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Living in Mexico: Deep In the Yucatan Jungle, a Business That Transformed a Community

By Suzan Haskins


Summary: Sandra Dayton and her husband moved to Mexico to pursue their dream of living on the ocean, but the sustainable lifestyle of the Mayan people drew them into the jungle. Today, she runs the Jungle Spa, a non-profit spa that helps to support 60 people in the community.

Living in Mexico - Deep In the Yucatan Jungle, a Business That Transformed a Community

Sandra Dayton pours me a shot of Xtabentun, a sticky liqueur made of honey and anis. It tastes just like Good 'n' Plenty candies, I think. Sandra says it is "good for gas" and "you'll need it because we're going to be working on your stomach." What have I gotten myself into now, I wonder? Sandra settles in to tell me her story. "When I was just seven years old, in the mid-1950s, I came to Mexico for the first time with my family. I knew then that someday I would live here," she says.

In 1987, she got her wish. After first spending some time in Europe, she moved to Mexico with her husband, Dan. They settled in the little fishing pueblo of Puerto Morelos, about halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the eastern Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Puerto Morelos wasn't a place tourists visited much back then. And even though it gets a steady stream of visitors during the high season (December-April), it's still not a star attraction on the mainstream tourist trail. "Like most people who come here," says Sandra, "we thought the beach was where we wanted to live."

But soon, she found herself more and more attracted to the nearby jungle and communities within it. She started a tour company that took tourists into the jungle on botanical expeditions and to visit the cenotes (freshwater sinkholes) and chiclero (chewing gum harvesters) camps.

"I didn't want people to see how poor the Maya people were who live here, but how rich they are from the sustainable lifestyle of the jungle," she says. She started to work with the women, helping them make hand-embroidered items that could be sold to tourists.

"The women would ask me, 'Why do you live on the beach?' And I explained that living on the beach is a dream-come-true for most people to be able to swim in the beautiful, warm Caribbean Sea and enjoy the sun and sand. And they would say to me, 'Why wouldn't you want to live in the jungle, where you have tall trees to keep you shaded and cool, where you can dig down four or five meters and have fresh water drink? Where you can grow corn, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, and have fresh fruit trees like papayas, oranges, bananas, grapefruit, avocado, guava, guanbana, plums, and so on. And plants to heal you..."

They made their point, Sandra says. "And I felt very ignorant, because for centuries no one ever lived on the beach. They went to the beach for fishing and trading but not to live. To them, living on the beach was like living on a desert." Now even more drawn to the jungle, Sandra acted quickly when she saw an opportunity to buy a few acres of jungle land. She knew just what she would do with it. Many yoga enthusiasts had taken part in her jungle tours, and they were interested in learning more about the abdominal massage techniques practiced by the Maya women. "When a Maya baby is born," Sandra says, "a midwife massages them out of their mother's belly and into the world. They're massaged all during infancy and at seven or eight years old they're taught to massage their parents' and grandparents' tired bodies when they come home from working in the corn fields."

Sandra thought that the women of the jungle communities could take these skills and, with a bit of training, provide uniquely authentic spa treatments for tourists. They would earn much-needed income to support their families and enable their children to go to high school and even college. In 2006, the Jungle Spa opened. "We didn't have any capital at all," Sandra laughs. "We had concrete blocks with wooden tops we used as massage tables. But we had a meditation ceremony and talked to our angels, and a week later a man showed up and told us he had a construction site closing down and we could take what we wanted."

In the ensuing five years, the Jungle Spa has flourished, as have the women who travel from deeper in the jungle to work there. Operated as the Lu'um K'aa Nab non-profit organization, and directed by Sandra, all income minus a small amount for operating costs goes to the women who provide the treatments. Treatments include full-body massages, aloe-vera and banana-leaf wraps, a decadent chocolate scrub, even a four-handed massage given by two practitioners. But make no mistake: This is no Cancun-resort-style luxury spa with a sterile environment and sky-high prices. Treatments are given in a large open-air thatched-roof palapa. Lotions are made from natural ingredients grown on-site or in the nearby jungle. Reasonable prices are charged for (take it from me) a unique and memorable experience.

"We figure we're supporting 60 people in this community," Sandra says, "when you include the women and their families. When we started this project, I never dreamed we would be as far as we are today. We've really done this on a shoestring. Through word of mouth, people come here for authenticity, adventure and darn good massage."

About the Author

Thirty years ago, a little newsletter sparked a big idea... You can live better, for less, overseas. When International Living suggested in that first newsletter that an exotic life in a tropical paradise wasn't just for the rich and famous...that you can do it now for less money than you currently live was a radical idea. In many ways, it still is. Not because it's difficult (it isn't), or requires lots of money (it doesn't), or hasn't been done before (it has, thousands of times). The idea of living a happier, more fulfilling, more prosperous life offshore still strikes many people as a radical idea simply because they don't have the whole story. Like most folks, they rely on the mainstream media to tell them what the world is like. Open the pages of USA Today or turn on CNN and you get the standard fare... death, destruction, mayhem. Bad news is good news for the giant media conglomerates. If it bleeds, it leads. With input like that, it's a wonder anyone goes outdoors, much less offshore! At International Living, we take a different approach. We know from experience that there are a host of places around the world that are cheaper...healthier...safer...freer... than you ever thought possible. Our job is to help you discover those places, and then to help you take advantage of the opportunities they offer - opportunities to improve your quality of lower your cost of invest for profitable return - before the rest of the world catches on. In our pages (both print and virtual), you'll find out about everything from adventures in Panama to the best buys on the Paris property market...from how to open a bank account in your new country of residence to how to get the best deal on your next airfare...from the world's best beachfront property bargains to the most reliable local contractors to help you build your new beach home...from island-hopping adventures in the Mediterranean to the best summer fiestas in Mexico.

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Comments about this Article

May 9, 2011 14:42

What a cool thing to get to do! We love the Maya people and someday I would love to study more of their healing ways. It sounds like you must be in heaven!

May 9, 2011 15:03

WOW! This is great. My wife, Nancy, is origionally from Mexico where we lived and worked for 12 years until 2006 when we moved ot Arkansas USA for a work opportunity. We have longed for an opportunity to go back someday with our son David Paul (10). At present we have about an acre of land and have huge terrace box gardens. Everytime I put a hoe in the ground I wish it were in some place in Mexico, Central, or South America. I would like to communicate with you............maybe this is suppose to happen. David Evans

First Published: May 06, 2011

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