Bar at 40 Canones hotelWhen asked recently what to do during a cruise call in Costa Maya, my answer was simple: Leave the port.

This might seem the obvious response about what to do in any port, but Mexico's Costa Maya is one of several custom-built cruise ports, similar to Bermuda's Dockyards and Jamaica's eventually-to-open port in Falmouth, that are high-quality and comprehensive but often keep passengers from exploring the country beyond the port's gates.

The destinations are already facing an uphill battle: An average of only 70% of passengers even get off the ship in Costa Maya, the port said, and only 35% of passengers go on a cruise ship excursion.

The privately run port of Costa Maya built a very clean, attractive area with a lot to do: There is a beach, bars and restaurants, jewelry stores and duty-free galore. Just outside the gates cruisers find familiar chain restaurants such as the Hard Rock Cafe, and soon there will be a Senor Frog's.

The port boasts a few nods to the Mayan culture beyond its gates, and the people who work there are locals, but the area has about as much to do with Mexico as the Venetian in Las Vegas has to do with Italy.

That makes some sense in Vegas, because Italy is thousands of miles away. It makes little sense in Costa Maya, where the real Mexico is just five minutes away.

Cruisers who stop here should take advantage of being able to visit a part of Mexico that is not otherwise easy to get to.

It took a five-hour car ride to arrive from Cancun Airport. The only flights that come near here are from Mexico City or from Cancun by charter.

People who work for the Port of Costa Maya said that its founder, Isaac Hamui, was planning to build hotels in the region and was exploring the area one day when he saw the lights of cruise ships passing in the distance. He decided what the area needed was a cruise port.

I experienced the world outside the port by spending a night in Mahahual, a tiny fishing village less than 10 minutes from Costa Maya by taxi. Passengers can see the town's lighthouse from the cruise ship pier.

With a population of just 500, Mahahual doesn't have much going on, which makes for a great day at the beach.

The town has the Malecon, a clean and pleasant walkway that extends the length of its white-sand beach.

The Malecon is dotted with a few small hotels and restaurants that serve up Mexican fare and cold drinks to cruise ship passengers who take the $5 taxi ride from the ship.

I stayed at the 40 Canones, a boutique, 12-room property with water running through its open atrium and swings instead of stools at its bar. Its bar and restaurant face the beach, which the property calls its beach club, where it has chairs and beds set up by the water.

Intrepid cruisers make their way to 40 Canones on ship days, citing Mexican fare that's less expensive than in the port area and a more quiet and relaxed atmosphere. Anyone who eats or drinks here can use the beach facilities for free.

Reefs and ruins
Another reason to leave the port is that there are excellent excursion options from Costa Maya.

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is home to thousands of pre-Columbian Mayan ruins as well as the world's second-largest coral reef, offering some of the planet's best snorkeling and diving.

Chacchoben ruinsFor history buffs, a trip to the Mayan ruins is a must, and the excursion to Chacchoben is the most popular of the Costa Maya cruise tours. The recently excavated ruins, which date back as far as 1000 B.C., have only been open to the public since 2002.

The guides who work at the site are all government-certified and are very knowledgeable about Mayan history. Some of the guides grew up playing on the ruins before they were "discovered" for the important archaeological sites they are. The tour costs $89.99 per adult on the Norwegian Epic (tour prices and details vary with each cruise line).

Before there was a cruise port in Costa Maya, the few tourists who came to this area were mostly diving enthusiasts making the long trip to the Chinchorro Reef, famous for its black coral and, thanks to perilously shallow reefs, a plethora of shipwrecks.

Snorkeling and diving are must-do adventures here. The port offers six snorkel and diving tours. For certified divers, the port offers scuba trips on boats that venture out to the Meso-American coral reef.

For casual snorkelers such as myself, the reef closest to the shore, reached by a short boat ride from a private beach, is not to be missed.

The port offers a snorkel and beach tour ($89.99 for adults on the Epic) that includes use of a speedboat to get out to the reef.

After docking at a floating pier, groups snorkel over the reef, teeming with stingrays and tropical fish of all colors.

Participants on the tour can then spend the rest of the day at the private Uvero Beach Club, an almost-immaculate beach, bar and restaurant. There is also an excursion that brings passengers to the beach alone, offering a beach chair, volleyball, kayaking and an open bar for $49.99 per adult. The Mexican fare here is good but costs double what a meal would in Mahahual.

For people who like adventure, the port's second most popular tour is a trip to the 2-year-old BioMaya Canopy Zipline ($124 for adults and $114 for children on the Epic).

BioMaya has some of the world's tallest jumping platforms, with towers that range from 656 feet to 2,559 feet high. Ascending those towers on a winch was terrifying, but the jumps, one of which is 825 yards across, made it worth it.

The tour sends people along three ziplines, the last being the fastest and most scenic, gliding past the edge of the Bacalar Lagoon, whose color changes from greens to blues throughout the day.

One drawback of the port's excursion offerings is the lack of combination tours. While the day in port would permit visitors to do both the zipline and snorkeling, for example, there are no tours that offer both.

To take advantage of all the area has to offer, it might be worthwhile to look for private operators that will create customized trips for clients or -- for the most intrepid travelers -- to rent a Jeep in port and create their own adventures.

Just be sure to have clients end the day with a cocktail at 40 Canones.


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