Dzibanche, a Maya archeological site in the Grand Costa Maya // © 2011 killercorn
Looking for that Yucatan experience that those of us old enough to remember had some 20 or 30 years ago? To me, it seems like just yesterday Cancun was home to just a few hotels, spread thin enough that it took half an hour to walk from one to the next. Today, not only has Cancun grown into a resort metropolis, but to the south, the Riviera Maya has also evolved into a thriving tourism area.
There is, however, another part of this region where most hotels have just a few rooms and nary a Starbucks or Denny's in sight. In fact, there are no U.S. chains there at all. This emerging destination, filled with natural beauty and charms is none other than Grand Costa Maya, located at the southernmost tip of Quintana Roo, the youngest state in the Mexican Republic. Quintana Roo only became a Mexican territory in 1901 and was named a state in the 1970s.
The southern Yucatan peninsula, a large section of which is in Quintana Roo, is a dense jungle region shrouded in rich history and culture, unknown and discovered to all but a few. Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and the Riviera Maya are all within the more northern part of Quintana Roo. The Grand Costa Maya has the highest concentration of Maya archeological sites and the largest existing Maya population in Mexico.
Grand Costa Maya begins where the Riviera Maya ends, at the town of Carrillo Puerto, and extends to the borders of Belize, Guatemala and the Mexican state of Campeche. Its center is the state capitol of Chetumal, a vibrant city famed for its Museum of the Maya Culture and well-equipped for tourism with an international airport offering daily flights to Mexico City. It also has a wide selection of hotels and restaurants as well as cultural offerings. By car, Chetumal is four hours from Cancun. The entire Grand Costa Maya has some 2,400 guestrooms available, almost all of which are in small boutique hotels, eco-inns or bungalow properties.
This region, relatively undiscovered by tourists, is home to five Maya archeological zones -- Oxtankah, Kohunlich, Dzibanche, Kinichna and Chacchoben -- which are open to the public, some only since the last decade.
The Grand Costa Maya is also home to several ecotourism parks, Caribbean beaches, tropical jungles, and the charming fishing villages of Mahahual and Xcalak that have existed as Maya trading posts since prehispanic times. These towns were barely on the map 20 years ago but have grown because of the ongoing construction of nearby Costa Maya.
An ancient maritime trading post of the Maya empire, Mahahual is now a cruise ship port replete with restaurants, bars, saltwater pools, a beach club, artisan and luxury shopping areas, and the resources to explore the surrounding jungle and coral reefs.
Costa Maya recently celebrated the opening of Dolphin Discovery, a swim-with-dolphins park, and a branch of the popular Senor Frogís Restaurant and Bar.
Perhaps the most unforgettable site in Costa Maya is the small town of Bacalar, named as one of Mexico's Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns) by the Secretary of Tourism. Bacalar is famed for its spectacular Laguna de Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors) and the historic Fort of San Felipe, dating from 1733, along with its Museum of Piracy. The lagoon, which is named for the many shades of blue in its crystalline waters, offers an array of watersports, including swimming, kayaking, water-skiing and pontoon boating.
Also close to Chetumal is the Banco Chinchorro, an atoll reef with three islands. Banco Chinchorro is beloved by divers worldwide thanks its clear waters and at least nine shipwrecks, including two Spanish galleons. It is the largest atoll in the northern hemisphere and is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Banco Chinchorro has been declared an Archaeological Marine sanctuary by the Mexican government.