Costa Maya, Quintana Roo, Mexico
A small fishing village on the Caribbean, near the Belize border, with a lovely, relaxed, Caribbean vibe that you won't find further north, despite the fact that it’s a cruise port.
This part of the coast is referred to as Costa Maya. The Costa Maya is reminiscent of Playa Del Carmen, 20 years ago, beautiful beaches, friendly local people and a small influx of fulltime residents from all walks of life. You come here to relax on the beach, bird watch, snorkel, scuba dive, spearfish, kite surf, kayak or sail. The barrier reef is in places very near the coast – it is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest barrier reef in the world, starting at Puerto Morelos in Mexico, stretching down past Belize to terminate in Honduras (just over 1,000 km).
It might be good to first define what the Costa Maya actually is. The state of Quintana Roo, Mexico’s only Caribbean state, is divided, for tourism purposes, into three zones. The northern zone is the Riviera Maya and extends from Cancún to Tulum. The central portion is called Zona Maya, and is home to archaeological sites and a mostly undeveloped biosphere reserve area called Sian Ka'an. The southern third is the Costa Maya, 4-5 hours from Cancún, and includes Mahahual, its cruise ship port Puerto Costa Maya, as well as the Bacalar jungle lagoon system, its own archaeological sites, the capital city of Chetumal and the entry into Belize. The whole area has been boosted by the recent development of roads in the area, as well as the airport in Chetumal. Mahahual is sometimes spelled Majahual.
One of the attractions here is the Chinchorro Bank, the largest coral atoll of Mexico. It is a ring-shaped coral reef. It is about 35km to the east off the coast of Mahahual and it is part of the Mesoamerican reef. The coral of the atoll often sits atop the rim of an extinct seamount or a volcano and the lagoon forms over the volcanic crater. Here at Chinchorro only three parts of the atoll rise above water, forming islands and cays and an internal shallow lagoon. People come here to spot corals, giant sponges, dolphins, reef sharks, barracudas, lobsters and queen conch, a precious symbol of the region. We were offered this snorkelling trip by our hotel but we did not go there as we don't dive. If you do, you are here for a treat. The reef is home to at least nine shipwrecks, including two Spanish galleons. There is also a large ferry from the island of Cozumel that washed up on Chinchorro during Hurricane Wilma (2005).
Mahahual is an up-and-coming Caribbean tourist destination. Not so long ago, the place was nothing more than a few beach palapas and the Mexican Navy base. Now it is Mexico's newest tourist destination so it is best to come here before it gets too crowded. Hurricane Dean damaged the village in 2007 but the village has since been rebuilt. A large cruise ship jetty has been constructed just up the beach. It was dubbed Puerto Costa Maya and it was the first cruise port in the Western Caribbean that was custom-built exclusively for cruise ships. The cruise terminal complex was designed to resemble a Mayan city and it has salt water pools. The shops here are expensive though, and I personally think that it is much better to come downtown to Mahahual from the cruise ship, to have an authentic experience.
Puerto Costa Maya is today Caribbean Mexico's second largest cruise port, after Cozumel. In 2017, the port handled around 1 million cruise ship passengers. Every day a couple of cruise ships dock and the occupants come to town to drink, shop, swim and ride jet skis and quad bikes.
However, the further south you go, away from the cruise ship dock, the quieter the town becomes.
I came here with my husband in September 2017. We stayed in the first hotel after the cruise ship jetty (Blue Kay Eco Resort) and we were not bothered by any crowds. A few people passed our spot, because there is a walking path from the cruise ship jetty along the beach. Maybe the rest of the ship went to see the nearby ruins of Chacchoben (a popular activity).
When we arrived here, we had just done a two-week road trip around the Route Puuc and Río Bec ruins. All we wanted was to relax on the beach, preferably a secluded one, away from the crowds. We drove through Mahahual for about 4km along the coastal road. After passing the small bridge of Rio Bermejo we found small ecological hotels, restaurants and rental houses, all beachfront. We went even further, on some rough and unpaved road. However, the beach was everywhere full of seaweed and the sea was very brown. I have no way of judging if that was temporary (seaweed is indeed of an intermittent nature, and can appear on the beach after just one night's rain). However, to be on the safe side, I can only recommend the hotels near the cruise ship jetty, as this bay is definitely clean. We went back to the jetty to find a hotel on that first beach and we had truly clean and turquoise water.
Blue Kay Eco Resort is actually a hostel. We found it comfortable, with large beds, a/c, rustic wooden interior, hammocks on the veranda. Rainwater was captured on roof decks and collected in cisterns, used for the shower and flushing toilets. Electricity was generated with solar panels. Our balcony had the sea and malecón view. We just loved people-watching from there. The seafront esplanade was never too crowded. It runs from the main road to the southern end of Mahahual Pueblo and is lined with small hotels and restaurants (there are some luxurious vacation villas in Mahahual but those are on secluded beaches outside the centre). We watched snorkellers from our beach, as the reef is practically walking distance here. The hostel restaurant had a lovely laid-back ambience. We had a great fish meal here. The waiter had to go to the village to get fresh garlic. We did not mind waiting; time just stops here. That is what you come here for.
The centre of the town is quite small, just a few streets with shops, but the beaches stretch as far north as the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve and as far south as the coastal town of Xcalak, the last stop before Belize. T
The beach is lined with beach clubs where one can rent a chair for the day and find boats ready to take you fishing. There are a few mini supermarkets but none of the large ones that you can find in Cancún or Playa del Carmen. Instead, you can shop for fresh food at a local butcher's and a vegetable shop.
The town has a limited number of ATMs, the easiest option (if you are here by car) is HSBC ATM within the town's only Pemex petrol station, 4km west on the main access road. Another reliable option is the ATM in the Hotel Costa Maya Inn. There are hospitals here, for example Costa Med.
The icon of the town is the lighthouse. It is the southmost lighthouse on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. It was damaged during the hurricane in 2007 (and the lighthouse keeper was killed). Today this lighthouse is entirely solar powered. You will see it on your arrival from the highway (at this point you need to turn right to access the village). Taxi drivers wait here for customers arriving by bus (or from the boat).
There is also a new water park, called Mayá, the Lost Mayan Kingdom. The entry fee is $100 US but the park has apparently the largest slides in Mexico and some great zip-lines. The pools have natural waters. It does not get crowded, despite the fact that the people from the cruise ships head there. However, I can’t vouch for the park, as I have not been there.
How to get there:
From Bacalar you can get a combi (mini van) for 75 pesos each way (May 2015). The ride takes about 1h 15 min. The combis run every day from the main road in Bacalar, every 30 minutes. From Cancún airport there is a direct ADO bus (large bus with reclining seats, TVs and a restroom) and it stops in Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Buses also run to Mahahual from Chetumal.
If you drive here, the turnoff to Mahahual is located on Highway 307, just past the village of Limones. The exit to Mahahual at Cafetal junction is well marked.
If you come by cruise ship, there are two ways to get into Mahahual from your vessel. Taxis are located 100 yards outside the port's exit, and port shuttle transports are located inside the port. I recommend that you don't take the shuttle bus to town as they will try to sell you tickets for the tourist dock with a pool, bars and expensive shops. It is much better to come to town. Beaches in Mahahual are free. You can use the beach bar chairs and deckchairs if you consume there.
There is an airport in Chetumal, one and a half hours from Mahahual. Flights are daily from Mexico City although currently they arrive late in the day. There is a regional airport in Mahahual but I was not able to find out if there are any local flights yet.
Accommodation in Mahahual ranges from camping and boutique hotels to luxury villas (along the north and south coasts from the village).
Mix and Match
If you want to combine your beach stay with history, you could visit the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben, about 70km from Mahahual village. You can hire a guide there (for about 600 pesos if you want an English-speaking guide). If you are not coming by car, then you can book a trip to the ruins from the local travel agent, the Native Choice.
If you want to try yet another beach or water sport activities, you can go to the amazing lake of Bacalar (about an hour by car) or the small seafront village of Xcalak, south of Mahahual. To get here, you could take the beach road but most of it is not paved and not gentle on your car suspension. The best way is to use the paved road parallel to the beachfront road (Xcalak road). This journey will take about an hour and a half.