The rumbling, jarring construction of the 900-room hotel concusses the jade and turquoise Caribbean Sea. Jet skis roar past the once “muy tranquilo”  playa.  Gangs of Boat-tailed Grackles screech and caw. They’re native black, sleek birds and have every right to be here, but not like this — in high numbers, because they thrive on disturbance and crowd out the native and fragile gems like orioles and bananaquits.

900-room hotel in construction that destroyed the home of the spider monkeys.

Almost every day a family of spider monkeys climbs into the gardens of Petit Lafitte resort, taking bananas from the staff who care for them. The monkeys’ home is bulldozed–the 900-room hotel is the culprit.

If it were not for my mother’s love of Petit Lafitte resort, I would have abandoned this part of the Yucatan by now. As a naturalist, I despair in the massive developments that crowd out the native wildlife. Where once I walked the seaside forests with my mother marveling at blue morpho butterflies, trogons, orioles and oropendolas inhabiting trees swaying with their sock-like nests, today the only remaining pieces of wildness are fenced off with guards. Their future is only more development. Sad, frayed patches of wild remain.

900-room hotel in construction that destroyed the home of the spider monkeys.

Yet,  I’m thankful to my mother for this gift of return. It would be much easier to write off this section of the Riviera Maya between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Here, with my sister-in-law Cynthia Terrell, we are embracing this courageous resort that contrasts so sharply with the nearby Princess Hotel- flaunting its 2000 rooms, indoor shopping mall, and “all-inclusive” cheap packages for an equally cheap all you can drink and eat experience, at the cost of the mangrove ecosystem.

Petit Lafitte hosts a maximum of 120 adults and 20 children. The emphasis is on   intimate, tasteful, and genuinely caring hospitality. Everyone knows your name by the end of the first day.  Instead of garish high rises, there are traditional bungalows and a modest lowrise stucco hotel alongside a modest swimming pool. The tile-roofed bar by the beach is open to the elements and hosted by the best and friendliest bartenders ever–Victor and Jesus. The outdoor dining room is protected by a graceful, impressive thatched palapa. In the back part of the resort, the owner Jorge has long taken care of birds and animals of Mexico in a little zoo like no other.

Longtime bartenders Jesus and Victor are friends to many longtime return guests at Petit Lafitte.

To come to Petit Lafitte is to be among a “family” of the people we have known over the years and remember us well, and make jokes and tease our Spanish words—like Martin, Balderemo, Luis, Javier, Ivan, Geovanni, Manuel, David, Juan, Antonio, Victor, Jesus, Guillermo… a litany of men who are mostly Mayan and blessed with a contagious sense of humor. When Cynthia misplaced her sandals and David found them, he put a “for sale $1 today only” sign on them at the front desk and laughed and laughed when she came to fetch them.

Yet, I’ve felt the preponderance of nearby crushing development more than ever this time. I watched one man meditating by the beach as the construction raged and marveled at his composure in spite of the horrible rending noise. I cannot be that person. I cannot block out devastation.

On Facebook, it’s so easy to be an illusionist–with carefully positioned photos of those rosy sunrises over the water, of stretches of water free of jet boats, beaches that for a moment look empty, and closeups of flowers, palms and fresh fruits. The sense is certainly paradise. And if you do indeed focus on those gems, the happiness is real.

Cynthia/Mom on beach
Peaceful morning on the beach (with many footprints!)

My concern? We keep lowering our standard of what’s beautiful and wild. When the first jet ski showed up, surely paradise was ruined. Now, we are happy when there are not six at a time. When the thousand beach chairs first polluted the beach in front of r the Princess Hotel when it opened a few years ago, we were crushed. But now, you walk the beach and it’s one of many like that.

My mother and I once knew a Camelot that existed as recently as 2006, the year Hurricane Wilma pounded the Yucatan coast. Until then, this very stretch of beach had only a handful of resorts with long stretches of wild beaches rich in shorebirds and tropical birds at the forest edges. The year after my father passed away in 2002, I took his place with my mom as her companion on an annual trip to Capitan Lafitte, the original resort a mile from here. After the devastation of the hurricane, the owners sold the place to Spanish developers who built a monstrosity, savagely chopping down wild forests and even reconfiguring the wild beach itself. Ironically, the lesson of the pounding hurricane appeared to be to build like crazy on the coastline.

Petit Lafitte opened in 2007, with all the wonderful people who had worked at Capitan Lafitte, and proceeded to go forward as a model of all that is small, aesthetic, traditional, attentive, and caring.

Swimming pool, stucco hotel (right), edge of a bungalow (visible above hedge on left) and bar by the beach and sea beyond–Petit Lafitte!

“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness,” was the adage my Great Uncle David lived by in his many years of his dedicated service to helping people as an active Quaker from Moorestown, New Jersey.

How can I light that candle here?  After my initial gloom, perplexity, and uncertainty on how to cope, I started picking up trash. Walking down the beach with extra bags, I snag even the little things–caps, plastic broken fork tines, pieces of styrofoam, along with the bulky plastic bottles, beer cans,  and errant flipflops.

So engrossed was I on my first foray that it took me a minute to realize a woman had asked if she might put a fork in my trash bag. I took it, and she said, “Oh, what a good idea to pick up trash. I wish I had a bag.”

I handed her my extra one. Off she went, picking up trash the other direction. Now, I take bags with me every time and hope others see me on trash patrol and take notice and offer to help. Live by example. That’s what Petit Lafitte does. They’re not fleeing in the face of destruction. They’re extending their roots, planting even more trees and flowers, and tending their small piece of Creation.

At the bar at Petit Lafitte–what is real? what is illusion? A place to reflect while sipping vino…or a margarita..

Cynthia and I have also taken up another cause. The huge resorts have added another travesty to their repertoire. Many now have great tractors with seaweed and sand crushing devices called “surf rakes.” They run these noisy, smelly, trampling vehicles up and down the beaches in front of the resorts all the way to the water’s edge–churning up delicate sea life of seaweed called “sargassum”, and what’s left of this struggling ecology of beach.

I’ve taken photos and am doing research to find out what can be done to at least bring this to the attention of others. The most powerful people to speak up are the tourists themselves. They come here to spend dollars, and their words matter. I realize that for most people, a trip to the Yucatan is about relaxing, de-stressing, and certainly not activism.

Surf Rake churns the delicate seaweeds and beach–a morning noisy event outside the big industrial style resorts.

Yet, I’m seeing a paradise that has reached its tipping point. The snorkeling? Forget it right off the coast. The corals are covered in sediment from runoff, because the mangroves have been ripped out for development. The quiet?   Jet skis rule the waves in prime beach hours.

The government here in Quintana Roo and Mexico in general are in the process of destroying their best asset. Do we meekly go along with it, accepting more degradation each year? Do we flee to other parts of the Yucatan until they are spoiled too? (I heard the cruise ships are now in the process of wrecking Bacalar to the south). Of course, staying home is environmentally the most responsible action, but if we are going to be travelers, then can we just ignore the greed and industrialism?

The future of this little shorebird-a turnstone- is at stake, along with sea turtles, pelicans, terns, ospreys and much much more–kingfishers too!

Nearby Playa del Carmen is booming, as is the whole Riviera Maya that is growing at a “torrid pace” according to a recent Yucatan Times article. So what can a traveler do who cares about the environment and about the local people?

For starters, NEVER go to an “all-inclusive” resort that comes at the expense of all that makes this place a treasure. “All-inclusive” it is–as in we’ll wreck it all for you: treat all the people who work for us poorly, and destroy the natural environment too.

Choose carefully. Remember, a cheap resort that caters to masses of people comes at a huge cost. And when here as a visitor? Speak up about what you don’t like and what you do like. Use TripAdvisor. Find out who to write.  Support conservation groups that are trying to save this place. Here’s an outstanding one–the Friends of the Sian Ka’an Preserve in the Yucatan that is south of Tulum.

Most people don’t really want to ruin sea turtle habitat, seabird habitat, tropical bird havens, and coral reefs. They’re just too busy drinking a margarita to think about it. I believe you can drink a margarita AND be a force for positive, good ecotourism. If you want to see what that looks like? Petit Lafitte is that place.

chefs Petit Lafitte