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 2001 and was rebuilt after Hurricane Dean in 2007, features myriad facilities in its village -- pools, restaurants, a spa, shops 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 including 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 45-minute walk or $8 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 appeal of the area's beach clubs, usually with free Wi-Fi and the lure of cheap beach massages, 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.