Located 90 kilometers northwest of the city of Merida (Yucatan), the Celestun Biosphere Reserve covers 59,130 hectares and protects an essential habitat for the survival of the American Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). Flamingos compete with Penguins for the top slot in the ranking of the world’s most charismatic birds, because human beings are fascinated by them. The Celestun Biosphere Reserve provides one of the main feeding and hibernating spaces for Flamingos in the Yucatan Peninsula and has become an important engine for the development of eco-tourism in the area. Mexican and international travelers visit the reserve to hop on boats and enjoy the sight of hundreds or even thousands of these attractive birds in their natural habitat, an unforgettable experience. Flamingos are the undisputed protagonists of this great spectacle, but a careful observer will soon discover there’s much more to see and enjoy.
The area’s bird list is as varied as the ecosystems that conform it, including mangroves, marshes, savannas, coastal dunes, mudflats and deciduous forests. Among the rare and endemic species that can be seen we may mention the Yucatan Wren (Campylorhynchus yucatanicus), the Yucatan Bobwhite (Colinus nigrogularis), the Yucatan Jay (Cyanocorax yucatanicus), the Black Catbird (Melanoptila glabrirostris), the Yucatan Woodpecker (Melanerpes pygmaeus), the Boat-billed Heron (Cochlearius cochlearius), the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron (Tigrisoma mexicanum), the Mexican Sheartail (Doricha eliza), the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia), the Yucatan Flycatcher (Myiarchus yucatanensis), the Ridgway’s Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx ridgwayi), the Orange Oriole (Icterus auratus), the Pygmy Kingfisher (Chloroceryle aenea), the Yucatan Parrot (Amazona Xantholora), the Grey-necked Wood-rail (Aramides cajanea), the Rufous-necked Wood-rail (Aramides axillaris) and the emblematic Ocellated Turkey (Argiocharis ocellata).
In our most recent journey to this part of the peninsula we stayed at Xixim Unique Mayan Hotel, a paradise for nature lovers that we had already visited on a previous occasion during our trip to the 2011 Toh Bird Festival. Xixim belongs to a rare species as far as hotels go: it successfully combines luxury with sustainability and is managed directly by its owner.
Our first morning in Xixim regaled us with the visit at our cabin’s doorstep of a couple of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), a much celebrated species in Yucatecan culture that has nevertheless suffered in recent years from a sharp decline in numbers, the sad consequence of excessive trapping aimed at the captive-birds market. The visit of these two Cardinals was the opening act of a weekend that combined birding with the enjoyment of the shores of the Gulf of Mexico and an interesting outing by boat on “Ría de Celestun”.
Our stay coincided with the presence at the hotel of owner Verena Gerber, with whom we were able to speak at length about the concepts behind Xixim. We wanted to know what it’s been like to develop a project such as this, in an area that offers special challenges and falls outside the main influx of mass-tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula. One night, just before dinner, we sat together in Xixim’s elevated bar facing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and interviewed her for RIDE INTO BIRDLAND.
IGH: Why did you choose this place for your project?
VG: I visited many places but when I saw this space and this beach, I fell in love. You walk out on this seashell-covered beach and you have to exclaim, This cannot be! When I was a child there were plenty of shells in Acapulco, also in Cancun. Now you don’t find them in either place. Here we’re lucky to have them still, and I think it’s sensational we can preserve them. This whole place seems magical to me, but what caught my attention and made me reach a decision was precisely that beach, covered in seashells.
IGH: It was a risky bet, there wasn’t much tourism in the area back then.
VG: It wasn’t just a bet, one decides on a project and says, this is the way I’m going. When we got started, 20 years ago, I wanted to do what was then called eco-tourism. It then came to be called sustainable tourism, later green tourism, which is how I would call it. I wanted to create an eco-tourism project the way it should be done, even if I didn’t know how. I did a lot of reading, visited the Virgin Islands and many other places, and understood back then that nothing was written, everything was being done, but there were some basic concepts that seem very logical to me now.
You have to start somewhere and we began with a project I initially named Eco Paraíso Xixim. We are on the western tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, which is geographically called Xixim, as opposed to the eastern tip, which is called Cancún. Xixim means “seashell” and Cancún means “snake’s nest”. I decided on “seashell”. There was nothing here 20 years ago, but now I’m proud to say our sustainable-tourism parameters are recognized the world over. We have it all: low density construction, because it’s very important not to put pressure on the area you occupy; we use local building materials; we built in such a way that the architecture blends in with nature; all of our water is biologically processed, all of it, not an easy thing to do; we separate the garbage; we reuse as much as possible, even if the type of hotel we run here does not allow us to reuse everything, but nothing is thrown out, things are donated or, for instance, with discarded linen you can make cleaning rags.
IGH: You’ve faced the challenge of using available technology to run a project that aims to be sustainable but also economically viable. How do you keep your bearings and achieve a point of equilibrium from the operational point of view?
VG: You must have very firm ideals to begin with. People may come and say, Why don’t you plant grass?. Well no, we want to have local vegetation and you cannot wipe it away. If I want to be sustainable I can’t build a ten-story edifice, it doesn’t go with the concept. As far as the point of equilibrium… you bump against reality, for instance with alternative energy. Say you have three small cabins or even put up tents, and you hand out a few candles and tell people there’s no electricity from 11 at night till 6 in the morning. Well, you could do that, but it’s not the goal in our Hotel, here we say “come and enjoy nature in comfort and style”.
What we do is control all of our guests’ supplies and all the waste that is generated. Garbage is controlled, wastewater, napkins, straws, nothing is left to chance, nothing is discarded into the environment. We practically don’t use drinking straws because they never break down. We have clients who smoke but we ask them to please not discard their cigarrette butts in the environment, because they don’t break down and it would be awful. In many of Mexico’s beaches you dig in the sand and find two things: cigarette butts and glass from beer bottles. Here you still find seashells, God bless. That’s why we must conserve and preserve.
I believe our biggest challenge so far, the one that hurts me the most, is everything related to alternative energy: solar collectors and cells, photo-voltaic energy, wind power. I have studied a lot and tried many things but not everything is working yet. I think the available technology doesn’t help, it’s still very expensive. A hybrid system has to be very well designed and is very demanding, if the energy is not distributed correctly it damages all your appliances. Still I think we have a space that is sustainable, we do responsible tourism and do it well, and the location is truly beautiful. My Hotel is beautiful but I’m talking about all of this magical place. Every time I come here there’s a surprise in store for me. It could be a guest, or it could be two or three rainbows at the same time, or a star shower, or the moon, which sometimes looks like a double sun here over the sea. It’s amazing what you can experience here… watching a boa eating an iguana, for instance! This is a place of many gifts and we’re preserving the small part that we’ve been given.
IGH: Preservation in Xixim includes the coastal dunes. Why is that so important?
VG: We have many examples of what happens if you touch the first dune, it’s really our shore, not the beach. This is why in Cancún they suffer what they suffer, I call them spit-into-the-sea hotels: you’re in your room or terrace, and from there you can spit into the sea. Here you have to walk a hundred yards to reach the sea. The first dune must be left untouched, it’s really there that dry land begins. It’s also where the turtles nest, we’re so lucky to have the arrival of turtles during June, July and August, then we have the hatchings, but if you take that away you’re pushing them towards extinction. This is our coast! If you disrupt it you get the same results as they have in Cancun: where is the sand, the beach? It’s gone! This is widely known already. Why is it still being done, why is it permitted? I really don’t get it. Besides, here on the first dune we have vegetation that you don’t see anywhere else, shrubs that smell and taste like honey, you walk further inland to the second dune and you don’t find them. They’re only in the first dune, which must not be destroyed.
IGH: We saw on TripAdvisor that people make very positive comments about Xixim, but also when someone is not entirely satisfied or has any complaints it is you, the owner, who issues a personal reply.
VG: I feel TripAdvisor is a tool we must take advantage of, nowadays it really is the best source of reference about any hotel. I feel a client who takes time to voice an opinion -positive or negative- deserves personalized attention from the owner. It’s my duty and also an honor, because any shortcomings we may have must be corrected and it’s great that they let us know. It’s very important, I take the time to do it and hope my clients appreciate it. I also know they write with the best of intentions, it’s a gift for us and we should be thankful.
IGH: You have put emphasis on hiring local people. What challenges and satisfactions has this brought about?
VG: Celestún is a small town that sometimes has lots of money, sometimes very little. Fishing produces plenty, specially fishing of sea cucumbers or octopus, for instance, which may bring in 60,000 pesos in one week. There are no banks in Celestun, but plenty of canteens, so a lot of that money goes into drinking! They don’t use it to improve their homes or their town, there’s some moral poverty there. They have no priest and no judge, it’s kind of a difficult town. Obviously women have no voice or vote, their husbands don’t allow them to work, so many of them start drinking too. We’ve enrolled quite a few people and aided in their rehabilitation. They don’t drink any more, they work here with us, beautiful people from Celestun. We’ve reached 80% of local employees, keeping the heads such as the Manager and his assistant who come from other places. Of course the staff changes over time, but presently we have many people from Celestun, our Manager helps educate them and imbues them with values of perseverance, good personal appearance, work ethics. They’re doing very well!
IGH: The Hotel has recently gone through a change of name and image, with a new orientation towards wellness. How has this changed what you offer here in Xixim?
VG: Eco-tourism is not enough, we need to broaden our market niche beyond birding or nature observation and we’ve chosen wellness tourism. We are now offering something that I, as a professional physical therapist, am very familiar with. Now, what kind of wellness? You can’t really have a spa here, that requires a lot of hot water. But you can do thalasso-therapy, you can build a multi-use space large enough for yoga, reiki, meditation and healing. So we’ve built a large space where 25 people can do Hatha Yoga or Iyengar Yoga, we’ve built massage booths, we’ve added juice therapy and a gym. It’s a corridor of wellness, also because this entire place heals.
IGH: You place great importance on attracting national guests, not just international visitors. How would you invite your fellow Mexicans to come here, why should they discover this place?
VG: Because this unique place in the world is right here in Mexico! Why would you go to see African Flamingos, when they’re right here! Last winter we had 50,000 specimens. If you go to Ria de Celestun and see 50,000 Flamingos you’ll never forget it, it’s so beautiful! Not only that, also the Tiger Heron, the white and the blue, the reddish and the tricolored, the white and brown Pelicans… this place is astonishingly beautiful and it’s in Mexico!
IGH: It’s a birder’s paradise.
VG: Certainly. And we have an exceptional guide, Alex Dzib, an ornithologist born and raised in Celestun. I don’t know how he managed to escape the trap that Celestun can be for someone who wants to improve himself, but he did it, he earned a scholarship and went to the United States to study birds. When you look at the general socio-cultural level in Celestun and find that a young lad goes to study ornithology in two languages, because he had to learn English, it’s remarkable. I know other bird guides in Yucatan, but I think Alex is the best, at least in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve he certainly is. I have learnt a lot from Alex.
IGH: Many birds can be observed without leaving the hotel, right here in the interpretative trails.
VG: Alex tells me we have 264 species right here within hotel premises, 13 of which are endemics! You can see the list on our website. Alex also says that of the entire Celestun shoreline our space is the best preserved, and I do think it must be because we really conserve and preserve. So obviously birds feel very much at ease here with us.
IGH: Would you share with us some of those special moments in contact with nature that you have experienced here in Xixim?
VG: I remember when we were just getting started, some clients arrived and when I opened the cabin for them there were two Iguanas on the bed. So I said, “Oooops, this cabin is taken!” and closed the door. “Let’s go to the next one!”. Or seeing a boa catching an iguana, beginning to crush it, and then the Iguana dropped its tail and managed to get away! Or seeing a turtle lay its eggs, then the eggs hatching, it’s unbelievable, and helping the young turtles reach the sea. Or the little bird that crashes, and you blow air on its face and it flies again… But listen, what I really liked the most was a couple of scorpions. There’s a species of scorpion here that is harmless to humans, big, black and scary thanks to Hollywood, where they do the worst type of advertising for nature. I’d been reading up on these scorpions and found amazing information on how, when they mate, they perform some kind of dance. Some time later I was in bed and there they were, a couple of scorpions on the wall, you wouldn’t believe their pas de deux, the prettiest I’ve ever seen! This truly is the most fantastic thing, a gift from nature, and I’ve never seen it again! Another day I was swimming in the sea and turned around to find two rainbows over one of our cabins, most impressive! And like these, many, many things.
IGH: How would you define the Xixim experience?
VG: I feel it’s all about finding yourself, listening to yourself. And if you come with your partner, listening to the other person. This space grants you that possibility, there’s nothing making noise here. And listening to nature, too. Nobody tells you what to do here, if you want to hear the news, it’s available as well, the TV is off, we can turn it on for you but you have to ask for it. Do you want the newspapers? We’ll get them for you, but you must request them, you’re not being bombarded. That’s Xixim, it’s in Mexico and it’s worth knowing. I’ve been put in charge of preserving it, but it belongs to all of you, it belongs to Mexico.