The next Cancun?
The Yucatan Peninsula's La Costa Maya could be the Next Big Thing in
By Patricia Rodriguez
Knight Ridder / Tribune
Originally published April 20, 2003
Juan isn't in charge at the Hotel Mahahual, in Mexico, but he might as
well be. Of several employees sitting in the office on a slow Sunday
afternoon, he is the one most interested in dealing with my inept
Spanish and in practicing his equally shaky English. Any time our clumsy
conversation wanders into an area he thinks might interest other
visitors, he asks for the English translation.
"Hot water," he repeats carefully.
"Where would you like to call?" he asks, hovering over the hotel's
phone, the only place in town to make international calls.
"We have electricity, 24 hours a day!" he all but shouts, pumping his
arm enthusiastically when he gets it right.
Actually, Mahahual (pronounced Ma-WHO-all) doesn't yet have reliable
electricity, nor the flood of tourists Juan seems to be expecting any
day. But he wants to be ready for both.
Who can blame him? This stretch of Caribbean beachfront, about 200 miles
south of Cancun and its 3 million annual visitors, is supposed to be the
Next Big Thing in Mexican tourism.
And if memory serves, that's what they used to say about Cancun.
This part of the Yucatan was once considered the end of the road, the
kind of place you went to disappear for a while. But as Cancun's buildup
stretched ever farther south, it was perhaps inevitable that developers
would eye this area.
Not content merely to come up with new tourist destinations, the Mexican
government also likes to give them catchy names. For this stretch of
coast and jungle, reaching from north of Mahahual to Xcalak (ISH-ca-lak)
-- 50 miles to the south of Mahahual and just north of the border with
Belize -- it has come up with La Costa Maya. The Mayan Coast. It's both
a marketing catchphrase and a homage to the indigenous people who
settled here more than 1,000 years ago and whose descendants live here
The idea is not to turn Costa Maya into another Cancun. Not even another
Playa del Carmen, the fishing village south of Cancun made over into a
stylish, European-vibed resort town and dubbed the hub of the Mayan
Riviera, another catchily named Mexican resort area.
Instead, for Costa Maya, the plan is to capitalize on what this remote
area already has: sandy, palm-studded beaches; quaint fishing villages;
abundant wildlife; several sets of barely visited inland Mayan ruins;
and, just an hour's boat ride offshore, Chinchorro Bank, the
second-largest barrier reef in the world.
A town in slow gear
But at first acquaintance, Mahahual still doesn't seem like the next big
When we drive into town in a rented Jeep, it takes us barely five
minutes to case the place. There's a hotel, a half-dozen restaurants, a
few small groceries, a couple of souvenir shops and, a bit farther down
the rutted dirt road, some thatched-roof beachfront cabanas that cater
to tourists who don't need air conditioning or CNN. There's a long
beach, but it's not the pure, white stretch of sand that tourist
brochures are made of; in many spots, it's choked with washed-up sea
grass and littered with plastic bottles, discarded potato-chip bags and
Still, it's a pleasant town.
Mexican families picnic on the beach. A couple of small dive boats go
out. A few vendors preside over tables of beaded necklaces and ceramic
ashtrays. Small groups congregate at a tapas bar and an open-air beach
restaurant, ordering big platters of conch ceviche and whole fried fish.
Village dogs walk around as if they own the place.
There are a few other U.S. and European tourists, but they all have the
slightly absent-minded look of long-term visitors, making their way
around town in slow motion with their backpacks and their paperback
novels, as if they've put themselves on beach time and have nowhere in
particular to be.
We check into the hotel and order lunch at its attached restaurant,
joining a crowd of locals watching some kind of pre-teen Mexican Idol on
one of the town's few TV screens, and we can feel ourselves slipping
into that time warp, too.
Frankly, you don't have much of a choice. By the time you get here,
making the four- to six-hour drive on a road that starts out smoothly in
Cancun but turns into a dusty, rutted, slow-going mess for the last hour
or two, you want little more than to relax. Which is good, because
Mahahual doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment. You can swim or
dive. You can fish. You can read. You can eat or drink a few beers.
Really, that's about it.
But the locals are friendly and not yet so sick of tourists that they
see us merely as walking wallets. What the town lacks in polish, it
makes up for in hospitality.
"Fish or chicken?" the cook asks us in Spanish.
It's barely 7 p.m., but the streets of Mahahual are all but rolled up.
This little loncheria, an open-air, dirt-floor diner, is one of only two
places still open. We settle for a plate of each and a couple of Cokes,
and the cook disappears into the back.
The food -- fried chicken and fish fillets, rice, fresh tortillas, beans
and pico de gallo -- is great, especially for the price (less than $4
apiece.) But the owner really wins us over when, after watching us
slapping at our ankles, emerges from the kitchen with a cardboard egg
divider and lights the corner on fire. We watch her, puzzled, as she
throws the cardboard on the ground, stamps out the flames with the sole
of her plastic sandal and brings the smoldering remains to set by our
Finally, we get it: mosquito control, complimentary with your meal.
"Would you like to go fishing? Two hours, $30."
Juan is working on his English again. I hope I'm translating what he
wants to say. Today, he'll get the chance to practice on a lot more than
me. A cruise ship arrived this morning at the shiny new dock opened two
years ago just north of town.
The port gets as many as half a dozen ships a week from big lines such
as Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Celebrity. On the three days
a week that ships are in port, sleepy Mahahual comes alive, a kind of
By 10 a.m., a row of sweaty tourists rides mountain bikes through town,
headed for a beach on the southern edge of the village. They're seeing a
place that looks far different from the one we pulled into two days ago.
Vendors -- some from as far away as Cancun -- are setting up makeshift
booths up and down the main street, selling beachwear, sunglasses,
pottery. A couple of young guys fool around on Jet Skis just off the
main town beach, serving as come-ons to potential customers.
Other men with fishing boats look for customers to take fishing or
snorkeling. Restaurants have posted signs offering hamburgers and fries
and two-for-one beers. Music -- U.S. Top 40 -- blares from loudspeakers.
The whole town feels hopeful, like California towns must have felt in
the old Gold Rush days, when everyone was just waiting for the money to
Suddenly, the changes that are coming to this area make sense. Mahahual
still probably gets no more than a few dozen overnight visitors at any
one time. But these ships can carry thousands.
"The cruise ships are good for us," Juan says. "Good for business."
They're the motivation for all the other changes.
At the new port, the dock opens onto a large, faux-Mayan-style mall
painted in bright tropical colors. Kiosks offer temporary tattoos and
dune-buggy rentals, and glass-fronted shops sell duty-free perfumes and
liquors. There are swimming pools, fountains, bars and restaurants,
enough to do so that many cruisers don't even go into town.
A gas station is under construction just outside town. It's destined to
replace the current gas station, which consists of a guy sitting in the
shade on a plastic beach chair behind a grocery store; he siphons the
gas by hand out of a 55-gallon drum, then funnels it into your vehicle's
Improvements are being made to the 50 miles of dusty road that connect
Mahahual and the turnoff to Xcalak to the main highway to Cancun.
Someday soon, it will be a smooth, four-lane affair. All through town,
small construction projects are under way -- an addition to a restaurant
here, a new shop there.
Finally, just as Juan promised, electricity is coming. Right now, the
town depends on generators, so electricity is patchy and part time, but
cables are being laid. Sometime this year, the town should be wired.
And when it is, there will be electricity around the clock. Juan tells
us proudly that the Hotel Mahahual will get air conditioning then and
TVs in each room.
Come back in five years, I have a feeling, and Mahahual will be an
entirely different place. Maybe it really will be Mexico's Next Big
Resort. And maybe Juan will finally be in charge.
Costa Maya for the more discerning traveler
Mahahual may get the cruise-ship visitors, but its amenities for those
wanting to make an overnight stay are still on the basic side. For those
who need more -- like room service or air conditioning -- here are three
Xcalak: Just north of the border with Belize, Xcalak was discovered by
divers who came for Chinchorro Bank, which, after Australia's Great
Barrier Reef, is the second-largest coral reef in the world. It's just
an hour's boat ride from Xcalak.
Slowly, a few hotels, restaurants and dive shops developed to cater to
the divers and other tourists. Within the past dozen years, a small
ex-pat community of Americans, Canadians and Europeans has been
established, and the area now has better phone service (including decent
Internet connections) and more sophisticated hotels than larger
At the six-room Hotel Tierra Maya, where we spent a night after making
the now-easy one-hour drive down from Mahahual, our room had pretty
Mexican blankets and rugs, cool tiled floors, a mini-fridge and a breezy
balcony that looks onto the sea. There's even air conditioning, supplied
by a generator. Dinner, in a separate casita, is simple but stylish:
grilled shrimp with a tropical marinade, coconut-infused rice. Another
six or eight guesthouses have similar amenities.
Kohunlich: A Mayan architectural site built between A.D. 100 and 900 and
restored only in the 1990s, it's notable for its well-preserved, giant
stucco masks and a dozen temples and houses scattered through the
jungle. But it still gets few visitors, partially because there's only
one hotel nearby -- an expensive eco-lodge called the Explorean
Kohunlich, which offers air-conditioned luxury, a spa and guided
adventures such as hiking, kayaking and mountain biking.
Laguna Bacalar: Also called Laguna de Siete Colores (the lake of seven
colors), this lake, located midway between Chetumal and the turnoff to
Xcalak, is popular with Mexican vacationers for its warm, unusually hued
water. The water is typically a clear turquoise, but sometimes,
depending on the weather and the light, it can take on a reddish,
purplish or greenish tint. The sandy banks are lined with vacation homes
and a few small, beautifully landscaped resorts with restaurants and
Getting there: Your best bet is to fly into Cancun and then rent a
vehicle. Connecting flights are available from BWI and other regional
Costa Maya is a four- to six-hour drive from the Cancun airport,
depending on your destination. Bus service is available, but you really
need a car, or, better yet, an SUV or Jeep, to fully explore the area.
Several major car rental companies have kiosks at the Cancun airport,
and rentals start at about $40 a day for a small, manual-transmission
The road from Cancun is excellent until Tulum, about two hours south,
and decent until the turnoff to Mahahual and Xcalak. From there, expect
construction and potholes. Just before Mahahual, at the turnoff to
Xcalak, there is a military checkpoint. They're looking for drug
smugglers. Be courteous and you'll be waved through with little hassle.
Lodging: Xcalak has several small guesthouses that are surprisingly
sophisticated for the remoteness of the area.
We stayed at Hotel Tierra Maya (800-480-4505; www.tierramaya.net),
offers six simple but pretty tiled rooms decorated in rustic local
fabrics and art, with private baths and optional air-conditioning.
Breakfast at the on-site restaurant is part of the room rate, but pay
extra and eat dinner there, too; the imaginative Mexican cuisine is
excellent. Rates from $75 double.
Other comparable small inns include Casa Carolina (rates from $75,
Sin Dudas (from $83, double; www.sindudavillas.com)
and Sandwood Villas (from $89 double; www.sandwood.com).
In Mahahual, options are more limited. The one hotel, Hotel Mahahual
Caribe, is clean and has private bathrooms with hot water, but it's
nothing fancy. However, the staff is very friendly and the attached
restaurant is good. Rooms have ceiling fans, which operate only when the
generator provides electricity, from about 6 p.m. to midnight, and cost
from about $30. The hotel is scheduled to get 24-hour electricity later
this year, so rates may increase.
There are also several sets of beachside cabanas on the southern edge of
Mahahual, at prices starting around $15 a night. Pay a little more, and
you'll get a private bath and a better mattress. A couple of the
better-looking ones are Tio Phil's and El Doctor.
At Laguna Bacalar, we liked the looks of the Hotel Laguna, built onto
the side of a hill overlooking the lake. A pleasant desk clerk quoted a
price of $38 for fan-cooled rooms with private bath; a swimming pool and
restaurant are attached.
At Kohunlich, the only game in town is the Explorean Kohunlich, with
elegant but spare air-conditioned rooms in thatch-roofed huts scattered
in the jungle. Per-person rates start at about $260 and include all
meals, drinks and activities, such as hiking, mountain-biking and
kayaking. (There is supposed to be a choice of several daily activities,
but during our visit there were only about 15 guests, so there was a set
program, with no deviations.) Appointments at the spa cost extra.
Few guidebooks to Mexico cover this area extensively. Chicki Mallan's
Yucatan Peninsula (Moon Handbooks, $17.95) is the one we used most; it
has good but brief sections on Xcalak, Kohunlich and Laguna Bacalar.
For more information on Xcalak, visit www.xcalak-info.com.
For general information on Mexico, contact the Mexico Tourism Board: