Why You Should Visit Costa Maya Now
Over the last four decades tourists have been flocking to Cancun, fueling the area’s tourism industry into what has become a mecca of bloated hotel chains and Americanized cuisine. It’s left the region as a kind of soulless concrete jungle, with an indifferent attitude to the consequences of excessive tourism on local culture and the environment.
Now, Mexico-bound travelers who are looking to get off the well-beaten gringo path only need to head a few hours south to Costa Maya, a less developed area that is slowly blossoming into the Yucatan’s new vacation hot spot. It makes sense – besides its postcard Caribbean beaches, the shimmering turquoise waters of Laguna Bacalar, and a sprawling marshland system where bird enthusiasts will feel right at home, there’s also an extensive amount of culture and laid-back vibes that are sorely missing from Cancun.
The little fishing villages Mahahual and Xcalak, with their beautiful sandy beaches and down-to-earth mentality, not to mention equally if not better dive sites, are reminiscent of what Cozumel was like decades ago before the tourism boom. However, with a relatively new cruise ship pier (built in 2001 and re-built in 2007 after Hurricane Dean) and adjacent shopping village, Costa Maya’s pristine days are likely numbered.
Now is the time to go.
Here are some of the best experiences for travelers in Costa Maya, as well as some important information for making the most of your visit.
Kayaking and Bird-watching at Laguna Bacalar
Over 40 km long, Laguna Bacalar is renowned for its striking blue color and water clarity, partly due to its white limestone bottom. Like most bodies of water in the Yucatan peninsula, underground rivers and cenotes feed the lake.
This lake is especially interesting for bird watching enthusiasts as many different species live in the area. During my visit, I spotted egrets sitting silently in the mangroves, but the lake is also home to hawks, snakes, herons, and shy crocodiles.
If you keep your eyes peeled, there is plenty of wildlife to be seen.
Important info: I visited Laguna Bacalar with Mahahual Ecotours, an independent tour company that creates bespoke experiences emphasizing Mexico’s abundant nature, rich history and culture, and of course, providing said tours in a sustainable and eco-friendly way. Highly recommend!
Eat some of the best pineapple in the world
The tiny community of Pedro Santos, also known as the pineapple town, is famous for its locally grown fruits and roadside stands. Along the main street, you’ll find countless stalls of friendly vendors selling ripe pineapples, mangoes, limes, and papayas to name a few, as well as freshly squeezed pineapple, coconut, orange, and watermelon juice.
Be a beach bum
Relax and do some beach bumming at one of the fine white sand beaches along Costa Maya. Mahahual has some lovely stretches of playa, crystal clear water, and friendly beachside bars and restaurants. Sure, there are some tacky tourist shops, but for the most part, it’s a breath of fresh air in comparison to the mega-developed areas further north.
Head even further south, and you’ll find sleepy Xcalak, a fishing village with wooden houses, and a picture-perfect unspoiled coastline ideal for spending some quiet time at the beach.
Explore lesser known Mayan ruins
The Dzibanche and Kinichna archaeological sites are considered to be some of the most mysterious and beautiful ruins in the Costa Maya region, and are still leagues behind the popularity of their northern counterparts. Thomas Gann, a British doctor, amateur archeologist, and the first modern-day explorer of Xunantunich in Belize, discovered these ruins in 1927.
Also worth a visit are the quiet ruins of Kohunlich, located in the jungle not far from Bacalar. The site is best known for its Temple of the Masks, an Early Classic pyramid whose central stairway is flanked by huge humanized stucco masks. Other structures in Kohunlich are still covered and overgrown by the thick jungle and vegetation, and many buildings remain to be excavated. While you visit the site, the peculiar screams of Howler monkeys hidden in the tree canopy can be heard.
Chacchoben is the most popular ruin in the Costa Maya region, and you can expect to find the majority of tour buses from the cruise ships heading here. Arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds and possibly spot some wildlife!
Snorkel or dive the reef
Costa Maya is definitely a diving destination with hundreds of kilometers of coastline, reefs, and underwater wildlife.
One of the most popular sites is Banco Chinchorro, the largest coral atoll in the northern hemisphere, stretching some 45km long and up to 14km wide. The atoll and surrounding waters are protected as a biosphere reserve. Divers can visit sunken shipwrecks, explore coral walls and the reef, and come face to face with rays, turtles, eels, and sharks.
But you don't need to necessarily travel far to explore the underwater world. Simply grab your snorkel and mask, wade into the water from one of the region's many beaches, and you'll be sure to find some corals and tropical fish.
Costa Maya is located in the state of Quintana Roo and extends physically from the small village of Xcalak in the south to the southern border of the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve in the north, a distance of approximately 100 km.
Visitors arriving from out of the country should fly into Cancun International Airport, which is about a 4-hour drive from Costa Maya.
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