The terminal, a faux village created solely for cruise passengers, is just steps from the dock. The pier-side complex features a number of free-to-use pools, one of which is huge with a swim-up bar; restaurants, bars and shops including the usual suspects like Diamonds International; and a small beach lined with chairs and hammocks for relaxing.
For first-timers to Costa Maya, a trip to the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben, in a jungle setting roughly an hour or so by van or motorcoach from the port, is an interesting and worthwhile outing. Chacchoben (the Mayan word for "red corn") dates to around 350 A.D., but was largely unexplored until 1999. Visitors can ascend the steep stairs of "El Gran Basamento," the only structure available for climbing. What's also special is that the site has not been fully excavated; our guide explained that wherever you see a hill in this otherwise flat area of Mexico you can bet there are ruins beneath. The site houses a gift shop selling a genuinely distinctive collection of crafts.
Take the five-minute cab drive to Mahahual, a quirky and eccentric fishing village with lots of character and an abundance of beach clubs. The main "boulevard," a street of sand that runs between a pretty white beach and concrete shacks on the other side, serves as a pedestrian throughway. Though the shopping is generally standard (there are an abundance of vendors peddling cheap trinkets, although some craftspeople do come from the surrounding area on cruise ship days), the beach is clean -- and the water, protected by a reef, is very calm and shallow, making it a perfect place for families. You can also get beach massages (about $30 for 30 minutes, or $40 for an hour), rent Jet Skis and kayaks, and try stand-up paddle boarding or flyboarding.Xcalet:
This small, off-the-beaten-path village within the Xcalak National Reef Park is about an hour away from the port. Visitors can dive or snorkel among shipwrecks (there have been hundreds over the centuries) in Chinchorro Banks, Mexico's largest coral atoll.
About 90 minutes from the port, Bacalar is home to a Spanish fortress (Fuerte San Felipe Bacalar) built to dissuade attacks from indigenous people as well as pirates. For a small admission fee, you can tour the fort and visit its museum. Bacalar is also the site of the much-praised "Lake of Seven Colors," so-named because of the varying shades of blue that shift during the day, depending on the sun. Don't miss the Cenote Azul, a deep (300-foot) spring fed by the region's underground waters. The clearness of the water makes it a popular choice for scuba and cave divers.
The five-minute taxi ride into Mahahual is about $5 per person round-trip. Local buses to Mahahual pick up behind the shopping area; tickets for the $3 fare must be purchased in advance and are sold at a booth located in the same area. If you'd like to drive on your own without relying on the local buses, golf carts and Jeeps are also available for rent for around $75 per day.
Best for Relaxing: It's a little bit of a drive from the port -- about 20 minutes -- but the beach outside Almaplena Eco Beach Resort is not only far from Mahahual's madding crowd, it lacks the sea grass that is prevalent on the main strip. This resort offers all-inclusive day-pass pricing for cruisers.
Best for Active Types: Owned by the port, the Jungle Beach Club on Uvero Beach is the center of cruise line shore excursions, so if you've booked an activity or beach day through the ship, chances are you'll end up here. The enclosure that once housed the dolphin show has now become an artificial reef, so even if you aren't on an official snorkeling excursion, you can rent a mask and see the fish that flock here.
Best for Kids: A natural reef protects the beach in Mahahual, making it shallow and kid-friendly, although the water can be murky. Of the many all-inclusive beach clubs, Maya Chan receives props for organizing kid-friendly activities, such as scavenger hunts, kayaking and snorkeling tours. Transportation is provided with the price, which varies depending on age level.
A variety of Mexican chains, such as Carlos 'n Charlies and Senor Frog's, are located within the port village. Within Mahahual, it's easy to find menus with the standard Mexican favorites, such as guacamole, chips and pico de gallo and tacos. A growing Italian population has raised the bar somewhat, however, and many of the hotels that serve food are run by Europeans, offering more sophisticated choices.
By the Port: The chain-restaurant-style Mexican food at Mamacita's, the pier-side beachfront restaurant, plays second fiddle to the fun atmosphere and live entertainment. (Who would have thought men in sombreros would rock out to a Rolling Stones cover song?)
In Mahahual: The shrimp tacos and seafood at Nohoch Kay, located at the far end of the Malecon, are considered the best in town. American Steve Uhl, owner of Tropicante has built a following among cruisers for the complimentary loungers he reserves ahead of time for his Tex-Mex restaurant's guests -- no minimum required. Expect the standard tacos, enchiladas and burritos. For a varied menu, including breakfast for early port calls, try Pez Quadro, the restaurant and lounge on the Malecon affiliated with 40 Canones, a hotel owned by an expat Italian. Locals and crewmembers also love Luna de Plata, which is a little removed from the strip, with a quieter beach and a full menu of Italian and seafood dishes.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock right at Costa Maya's purpose-built facilities. While the pier is long, a free shuttle bus ferries passengers back and forth.
Watch Out For
Because of the area's small size, Costa Maya and Mahahual have very little crime. The only real hassle are the vendors who walk on the beach (some beach clubs forbid them, but enforcement is lax), but a simple "no gracias" sends them along.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Mexican peso; check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for current exchange rates. However, many vendors will gladly accept U.S. currency. There's an ATM in the cruise port area and also in Mahahual, but you might want to have cash on hand before this stop, as few vendors take credit cards.
Spanish is the official language, though English is widely spoken, as most places in the area cater to tourists.
While the stores at the port sell the usual trinkets (as do the vendors on the beach, albeit at lower prices), keep your eyes out for colorful Mayan embroidery and textiles, including handkerchiefs, table runners, placemats and dresses.
Try any fruity concoction sold in a yard-long plastic tumbler called, appropriately, "la yarda." If three feet of banana daiquiri or strawberry margarita doesn't float your boat, quench your thirst with a few bottles of Bohemia or Sol, the requisite beers.