Authentic Riviera Maya – Part I – Jungle Camp

(Last Updated On: September 29, 2016)

The Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is best known for its beach resorts. Most notably Cancun. But there is so much more to this area than just the white sandy beaches, numerous bars, and crystal blue waters. Enough to bring us back over and over again. But leave the tourist road and you will discover a side to the area that is all the more intriguing. We were invited on just such a tour by our guide, Volker, who has been living in the area for 20 years.

The German immigrant tends to view the world from a different angle. You can see things from the surface, or dig a little deeper, immerse yourself in the culture, and find something all together different and authentic. This is exactly how he lives his life, and how he came to know the Mayan Riviera on a more intimate level. He wandered around towns or Pueblas that tourists don’t visit, met the locals and not only made friends with the people he met but also took an orphanage under his wing. He also lived for brief periods of time in Mayan jungle camps, learning the language and how they survive off of the land even today. So given the opportunity to visit Mexico with such a guide is one that we felt very fortunate to have.

We started by visiting a primitive working jungle camp only about 30 minutes away from the high-rise hotels of Cancun. When first entering the camp you see on the surface what is the week day bachelor existence of the men who work here. The facilities are rustic at the very least.

Mayan Jungle Work Camp
Mayan Jungle Work Camp

The men who live here, called “chicleros,”  harvest sap from Chico Zapote Trees. They score the tree with a machete and collect the sap, later to be boiled down and made into gum. The Mayans have been using gum as a way to clean their teeth for centuries. This has become an important income source for the workers, who have been forced to travel further and further into the jungle in order to locate trees that they can tap.

Gum Tree
Sap from the Chico Zaopte trees is processed into gum that is critical to the economy of the Mayans who work in the camp.

Despite the primitive conditions, our guide points out these men really love it here and have built everything they need to live. There are palapa structures for living and sleeping, cooking facilities, and a makeshift shower. Volker spent several days at a time over the period of years with the Mayans who work here during the week and return home to their families on the weekends. He learned (or from his account has 50% learned) the Mayan language. By doing so he learned that these highly intelligent people live very closely to the land as they always have, making some of the luxuries and “advances” of modern society unnecessary.

Rustic Cooking Stove
Rustic Cooking Stove
jungle camp well
Well that brings water from an underground river for the camp
Mayan Camp Shower
Camp Shower
Statue of Guatalupe
An offering to Guatalupe – always present in the camp and a testament to the blending of cultures.

For example, Volker recanted a story about trekking through the jungle and leaning against a tree whose sap burned his skin. He went to a medical clinic and applied ointment to the burns for weeks. When visiting with his Mayan friends he unfortunately came in contact with the same tree. The Mayans told him that for each ailment inflicted by nature, a remedy is also close by. They used a leaf from a tree several yards away that took away the stinging burn in 30 minutes.

Volker also pointed out that there are plenty for the Mayans to subsist on and live comfortably, if you only know where to look.

fruit tree in jungle camp
Fruit, such as guanabana,grows in the trees surrounding the camp
peppers growing in the jungle
Peppers and other vegetables growing in the jungle
Termite Dung
Termite dung – used in the evening fire to keep away mosquitoes – no chemicals needed.

Out guide’s respect for the Mayans was very evident. He goes as far as to credit their teaching to saving his life. He told us about consulting a Mayan medic after being diagnosed with cancer when traditional medicine failed to cure him. Following their teachings, including learning what foods to eat, how to specifically prepare them, and adjust his temperament, he has been cancer free for years. He readily discussed his experiences and they were fascinating and eye-opening. But that was just the beginning….

Contact Volker’s Private Tours in order to book this tour, view his other tours, or to design your own private tour of the Riviera Maya

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Related Stories:

Authentic Riviera Maya Part II – Pueblo and Orphanage Visit

Authentic Riviera Maya Part III – The Underground River

Mexican Amate Bark Paper – A Debate

Taco Tour of Playa Del Carmen

We were hosted by Volker’s Private Tours, but our opinions, as always, are our own.

8 thoughts on “Authentic Riviera Maya – Part I – Jungle Camp”

  1. You have hit gold! This is the kind of experience that I love to hear about. Meeting the cultural people from the lands that your exploring is a rare find for most tourists. I love the feeling of respect your article conveys for the men that work in the jungle. Venture on Venturists!

  2. What an adventure. The wife and I have plans to spend more time in the Riviera Maya in the near future. There is so much untapped beauty and wilderness to explore. I really want to see some Mayan ruins and learn more about that ancient culture, so this post got me excited!

  3. I loved the photos published and to be totally honest, I did not know that place, I know there are many camps in the Riviera Maya, but I was amazed by this place and I go to see them one day. Greetings and keep sharing and as a request, I would like the site also have languages in Spanish, as many locals, do not know or go to visit the Riviera Maya

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