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."