Located in the southern half of the 236-mile Caribbean coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula in Quintana Roo, Mexico, approximately 100 miles south of Playa del Carmen and near the border with Belize, Costa Maya suffered extensive damages from Hurricane Dean, a category five storm that made landfall here in 2007, but the area has recovered and rebuilt.
Developed and opened for cruise tourism by the Mexican government in 2001, the dock at Costa Maya can accommodate three cruise ships at once. From the pier, visitors can walk to, or be transported via a complimentary shuttle, to an entertainment complex with 70,000 square feet of shopping areas selling souvenirs, jewelry, fragrances and other merchandise. Also included in this complex are two swimming pools and a restaurant/bar, so many cruise passengers spend part of, or their entire day there.
Costa Maya and its surrounding areas offer a relaxing getaway, with the main attractions including gorgeous white-sand beaches on the Mahahual Peninsula and good diving and snorkeling due to the area's proximity to the Mesoamerican Reef System, the second largest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The Costa Maya reefs are home to multiple varieties of coral, 500 species of fish as well as other marine creatures including sea turtles, sponges, pink conch and sea fans.
Other Costa Maya highlights include the biosphere Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka'an, a large park with green areas designated and protected as a natural reserve and other natural jungle areas like the Uaymil Wildlife Reserve and the Manatee Sanctuary Ecological Reserve (these reserves are home to a rich fauna: more than 100 species of mammals including jaguars and manatees, and many species of birds, including toucans). Still other natural attractions, points of interest and activities include the Bacalar Lagoon, a 50-mile-long lake with turquoise waters near the town of Chetumal; the fishing village of Xcalak with good diving among shipwrecks in the Xcalak National Reef Park in the area of the Banco Chinchorro coral atoll marine reserve; and the seaside village of Mahahual. Quaint Mahahual, about two miles from the cruise ship pier at Costa Maya, has a mile-and-a-half promenade along a fine white sand beach, with restaurants and shops.
Zip-lining tours and excursions via Harley Davidsons and Jeeps are among available pastimes in Costa Maya. Most popular shore tour sold onboard ships, however, are trips to the Mayan ruins in the area. These ruins are lesser known than others on the Yucatan Peninsula including those at Chichen Itza and Tulum, but are nonetheless important, and very interesting. Among them are the ruins of Chacchoben (Chacchoben means "Land of the Red Corn in the Mayan language). A city dating back from approximately 350 A.D. Chacchoben has several structures including the Pyramid of the Moon and the nine-level Pyramid of the Sun all in a jungle setting -- and many structures are under mounds, yet to be reclaimed from the jungle. Chacchoben is about an hour by bus or car from the port. Among other nearby Mayan ruins are those of Kohunlich, about two hours away from the pier at Costa Maya, and the ones at Tulum the latter located approximately three hours away, by the Caribbean Sea (ships generally offer tours to Chacchoben and Kohunlich and sometimes to Tulum).
The Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza dominated by El Castillo (the Pyramid of Kukulcan) are about five hours away by car, so not reachable during a typical cruise ship visit. While it would be possible to visit Chichen Itza by plane during a cruise stop as there are landing strips both at Chichen Itza and Costa Maya, there are no regularly scheduled flights. A pre-arranged private flight may be possible. Contact the Costa Maya tourism people (see website below). If you set out to explore independently it is important to keep in mind the time your ship will be in port so as not to literally "miss the boat."
Popular shore excursions sold onboard ships, in addition to tours to Chacchoben and other Mayan ruins and handicrafts centers, include beach outings usually to the Uvero Beach Club --diving and snorkeling trips, and bike and kayak adventures to Mahahual. Mahahual and Xcalek are often starting points for bird watching tours in Costa Maya's jungles and mangroves, for deep-sea sport fishing in the Caribbean, and flats-fishing (the region has many salt-water lagoons), as well as other excursions.
Costa Maya flavors to enjoy before returning to your ship include "parrilladas" (grilled meats and fish) and ceviche and you can wash it all down with a daiquiri, fruity drink or a bottle of a local beer like Bohemia or Sol.
Cruise lines that visit Costa Maya include Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Regent Seven Seas, and Royal Caribbean.
For additional information on Costa Maya visit www.costamaya-mexico.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun