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Costa Maya Overview
If you build it, they will come. Costa Maya, located on a peninsula along Mexico's Caribbean coast, about 100 miles south of Playa del Carmen, feels like a private island created from scratch expressly for cruisers. That's because it was; developers created the port terminal/faux village complex not far from the Belize border solely to woo cruise lines, and everything -- from the manmade malecon, a beachfront pedestrian path in nearby Mahahual, to the beach club used for shore excursions -- has been created with passengers in mind.
The port itself, which opened for business in February 2001 and was rebuilt after Hurricane Dean in 2007, features myriad facilities in its village -- pools, restaurants, brand-name bars such as Carlos 'n Charlie's, shops, a dolphin experience and a small beach (though it's too rocky to swim). The port developers also own a club and water sports area on Uvero Beach, which is actually away from the terminal and is typically used by cruise lines as a shore-excursion option. Besides the amenities that tourists see, developers took care of the essentials outside the village -- brick-paved roads, concrete cottages for employees, who all come from elsewhere, and a water-sanitation system. (Yes, it is safe to drink water within the Costa Maya confines.)
Beyond that, the folks who created Costa Maya also invested in and remade Mahahual (also known as Majahual), a one-time fishing village of 200 people that's about a 30-minute walk or $5 cab ride away. An attractive malecon anchors a row of seaside hotels, restaurants, dive shops and beach clubs that serve fresh ceviche and offer water activities along lovely white sand beaches with shallow surf (perfect for families). Although development is restricted to low-rise buildings, Mahahual's growth has attracted a small group of entrepreneurs, including a sizable Italian community, interested in making the town the "next Tulum."
For travelers who just want to get into the "don't worry, be happy" mindset, the lure of the area's beach clubs can pretty much consume the day. Those who want to venture further have intriguing options, too. The region is home to some lesser-known (but still important) Mayan ruins. The site most cruise passengers come here to see is Chacchoben, a city dating to around 350 A.D.; some excursions focus solely on Mayan food and culture. Bacalar lagoon offers kayaking and swimming in the Cenote Azul, and there's also a Spanish fortress you can tour. While Costa Maya might look sleepy at a glance, there's something for everyone in this corner of the Caribbean -- and it only keeps growing.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Samana and Cayo Levantado • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
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.
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.
Spanish is the official language, though English is widely spoken, as most places in the area cater to tourists.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chacchoben: 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.
Mahahual: 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.
Been There, Done That
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.
Bacalar: 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.
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.
Staying in Touch
The port terminal offers free Wi-Fi throughout. Most beach clubs also provide Wi-Fi to their guests as part of their package.
Best for Active Travelers: Explore Costa Maya's coastline on a bike and clear-water kayak adventure. Cyclists ride along a dirt road and through the fishing village of Mahahual for views of the water before arriving at the beach and boarding two-person kayaks with bottoms that you can see through.
Best for Local Culture: "Mayan Experience" tours allow you to combine a visit to the Chacchoben ruins with lunch in a small nearby village that usually includes pibil chicken (chicken marinated in Yucatan spices such as citrus and achiote then slow-roasted in banana leaves), handmade tortillas, guacamole and more. Your guide will tell you about Mayan customs and explain about how the culture stays intact today.
Best for Beach Bums: Spend the day at one of the many beach clubs available in port. Cruise line beach break packages at Uvero Beach include entrance to the beach, open bar, use of hammocks, non-motorized water sports (based on availability) and round-trip transportation. There are bars and a fast food restaurant (plan for an a la carte experience there).
Best for Off-Roaders: Surrounded by undeveloped land and beachfront, Costa Maya has plenty of bumpy roads and trails that offer the chance to see wildlife (such as foxes, hawks and birds). Both ATV and Jeep tours are available, although the latter may be manual transmission only. Tours usually include some beach time and a Mexican buffet.
For More Information
On the Web: Costa Maya Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Costa Maya
IndependentTraveler.com: Mexico Travel Guide
--Updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor