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House of the Monkey and the Jaguar

As we craned our necks to watch a spider monkey moving gracefully through the upper level of the forest canopy high above us, my 17-year-old son said exactly what you would expect a teenage boy to say: “Boy I wish that monkey would poo right now.” When something fell onto the path, narrowly missing his younger sister, a few seconds later, it was almost as if the monkey had heard his plea and delivered more than he’d asked for — but not quite everything he had hoped for.

As we craned our necks to watch a spider monkey moving gracefully through the upper level of the forest canopy high above us, my 17-year-old son said exactly what you would expect a teenage boy to say: “Boy I wish that monkey would poo right now.”

When something fell onto the path, narrowly missing his younger sister, a few seconds later, it was almost as if the monkey had heard his plea and delivered more than he’d asked for — but not quite everything he had hoped for.

Hiking through Mexico’s Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve, it isn’t hard to imagine what early explorers and archeologists faced when searching the jungles for Mayan ruins — and of the probable hazards, monkey droppings were low on the list.

The Mayan name Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh actually means: “House of the Spider Monkey and Jaguar” and the trees in the preserve are teaming with spider monkeys and a smaller population of howler monkeys. Our guide said that jaguars can also be found in the surrounding jungle, but are not typically seen during daylight hours — though he pulled out his cellphone and showed us a photograph of a jaguar he had taken while camping overnight in the area last year.

In the nearby lake, there are crocodiles. There may have been a few poisonous snakes in the forest, although nobody actually mentioned it. Suffice it to say I was glad we were on a guided tour.

Established in 2002, the 5367 hectare preserve protects a wide variety of rare plants and animals and provides a source of employment for local Mayans. We technically had two guides on the tour — a local Mayan guide named Eulogio, who spoke a dialect that was a mixture of Mayan and Spanish, and our private tour guide Carlos, who translated.

As we wandered through the jungle, Eulogio pointed to a tree and admonished us not to touch it. “The Mayans call this tree the black poison tree, because its sap is really irritating when you touch it,” Carlos interpreted. “It will make you itchy and if you scratch it, the rash will spread and can cause blisters that last for weeks.”

Ironically, the antidote for the black poison tree is usually found in close proximity in the form of another tree with red, flakey bark. Sap from the gumbo limbo tree relieves rashes, stings and burns and tea from the leaves can be used to treat fever and other conditions.

“This tree is the natural antidote for the black poison tree and we sometimes call it a tourist tree,” laughed Carlos as he translated. “Just like the tourists who visit here, it’s always red and peeling.”

One of the most interesting features of hiking through the jungles in this part of Mexico are the gigantic mounds of earth and trees that hide the many Mayan ruins that are still waiting to be unearthed. We climbed a large mound and discovered the entrance to a Mayan spiritual site at the top. Inside we could see a blue tinge to the walls of the structure and Carlos, who is an archeology student, explained that the colour blue was common inside ruins that date between 250 and 900 AD.

Carlos bent down and picked up a small piece of broken red pottery lying in the rocks at the top of the ruin. Eulogio picked up another. “These pottery pieces are at least 500 years old,” Carlos said. “You can find them all over the ruins in this jungle. There are so many Mayan ruins that archeologists have not found time to uncover them all.”

As we walked a little further along the jungle trail, Eulogio began making monkey calls trying to locate the main group of spider monkeys. When he made a call, you could hear the monkeys calling back and we would all take off through the forest towards the sound of their high pitched calls. At one point, we all stopped for a few minutes and cupped our hands over our mouths while Eulogio demonstrated the technique for making monkey calls.

Eventually our guides led us to a lake shore where we boarded canoes to paddle across to a zipline on the other side of the lake. Another short hike up a mountainside led us to the zipline where we put on helmets and harnesses and prepared for a wild ride back to the boat dock.

We have ziplined in several different locales and I wasn’t too nervous about this single zipline over the lake until Carlos handed me a carved wooden stick and said it was to be used as a brake.

This not-so-high-tech device had me a little worried and I could sense my family jointly rolling their eyes as I asked if the zipline was certified.

“More or less,” said Carlos as he hopped up to snap his carabineer in place. “We use it all the time.”

As I snapped my own carabineer into place, held my wooden stick brake firmly, and leaped from the platform into the air, I couldn’t help thinking that I would rather face any of the other jungle hazards than that zipline — even the monkey droppings.

If you go:

• Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve is about 58 km from the small city of Valladolid, located in the southeastern region of the Mexican state of Yucatán. The reserve is known for its large population of spider monkeys and scientists study the monkeys that make their home in the preserve.

• It’s advisable to take a guided tour to get to Otoch Ma’ax Yetel Kooh Nature Reserve. Rather than take a group tour offered through our resort, we arranged a private guided tour with a Cancun company called Make Your Own Tour (www.makeyourowntour.com — make sure you translate the page). Our full-day private tour included transportation to and from our resort, a bicycle tour of the Mayan ruins of Coba, swimming at the Tamcach-Ha cenote, a Mayan lunch, a Mayan village visit, and a tour of the nature reserve. Prices vary depending upon the number of tour participants and the attractions you are visiting, but for our group of four it was $100 per person. We highly recommend our tour guide Carlos Aleman. He spoke excellent English and was passionate about archeology and Mayan culture. He can be reached at jck_aleman_21@hotmail.com or 01-52-998-845-3759. You may also contact the company at: info@makeyourowntour.com.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.