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Costa Maya Overview
If you build it, they will come. Costa Maya, the newest port in the Western Caribbean, may be located on a peninsula but in effect it feels more like a private island created from scratch expressly for cruisers. Costa Maya is located on the Caribbean Sea approximately 100 miles south of Playa del Carmen and quite close to the border of Belize.
Costa Maya is what you'd expect if, say, Disney World decided to create its own private island in Mexico: a man-made tourism village with bars, restaurants, shops and pools at the ready. The faux village itself was created solely to woo cruise passengers and it has a myriad of facilities -- pools, restaurants, bars, shops and a small beach (though it's too rocky to swim). Since Costa Maya first began accepting cruise passengers in February of 2001, the developers have added a beach house and water sports area, which is actually well away from the main village and is typically used by cruise lines as a shore excursion option.
Beyond that? What's interesting is that in developing an entire destination out of scratch in a place whose only settlement was the nearby village of Mahahual, 200 residents strong, the folks who created Costa Maya had to build everything. They worked with Coca-Cola to install water sanitation systems (and yes, it is safe to drink water within the Costa Maya confines). They built brick-paved roads and concrete cottages for the employees who pretty much all come from elsewhere and needed housing.
For travelers who just want to get into the "don't worry, be happy" mindset, the lure of Costa Maya 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 back to around 350 A.D.
Another place worth visiting beyond Costa Maya's boundaries is the seaside village of Mahahual. Once a simple haunt for fishermen, now there are seaside huts serving fresh ceviche, lovely white sand beaches with shallow surf (perfect for families) and way, way too many entrepreneurs selling the usual souvenirs.
If Costa Maya -- and Mahahual -- feel shiny new these days it's because they are. In August 2007, Hurricane Dean, a five category storm, came ashore here and created much havoc and destruction. In Costa Maya. The port, which was closed for 14 months for rebuilding, required cosmetic facelifts for its restaurants, shops and pools. The Uvero Beach Club, which was totally destroyed, was completely rebuilt.
In Mahahual, residents took advantage of the terrible hurricane to rebuild and improved the village's appearance in the process. New is a gorgeous 1.5 mile beach promenade with restaurants and shops alongside.
Costa Maya welcomed its post-Hurricane Dean cruise ship in October 2008.
Currently, Costa Maya can handle at least three ships, resulting in more than 6,000 visitors per day.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Key West • Mobile • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Tampa
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.
Spanish, though English is widely spoken, as most places in the area cater to tourists.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Mexican peso; one U.S. dollar is equivalent to approximately 10 pesos. However, many vendors will gladly accept U.S. currency.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock right at Costa Maya's purpose-built facilities.
A "faux" village created solely for cruise passengers is just steps from the dock. The pier-side village 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, though it's too rocky for a good swim.
A taxi ride into Mahahual is about $5 per person roundtrip. Local buses to Mahahual are located behind the shopping area; tickets for the $3 fare are must be purchased in advance and are sold at a booth located in the same area. Golf carts and Jeeps are also available for rent for around $12 an hour or $60 per day, respectively.
For first-timers to Costa Maya, a trip to the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben, in a jungle setting roughly an hour or so by motorcoach from the port, is an interesting and worthwhile outing. Chacchoben (the Mayan word for "red corn") dates back 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 kind of 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 also 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. The main "boulevard," a street of sand that runs between a pretty white beach and some concrete shacks on the other side, has now been made a pedestrian throughway. Though the shopping is standard at best (owners are persistent to sell typical cheap trinkets), the beach is clean -- and the water, protected by a reef, is very calm and shallow so it's a perfect place for families. You can also get beach massages ($20 for 45 minutes), and rent Jet Skis and kayaks.
Been There, Done That
Xcalet is a small, off-the-beaten-path village within the Xcalak National Reef Park. Here, visitors can dive or snorkel among shipwrecks (there have been hundreds over past centuries) in Chinchorro Banks, Mexico's largest coral atoll.
By the Port: The chain-restaurant-style Mexican food at Mamacita's, the pier-side beach-front restaurant, plays second fiddle to the fun atmosphere and live entertainment (who would have thought men in sombreros would rock out on a Rolling Stones cover?).
In Mahahaul: The best eatery along the strip is El Faro, which means lighthouse in Spanish; order the conch ceviche and quesadillas with homemade guacamole.
For Active Travelers: Explore Costa Maya's coastline on a bike and 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. The tour is approximately 2 1/2 hours and costs about $48 for adults and children (minimum age: 12).
For Ruins Enthusiasts: If you have already seen Chacchoben or just want to kill two birds with one stone, take a Mayan explorer excursion that combines the archaeological ruins at Kohunlich, near the border of Belize, and Dzibanche, known for beautiful pottery and breathtaking temples. The tour is approximately eight hours and costs about $98 for adults and children.
For Beach Bums: Spend the day at popular Uvero Beach. Cruise line beach break packages, approximately $38 for children and adults, include entrance to the beach, open bar, use of hammocks, non-motorized water sports (based on availability) and roundtrip transportation. There are bars and a fast food restaurant (plan for an a la carte experience there).
For Off-Roaders: Reach the beach in style: A bilingual guide will take you through the jungle in a World War II class S Mercedes Benz Unimog. For more, check out www.costamaya-mexico.com.
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe in the village of Costa Maya.
For More Information
On the Web: www.costamaya-mexico.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Costa Maya
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Exchange
--Updated by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief.