There are many activities I have done in my life; some were heart-pumping and exciting, others were serenely Zen. Mexico’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was one of those places where moments felt as though time had momentarily paused allowing me to really sense my surroundings. This experience was about educating me on Mother Nature’s riches and teaching me how to be completely at one with her.
Situated in the municipality of Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo, Sian Ka’an, is the third largest natural protected area in Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a true sanctuary by every form of the definition. A sanctuary for countless animals and home to over a thousand species of flora which is not only visually spectacular but very aromatic, perfume from the Mayan gods!
My visit to the Sian Ka’an, courtesy of Riviera Maya Tourism, started early enough in the morning as the drive to the reserve was going to be a wet one. A nasty storm was hitting Cancun and we were being rather cautious as we drove towards the rainforest gum plantation in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve as part of Sian Ka’an’s Community Tours.
And with rain and humid conditions comes with it my arch nemesis…MOSQUITOES!!!
Arriving at the Sian Ka’an’s base, the rain had let up as I was introduced to one of the reserve’s amazing guides, Antonio. Antonio would be explaining the importance of the Mayan chewing gum in regards to how it provides money for the locals and the preservation that they practise in ensuring the longevity of the sacred Manilkara chicle tree.
After some severe lathering up on some pesticides, considering Antonia had warned me that after a storm the mosquitoes in that particular region were a force to be reckoned with, off we went in the jungle to collect some sap.
Following my guide in the thick jungle located in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, to make chewing gum like the Mayans did years back and still do.
As we walked in the dense brush, Antonio explained that the Manilkara chicle tree is a tropical evergreen native to Mexico and Central America. It yields a natural gum known as chicle, traditionally used in making chewing gum and other products. In my poor attempt to perfectly pronounce the name of the tree, Antonio taught me that the word chicle is Mayan meant ‘to chew’.
Trying my best to remain calm as I am being swarmed or at least I thought I was, by ridiculously huge man-eating mosquitoes, Antonio was gracious enough to ‘MacGyver’ a fan for me by cutting off a branch of a nearby tree so that I could use it as a defence on any suspecting blood sucking enemy. Sheer genius…IT WORKED!!!
As we walked further into the jungle, we were introduced to a local farmer who would be showing us how the Mayan farmers harvest the Manilkara chicle tree sap and then boil it to transform it into chewing gum; just like the Mayans did years ago.
Did I mention it was hot and sticky and super humid? Normally I wouldn’t mind (as long as there is water source close by), but after the rain the thick forest jungle seemed to create its very own personal greenhouse effect.
Once we came across to one of the beautiful and rather tall Manilkara tree, I noticed that it had these beautiful dark markings on it. I was told that the markings meant that the tree had been previously sapped. As seen in photos below, a newly sapped tree will have bright red ‘bleeding’ markings – visually beautiful. Interestingly enough, I learned that once the Manilkara tree has been fully harvested of its sap, it will take another 14 years to fully regenerate itself and be ready for sap harvesting again.
With delicate yet precise machete cutting, the farmer makes criss-cross cuts in the bark so that the sap will naturally flow downwards and be collected in a pouch located at the base of the tree.
After the sap was collected, we made our way back to the base camp to start the chewing gum process. Antonio and the farmer proceeded to make a fire, rather quickly I may add. I was thoroughly impressed with the speed as the smoke kept the mosquitoes at bay.
With the hot flames rising, the farmer placed a rather large cauldron on top of the flames to start ‘cooking’ the sap. During this process, we all had a chance to take the ‘witch’s stick’ and start stirring feverishly so that it would speed up the thickening process to a very strong elastic mass.
Once the mass was formed, the caldron was then carried and placed on top of the closest puddle of water to stop the cooking process and start seizing. As the last step in the process, the elastic mass was then placed in a bucket filled with cold water to once again harden and cool its internal temperature, and then VOILA instant chewing gum!
I was told that during the process farmers normally add mint to give the gum some flavour; however, the one I tried was ‘au natural’. The ‘natural’ taste was an acquired one, but it eventually grows on you, as it did for me. I’ll warn you though, your mouth and jaw will get quite the workout as this isn’t your regular kind of chewing gum.
Mayan Chewing gum being made in Mother Nature’s garden at Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
A short video clip of my chewing gum mixing: Mayan Chewing Gum In The Making
After the heat of the jungle, off we went to be ‘one with nature’ and took a boat ride to enjoy the crystal clear spring waters of the Mayan canal. Mayans say that in order for one to be at peace, they need to succumb to Mother Nature’s spell; a spell that I was eagerly waiting to be put under.
It was suggested that to have the full effect of floating in the Mayan canal, one should wear their lifejacket as a diaper…it sounded odd but it worked!
Wearing the lifejacket this way allowed me to just naturally float down the canal as the current pulled me in. The whole time, I was taking in the cool water, the warm sun on my face and the environment that I was in. Mangroves on both sides of me as I floated, birds of every kind could be heard chirping and singing in the nearby distance. Mother Nature definitely intoxicated me with her beauty!
I was informed that the canals we were floating in were used by the Mayan traders long ago. The trading port was connected to the open sea via two canals, one natural and one manmade. In the summer months, mangroves are littered with wild and rare orchids to view and take in as you float by.
Local legends have it that the spring-fed waters have magical healing powers.
Photos courtesy of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
“Bring on the magic!” is all I could say as I blissfully floated down the canal and let all my worries and stressors go away.
With the hard work of the chewing gum making process and the strenuous endeavour of floating down the canal, I had worked up quite the appetite…don’t judge my hardworking life!
Sian Ka’an pampered me with an amazing traditional Mayan meal. Freshly caught local fish served Mayan style.
Typical Mayan Dish: local fish cooked in their special sauce with onions, green peppers, served with bean purée and fried tortilla chips, steamed rice, avocado slices and potato salad.
My experience was perfection from beginning to end, even with the rainstorm and flesh hungry mosquitoes!
Sian Ka’an is undeniably a nature’s paradise, and its sublime beauty is something that words cannot properly describe and do it justice…One needs to feel it!