula and across the mouth of Ascension Bay, banging against big waves all the way. I kept one hand on my hat and the other on my sunglasses, which, besides sun block, were all the gear I needed, because Carlos supplied the rod, a No. 9 line WT Redington, and the flies, Crazy Charlies and crab patterns.

Soon we were on the wide, placid bay, flying Indiana Jones-style through narrow channels between mangrove islands. Then we got into skinny water, utterly transparent shallows that are one to two feet deep, where bonefish swim in tight V-formations and root, leaving the impressions of their snouts on the bottom. Carlos turned off the motor and stood in the stern, slowly and silently propelling the boat with a pole, his eyes glued on the water. Ten minutes passed. I was watching a heron wade through the mangrove and thinking about an article I’d recently read in Smithsonian magazine on the results of experiments that apparently proved that fish feel pain.

Then I heard Carlos say, “Bonefish, 12 o’clock, 25 feet.”

This was my cue, but I didn’t have my rod ready and couldn’t see the prey, so the fish escaped. Later I glimpsed a bone as it swam close to the boat in an arcing flash--the aristocrat of the flats, arrogant and unconcerned that anyone would have the temerity to try to catch it. Mostly, though, I cast blind, to Carlos’ directions. When I occasionally put the fly where he saw a fish, he motioned for me to stay still, then to strip, a way of pulling the line in with your hands to make the fly spurt across the bottom, like that favorite bonefish delicacy, mantis shrimp.

Once I hooked a small bonefish but lost it because, concentrating on my casting, I was totally unprepared for its power when it tugged back and ran like 10 inches of silver-coated muscle. After lunch--tuna sandwiches, chips, watermelon and soda--I hooked and lost another.

So it went all afternoon. The sun disappeared, obscuring the view even for Carlos, then came out again, its rays emanating from a break in the clouds as in a Renaissance painting of Christ’s ascension. An osprey soared across the water. Everything seemed silver. I zoned in and out but was never bored, caught up in the drama of bonefishing.

Returning to Punta Allen, cruising past an islet where a thick flock of frigate birds nested, we explored bird-viewing platforms on tangled fingers of mangrove. When we got back, there was time for a walk to the lighthouse, where I saw big spiders weaving webs and bats embarking on nocturnal hunting forays.

On the second day, I saw three lemon sharks and a 10-foot crocodile in a channel where I’d innocently gone for a swim. This time, Carlos and I occasionally left the boat to wade in the shallows. The muck at the bottom had the consistency of wet cement and our feet sank to our shins. Carlos helped me land a small bonefish, but it didn’t really count because he did most of the work. By then I’d basically given up on catching one on my own and was content to see the sights and go snorkeling out on the reef before heading back to Punta Allen.

Near the end of the third day, I was still wading in the flats behind Carlos, my eyes riveted on the surface, looking for “nervous water,” as he put it, that signaled the presence of bones.

Suddenly he stopped. “You see?” he whispered.

“No,” I said, scanning the water where he pointed.

“Twenty feet, 1 o’clock. Cast now,” he said, “but soft.”

I lifted the rod back and let the line fly, utterly amazed because suddenly I saw the tight little V-formation of bonefish he’d spotted.

“They’re tailing. Wait,” Carlos said. “Cast again, shorter.”

I did.

“Strip, strip, strip,” Carlos said. “Now stop . . . . “

The line jerked, then tensed, like a game of tug-of-war.

“You feel?” Carlos asked. “You got him. Let him run.”

The fish ran three times to the far side of the flat, but somehow I played it right this time, reeling in with the grip of the rod propped against my hip. After five interminable minutes, Carlos was removing the hook from what he estimated to be a six-pound bonefish. He took a picture while I cradled it in my arms, then released it to make more silver crescents in Ascension Bay. I hoped that the hurt, if it existed, would pass and that the fish, if it could remember, would think of our encounter without regret.

Then I raised my arms and yelled in unadulterated joy. But it wasn’t just the fish. It was the lost and lovely place--Sian Ka’an. Sonja says it’s unlikely they’ll ever pave the road. I hope she’s right.