The Next Cancun?

The Yucatan Peninsula's La Costa Maya could be the Next Big Thing in Mexican tourism


April 20, 2003|By Patricia Rodriguez

Juan isn't in charge at the Hotel Mahahual, in Mexico, but he might as well be. Of several employees sitting in the office on a slow Sunday afternoon, he is the one most interested in dealing with my inept Spanish and in practicing his equally shaky English. Any time our clumsy conversation wanders into an area he thinks might interest other visitors, he asks for the English translation.

"Hot water," he repeats carefully.

"Where would you like to call?" he asks, hovering over the hotel's phone, the only place in town to make international calls.

"We have electricity, 24 hours a day!" he all but shouts, pumping his arm enthusiastically when he gets it right.

Actually, Mahahual (pronounced Ma-WHO-all) doesn't yet have reliable electricity, nor the flood of tourists Juan seems to be expecting any day. But he wants to be ready for both.

Who can blame him? This stretch of Caribbean beachfront, about 200 miles south of Cancun and its 3 million annual visitors, is supposed to be the Next Big Thing in Mexican tourism.

And if memory serves, that's what they used to say about Cancun.

This part of the Yucatan was once considered the end of the road, the kind of place you went to disappear for a while. But as Cancun's buildup stretched ever farther south, it was perhaps inevitable that developers would eye this area.

Not content merely to come up with new tourist destinations, the Mexican government also likes to give them catchy names. For this stretch of coast and jungle, reaching from north of Mahahual to Xcalak (ISH-ca-lak) -- 50 miles to the south of Mahahual and just north of the border with Belize -- it has come up with La Costa Maya. The Mayan Coast. It's both a marketing catchphrase and a homage to the indigenous people who settled here more than 1,000 years ago and whose descendants live here still.

The idea is not to turn Costa Maya into another Cancun. Not even another Playa del Carmen, the fishing village south of Cancun made over into a stylish, European-vibed resort town and dubbed the hub of the Mayan Riviera, another catchily named Mexican resort area.

Instead, for Costa Maya, the plan is to capitalize on what this remote area already has: sandy, palm-studded beaches; quaint fishing villages; abundant wildlife; several sets of barely visited inland Mayan ruins; and, just an hour's boat ride offshore, Chinchorro Bank, the second-largest barrier reef in the world.

A town in slow gear

But at first acquaintance, Mahahual still doesn't seem like the next big anything.

When we drive into town in a rented Jeep, it takes us barely five minutes to case the place. There's a hotel, a half-dozen restaurants, a few small groceries, a couple of souvenir shops and, a bit farther down the rutted dirt road, some thatched-roof beachfront cabanas that cater to tourists who don't need air conditioning or CNN. There's a long beach, but it's not the pure, white stretch of sand that tourist brochures are made of; in many spots, it's choked with washed-up sea grass and littered with plastic bottles, discarded potato-chip bags and stray sandals.

Still, it's a pleasant town.

Mexican families picnic on the beach. A couple of small dive boats go out. A few vendors preside over tables of beaded necklaces and ceramic ashtrays. Small groups congregate at a tapas bar and an open-air beach restaurant, ordering big platters of conch ceviche and whole fried fish. Village dogs walk around as if they own the place.

There are a few other U.S. and European tourists, but they all have the slightly absent-minded look of long-term visitors, making their way around town in slow motion with their backpacks and their paperback novels, as if they've put themselves on beach time and have nowhere in particular to be.

We check into the hotel and order lunch at its attached restaurant, joining a crowd of locals watching some kind of pre-teen Mexican Idol on one of the town's few TV screens, and we can feel ourselves slipping into that time warp, too.

Frankly, you don't have much of a choice. By the time you get here, making the four- to six-hour drive on a road that starts out smoothly in Cancun but turns into a dusty, rutted, slow-going mess for the last hour or two, you want little more than to relax. Which is good, because Mahahual doesn't offer much in the way of entertainment. You can swim or dive. You can fish. You can read. You can eat, or drink a few beers. Really, that's about it.

But the locals are friendly and not yet so sick of tourists that they see us merely as walking wallets. What the town lacks in polish, it makes up for in hospitality.

"Fish or chicken?" the cook asks us in Spanish.

It's barely 7 p.m., but the streets of Mahahual are all but rolled up. This little loncheria, an open-air, dirt-floor diner, is one of only two places still open. We settle for a plate of each and a couple of Cokes, and the cook disappears into the back.

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