The Wild

The Best of Mexico is in the Yucatan

Extensive Maya ruins and unique wildlife are a few of the treasures found in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Text by Sustain Team | Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee

Spotted in the Dos Ojos cenote, this blue-crowned motmot stands out for its glorious turquoise head and long tail with racket tip. These birds have been around for centuries and the Mayans called them “toh”. They nest in burrows in the ground at a depth of 5-10 feet, though they are not known to sleep in these underground tunnels. It’s from their vocalization, a hooting sound that sounds like “mot-mot”, that they get their name.

The Yucatan Peninsula, flanked by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, is Mexico’s acclaimed site for Mayan ruins. These archaeological sites range from the most famous and crowded Chichen Itza to the remote Calakmul, reached only by trekking deep into the jungle. The town of Cancun is the next most well-known of the Yucatan’s destinations, loved both for its party atmosphere as well as its gorgeous white-sands and warm blue waters. Small though this region is it offers many additional natural wonders, including extensive land and marine wildlife, and water-filled caves and caverns, or cenotes.

On the Yucatan’s Gulf Coast is the Mayan village of Punta Laguna, surrounded by jungles rich in wildlife, and part of the protected wetland area of Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh, or “house of the spider monkey.’ This reserve is not just the home of the spider monkey; it also has howler monkeys, coatis, pumas, and many bird species. Nearby are the Coba ruins, surrounded by dense jungle. About 200 kilometres to the south, is the reserve of Banco Chinchorro. This is a coral reef island that is part of the biosphere reserve of Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro. It’s a stunning wetland area that holds Mexico’s and the northern hemisphere’s largest coral atoll, running about 45 km in length and 14 km in width.

Steep stone steps lead up one of Mexico’s tallest Mayan pyramids among the archaeological ruins of Coba. This 42-m-high pyramid is Ixmoja, part of the Nohoch Mul group, and those who dare to climb up and look down from its summit can enjoy a sweeping view of the jungles and canopy below.

In the Punta Laguna Nature Reserve, not far from the Coba ruins, black-handed spider monkeys (ateles geoffroyi) enjoy swinging through the canopy about 30-50 metres above ground. These arboreal creatures have an extra-long prehensile tail which acts like a fifth limb. When their gangly limbs and tail are splayed out during locomotion, they look like large spiders. Spider monkeys use their long tails to secure themselves as they leap from one tree or another, or hang comfortably from branches while feeding on fruits and berries, which are the main elements of their diet.

Male black howler monkeys can make quite a loud racket, when they want to protect their territory or let other monkeys know their location. They are one of the largest monkeys on the American continent, measuring about two feet in length, with an additional tail that’s longer than its body. They display sexual dimorphism, which essentially means the male and female are different in appearance, males have a black coat, while females are light-brown to blonde. Like the spider monkey, black howler monkeys eat fruit, flowers, and leaves, and have a prehensile tail useful for movement and balance.

Male black howler monkeys can make quite a loud racket, when they want to protect their territory or let other monkeys know their location. They are one of the largest monkeys on the American continent, measuring about two feet in length, with an additional tail that’s longer than its body. They display sexual dimorphism, which essentially means the male and female are different in appearance, males have a black coat, while females are light-brown to blonde. Like the spider monkey, black howler monkeys eat fruit, flowers, and leaves, and have a prehensile tail useful for movement and balance.

Around 66 species of tarantulas have been identified in Mexico. Like other arachnids, tarantulas have eight hairy legs. An additional pair of appendages they possess are sensory—used for hunting, sensing vibrations, and in the male, for reproduction. They also have a pair of fangs, but contrary to popular belief the bite of the tarantula, though venomous and painful, is not fatal to humans. If the tiny hairs from the tarantula’s legs are deposited on human skin, it can cause itching and discomfort.

Around 66 species of tarantulas have been identified in Mexico. Like other arachnids, tarantulas have eight hairy legs. An additional pair of appendages they possess are sensory—used for hunting, sensing vibrations, and in the male, for reproduction. They also have a pair of fangs, but contrary to popular belief the bite of the tarantula, though venomous and painful, is not fatal to humans. If the tiny hairs from the tarantula’s legs are deposited on human skin, it can cause itching and discomfort.

This juvenile white ibis was spotted in the mangroves of Banco Chinchorro. Juveniles tend to be blotchy tan and brown, and finally turn white in adulthood. This species of wading bird uses its curved beak to forage for insects, fish, and crustaceans in shallow wetland areas.

Iguanas can be found in many different colours and varieties in Mexico. This specimen was visiting the beach in Banco Chinchorro, probably to enjoy some sunshine. Interestingly, the white spot seen atop its head is the parietal eye, a photo-sensory organ that allows them to sense changes in light overhead. Iguanas spend most of their time in trees, keeping out of reach of predators like racoons and hawks. However, their biggest predators are now humans as iguanas are increasingly found in the pet trade.

Iguanas can be found in many different colours and varieties in Mexico. This specimen was visiting the beach in Banco Chinchorro, probably to enjoy some sunshine. Interestingly, the white spot seen atop its head is the parietal eye, a photo-sensory organ that allows them to sense changes in light overhead. Iguanas spend most of their time in trees, keeping out of reach of predators like racoons and hawks. However, their biggest predators are now humans as iguanas are increasingly found in the pet trade.

Raccoons (top) and the white-nosed coati or coatimundi (below) roam the resorts of the Riviera Maya and can be spotted among mangroves or in the jungles around. Coatis are from the raccoon family, though their snout is a bit longer, fur redder, and bodies slimmer than the average racoon. Both forage for fruit, spiders (including tarantulas), small lizards, birds and rodents. Coatis are known to make chirping, grunting and snorting sounds to communicate with each other.

Agoutis are rodents that live in tree hollows or burrows. This creature was spotted in the Casa cenote area late in the evening. After all the tourists had left, the agouti came out of the mangrove area to explore and scavenge off the dustbins, eager to consume food left behind by visitors. Agoutis are extremely wary and shy; they are after all prey for large birds like eagles as well as for mammals from coatis to jaguars.

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