One of the things that most attracts me to Yucatán is that there still are long stretches of beach that look and feel just as they must have when only Mayan people were here, living in small villages along this coast, fishing and producing salt for trade long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadores on the Peninsula. In other words, there are areas still with no houses, no powerlines and very few people. When you are there you feel the sun and wind and see just birds, waves, miles of light-tan sand, and not much else. Occasionally you might encounter a family that appears magically as they quietly walk up an unseen trail through the dunes, or a skiff full of fishermen, or a boy on a horse. But just occasionally.
The ocean and beaches have always had a powerful allure to my family. When I was born our home was a log cabin on an Alaska beach, and with the exception of a few shorter periods of time, I have lived my entire life very close to the sea. I can't imagine living any other way. When I am away from a coast for very long I feel its absence and long to be near it.
As a small child, I viewed the beach as a barrier, a very real limit beyond which it was difficult to cross. We would wade carefully in, splash and swim in the waves at waters' edge, but could not venture farther. We cast in fishing lines, intruding just a little deeper into this mysterious space, waiting for something to take the bait on our hooks. I remember always trying to imagine the creatures out there, but it was difficult to clearly picture that other world just beyond reach. In my childhood days before technology made high-quality underwater films and television programming relatively easy to produce, the deep, dark underwater world did truly seem as vast and mysterious as outer space.
As I grew I learned to swim and dive, operate small boats and handle a kayak, and began to view the beach as an open entryway to a vast, three-dimensional world rather than a barrier and a mystery.
Back in the mid-sixties, we took vacations along Florida's Gulf Coast, primarily on Sanibel and Captiva Islands. Lazy hikes down the long, pristine stretches of beach, swimming, surf fishing and collecting huge bags of shells along the edges of the warm Gulf waters are my fondest memories of childhood family vacations. There were at the time still a few old families around there living off the sea; that culture was still alive.
Unfortunately, when I go to those places now, changes caused by the intervening decades of development make a nostalgic visit difficult. Big hotels, condominiums and the presence of lots more people have changed the very nature of the places. The beaches themselves, as you stand and gaze out to sea, look the same, but to your back the congestion, commercialization and crowds make everything else different. The tranquility and old ways are pretty much gone, replaced by timeshare condo and vacation culture, which utilizes the beaches and water mostly as a backdrop against which to seek pleasure, and appreciates little of the important things that the environment has to offer.
A trip along large stretches of the Yucatán Peninsula Gulf Coast can be almost like a time-machine journey. Two-lane highways and sand roads predominate. There are sections of coast with no roads at all. Villages, still largely authentic Mayan fishing ports, here and there sprinkled with modest vacation homes, still exist. Most of these places offer rustic seafood restaurants, but there are large chunks of the coast where tourism is modest and hotel rooms are scarce.
In the places where there are rooms, they are often basic, as are the prices. This is great for those of us who are happy in simple quarters and have little interest in "luxury vacations," viewing the real luxury simply as access to big stretches of quiet, unspoiled coast. Things are changing, though. More development is happening. Highways to the coast have been modernized. On the outskirts of my favorite small coastal village an American contractor has bought a long strip of beach, stretched barbed wire and "for sale" signs across beach access trails, and is constructing enormous, million-dollar beach houses. These will probably never be permanent residences for anyone; more likely just occasional vacation getaways for the privileged few with little connection to the environment or local people.
Change is coming here, but I hope it happens slowly. I don't write in any great detail about my very favorite places because what I enjoy about them is destroyed when they become popular. Some things are better left alone.