by Mike Pontius (March 2012)
In the first two installments of this unusual travelogue, I introduced myself as the husband of Sac-Be.com's publisher and I turned 60 last November. The plan was to drive as far south as we could go on México's Caribbean Coast and then work our way back up through the Costa Maya and Riviera Maya. Day 1 has us east of Tulúm for an "acclimation night" at La Selva Mariposa. Days 2 and 3 has us traveling to and staying with our friends Bob and Caroline at their Casa Carolina, on the beach in Xcalak.
Day 4 began lazily with breakfast at Casa Carolina, which is included when you stay there. Bob was a little quieter than normal because the Philadelphia Eagles had lost the previous evening's game, though the laughter started again once the first cup of coffee was consumed. After breakfast we packed the car, gathered son Matt and his girlfriend (now fiancée) Lisa, and took off for Mahahual.Mahahual Today
The drive up the coast (actually you have to use the inland road) took an hour or so, during which time I tried to imagine what I was going to find.
I should explain: I was last in Mahahual 10 years ago. Back then the cruise pier had just been built outside of what was, at the time, a collection of perhaps two or three palapas and what might be called, stretching the term immeasurably, a hotel. There was a restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, where we had lunch. What I remember most was that there was no there, there. Mahahual was a few fishing boats bobbing in the surf, a couple of lonely beach dogs and a man-made structure or two, AND this giant pier to nowhere a mile or so up the sandy beach road.
"Cruise ships," I remember saying on our way out of town. "Why?"
The first thing I noticed after turning toward the beach off the Xcalak road was a Pemex station, some shops and a few small construction projects. That was already quadruple what existed in 2001. Then, as we got closer, Lydia told me to turn left in what appeared to be, and actually was, a little town. It had a grid structure, house after house with some stores intermixed. It was a town, and we hadn't even gotten to the beach yet.
As we wandered farther we came to the "manufactured Mexico" for cruisers. It was a miniature Cancún or Freeport or wherever else in the Caribbean that cruise ships dock. You know, Señor Frogs, Hard Rock Cafe, Diamonds R Us, etc. Big places, wide boulevards and no people. Surprising, as there was a cruise ship docked for the day. Oh, there were a few people wandering around, but not bunches.
At any rate, I was already floored. Here, where there had been scrub jungle, a few mangroves and a huge pier, was now a little town with a bunch of new and underutilized cruise ship amenities. Amazing!
But I'd seen only half the story.
We found our way out of the village/subdivision and continued a few yards toward the beach. Turning right, we headed toward what looked like another town, albeit a very narrow one. This road paralleled the beach and, after a few blocks, we began to pass some buildings. I say narrow because the village is wedged between the beach and the mangroves, and is only a couple of blocks wide. We continued on and found our hotel.
Matan Ka'an, Mahahual
Our first night's stay in Mahahual was at a small hotel just off the beach named Matan Ka'an. Kevin Graham, owner of Costa Maya Living, and whose office is next door to the hotel, made the arrangements. From the outside, the hotel is freshly scrubbed white with mutliple palapa roofs. It's quite appealing and obviously well cared for. Inside is a courtyard with individually named rooms, each uniquely situated and furnished. Off the courtyard is a restaurant and bar.
It was an excellent choice and we were glad Kevin had made the suggestion. Just a block from the Malecón, Matan Ka'an has a great location, close enough to see the beach and the activities, but just enough removed from the noise.
Our rooms were waiting for us, so we unpacked and headed for the Malecón.
I Love Mahahual
At first I hated it. Down on the Malecón (the walkway along the beach that all the shops open onto) the sun was hot, the cruise ship passengers plentiful, and the barkers and hawkers in full throat. It was like Tijuana with a beach. All these shop owners and restaurant shills were trying to attract the passersby with deals, deals and more deals. It was all the bad things I had anticipated.
But I soon realized it wasn't Tijuana. Yes, the barkers were aggressive, but nothing like they are in other similar situations. In fact, it almost seemed that there were more people trying to attract the tourists than there were tourists. A slight exaggeration, perhaps, as there were a fair number of out-of-shape, sated people wandering around, but not nearly as many as I had expected, given that a ship was in town.
(We were later told that passengers are discouraged from going to the Malecón, because the cruise ship company wants to keep everyone at the purpose-built tourist village by the pier that it owns.)
We started to engage the hustlers, as they had, unfortunately for them, the time to banter. Nice people, we discovered, who were trying to make a living with the few passengers who managed to escape Cruise Central. Soon we found a beachside table in the sand (there are many, many to choose from) connected to the restaurant a few steps away on the other side of the Malecón. There we enjoyed a fabulous whole fish, a few cervezas and pleasantries with the young boss and his even younger brother who served us.
By the time we finished lunch and strolled the rest of the way down the Malecón, the crowds began to thin and we started to see the real Mahahual. Once the retailers understood that we weren't on the ship, they became friendlier and less insistent. We finally settled for a drink at a bar on the ground floor of a very nice-looking condo building to do some people-watching. At a table in the corner were four 20-somethings, each with his or her head buried in a different electronic device. Could have been any bar or coffee shop anywhere.
When the Cruise Ship Is Gone
Mahahual is a totally different place when the town is left to residents and the few like us who intended to spend more than an afternoon in port. After a quick clean-up back at the hotel, we walked back to the Malecón to have a drink with Kevin Graham. A quick aside: Kevin is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet and also the "go to" person for real estate in and around Mahahual. We met at the Nacional Beach Club, which was literally between our hotel and the beach. Nacional is owned by a friend of Kevin's (everyone who calls Mahahual home is a friend, especially the expats), a young guy named Evan. Around the outdoor bar were also the ladies who owned the paddleboard shop next door; they were from Texas, as I recall
We had a great time. Lisa fell in love with a little beach dog who followed us most of the afternoon. Matt and Evan talked for a long time. And Lydia and I enjoyed visiting with Kevin and the paddle board ladies. Toward the end of dinner it was decided that the four of us and our new paddle board friends would dine at 100% Agave, a locals haunt a few blocks down the street and not on the Malecon.
This wasn't just dinner, it was dinner theater. Thanks to Kevin, who tipped off the owner, our table experienced the owner's famous "all you ever wanted to know about tequila show." This included tastings of the various types of tequilas, a history lesson, and more. Dinner was also good, though I can't remember what I ordered, and we walked back to the hotel, ready for some sleep.