MEXICO: Chatting with Marlene Ehrenberg: Ecotourism Pioneer

One can learn about regional textiles, cacti, fiestas, art, astronomical observation, musical groups and choral associations, orchids, indigenous ceremonies, ceramics, different trees, Olmecs, as well as join in culinary workshops and balloon flights.This is just a small taster of what Marlene Ehrenberg is offering with Rebozo, a tour operator whose tentacles stretch anywhere in the country. “I have the Republic in my hands,” Marlene says, almost nonchalantly.

She can afford such confidence, and reach so far, because she has been involved in the field of tourism and ecotours (her passion) since 1967, when she gained her license as a SECTUR accredited tour guide from the longdefunct Escuela de Turismo, in downtown Mexico City, and has been making waves sometimes choppy, towering ones ever since.

A WEALTH OF INFORMATION

Most people in the world of Mexico tourism and travel writing have come across Marlene, whose wealth of knowledge and experience (only 50 percent of her decades of research has been computerized, she says) is unrivalled. Even those who have crossed swords with the feisty and intractable redhead acknowledge her role as a pioneer.

“You become ambitious because there’s so much to do,” says Marlene. She is a founder of associations, lobbyist, explorer, critic, the brain behind the Ruta de Cortes (the original idea behind what SECTUR now calls Ruta de los Dioses), as well as a maverick and visionary.

Never plodding, she generates enthusiasm within a breath: “The marvel of this country is the weather. We have never managed to market the climate well. We should say, ‘Come to Mexico in the rainy season!’ ” Instead, international promotion focuses on the dry season.

“October through December my schedule is filled by the snow birds,” she observes. She gave some reasons why tourists might come to Mexico during the rainy summer when Europe is beautiful. “First, it’s green, it’s when we plant our maize, we are hijos del maíz. Secondly, it is the cycle that leads to Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s principal ceremonies.” She also said Mexico’s unique geography situated between colder northern climates and the tropical south has produced incredible biodiversity, with many species of mammals and reptiles that would be of interest to tourists year-round.

While she tells me this and makes me a lemonade, she also manages to feed in snippets from her colorful, bicultural past. She told me about her seven brothers, learning to drive at age 14, her Kibbutz experience and studying archeology and languages. Her father was a German Jew of practical inclinations who took her to tend the garden, replete with everything from geese to carrots, while her mother a “cocktail” of nationalities made fast friendships with the housemaids, wore huipiles, went to mayordomías, (ceremonies anointing the local steward) and bought pulque on Saturdays.

INSIDER KNOWLEDGE

“My knowledge brings added value to the tours,” she points out. Her father was an associate of Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky and the artist Frida Kahlo, for example. Marlene recalls the artist Diego Rivera from when she was about 8 years old. “I remember his huge behind. I don’t remember his face!” she says with a twinkle, grabbing some photos.

THE ARTISTIC APPROACH

She had recently returned from Acapulco where she saw two whales spouting out at sea and she manages to convey the wonder, and preciousness, even while she is hurtling on to explain the next thing.

Yet the images were from a slightly earlier trip to Nayarit. There she had been allowed to witness the quinceñera (15th birthday celebration) of a Huichol girl as well as the slicing up of the cow, which Marlene said took place astonishingly quickly. She has a stunning picture of the young woman in her colorful clothing holding the horns.

“These things are unique,” the tour guide said simply of her photographs. She laments the day when she loaned the CPTM (Mexican Tourism Promotion Board) a set of her own slides to be used in a promotion that were never returned to her. But she perks up soon.

“When I design my rutas they are like doing a painting they are different each time.” A number can be consulted on the website — http://www.marlene-ehrenberg.com.mx — where you can also learn about the Mariposa de Agua water conservation project, participating hotels and a wide range of adventure-sports options.

ORIGINAL TOURS

But just as exciting are Marlene’s custom-made tours. She can organize anything you can imagine: from weddings with a twist to days floating on the canals in Xochimilco in the south of Mexico City. She once organized a visit to a dairy ranch for some German farmers. Other tourists got to see nopales growing in Milpa Alta and others spent time at Chapingo University in the State of Mexico. She has set up something unique for a foreign writer seeking inspiration, visits to artists’ studios for a group of architects even scouting for a spooky house for a film!

You get the sense Marlene dislikes repeating herself, which must make her the most dedicated and lively companion on a tour. The winner of Planeta.com’s 2002 Colibri Ecotourism Award, Marlene admits she is permanently researching, and while she is fighting to get ecotourism legally recognized “it has to be sustainable, that’s the key word,” she says she seems miraculously untainted by officialdom, and barely soured by bumping her head against bureaucracy.

“Alternative tourism can mean anything,” she cautions, before launching yet again the liberating sensation that travel in Mexico is shimmering with wonders that are almost completely untapped; that current offers, from government programs to guidebooks, are not only barely scraping the surface but permanently on holiday themselves unlike Marlene, a workaholic who doesn’t sit still for long.

“Tourism here is trapped in a box. I dare to do things,” she says, and the freshness of her no-nonsense approach can be quite empowering, enabling others to realize that we too have the Republic in our hands.