THE BLOG

Cancun: Save the Iguanas!

05/30/2014 02:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2014

It was the twilight of the iguana.
From the rainbow-arched battlements
his tongue like a dart plunged into the greenness...
-- "Algunas bestias" (Some Beasts), Pablo Neruda

Imagine: For nearly 30 years, a valuable patch of resort real estate on Mexico's Caribbean coast is left as an accidental nature preserve -- chiefly for uncounted gray, green and striped iguanas. Twelve acres of dense jungle scrub, tucked incongruously between a pricey, beachfront timeshare development, and Paseo Kukulcan, Cancun's main commercial drag. Yet it remained untouched as hotels, condos and businesses grew up around it. I know this because for three decades I have been coming to the resort complex with my family, marveling at the seeming oversight, peering through the green, chain link fence at dozens of dozing, basking iguanas just inside.

Then, several years ago, signs went up announcing that the pristine acreage would soon become the site of a new Maya Museum of Cancun. For the crested, wrinkled amphibians lazing unmolested in the tropical sun, the billboards could mean only one thing: There goes the neighborhood. A virtual biosphere sacrificed for another cheap show to siphon tourists' dollars.

Of course, this would be nothing new for Yucatan, where modest natural wonders are routinely transformed into amped, antiseptic, overhyped and overpriced theme parks, as reminiscent of Orlando's attractions as Cancun's hotel zone has become of Miami Beach. But surprisingly, the Museo Maya de Cancun, which opened in November of 2012, is a tasteful facility, expertly-designed by Alberto Garcia Lascuráin, with a minimalist footprint, 4,400 square feet of exhibition space. Perched on pillars 32 feet above the ground to protect it from storm surges, the $15 million cost was shared by The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and the state of Quintana Roo.

The park is so new there is no English catalog or guide book in the gift shop. Still, it's a great place to spend a few hours on a rainy day, indoors in the museum or sheltered by the dense, low jungle canopy surrounding it. Regardless of the weather, it's a haven for a brief, soothing, respite from Cancun's otherwise sybaritic pace. Already it has some unlikely fans: "I went with my family," said Rabbi Mendel Druk, of Chabad of Cancun. "I was happy that finally Cancun got a museum to bring more culture to the locals and visitors."

After paying an entrance fee of about five dollars in pesos (Mexicans and Cancun residents enter free on Sundays), visitors ascend a circular, Guggenheim Museum-like ramp -- there are two elevators for strollers and wheelchairs.

The three halls, one reserved for rotating and traveling exhibits, are on a single level. Included are more than 350 archaeological artifacts, in particular plates and pottery with delicate designs, masks and human figures in burnt orange, some displayed for the first time. One wing, devoted to the Maya of all of Mexico, on the right, features large bas-reliefs and dramatic clay heads. Flat screen TVs loop through well-produced mini-documentaries with English subtitles, like one on Tulum's Sun God. A third hall is reserved for rotating and traveling exhibits.

The other wing, on the left, is devoted to the Maya of Quintana Roo State, and is much better lit, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass walls in one corner offering a dramatic vista of Nichipute Lagoon, which separates the Hotel Zone from the mainland. Enhanced lighting makes the English texts and captions easier to read. However, one caption next to a modern sepia photo in the Quintana Roo wing has no English text - for understandable reasons. It describes the 1847-1901 Caste War of Yucatan, one of the bloodiest and most successful indigenous uprisings in the Western Hemisphere. During the war, the Maya killed hundreds of Spanish creoles, and drove the rest the light-skinned colonials from most of the Yucatan peninsula. Not a comfortable message to communicate to U.S. and European tourists.

A recent article in the magazine Science has focused attention on the jewel of the exhibit: a replica of a 13,000-year-old skeleton, known as "The Woman of the Palms." The original relic was discovered thirteen years ago in Tulum in one of the underwater caverns called cenotes, and has been studied by the forensic archaeologists. Results of their DNA study, reported in Science, suggests that the girl, who researchers have named "Naia," is descended from the Western Hemisphere's first immigrants, from Asia. The original skeleton will eventually be displayed in Cancun, according to museum officials.

The museum complex occupies a relatively small corner of of the green acreage, just 55,000 square feet. Beyond, some of the original jungle scrub on what had been a coconut farm has been thinned or removed for paths and some formal landscaping beneath the museum. There has also been excavation and reconstruction of modest Mayan ruins on what was the San Miguelito Ranch, the most complete of which is the 26-foot-high Great Pyramid. Visible through the surviving banyan trees, some hosting termite nests, are a few piles of stumps and cleared underbrush, as well as new tropical growth.

When the mid-19th century American adventurer and explorer John Lloyd Stephens crisscrossed the Yucatan peninsula, one of the wildlife wonders he observed, "running across the road and up the trees [were] innumerable iguanas or lizards, from an inch to three feet long." Today, the iguanas are still here on the museum grounds, although in nothing like the numbers in years past. (Or as they still are at the El Rey ruins up the road - for that reason alone a favorite of children, including my own and their cousins.) A sign in English and Spanish reads: "Help us care for the animals and pets of this region. This is their ecosystem and they will only survive here. If you injure or feed them or take them out of their natural environment they will die." (INFORMAL TRANSLATION: LEAVE THE IGUANAS ALONE!)

In a way, the museum and grounds are sad but inevitable. If the practical choice was to bulldoze the site for commercial development, or preserve it in some form as a cultural artifact and a reduced habitat for the iguanas, then the government has made a good bargain.