In Love with the Tropics
During the two decades of the 80s and 90s, I lived sporadically on a stretch of beach about an hour south of the Tulum Ruins. A narrow spit of land runs south between the Caribbean and a mangrove lined lagoon, with the sea and the lagoon being within sight. Our “rancho”, a 5 hectare swath along a reef-rimmed curve in the coastline was the tropical jungle and reef that I had always dreamed of.
Beginning in the early 60s, and living by the Atlantic Coast in Florida, I had become a full fledged fancier of salt-water tropicals. Vacations were nearly always dive vacations and my eventual move to Miami was an attempt to follow my hobby. Afternoons and weekends were spent snorkeling near the north point of Virginia Key and Key Largo.
For two years, the view from my 14th floor Miami Beach apartment thrilled as I sat up in bed each morning – the weed line and the blue water beyond in the Gulf Stream was visible as were the white or grey cruise chips entering and leaving Port Everglades.
I guess the eventual move further south to the reef rimmed island of Key West was a given. The giant aquarium moved with me, as did the 19th century grand piano, my second and perhaps greatest love.
For twenty years, living a life divided between the city of Merida, Yucatan and the jungle beach at Xamach was my dream come true – and it was lived to the fullest, filled with history, storms, intrigue, high risk behavior fighting hurricanes, African killer bees and tropical diseases. My house was blown away, but rebuilt. And then the Italian tourists zipped down the white, dusty coral road, bringing the ugly element of unregulated tourist development with it.
For those adventurous enough to drive the white coral road from Tulum to Punta Allen, it will be much changed from the way it was during my time there. The coconut forests are no more. What you see today is but a poor imitation of the original stands of native coconut trees.
In the 50s the islands of the Caribbean were infected and infested with a disease called the Lethal Yellowing Disease of the native coconuts. Jamaica was devastated and eventually Key West lost its tropical look as the stately palms became nothing but dry tuffs and ugly sticks. There are photos showing Smathers Beach on the south side of Key West so intensely forested with coconut trees that it was impossible to see the water. In the early 60s it was the same at Key Biscayne in South Miami – the trees so dense that one only got glimpses of the sea and beach.
They all died from an infection brought by an insect vector called myndus crudas, resulting in the death of the heart of the tree.
It seems that this disease has been progressing around the globe for many decades. I , personally have seen the time line of its progression – beginning in 1952 in Key West and a bit earlier in Jamaica (I suspect Cuba also.) and on to S. Florida in 1970s. When Cancun was developed and opened up in the early 70s, a shipment of sod for building a new golf coarse included the dreaded myndus crudas and the bacteria and that was that for the once gorgeous and iconic native tall coconut trees.
The devastation marched south from Cancun down the coast, beginning in 1981-1988, stopping only at Caldaritas, a cocal (copra plantation) north of the capital city of Chetumal. Why, there ? Because for some reason unknown to me, the ranches there had been planted in an oriental variety of coconut known as the Malaysian (or hernano) coconut. It came in three varieties – green, golden, and yellow: Of course the green was more beautiful and that’s the one we have planted at Casa Mexilio today.
After the complete devastation of the coconut forest at our ranch at Xamach, we planted almost 2,000 of the Malaysian variety. And they thrived, if not as tall and stately, at least the tropical seaside forest was restored. The nuts were smaller. The trees were shorter. But they resisted the lethal yellowing disease that the Jamaican Talls and the native Mexican trees succumbed to.