Mahahual & Xcalak
South of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and east of Laguna Bacalar, the Costa Maya is being slowly developed for tourism. At the heart of this 100-km (60-mi) coastline, the tiny beach town of Mahahual (also spelled Majahual) saw a cruise ship pier built in 2001. But despite the tourist dollars and all-inclusive beach clubs for cruise passengers, there are still fishing villages and un-manicured beaches to explore in and around Mahahual and the Xcalak peninsula. Get there while you can.
A mere 30 km (18 mi) offshore, Chinchorro Bank offers wonderful opportunities for snorkeling and diving. One of two aquatic protected areas in the region (the other being the Manatee Sanctuary at Chetumal, across the bay), the atoll reef is 45 km long and 18 km at its widest point. Part of the world-famous Mesoamerican Reef, el Banco de Chinchorro has accumulated a large number of shipwrecks, including many 16th- through18th-century English and Spanish galleons, which make for great diving.
Mahahual has been on my short list of places to visit on the Quintana Roo coast for a long time. I finally made it there in early 2012. Before I went, I retrieved from my files a Costa Maya travel brochure (certainly less than ten years old) that lists Mahahual’s population as 153. Today the population is about 2,000. The town has grown exponentially since installation of the cruise ship pier, but it’s still just a blip compared to those of the Riviera Maya, the state’s biggest tourist draw after Cancun.
Touristic development was moving along swimmingly until Hurricane Dean devastated the region in August 2007. The Category-5 hurricane and accompanying storm surge pretty much wiped out Mahahual’s pier and much of the town. But rebuilding began shortly thereafter, and today the anchorage receives several hundred cruise ships each year.
The town of Mahahual itself presents a less-than-picture-postcard appearance. A big fat Señor Frogs squats among small homes, ramshackle buildings, and a few empty lots. Growth appears to have been haphazard. But cut through the clutter of this upstart oasis and you’ll see why the cruise ships come. The crystalline Caribbean laps obediently at beautiful sandy beach, and the restaurants that have emerged to satisfy tourists and cruisers have set up lounge chairs and shade palapas on the sand. Bars, restaurants, and small shops line a new cement boardwalk that connects the lighthouse (which miraculously survived Hurricane Dean) at the north end to the town’s school and fishermen’s pier at the south.
Things spring to life when the cruise ships call: passengers rent Jet Skis and golf carts, sign up for snorkel and dive tours to the offshore reef, and head to the nearest Maya ruins, Chacchoben. Other cruise ship pax spend the day at beach clubs like Maya Chan, about 6 km south of town, with food and drink was well as Wi-Fi, hammocks, kayaking, snorkeling, bike riding, and other activities. Working folks from the state capital, Chetumal, come to town on the weekends. The rest of the time, Mahahual seems to sink back to a blissfully somnolent state befitting a tropical, coconut-shaded, Caribbean town.
Then and Now
The first known settlers were the seafaring Itza Maya, who subdued the areas around today’s Bacalar and Chetumal. Maya heritage is seen in the names of regional dishes: tikinxic (grilled fish seasoned with achiote) sotoobichay (a tamal made with the green herb chaya), and xpelón (a tamal made with pork or chicken). The Caribbean influence is felt (or tasted, rather) in one of the region’s staple dishes, called “rice and beans.” In fact, immediately south of the Xcalak Peninsula is English-speaking Belize’s Ambergris Cay, the gateway to Central America.
Vacationers---most of them with vehicles---who want to avoid the cruise ship crowds head south of Mahahual, where many lovely beaches have sprouted small hotels. One or two stories, these indulge independent travelers with seafood restaurants and margaritas on the beach. Accommodations range from rustic to comfortable to something still endearingly shy of chic.
Looking to keep things simple, my travel companion and I stayed in a rustic stick-and-thatch cabin behind the restaurant Travel In, several miles south of Majahual along a paved-and-dirt road. The beach in front, strewn with seaweed, is appealing in its natural state, with not a manmade structure in sight. We walked on the beach, read our books, and ate breakfast and dinner at the cozy restaurant. After the dinner crowd recedes each night, the generator is turned off and I lie in the dark, listening to the geckos squeak, while my friend watches “Breaking Bad” on her iPad. Although I’m usually a night owl, I find that going to sleep early isn’t such a bad thing after a day at the beach.
One day we drive down the road to Xcalak, stopping to check out the beach-facing hotels and restaurants along the way. Cutting inland at Santa Cecilia (where a burned out bridge has not been replaced), we take a narrow road edged in low jungle. Booking a spur-of-the-moment boat trip is a snap, and soon we are snorkeling at Chinchorro Banks and searching for elusive manatees in grass-flanked canals. We don’t see any manatee, but the giant coral and colorful fish just under the waterline make the snorkeling fine. Several tour operators offer diving, snorkeling, and fishing trips out to the reef.
Xcalak was established in 1900 as a Mexican military outpost, near the end of the bloody War of the Castes. Quintana Roo, today Mexico’s most visited state, was still a wild territory then, and the rebellious Maya were being “subdued.” The town continued to grow until Hurricane Janet blew it off the map in 1955. Today the economy of this fishing village is augmented by tourism. We didn’t see any restaurants, so after snorkeling we headed back toward Mahahual, stopping along the way for a fine meal of seafood and pasta at Kabah-Na’s restaurant, Fusion.
After several relaxing days at Travel In, we headed back to the Riviera Maya, and “civilization.” We’re already planning a longer Costa Maya adventure, before things get more developed, or the next hurricane blows through. For now, it’s still one of the last undomesticated beach destinations in Mexico.