There are few sun-seekers who have not heard of Mexico´s famed Riviera Maya, an 80-mile stretch of stunning, sugar sand beach infused with swaying palm trees and ample resorts. Stretching from Cancun on the north to Tulum on the south, this hedonistic magnet draws more than 5 million tourists each year and very few of them ever venture south of Tulum.
Once the domain of bloodthirsty pirates and thieving hooligans, Mexico´s Costa Maya has come a long way. Beginning just south of Tulum and running for 62 miles, all the way down to the border with Belize, Mexico´s lesser known Costa Maya delivers an equally entertaining and much less crowded adventure.
Delivering less glitz and glamour than Cancun and absent the booming construction of Playa del Carmen or the fresh development projects of Tulum, the Costa Maya is unspoiled and untamed. Once south of Tulum, the landscape mostly consists of scrub jungle, home to a variety of critters that include the occasional panther or monkey and flocks of colorful parrots. Small mammals, such as coatimundis, are also seen along with the ubiquitous iguana. You won´t see much in the way of civilization for many miles. As the main road, Highway 307, is a few miles inland from the coast, beaches and surf are out-of-sight until you take one of the turn-offs.
Much like the Riviera Maya, many want to capitalize on the brand, Costa Maya, and claim it for themselves. The small town of Mahahual is a prime example, claiming that they and their cruise port, are “The Costa Maya.” Those searching the internet may be easily confused as businesses all want to connect themselves with a known brand.
In fact, Mahahual is a primary city along the Costa Maya and they have named their cruise port, The Port of Costa Maya. From Highway 307, take the turnoff to Mahahual, a short distance past Limones. There, you will discover a small town that boasts the longest pier in Mexico to serve the cruise ship industry. The port, itself, presents as a well-stocked tourist depot with a couple of nice restaurants, food stands, and numbers of small souvenir shops as well as tour vendors. Many cruise passengers get no farther than the terminal, as was the intention.
There are beaches in Mahahual, however not all are great. Mahahual is definitely worth your time to visit and may be your first stop while driving south of Tulum. In fact, a relatively small number of expats call it home while a group of snowbirds, seeking the peace of a small, beachside community, return year after year.
It sits upon a shoe-shaped peninsula bordered on the east by the Caribbean Sea and creating Chetumal Bay, just above the toe. Driving north and south on the peninsula, along the beach will acquaint you with five or six small villages, the southernmost being Xcalak (Shka-lahk´) on the water border with Belize.
Mahahual offers several small hotels and B&B businesses along with a number of beach bars and small restaurants. The reef is close, and snorkelers regularly swim to the reef, from the beach. Many businesses close during the summer months and reopen during snow bird season, the cold winter months up north.
Mahahual is off the beaten path and those considering making the move would be well served to spend time talking to the expats, currently in residence. While some have stuck, many have moved on.
Go back to the main road (Highway 307) and drive a short distance south. Just past Pedro Santos, turn right to discover one of the five Maya ruins in the area. Chacchoben is small but readily accessible and worth the side trip.
Continue south farther south on the highway and you’ll come to the beautiful and historic city of Bacalar. Perhaps best known for Laguna Bacalar, this shallow, fresh water lake is often called the Lake of Seven Colors and is fed by a number of cenotes. The colors, in fact, mimic the turquoise and greens of the Caribbean Sea.
The village exudes charm with a couple of wonderful homemade ice cream shops not far from the main town square. A well-preserved Spanish fort sits right in the middle of town, steps from the town square, and central park. The fort is open to the public and a small fee is charged, which includes access to a museum, inside.
There are a dozen or more lodging options along the shore of the lake and the prices vary wildly. Some offer tent camping while others provide a more hotel-like experience and everything in between. Numbers of restaurants in the village and along the lakeside offer local fare. U.S. dollars are generally not accepted along the Costa Maya until you reach Chetumal, so bring pesos and do not expect to use a credit or debit card.
When you manage to pry yourself away from the charm of Bacalar, head south again. Just past Hul Ha´, take the turn off to discover three more ruins most folks don´t see. The archeological zones of Kohunlich, Dzibanche´, and Kinichana´ are all close to each other and, again, worth the visit.
After you have finished your Indiana Jones explorations, catch Highway 307 again for the short drive to Chetumal.
Chetumal sits on the border with Belize and is the capital city for the state of Quintana Roo. It is a beautiful, well-kept, and clean city of about 260,000 people resting on the shores of beautiful Chetumal Bay. The bay, itself, has spawned a niche sport fishery for young tarpon and experienced guides are numerous to assist with this unique catch-and-release fishery.
Historic Spanish architecture mixes with modern architecture and art, creating a wonderful blend of antiquity and modernity. The Plaza de las Américas houses a modern movie theater, various department store chains, fast-food outlets, and a modern supermarket. Many from Belize regularly cross the border to shop in Chetumal and then return with a full load.
Chetumal provides its residents with medical care through numerous clinics and physician offices as well as the large, well-equipped General Hospital of Chetumal. There are also several private hospitals.
Chetumal does not lack for culture. Two beautiful theaters (one outdoors) provide for a variety of musical entertainment and stage productions. Three museums are properly curated and offer a look into a variety of the historical aspects of Chetumal. The Cultural Center for Fine Arts often hosts a variety of exhibitions and serves as a focal point for the artistic community.
The large, modern campus of the University of Quintana Roo provides a cascade of degree and advanced degree programs for which students pay little or nothing.
And for those seeking a country club experience, Chetumal does not disappoint. Courts are provided for tennis, soccer, and basketball and a large pool offers relief from the hot, summer days. Oh, and there is a lovely lounge for private parties and social events. Those wanting to play golf can simply slide across the border to an 18-hole course in adjacent Belize.
Once again, Spanish is the predominant language, but English can be heard, along with five or six other languages.
Mexico´s Costa Maya offers the traveler or expat the opportunity to experience a part of Mexico´s Caribbean coast that has yet to see major commercial development. The beaches are not groomed and sometimes, the beer delivery is late. And while the Riviera Maya is geared toward the service industry, catering to the needs of big-spending vacationers from Canada, the U.S., Asia, and Europe…the Costa Maya feels none of that pressure. In one word, the Costa Maya is authentic.