photos by brian towie/metro toronto


A vendor sells spices such as guajillos and habaneros in a marketplace in downtown Chetumal, capital of Quintana Roo state.


I swam in an underwater cave full of bats, overlooked the shining Caribbean Sea from a gigantic lighthouse, trudged through iguana-infested ruins and purified my spirit in a Mayan sweat lodge called a temazcal. These and many other eye-openers will befall those who explore Quintana Roo.

Touching the Belize border in the south and the Caribbean Sea to the east and north, this Mexican state in the Yucatan peninsula is rebounding from the devastation brought by hurricane Wilma in October 2005. It has a plethora of eco-friendly and historic sites for those who want to get away from Cancun’s spring breakers. The truly wild and wonderful adventures begin around its jungles and towns.

Take Dos Palmas, for example, a small community in the heart of the jungle, alive with Mayan traditions handed down for thousands of years. It’s there where tourists will be taken thorough a temazcal, a native ceremony meant to purge evil spirits and to rebirth oneself in the womb of the Earth. Presided over by a 94-year-old shaman, the “warrior” is completely sealed in an igloo-shaped sweat lodge, with the only source of light being the red-hot lava rocks the locals have placed in the middle of the hut.

Metro reporter Brian Towie, after a long climb to the top of the light house at Punta Sur, a protected ecological park on Cozumel Island.

Water mixed in with copal herbs are thrown onto the lava rocks, creating a scented, relaxing steam that washes over those inside. The ancient Mayans would do this for hours at a time, the idea being that dehydration would set in and communication with the gods would be possible. The ceremony is followed by a refreshing dip in a cenote (pronounced se-NO-tay) under the village, a sinkhole full of underground water.

Whether or not you believe in its spiritual power, the temazcal is a rejuvenating experience, and a way for locals to preserve their culture by extending the ceremony to tourists. This way, the communities can stay together without having to venture to the resorts to find work.

Some of which, by the way, are breathtaking. The Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret, for instance, is a 25-acre all-inclusive hotel that backs on to an ecological theme park where you can snorkel though underwater caves, get a full body massage on a lagoon, and see a night show with aerial stuntmen and performers playing a Mayan version of hockey — with fireballs.

A temascal chamber — home to an ancient Mayan purification ceremony — at the Flamenco Grand Xcaret.

A vibrant present, but a future in question: venturing south towards the state capital, Chetumal, a woman slices pineapples for pesos on the side of the sun-baked highway as her baby dozes. The smell of guajillos and raw chicken lingers in the air with the beat of a pirated Shakira CD as the market in the city proper opens up for another day.

It’s the Mexico not seen in the tour books, and it’s likely in for change. A major airport is supposed to be completed here within five years, funds permitting, as part of an effort to turn the entire state into a tourist destination. Either way, leisure industry officials agree that Cancun is nearing its growth limits, and now it’s time to invest in the future. For more information on a vacation to Quintana Roo, visit