Growing up in Akumal

Growing up in Akumal, located 60 miles south of the Cancun Airport provided plenty of lasting memories of virgin beaches, untouched reef, jungle full of life, and total solitude from the rest of the world.

I chose to come back to Akumal to live and work 13 years ago, when my father and sister needed help in running our family's 60 room hotel complex. It was the first hotel in Akumal, and the first 40 rooms were built bungalow style, with thatched roofs, and ceiling fans. There was a small round palapa bar on the beach, and a thatched roof restaurant facing the beautiful main bay of Akumal. Those that came to Akumal fell in love with it, and soon Akumal had a growing residential area, and more rental units, condos, and a hotel next door to us.

I was always involved in the community serving on various boards such as the Homeowner's Association, and the Hotel Association. The growing pains of Akumal became my pains, and development came over the area in a matter of a few years, with little or no guidance from the government, with arbitrary and conflicting guidelines. Our community struggled to form it's own internal guidelines, which we are still working on. In this interval, we were able to form an Ecological Association with a group of the original founders of Akumal, and our work in this field has been very rewarding.

As a hotel operator in a very important area of Mexico for it's growing tourism revenue, I felt a great responsibility to "do things right", and perhaps make Akumal an example for the rest of the coastline. There have been definite strides in the right direction on behalf of the Ecological Association in helping our hotel property operate with awareness for the environment.

We started by setting up a composting area, and giving our staff seminars on the subject. To this day we are still trying to formalize the separation of plastic and glass, but there is no one buying it from us in the area. Aluminum is, however, being collected and sold.

Sewage treatment has been an ongoing dilemma in this area due to it's geography. There are numerous underground rivers flowing from the "cenotes", or fresh water holes in the jungle, which flow towards the ocean in a swiss cheese like effect. For years, the government required only septic tanks, with everyone draining the overflow into the ground, either into a deep well (60-80 meters deep), or right on the surface in an absorption well. This was later found to be very damaging to the environment, and efforts are now being made to require all new developments to put in treatment plants. The existing developments however, like ours, are now being made to pay quotas for the discharge water, depending on the level of contamination it has, or comply with the requirement to put in the sewage plant, and eliminate the quota. This is being enforced for some properties only, the government only targeting the larger properties.

We have started to take care of the sewage with a system called Reconstructed Wetlands, which the Ecological Association has promoted for everyone in the area, as a very successful way of treating sewage.

The Planetary Coral Reef Foundation has set up a field station on the Ecological Association's land, and has built this system for their own needs,and have brought the technology to Akumal. It is a very simple design, which allows for water to flow out of the sealed septic tanks, through a special filter, and into a bed of gravel and plants found locally. The plants use up all the nutrients from this water, essentially filtering out all harmful bacteria. The outflow water has been tested over time, and it shows to be within normal limits of Fecal Coliform,according to the EPA standards of the United States.

The best part for us is that there are no pumps, no machinery, very little maintenance, and no smell. We have a beautiful thriving garden right next to our rooms, and in the tropics, I could not ask for a better system!

We are now working on expanding the system for the entire property. This in itself has been our major worry in terms of protecting our reef system because all this untreated water eventually ends up in the ocean, and to protect our water sources which are taken from Cenotes nearby and utilized for bathrooms, and kitchens. Our major task now is to involve the government in getting the local communities proper sewage treatment, because it is not enough to take care of our own problem, and ignore the local population and it's needs.

Apart from the issue of sewage treatment, we are also lobbying to get the local garbage dump moved, and turn it into a proper sanitation fill, instead of just pouring the garbage into a hole. It is a long and tedious road for all of us that are concerned with protecting our piece of paradise, but the efforts are worthwhile, even if the results are not always evident.

We have been awarded with the Ecotel symbol, which signifies that our property is taking steps to protect the environment, and we hope to make progress each year, to perhaps upgrade our status.

One of the most rewarding programs we have supported through the Ecological Association is the annual Turtle Watch Protection Program. Akumal, meaning place of the Turtle in Maya, had long been a favorite nesting ground for the sea turtles. In recent years, the numbers of turtles all over this area have been depleted due to poachers, carelessness, and natural predators. With this program, we have seen the number of nests rise steadily, and best of all, the nests have been protected, and the baby turtles released right in the bay. Our guests have come to love the summer and fall months, because of the opportunity it provides them to participate in the program, help sponsor the protection of the turtles, and getting a first hand look at these incredible and gentle creatures.

I can honestly say that my experiences in Akumal of not only running our resort, but also helping the community, and being part of the Ecological Association, have made the last 13 years fly, and we are looking forward to many more rewarding years here, but always with the vision of protecting the natural beauty of Akumal

Laura Bush Wolfe