by Lydia Linton Pontius (March 2015)
With so many popular places for people to visit in the Riviera Maya and the close proximity to Cancun Airport, most people never travel south of Tulum. But for those who are looking for a more laid-back location—or as many say—the way the Riviera Maya used to be, we recommend adding a few hours to your travel time, head south and discover the Costa Maya.
Oftentimes when we do the Costa Maya, we will spend our first night in Tulum to break up the drive. It is about a four-hour drive from Cancun so if you have an early flight, it is fine to do in one day. The Costa Maya is where the capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal, is located and encompasses the coast all the way to the Belize border. It is also where one of the few lakes, Laguna Bacalar, is. Laguna Bacalar is best known for its seven colors of blue.
As you head south of Tulum we recommend you stop for supplies and lunch in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. A great restaurant that offers up traditional Maya cuisine is El Faisán y El Venado. We chose the Maya Platter which was more than enough food for four and gave us a wonderful sampling. Felipe Carrillo Puerto is due west of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere and has a very interesting history, being founded in 1850 by the Maya after the famous Caste War of the Yucatan.
Heading south you either continue on 307 to Bacalar and Chetumal, or turn left at Limones and head to the Caribbean Sea to Mahahual and Xcalak. The Costa Maya is a little more than 60 miles long, starting at the southern tip of Sian Ka'an and going to the tip that ends at the opening to Chetumal Bay, a stone's throw to Ambergris Caye. To reach Xcalak you want to turn right before the Pemex station off the road to Mahahual. Xcalak was once a thriving city. The history, of course, dates back to early Maya but Xcalak in the 1950s was a thriving fishing community with stone and wood homes, electricity, billiard hall, movie theater and more. It was the most important supply destination in the region until Hurricane Janet decimated it in 1955, killing one-third of its inhabitants.
In the 1980s Xcalak was rediscovered as a dive destination. Banco Chinchorro, an atoll reef, is considered a pristine dive spot and easy to reach from the Costa Maya. We first visited Xcalak in the late '90s and returned twice 10 years later; not much had changed. That is, we feel, what makes it so worth visiting. It is a place where time stands still and the roads still are not paved. Everyone knows one another and businesses don't so much compete as network with one another. It is also a perfect spot to take some nature tours if diving isn't your cup of tea.
If you didn't turn right and continued on the road from Limones, you would end up in Mahahual. We also visited Mahahual in the late '90s on our trip to Xcalak. We stopped and had lunch at a fisherman's home/restaurant on the beach. Returning 10 years later, it was certainly NOT the same. During that time a cruise ship terminal was built and Mahahual came alive. With a popular waterfront malecon full of shops, restaurants and boutique hotels, it is a great spot to visit whether arriving by land or sea. Despite the growth Mahahual has maintained its small-town charm and warmth.
More must-sees while visiting the Costa Maya are the freshwater cenote and Laguna Bacalar. Bacalar is the next town you would hit if you stayed on 307 heading south. There are a few wonderful hotels there as well as camping. One of our favorites, Hotel Laguna Bacalar is situated on the banks of the lake and has a crazy feel of the 1950s' Catskills. It was a favorite spot for some of the rich and famous of that era; they would fly in and land on the lake in front of the hotel. Just beyond the hotel is Cenote Azul.
The city of Bacalar has a wonderful small fort worth a visit. Built in the 1700s, it was used right up until the Caste War. There are also a number of Maya ruins in the area, Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kohunlich, Becán and Chicanná.
The last stop would be the capital of Quintana Roo, Chetumal. It is a thriving city and the gateway to Belize. It also is where you could head west to visit the state of Campeche and one of our favorite spots, Calakmul. We also understand that Chetumal is great for shopping and a good museum. It is still on our bucket list of places to visit.
To see more visit our video section and watch videos such as the sunrises of the Costa Maya.