Today’s RIDE INTO BIRDLAND trip report brings you along into an amazing place: Mayakoba. This large seafront property located between Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen houses three of the world’s top hotel brands in the Riviera Maya: The Fairmont, The Banyan Tree and The Rosewood. Worlds away from the all-inclusive resorts of the Mexican Caribbean, guests at Mayakoba are treated to private bungalows and villas that merge subtly with their natural surroundings and are often located right on the water. Preservation of natural ecosystems was a guiding principle for developer OHL right from the project’s inception, so it is not by chance that the birding is so gratifying here. You need to be a guest at one of these exclusive hotels to enjoy the sights: I had the fortune of being invited to come along for a birding trip in Mayakoba’s beautiful ecosystems.
The experience: after a delicious breakfast at The Banyan Tree, our group of four boarded a nifty electric boat. For close to 90 minutes our friendly helmsman navigated at slow speed on the blue, green and turquoise waters of a landscape where the underground rivers, mangrove forests and Caribbean shores of the Yucatán Península seem to blend into each other. Having left the dock behind, and after floating for a few minutes along the edge of famous golf course El Camaleon, we were soon out of sight of any man-made elements, surrounded by rocks and mangroves that allowed us to easily forget we were still within Mayakoba. The birds were all around us: American Coots, White Egrets, Cormorants, Grebes, Pelicans, Anhingas… At times they were so close, my 300/f4 lens with the TC-1.4 converter actually proved to be too long. Next time (impossible not to wish for a next time) I’ll bring along the 80-200/2.8 as well. All the pictures included in this post were made during the 90 minutes or so that our boat trip lasted. We had excellent weather, and kept ourselves busy looking for the spots with the best light, not without realizing that some places would be better photographed during the afternoon.
The company: I was one of three blessed photographers scanning the landscape for happy conjunctions of birds, good light and great backgrounds. Also shooting were Cherie Pitillo and our magnanimous host, James Batt. Equally blessed, not taking pictures but looking through her binocs and endowed with the deepest knowledge of birds among us, was Bev Scott.
Cherie Pitillo is a zoologist, author and photographer who writes a very interesting and always entertaining weekly column in the Yucatan Times about birding in Mérida, you can check it out here. She’s also a founding member of the Yucatan Birding Club. Cherie was enjoying the birds so much that at one point she decided to put her camera down and just revel in the birdwatching, without the pressure of having to make any images. Even so, she couldn’t help but pick up her camera again when a couple of Roseate Spoonbills suddenly came into our view!
James Batt, a top-level executive at Mayakoba, is British “and therefore a birder”, as he quipped with typical English humor. A life’s career in the hotel business has taken him to many exotic places, which does not hamper but rather enhances his appreciation of how special Mayakoba is. He’s become the most frequent and enthusiastic visitor to this birder’s playground and recently compiled a selection of his best images in a nice book, properly titled “Birds of Mayakoba”. James is also an energetic promoter of nature appreciation among hotel guests, who are invited to take the boat ride as we did and to walk along the property’s beautiful nature trails.
Bev Scott, also a founding member of the Yucatan Birding Club, is a knowledgeable birder and author who has reached legendary status among bird aficionados in the Yucatan Peninsula. For the last ten years she has been living in Progreso with her husband, nature photographer Murray Sullivan. Together they have travelled extensively in the Yucatan and further down into Central America. Google her up and you’ll find several reports from her trips. Her bird identification skills are truly an asset not only to herself but to anyone lucky enough to be her travel companion on a birding trip. In fact, she was so quick and precise identifying birds during this outing that at one point James couldn’t help but exclaim, “Great! We have a bird-encyclopedia on board!”.
Ethical birding: first of all, I have to say I just loved that electric boat! Decision makers at Mayakoba could not have made a better choice: the boats are not only elegant and comfortable but almost completely silent and free of exhaust fumes, which reduces stress on both birds and passengers. Our pilot navigated the shallow waters at such a relaxed pace that at times we seemed to be drifting along. In some areas the water channels are so narrow that we got to be really close to the birds, but as James was quick to point out, training for boat operators includes precise guidelines about not stalking the birds and not lingering too close to them. This means photographers have to be quick to make the most of photo opportunities as they arise, adding excitement to the trip and most importantly, guaranteeing peace of mind from an ethical point of view. Mayakoba keeps biologists on staff to oversee all activities that may have an impact on the natural ecosystems within the property. Just as it should be.
My conclusion: Considering all factors (birds, location, weather, company and comfort level), I feel the words “luxury birding” headlining this trip report are completely justified. If I could have a word with each and every guest at Mayakoba, I would tell them to make sure not to miss this wonderful experience. As for guests who are particularly sensible about nature and also photography buffs, I can only say: take the boat not once, not twice, but as many times as feasible during your stay, both in the early morning and second half of the afternoon, so that you may take advantage of the best light and discover the different facets of a constantly changing bird spectacle. You will not regret it.
Special thanks: it was my privilege to be part of this special visit to Mayakoba. How we all got to be together for such a great morning of bird photography can only be credited to the birds themselves and to the generosity of our host, James Batt, whom I sincerely thank in behalf of our group. This was my second visit to Mayakoba, having been there once before in 2012, also a very pleasant experience. I’ll take this opportunity to thank Paulina Feltrin, head of the P.R. department at Fairmont Mayakoba, for that wonderful first visit. Happy luxury birding… in Mayakoba!