by Mike Pontius (January 2012)
It had been 10 long years (actually they go quicker than you realize) since I'd first set foot in Xcalak, at the southern end of the Costa Maya. On that occasion my wife, Lydia, and I had journeyed south with friends who worked in Akumal and who needed to take a weekend getaway. I remember the drive down, especially the road that parallels the coast between Mahahual and Xcalak. I was driving, still in East Coast U.S. commuter mindset. Suffice it to say that I imperiled the lives of too many creatures basking lazily on sun-warmed asphalt.
But this was 10 years later and I was 10 years older ... hopefully more mellow and certainly not as stressed as I was back then. We'd also had a night to relax at La Selva Mariposa so I was determined not to white-knuckle it south.
With us were son Matt and his girlfriend (now fiancée), Lisa. It was Matt's first trip beyond the Riviera Maya and Lisa's first trip south of Cancún. We'd had a great first night and were anxious to start our adventure.
Lydia and I warned the kids that Xcalak was remote. Dining experiences would be few and far between (Lisa is a chef) and nightlife non-existent. They were ready to relax, as were we, so off we headed.
The Road Less Traveled
From the Cobá road we took a right through downtown Tulúm (the kids loved what they saw) and followed the signs for Felipe Carrillo Puerto. On the way Lydia gave us a little history lesson on the Maya and their long fight against the Mexican government. The kids didn't realize that the Maya weren't totally subdued until the middle of the 20th Century. In fact, what is now Felipe Carrillo Puerto was then the Maya capital. So much of the fighting and political posturing happened there. One story has it that the Maya will again rebel and retake the town.
There's not much traffic headed south from Tulúm, so we made good time. We decided to stop in Felipe Carrillo Puerto for lunch, at a place recommended by Bob and Caroline, owners of the place we were headed to in Xcalak. Well, after telling Matt and Lisa that there wouldn't be much in terms of restaurants until we got to Mahahual, we were ecstatic with our luncheon destination.
Faison y Venado was on a main intersection in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Very Spanish Colonial in appearance, this place is a must if you find yourself heading south to the Costa Maya. We had the pork sampler for four and it was fantastic. I'm not a food writer, so I won't attempt to describe the tastes, but it was a variety of pork preparations, plenty of food and well worth ordering again. At least that was the consensus at our table.Casa Carolina
Back on 307, we continued south toward Chetumal. Just after passing through the little village of Limones, where the women and children stand at the topes to sell you fresh fruit as you slow down, we turned left toward the coast. This road takes you all the way to Mahahual, unless you turn south again a few miles from the Caribbean. This little road is the only route to Xcalak.
This isolated strip of highway, about 30 miles as I recall, is a straight and narrow path through the mangrove-studded wetlands north of Chetumal Bay. Ten years before, the roadsides had been heavily wooded and the road full of iguanas and some type of fat, flightless birds. Today it's totally different. The mangroves that are left from the passing of Hurricane Dean in 2007 are few and just beginning to grow again. We saw no animals of any kind in or along the road. If we saw more than a handful of cars I'd be surprised. It was a little eerie ...
Xcalak, Costa Maya
There aren't many places one can go, or at least places we Americans typically go, that don't change over the course of a decade. Xcalak is definitely not one of them. While I'm sure that homes and buildings had been demolished and rebuilt over those 10 years, to my eye it hadn't changed at all. Xcalak is still a tiny, Maya fishing village at the end of the peninsula that marks the entrance to Chetumal Bay, which separates Mexico and Belize.
The roads are still rutted sand, mostly so deeply rutted that 5–10 mph in a small, rental car is about the best you can do. Fishing boats are pulled up on the beaches in the sparse shade of coconut palms. A few private homes and very small hotels and dive camps dot the shoreline. Xcalak is a diver's paradise, far removed from the tourist strips and very close to the Mesoamerican Reef. Though we are snorkelers and not divers, we know enough scuba people who swear by the Xcalak experience.
Our first trip to Xcalak brought us to Casa Carolina, a 4-suite structure hard on the shallow, Caribbean coast. At the time, it had been up and running for only a few months. Ten years later not much has changed. Owners Bob and Caroline have added a palapa for breakfast and cocktails. Breakfast, by the way, is included with the price of the room. The main structure has aged well and Caroline has kept up with interior wear and tear. Of course, not much will change the views from the upstairs balconies or downstairs patios. Sunrise at Casa Carolina is worth the price of admission!Chetumal Bay, Belize and Bird Island
A big part of what you get when you stay with Bob and Caroline is Bob and Caroline. Great people, though coming from Philadelphia they are a tad too attached to the hated Philadelphia Eagles. Being New York Giants fans, Lydia and I had to suffer through a Monday night telecast that Bob had arranged for us to watch at Toby's restaurant in the village of Xcalak. Fortunately, the Eagles lost that game so Bob and son, who was down for a visit, were unusually subdued the next morning at breakfast.
[An aside to Bob: As I'm writing this, the Giants are preparing to meet the 49ers in the NFC Conference Championship game. Go Giants!]
Apart from their questionable taste in football teams, Bob and Caroline make your stay at Casa Carolina. I hadn't seen them in 10 years, but we were able to catch up immediately. Not only do they do a great job of keeping the hotel looking fresh, they also bend over backwards to add value to your stay. Whether arranging dive and snorkeling trips—Bob might also guide you himself—or just being there to answer questions, Casa Carolina wouldn't be the same without them. Bob's laugh alone will start your day with a smile.
Caroline arranged for us to take a snorkeling trip on our second day in Xcalak. It would be pretty much a full day on the water, starting at the Casa Carolina dock. First our guide took us through the maze of mangrove islands that marks the boundary between Mexico and Belize on our way into Chetumal Bay. As we meandered between islands, we passed from one country to the next and back again. At one point we were stopped by a friendly park ranger in Belize, and on the way back we watched the Mexican Navy making some kind of maneuver in the main channel.
The highlight of the ride down was spotting a manatee in one of the backwater channels. Though the water back in the mangroves isn't crystal clear, we could easily see the big, slow-moving shadow. We also saw a couple of very large stingrays.
After an hour of so of looping through the narrow, overgrown waterways, we finally emerged onto Chetumal Bay. Familiar with this body of water on a map, I was not prepared for its actual size in relation to our small boat. You cannot see across the bay, and even as we approached its middle, we couldn't make out the city of Chetumal. It was a bit bumpy out in the open water, but soon enough we nosed up to Bird Island.
Since none of us had any idea of what to expect, we all got a big bonus. Birds everywhere. This is a rookery, as well as a wintering spot for several species of waterfowl. Here we ate lunch under the overhanging mangroves and talked about nothing in particular.
On the way back to Casa Carolina we stopped at two different places to snorkel. The reef is in good shape and quite near shore. Parrotfish and other reef dwellers abound.
Back at the hotel we got ready for evening cocktails, then the drive into town for dinner and Monday Night Football at Toby's. It was a great, albeit short stay. And, as we left, we resolved not to wait another 10 years before visiting Xcalak and Bob and Caroline at Casa Carolina.
Next up – Mahahual.