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Mexico Vacation 2010: Mahahual (Part 2)


This trip was originally posted in November 2010 on another blog that really wasn’t about travel, but was the only place I had to post it. Now that I finally have a place where it belongs, I’m happy to share the experience again. Check back for Part 3 tomorrow.

Don’t miss the beginning of the trip…read about the trip in order.
Part 1

Part 2 – Mahahual, Mexico

The reason we planned this entire Mexican vacation was so we could visit my brother, who has been living in Mexico for about 18 months. Mark helps run a scuba resort in Mahahual, a remote town about 4 1/2 hours by car south of Cancun (the town is also spelled Majahual on about half of the maps that I saw & is pronounced ma-hu-wall).

Though I had been nervous about not having GPS when planning the trip, I was completely at ease with driving as we prepared for the trek to Mahahual. In my first 2 days of driving, I got gas at the government owned Pemex stations, paid at a couple of toll booths, drove over a dozen topes (speed bumps) and got slightly lost in one small village where no one seemed to speak either English or Spanish (and I speak absolutely no Mayan).

Confident that we could handle anything that we came across, I was ready for the drive ahead. I was actually looking forward to the scenic route that Cathy Goergens, co-owner of Maya Palms Resort and St. Louis’ West End Diving, said we should take instead of the main highway. We figured it would add a little time to the drive, but was worth it to drive through the small towns and see what Mexican life was really like up close.

The Road to Mahahual:

In contrast to the uneventful drive from Cancun to Merida, this drive turned into it’s own little adventure.

The pink line was the trip from Merida to Mahahual

It started with a highway that we needed to stay on…but was closed due to the overpass bridge being rebuilt. Forced to get off the road pointing to Mahahual, we could only hope that there would be signs that would help us figure out how to get back on the correct path. Yes, we had a map, but we weren’t exactly sure where we were on the map or where we were now headed.

To give the Mexican Dept of Transportation credit, there WAS a sign at the very first opportunity that told you turn make a u-turn on the 4 lane highway if you were headed to Uxmal. The problem was that we had specifically decided not to take a short detour to visit the ruins at Uxmal.

Thinking we were much farther along the route than we really were when we hit the road block, we realized later that we were actually still in the outskirts of the Merida suburbs when we got on the wrong highway. Absolutely sure that we shouldn’t be heading to Campeche, I finally turned the car around and figured out how to get back to our proper path.

The next few hours were wonderful.

We drove through quiet villages and even stopped to look at some ruins we drove by in the town of Tekas, one of those “blink and you will have missed it” towns. We popped into the adjoining art gallery and chatted as the owner showed us room after room of his collections. The owner was so nice, and we were probably his only visitors that day. I really wanted to buy something but ultimately couldn’t get past the high prices for his handmade work.

The ruins located in Tekas, Mexico

The next jolt of excitement came when I noticed that I was being tailgated by a police vehicle.

First, let me explain that the police were one of the things we were warned about as we prepared to drive in Mexico. The practice of fining people on the spot for imagined infractions and giving them a choice of paying up or being hauled into the nearest town to wait to see a judge isn’t quite  as rampant as it used to be. Still, we were instructed to carry about $40 worth of cash separate from the rest of our money so we could pay off a bribe if we were stopped without letting the police see how much money we were carrying.

Back to my story about the police car…

With the police SUV too close to us to be simply driving behind us, I noticed another police car just ahead that was sitting on a side street and sticking out a few feet into my lane. When I hit my brakes to slow down, the car started backing up to get out of traffic and the SUV behind me turned on his police lights. I pulled over a few feet from the car who had been sticking out in the road. The SUV then turned off his lights and drove on while the officer from the car approached us.

Nervous at this point, I was ready to pull out the AVIS rental car information which actually includes a spot for you to get two police warnings for minor infractions before you would be ticketed. Of course, speeding wasn’t on the list of minor infractions, but I didn’t think I was speeding.

What actually happened was a total surprise. The policeman approached us and asked us where we were going. I told him Mahahual and he raised his eyebrows in surprise. I pulled out our map and showed him the route we had highlighted from Merida to Mahahual, and he just shook his head. You see, less adventuresome people would NOT have taken the scenic route through the little villages…adding a couple of hours to the drive…but would have stuck to the nearby major highway that drove through the boring jungle where all you had to look at for hours on end were trees.

We think that we were just stopped because they spotted two women driving a rental car in the middle of nowhere (we had a big fat AVIS sticker on the back bumper).

The officer proceeded to give us directions to a cutoff which would save us some time. With my limited Spanish, I wasn’t sure if the turn off at the town of Tzucacab was in 10 minutes, or if it would shave 10 minutes off  our drive, but either way I was so relieved that he just stopped us to be helpful that I was willing to do whatever he said. He even came up with a good stop where we could get a late lunch since our original lunch destination was now being bypassed for his detour.

The rest of the drive was smooth sailing. After lunch in a town called Jose Maria Moreles, another route change based on the waitress’ suggestion that it would shave off 30 minutes, and a couple of military checkpoints, we made it to Mahahual about 9 hours after we left Merida.

And though the drive was longer than we expected, aided partly by road construction and our lunch stop, I really owe Cathy a big thank you for encouraging us to take this route. It turned what would have been a just a day wasted getting from one place to another into an adventure.

The Town of Mahahual:

The Maya Palms Resort where we stayed is at kilometer 10 on the beach road leading away from the village (no addresses, just distances from town, mark all of the properties on this road). The beach road is made from hard packed sand. After the rainy season each year, the local authorities fix up the road…filling the potholes resulting from the last year’s rains.

The beach road leading to Maya Palms Resort

Our trip fell in the short period after the rainy season was over but just before they fixed the road, so we saw the road at it’s worst. We actually laughed the whole way as I drove down this obstacle course, and continued using this road about half of the time even after my brother showed us the back way to the resort with a road in much better condition.

Mahahual’s malechon on a rainy day

During the course of the next few days, we went into town 3 times. This sleepy little town has a main boardwalk along the beach, called the malechon, which has the beach on one side and shops, restaurants and a few small hotels on the other. When there are cruise ships at the recently developed Costa Maya port on the other side of town, the malechon comes alive. As soon as the passengers head back to the ship, most of the stores close up.

Mahahual beach from the center of town

I loved that Mahahual is a place where you can enjoy a peaceful walk in a quiet town…something you never can get in the big tourist areas…while still having afternoons with hustling activity on cruise ship days.

Eating Out in Mahahual:

One of the things I love about traveling is getting to try local cuisine. In all of my prior Mexican vacations, I had stayed at all-inclusive resorts where all of your meals are included. I was excited that this trip gave me a chance to experience Mexico through the restaurants and cafes.

While the Maya Palms Resort gets rave reviews for their food, my brother had his evenings off during our visit and we thought it would be nice to have him show us his favorite Mahahual restaurants. I was surprised by how many restaurants there were in this tiny town only 7 blocks long.
Click on the map to see a full size version

One of the best meals of the trip was our last night in Mahahual at 40 Cannons.

I wanted authentic Mexican so I ordered chicken tacos and got a plateful of bite-sized wonderfully seasoned chicken with tomatoes & onions. In Mexico, everything comes with corn tortillas and the hot sauces on the side…and you make it the way you like it…VERY good news for me since I don’t like spicy foods.

Maya Palms Resort:

Front entrance to Maya Palms

Most of the guests who stay at the Maya Palms Resort come for some of the best scuba diving in the world. Though I’m not a scuba diver, I did a little reading up on the subject and Maya Palms sits just feet from the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world. Largely untouched by mass tourism, divers get a chance to dive where no one has ever dived before.

Guests planning scuba and snorkeling trips typically stay for 5-7 days and go out on 2-3 dives per day. In between, they relax on the beach or at the pool, or hang out in the palapa lounge. The resort also offers a day pass for cruise passengers who stop at the Costa Maya port and prefer a quiet setting instead of crowded beaches or want a personalized scuba/snorkel experience.

I had seen pictures of the pool and the pyramid building which houses the restaurant and indoor lounge. But I didn’t realize it would be so beautiful and peaceful.

Set in the Mexican jungle, the road approaching the resort is lined with trees and shrubs. As you step through the front gates, you step into a tropical garden. Cobblestone paths lead you from one building to the next completely surrounded by plants. The only sound you hear is the Caribbean Sea waves breaking on the beach, birds singing and the wind rustling the leaves.

Maya Palms gardens and one of the palapa lounges

Since Mahahual was the devastated by Hurricane Dean in August 2005, tourism to the town has taken a hit. The lack of tourists flocking to the area gives adventuresome travelers a chance to visit a town newly rebuilt (I didn’t see any signs of the hurricane damage) and stay at a small resort with only 15 rooms. The result is a charming village only minutes away and a resort that feels like you have it all to yourself.

The front porch off of our beachside villa

I’ve often thought that it would be amazing to be able to stay at one of those resorts for the rich where you are the only guests in the place. Maya Palms gave us a little taste of what that would be like.

One of the unique features of Maya Palms is that they cater their meals to their guest’s food preferences. Rather than having a menu, they simply ask you what you like and don’t like when you arrive, and then prepare meals that will make everyone happy. If you happen to be lucky enough to have the place to yourselves like we did one day, they will make you whatever you want.

Normally I would try something new each meal, but the heavenly french toast made with coconut milk was so good that we ordered it both days! On our last day, I opted for a light lunch of chicken tacos made of shredded chicken which was fabulous. All of the food is safe to eat, even salads, and they make their own drinking water from the Caribbean sea…so the tap water is safe to drink too.

Another advantage of this small resort is that they will feed you wherever you want. Though they have both an indoor and outside open-air dining area, the staff will happily set up a table for you in the gardens or on the beach.

Even though it rained much of the 2 days that we were at Maya Palms, it really didn’t spoil anything. Sure, I would have spent more time on the beach or in a poolside hammock if it had been sunnier weather, but instead I got a chance to read and relax in one the many rocking chairs and play on the internet (yes, they even offer free WiFi!).

I even climbed halfway up the pyramid before my fear of heights refused to let me go higher. I can’t believe a managed to miss taking a picture of the pyramid, the highest spot in town, but you can see it here.

I also spent a fair amount of time playing amateur photographer. Here are a few more of my pictures of the resort and town.

Maya Palms pool and custom loungers

Maya Palms custom loungers face both the pool & beach

Maya Palms bar

Lobby palapa

If you find yourself planning a trip to Playa del Carmen or Tulum, consider tacking on a few days to stay at Maya Palms like we did. Combining the vibrant energy you get in Playa with a few sleepy days in Mahahual really does give you the best of both worlds.

See more pictures of Mahahual and the Mexico trip…

Tomorrow: Part 3 of our Mexico Trip – Playa del Carmen


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