Going green on the Mexican Riviera has never felt so hedonistic and the Riviera Maya is just one gem along the western coast of Mexico.

Eco tourism is a hot catch phrase in travel—combine doing good with feeling good. What’s not to love? While there is no international body to prevent an establishment from calling itself eco-friendly, many will install a recycle bin and low-flow shower heads and do just that. The eco-friendly label is also a moving target: improvements in sustainability are introduced every day. With that in mind, a hotel just 10 years old may now be the equivalent of an automotive gas-guzzler. But replacing large systems only a few years old and perfectly functional—or even rebuilding altogether—can be costly, wasteful and decidedly not green.

For this reason, the opportunity to build a world-class ecologically sustainable resort from the ground up, where nothing has stood previously, is an eco-engineers dream. Mexico’s Hacienda Tres Ríos, located in the Yucatán Peninsula, is just that. Encompassing more than 326 acres rainforest (150 slated to remain untouched), the resort has earned numerous awards since its doors opened in 2008, and Sunset World’s president, Orlando Arroyo Marroquin, has become a resource speaking on behalf of sustainable tourism and construction at conferences such as London’s World Travel Market and at FITUR in Spain and Berlin.

Hacienda Tres Rios Mexico

The expansive lobby of Hacienda Tres Rios – Photo by: Abby Ventzke

Hacienda Tres Ríos is part of the larger group of resorts and properties owned by Sunset World Resorts & Vacation Experiences, which are located throughout Cancún and Riviera Maya. Under the watchful eye of chief environmental officer Gabriel Santoyo, all strive to be ecologically friendly, but since most were existing properties purchased by the group, are necessarily limited in what they can boast. But this is not the case with Hacienda Tres Ríos.

A World Apart

The Yucatán Peninsula lies between the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico and consists of flat rainforest lands and jungle. The land itself is actually a 76,300 square mile limestone shelf with an extensive underground aquifer and numerous cenotes—fresh water sinkholes—vital to the delicate ecological balance of the area’s unique flora and fauna.

My guide for the journey, Genoveva Garcia, was a part of the creation of Hacienda Tres Ríos (named for the three rivers running through the property) from the ground up and has a special attachment to it. She explained that the resort was actually built offsite, to minimize the ecological impact caused by heavy construction. The modules were then brought in and assembled, much like Lego building blocks.

The resort itself was also designed to have minimal impact on the environment—it’s positioned two to three feet above the level of the ocean, and built on stilts, or pilings, sunk into the limestone to allow the aquifers to continue their natural flow unobstructed.

The systems built into the Hacienda Tres Ríos are state-of-the-art and combine low-impact with luxury. Everything from the locally sourced, sustainable lumber of the expansive patios and bridges, to the decorative limestone trim on the walls, harvested locally and polished to a high shine, bringing into sharp focus the delicate fossils of the sea life that it was once a part of. The systems are designed not only to operate efficiently, but to operate with as little environmental impact as possible. Case in point: Tres Ríos features three desalination plants on its property, supplemented with reverse osmosis filters, providing fresh potable water without tapping into the fragile freshwater supply. Wastewater runs through onsite treatment plants and is used to irrigate the grounds, while solid waste is taken offsite and recycled into compost. The massive air conditioning system features state-of-the-art technology in which chilled groundwater is pumped up and used to cool the equipment, resulting in energy savings of 70 percent. That now-hot water is, in turn, used to help heat the natural gas hot water systems (with a 30 percent savings), before being returned to the earth it came from.

Hacienda Tres Rios eco friendly structure

Hacienda Tres Rios was built to allow river to flow unobstructed – Photo by: Abby Ventzke

There are too many nifty eco installations to mention, most behind the scenes and completely unobtrusive. But nature is ever in the forefront at Tres Ríos.

An Unconventional Retreat

Hacienda Tres Ríos offers a number of activities designed to heighten the senses as well as develop visitors’ appreciation of the delicate balance of rain forest nature as well as Mayan culture, and what better way to begin this journey than with your eyes closed?

Garcia and I headed out of the resort to a starting point in the jungle a short walk away. I was struck by how dense the forest was—and how it smelled, well, not foresty. Growing up in the Garden State, in a rural area a stone’s throw from Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, I have an definite idea of what the woods smell like: pine, moss, ferns, and the dense, rich smell of dark earth that rises with each step you take. I expected a similarly overwhelming scent of “green,” but this forest defied my preconceived notion of rainforest jungle. The air smelled light, almost delicate, and definitely more herbal than earthy.

A Different Adventure Experience

The Sense Adventure Experience is not for cynics or killjoys. A blindfolded walk through the jungle, with touch, taste and smells designed to open your mind and heart, requires a bit of faith and a great sense of adventure. I admit to taking a peak beneath my blindfold once or twice (blame the journalist inside), but was still completely entranced by the experience once I gave in to it. It’s difficult to explain without giving too much away, but it’s not unlike going to Disneyland: You either walk away enchanted by the magical experience, or complaining about the long lines and high prices.

I was enchanted, and ready to see more of this rainforest-that-didn’t-smell-like-a-forest, so Garcia and I met up with Antonio Hernandez, Memory Makers assistant, for a Segway tour of part of the grounds. Tres Ríos offers its guests numerous options for touring, including bicycle, kayak, walking and Segway, but taking along a guide is a must, as becomes obvious once you’re off in the jungle. Paths are laid out, but one looks so much like the other that it’s more than easy to get lost. Once we had our bearings on the Segways, we headed off to the nursery, where three varieties of baby mangroves, vital to rainforest survival, and other plant species are carefully raised to take their place in the larger ecosystem. The nursery also serves as an educational opportunity for guests interested in learning more about the local flora, and children who love digging in the dirt.

Sense Adventure Experience Tres Rios Mexico

Local Shaman prepares tourists for the Sense Adventure Experience – Photo by: Abby Ventzke

We stopped to take in the cenotes, admiring their crystal depths, where guests are welcome to swim and snorkel, and the narrow river passageways where we saw a kayak plying its way past low-hanging branches. The Segways were fairly silent (and a low-emissions mode of transportation)—quiet enough for me to hear birds singing and the scrabbling of local fauna in the underbrush. The peace was simply enchanting.

Ethos Farm In the Jungle

One of the pleasures of travel is indulging in local cuisine, and none of the various Sunset World properties I visited disappointed. Exceedingly fresh and carefully prepared, it even had this very picky eater satisfied. Karla Baez, another of my guides, explained that most of Sunset World’s fresh produce and vegetables are organically grown at its own farm, and offered to take me for a visit.

The Ethos Granja en la Selva (farm in the jungle) is exactly that: a farm in the rainforest jungle. I never gave it much thought (after all, the rainforest already has plenty growing in it), but farms in the rainforest are exceedingly rare. Crops harvested for food require a substantially greater amount of topsoil nutrients than the limestone base of the Yucatán provides.

Baez and I caught up with Eduardo Lopez, Ethos coordination and planning director, and traveled more than an hour over rough singletrack to reach the Ethos Farm, where he took us on a tour of the facilities. Ethos is not a farm in the traditional sense of the word: there are no plowed fields with even, furrowed rows; no silos; no combines. In fact, it doesn’t even look like much at all. There were a few farmhands working in the distance, a cluster of solar panels, and a wind turbine providing power to pump water during dry spells. It wasn’t until Lopez pointed out the delicate plants, and explained the intense planning involved that I truly began to appreciate what I saw.

Ethos was launched just two years ago on property owned, but unused, by the resort. Through an ingenious process that begins by digging out a hole in the limestone rock, then filling it with compost (generated by the hotels), a sprinkle of seeds and careful watering and—lo!—a tomato (or melon or pumpkin) is born! The process sounds simple enough, but there is an unfathomable amount of labor and planning involved. Lopez plants according to the needs of the resort properties, meticulously planning each growth cycle for maximum output. Crops are routinely rotated after a plant’s lifecycle to maintain soil fertility and discourage pests and other pathogens.

More feel-good greenwashing? Hardly. Lopez cites impressive statistics and has plans for more. Ethos produced 6 tons of green tomatoes and 40 tons of red and expects those figures to rise to 10 tons and 120 tons respectively. Impressive? Crops are just the beginning; Ethos also produces most of the flowers decorating the resorts (12 acres of bird of paradise plants alone produce 8,000 to 10,000 blooms each month). What next? A bee farm was recently launched that will provide honey for use in Sunset World’s Ya’ax Ché spa products.

ethos farm in the Mexican rainforest

An ethos farm nestled in the Mexican rainforest – Photo by: Abby Ventzke

Giving Back

One of the directives of sustainable tourism is: “To contribute to the social, economic and cultural development of the region.” Ideally, this goes beyond just hiring the locals to clean rooms and serve drinks. Sunset World helps old and young by sponsoring Los Años Dorados de la Tercera Edad (The Golden Years Club for the Elderly) in Cancún, and providing free horseback riding therapy for local special needs children at its Hacienda Andalucia. There are many other programs in place as well. For example, the nursery at Tres Ríos plays host to local schoolchildren twice a year on horticultural fieldtrips, and has provided thousands mangroves to rebuild much of the devastation caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

A Resort Above All

All things being equal, guests at a resort expect to be pampered and I wasn’t disappointed. Each of the Sunset World resorts offers a signature Ya’ax Ché Spa with full amenities, the size of which varies by property. Yaxche is Mayan for tree of life, usually represented by the ceiba tree, and is an important part of Mayan culture. Ya’ax Ché strives to reunite body and soul of harried visitors, and bring them back into harmony with earth—not always an easy thing to do. I opted for the 80-minute Sensations Massage at Hacienda Tres Ríos and was not disappointed. It was easily one of the best spa experiences I’ve ever had, and a fitting end to my trip.

My personal yaxche restored to satisfactory operating conditions, I boarded a plane back to the States and headed home.

The Mexican government, resort developers and the local population have embraced the idea of sustainable practices to minimize the increasing pressure on local resources. The more recently developed Riviera Maya lies south of Cancún and is becoming just as vital.

Awards and certifications of greenery abound and Hacienda Tres Ríos has won an impressive number. The resort is a certified member of the World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism. It is a member of the Rainforest Alliance Program for Best Practices in Sustainable Tourism Management, as well as a member of Sustainable Travel International. In March 2009 it won the Green Globe International Certification seal.

Hacienda Tres Ríos
800-494-9173 U.S. and Canada
01-800-262-9268 Mexico
52-984-877-2400 International

Sunset World Resorts & Vacation Experiences
866-760-1842 U.S. and Canada
01-800-262-9648 Mexico
52-998-881-8750 International

Ethos Granja en la Selva

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If You Go

Hacienda Tres Ríos is remote, quiet and relaxing, but if you yearn for the bright lights of Cancún, it’s not an either/or proposition. Guests staying at a Sunset World resort are welcome at any of its other properties. If you’ve the energy, you can play a round of golf at Laguna Suites Golf + Spa, rent a boat at the Admiral Yacht Club, take scuba lessons at the Marina Club Lagoon, bask in the turquoise-blue waters of the Caribbean at the Sunset Royal, or party the night away at one of Cancún’s many clubs. Boat and bus shuttles are available to transport you between properties, and cars are available for rent.