All the charm, less of the crowds in Costa Maya

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The village of Mahahual is heavy on the sleepy fishing village vibe.
The village of Mahahual is heavy on the sleepy fishing village vibe. Photo Credit: Meagan Drillinger

When anyone asks me what to do in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, I tell them to keep driving south -- about five hours south, to be exact. The same, I suppose, could be said for cruising.

While the majority of Mexican Caribbean cruise ships are docking in Cozumel, I invite cruisers to opt for the itineraries that take them farther south -- almost to the border of Belize.

Here you'll find the stunning Costa Maya, a stretch of the Caribbean coast that feels practically virgin compared to the beaches north of Tulum. Sure, cruises began calling here in 2001 and the port has a commercialized scene, but leaving the port transports cruisers into a still-untapped part of Mexico.

Costa Maya is about 100 miles south of Playa del Carmen. Its cruise port was designed to be a bustling "village" and has no shortage of activities, with a beach; a malecon, or seaside esplanade; duty-free shopping; restaurants; bars; and plenty of opportunities for excursions.

But the port is best viewed as an the entry point to a part of the country that few travelers see, something that is likely to change with the promise of a Mayan train and a new luxury airport slated for Tulum.

Southern Quintana Roo, where Costa Maya is located, is more a playground for the domestic market and adventurous travelers who deserted Tulum when its popularity made it less the bohemian outpost that it once was.

Costa Maya is known for its lagoons, hidden archaeological sites and a coastline free from chain and high-rise hotels.

The port is teasingly close to the border of Belize and shares its reef real estate, making it a great place for snorkelers and divers to venture out.

The archaeological site of Kohunlich in southern Quintana Roo is shrouded in jungle and known for its striking Temple of the Masks.
The archaeological site of Kohunlich in southern Quintana Roo is shrouded in jungle and known for its striking Temple of the Masks. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Consejo de Promocion Turistica de Quintana Roo

Visitors who come to this part of Mexico will want to experience two of its biggest draws: the towns of Mahahual and Bacalar.

Nearest to the port, the small beach village of Mahahual is heavy on the sleepy fishing village vibe, reminiscent of what Tulum may have been like more than a decade ago. Laid-back beach bars dot the sand, the lilting sound of reggae bounces from sandy speakers, and ice-cold beers or fruity cocktails are served up to cruise passengers and road trippers.

About an hour from the port, travelers will find the whispered-about Bacalar. This Pueblo Magico, or magic town -- a designation made by the Mexican government to places of character and historical significance -- is perched on one of Mexico's most beautiful natural sites: Laguna de Bacalar, a long lake with waters as turquoise and mesmerizing as those of the Caribbean Sea itself.

Bacalar is teeming with nature, history and culture, from the Cenote Azul, one of the deepest cenotes in the Riviera Maya, to the town's enigmatic pirate history. Today, it's also a haven for boutique ecoresorts that pepper the lake's shoreline. The New York Times called Bacalar the "next" Tulum in 2019, so the destination is bound to change. If tranquility and escapism is what your clients are searching for, tell them that a visit on a cruise to Costa Maya should be on their short list.

Like its Quintana Roo counterparts farther north, Costa Maya offers a wealth of archaeological ruins. While crowds from Cancun are flocking to Chichen Itza, cruisers to Costa Maya can schedule excursions to lesser-known Mayan sites like Chacchoben, the most popular tour for Costa Maya cruise passengers, but also Kohunlich, Dzibanche, Kinichna and Oxtankah.

Dzibanche is one of the largest archaeological sites in southern Quintana Roo, dating back to 200 B.C. and boasting several impressive temples. Kohunlich is shrouded in jungle and known for its striking Temple of the Masks.

No matter your clients' reasons for wanting to visit Mexico -- whether it's powder-soft beaches, ancient history, gastronomy, diving or adventure -- Costa Maya provides it, and usually with a fraction of the crowds. In the age of Covid, that is more of a selling point than ever.

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