At the beginning of March 2018 we were invited to participate in a fundraiser event at Tulum Art Club for a local animal sanctuary called Nojoch Keej (pronounced, Nohoch Keh) meaning “White Tailed Deer”.
Some of our friends, who also work in ecotourism, supported the event and spoke very highly of the project and the family that manage the sanctuary. One friend (and tour guide) spoke of how his clients were generally more impressed with Nojoch Keej than the archaeological site of Cobá and Punta Laguna put together!
At the fundraiser I spent some time talking to Don Manuel (founder) to get a feel for what they do. I was impressed with the way that he communicated his love for the project and why and how he converted their family property to an animal sanctuary. One thing that stuck in my mind was when Don Manuel told me that a large tourism company approached him to do “business”. They wanted his family to dress up in elaborate pre-hispanic Mayan costume to receive their masses of clients and sign a contract for exclusivity. Don Manuel kindly rejected their offer, choosing integrity over this Disneyland type tourism.
At the fundraiser we ended up winning the raffle to be the first guests to stay in a cabaña (wood/bamboo cabin) that they had just finished! We were going to go anyway but now we had the chance to spend the weekend with Don Manuel and family and truly get a feeling of this very special project.
Nojoch Keej focuses on the preservation of the white tailed deer, paca, ocellated turkey and great curassow. These species are rescued, rehabilitated, reproduced and repopulated into protected areas. I was convinced that this was something special to explore and began to organize the visit.
All of those four species are overhunted (mainly for food) in the region, which means that their population has diminished and, in turn, negatively affected the balance of the ecosystem. There are no rules or regulations for the hunting of these species and, sadly, they are now endangered. Don Manuel and his wife Delli shared memories of how local communities have hunted, for generations, and how they grew up with their own family members also involved. A heartfelt recollection was that of a close family member (a seasoned hunter) being warned by “Aluxes” (the spirits and protectors of the land) to stop hunting. That they had reached their lifetime´s limit of spoils and it was time to cease. The warnings were eventually accepted which demonstrates the power of the connection between the Mayan culture and the spirit of nature.
During the weekend we observed the animals and helped Don Manuel feed them. My two young sons loved feeding two of the deer. They were the only ones to get close to humans. They were rescued “pets” who used to be tied up and were accustomed to being around people. The other deer kept well away and came to eat once we were gone. Don Manuel explained the importance of keeping the distance between deer and human to facilitate the reintroduction of the species into the wild. The deer at the sanctuary primarily eat the leaves of a species of tree called Bread Nut or Mayan Nut (Brosimum alicastrum), known locally as Ramón or Ojoche, which Don Manuel strives to grow on his family´s land. Outside of school/college hours, Don Manuel´s sons attentively help their father with the upkeep of the sanctuary, gathering “ramón”, feeding the animals, cleaning the enclosures and reforesting the shrubs. Each morning and evening we saw huge bunches of branches, with legs, walking up the path to take to the deer!
Delli and daughter, Lupita prepared the food for us during our stay. There is nothing like fresh, handmade tortillas cooked on the wood fire hotplate! My sons loved helping make the tortillas with Delli. After the tour around the sanctuary they offer lunch to their visitors (with advanced notice). Each mealtime was a delight. The food was fresh, made with love and the conversation was always compelling.
One afternoon we were accompanied by Don Manuel´s son, Jesus, on visit to Don Ismael´s family home which blends in to an organic poultry farm (chicken, turkey and duck). They have various coops for different stages. With the chicks inside the house and the adults outside. Another local project started up from nothing and supported by the community. A small entry fee now contributes to the upkeep of the farm and provides a small income for the family. They also explained how they grow some of their own food and how easy it was to grow papayas from seeds. “Just throw the dried seeds anywhere and they´ll grow”, he said. His wife gave us a huge papaya to take home with us. We ate the delicious papaya back home in Tulum, dried the seeds out and planted them! Since this visit, I have started to grow plants and herbs to eat at my house. Inspirational!
That evening we were invited by Don Manuel´s sons to play football (soccer) at the local park. Boys and girls joined in and we had a great time. The community is warm and friendly.
We also visited to La Casa de los Insectos (the Insects´ House). This project has a fascinating story which you can read in the article below.
On display there are hundreds of local species (butterflies, spiders, scorpions, beetles, etc.) collected from over 50 years.
Nojoch Keej recently had a couple visiting from the USA who fell in love with the family and the project. Thanks to the kind support from these people, Manuel was able to build the first cabaña to receive guests who wish to spend time at the sanctuary. A boost for the project in it´s continuation for self sustainability. The beautiful cabaña and its furniture were designed and built by Don Manuel and family. It is cosy and well equipped and felt like home away from home.
Considering that this is a small town, we were pleasantly surprised by the variety of activities on offer. As well as the sanctuary, insect house and farm, there are night jungle walks, cave exploration and nearby cenotes to visit.
Nojoch Keej is a non-profit, self managed project founded by a small Mayan community. They do not receive any support or funding from the government. Visitors to the sanctuary include small groups from independent ecotourism companies, educative organizations and off the beaten track travelers. Should you wish to make a donation, contribute in any way, or organize a visit please make contact through the Nojoch Keej facebook page. Click here to watch a short video of our visit to the sanctuary.
VanBalam is constantly looking for wholesome experiences to recommend to its campervan clients. It was great to make a connection and new friends, while supporting such a heartfelt project. It´s a bonus for us to be able to explore through our work and find causes like these. These experiences keep reminding me that there are an abundance of wonderful places to visit in the Yucatan. I feel that it will take years to find all of the hidden gems! This small town of Nuevo Durango, and it´s solid community, is definitely one of them.
English version by Omid and Eugenia