One of the obviously great things about cruising is that you can (briefly) experience a number of cities all in one vacation. The first stop on my first cruise was the little port of Costa Maya, part of the tiny fishing village of Mahahual (also spelled Majahual) at the southern tip of Quintana Roo state, Mexico. We got up early that morning for breakfast on the upper decks and watched as we approached the shore and the Mexican Navy cleared the ship. As soon as we could, we disembarked in a fast-moving line and stepped out onto the long pier to port. Just like that, we were in Mexico!
The Port of Costa Maya
Costa Maya is a little port. Its main centerpiece is a large pool with a swim-up bar and adjacent mock beach with lounge chairs and trees. All around the perimeter are shops selling every touristy trinket you can imagine. Entering one of these stores means an employee will eagerly follow you around telling about the “best prices” he has to offer. Go back outside and you’ll find stores with more practical items as well as deeply discounted gold and gemstone shops. Drugstores sell all kinds of medicines – Viagra, allergy meds, statins, you name it – found only through prescription in the U.S., here for anyone to buy and at massive discounts. The port has been rebuilt after the village was decimated by Hurricane Dean in 2007, but other signs of devastation remain and can be seen everywhere outside of the confines of the port.
The beach at Costa Maya looked rocky with darker sand and random palapas here and there, as well as remains of those in place prior to the hurricane. Little pools are in place as highly inadequate housing for the poor captive dolphins available for swimming excursions.
The Mexican government is very keen on keeping the area secure from drug violence and cartels that reign elsewhere and have deeply affected tourism for many other parts of the country. It is common for vehicles to be stopped at checkpoints entering and exiting the region by the Mexican military and searches conducted. We saw one such search ourselves as we returned to port following our excursion, and troops holding enormous machine guns guarded the exterior of the port. I actually felt safer seeing this. With that said, this doesn’t seem to be a particularly high-crime area of Quintana Roo, but use your common sense as you would with any tourist destination.
The Road to Chacchoben
A big draw of this area for cruise ship visitors and tourists is the proximity to multiple Mayan ruins, and the Costa Maya port even features a giant replica pyramid fountain. After much hemming and hawing I decided on Chacchoben as the ruins we’d visit and we booked a tour with The Native Choice tour company. I am so glad we did. We walked past the main area of the port to a tour bus area and rode comfortably into Mahahual to the Native Choice offices, where we paid cash for the tour and piled into a van with several other Norwegian Spirit cruisers. The ride out to Chacchoben was roughly an hour long. We were given bottled water and our tour guide, a really nice older gentleman (whose name completely escapes me!) who’s native to this area, routinely turned around in the passenger seat to point things out and give us information. The area we drove through was very rural, though it’s hard for me to tell if that’s its general nature or simply that what’s there was demolished by the hurricane. We saw many remains of buildings off the road and very little other vehicle traffic. The only semblance of a traffic jam was a necessary stop to allow a cowboy to finish herding his longhorn cattle across the road. “Look everyone, a real Mexican cowboy!” said our good-humored guide, twisting around in his seat with eyebrows raised.
We passed a fruit stand where the van stopped and our guide purchased two bags of fresh pineapple for the group; one bag plain and one sprinkled with chili powder. I ate the chili variety and was in heaven with the juicy, melt-in-your-mouth fruit and slight spike of heat. Nearby, young schoolgirls in uniform skipped down a dirt road, books in hand.
On Sacred Ground
Finally we came to the entrance to the ruins, not far from Chetumal, the state capital. There was a small souvenir and snack shop at the entrance to the jungle trail. After taking a bathroom and refreshment break, we started onto the dirt path to the temples. It was very hot but there were many trees to provide shade. I was thankful for my sneakers, capri workout pants and wide-brimmed floppy hat. In no time at all, we reached the first of the restored Mayan temples, which we’d already seen towering above the trees. It was magnificent to see up close. It was adjacent to another ruin that hadn’t been unearthed yet, but you could see the bricks spilling out of it.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable. He gave us all kinds of history, lore, trivia, you name it. He was obviously well-versed in the history, culture, and flora and fauna of the surrounding jungles. (We did not meet with any jungle animals save a couple of small jumping spiders.) Listening to our guide speak was fascinating. He also had no problem leaving us time to look around each ruin on our own, and offered to take pictures for multiple people. There were many things to see. We couldn’t climb all the way up most of the temples, but some had a mid-way point marked by a white string at which we could stop and pose for the photos. Following our lengthy tour, we hiked back to the entry point where we were given time for a rest stop and any purchases, and then it was back in the van and off down the road for lunch and a refreshing swim!
The Lake of the Seven Colors (Bacalar Lagoon)
What a peaceful, quiet place for our tour to end. After a rickety and bouncy ride through windy dirt roads in the jungle, we arrived at a small, clean, new resort overlooking many sparkling shades of blue. This was the Lake of the Seven Colors, aptly named for its shimmering hues. Here we entered a restaurant where we found our lunch was ready for us. We also had our choice of two drinks as part of the tour. I ordered a margarita and a pina colada and both were delicious, yet weakly made. As I was looking to stay hydrated in the heat, I didn’t mind. The food was warming and incredible – warm tortillas, a pyramid of rice, refried beans with tortilla chips, sliced, cooked carrots, and a pile of shredded chicken. We ate our meal overlooking the water and feeling the breeze through the open window. We were joined by another couple about our age from Chicago, Sarah and Josh, whom we’d continue to run into and hang out with throughout the cruise.
Following our meal, we headed out to a cabana overlooking the water. Sarah and Josh chose to kayak while Eric and I dropped right into the lagoon, which had the temperature of bath water. The colors of the sky and sea matched as we floated around. We examined the lagoon’s rocky bottom for any sign of life, but only saw a few mucky plants waving among the limestone. After a while, we lay back on the chaise lounges of the cabana to dry off and relax. Our guide helped people into their kayaks, spoke with some children, and kept track of time for us. He wasn’t just a tour guide, he was a sweetheart!
The Village of Mahahual
After leaving Bacalar, our guide found we still had time available for a quick trip through Mahahual. Our driver took us all around the village where we saw much evidence of the hurricane’s devastation. The remains of buildings stood in huge empty wide fields with trash scattered about. Little shops were open here and there, with people busily working and greeting one another. We also passed the local school. The ocean gleamed in the distance. I saw a donkey ambling around. Eric was able to see inside one shop where a cat sat upright, both front paws on the counter, right next to the shopkeeper who held the same pose! (Which one is really running the store?)
I could not have been happier with our first day in Mexico. I highly recommend The Native Choice tours. Everyone we met was sweet, patient and accommodating. Our guide was excellent at keeping our group on track and on time. Our tour was called Chacchoben Extreme Tour, which includes the visit to the lagoon. There are also many other tours of this area available. I’d love to come back and take another!
Here are a few of the many pictures from this portion of our trip.
If you go: Bring a beach towel, change of clothes, good walking shoes, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, water shoes (such as Speedo) or Tevas for the rocky lagoon bottom, any extra water, camera (keeping in mind that the lagoon is rather foggy for underwater pictures), and cash (USD is fine) – for souvenirs as well as tips for your hard-working tour guide and driver!