Looking for a small town in Mexico but don’t want to be in busier cities like Cancun and Playa del Carmen? Consider Mahahual! This small town in southeast Mexico, better known as Costa Maya to cruisers, offers a lovely beach escape for visitors from the entire world. The Mayan Beach Garden Inn is also located here, a major draw for us. Located about a four-hour drive south of Cancun, visitors can also take commuter flights to Chetumal, an hour and a half away.
But once you’ve arrived you may be wondering, what is there to do in Mahahual? Here is your list of things to do in Mahahual:
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1. Visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Fans of sustainable travel shouldn’t miss this UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 preserved the delicate ecosystem in this region. Find more details about Sian Ka’an Biosphere. The Biosphere stretches from about 2 hours south of Tulum to about an hour north of Mahahual. Whether you’re into bird watching, fly fishing, or snorkeling, the nature lover in you will absolutely love visiting the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
2. Explore Fuerte San Felipe
Learn about the area’s history in this fort that has been around for 270 years. The inside displays trace the local history from pre-hispanic times through the Caste Wars. Located in the town of Bacalar, the fort overlooks Lake Bacalar, which opens to the Caribbean. The fort is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Admission costs $59.8 pesos per person. Avoid Sundays if you dislike crowds though since admission is free for local residents.
3. Snorkel in the Cenote Azul
Cenotes are sinkholes found along the Mexican peninsula. They form when the limestone bedrock collapses, forming a swimming hole or swimming cave. While there are several cenotes near Playa del Carmen, this area has its own known as the Cenote Azul. Ropes placed along the sides were useful in moving around while snorkeling. As with all cenotes, because the source of water is underground, the water was refreshing. Unlike other natural cenotes, the Cenote Azul is a tourist destination. You are literally at a restaurant on the edge of the hole. To have a chair or table to put your items down, you need to order. While it wasn’t like any other cenotes I’ve experienced before, there is a certain appeal to having a restaurant on the premises and not having to leave your items in the dirt.
4. Float down Bacalar Rapids
Stromatolites are the earliest known fossils that grow in extremely salty lagoons. Typically found in places like Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and the Bahamas. At Bacalar Rapids visitors float through a stromatolites formation. Walk along a slippery, clayish path, enter the water and snorkel while the waters carry you downriver. Wear water shoes to prevent slipping! Various sets of ropes are placed across the water to allow you to catch and stop yourself from going too far. The four of us in our group had so much fun that just like kids, we ran back to the entry point to do it again multiple times.
5. Visit Lake Bacalar
Take a boat tour on Lake Bacalar. Lake Bacalar is still an undiscovered beauty and nicknamed “Seven Color Lagoon” after its beautiful waters. After getting a tour of the Cenote Negro and having a chance to snorkel, sit on a boat and wait for sunset. As the evening draws, hundreds or thousands of birds fly this one island. I’m not a bird watcher but this was magical! Pamphlets help watchers identify the birds. While we waited, our tour guide prepared fresh guacamole and salsa and we had an opportunity to swim and snorkel. I don’t think I’ll ever doubt whether a bird watching tour could be interesting!
Lake Bacalar is home to many resorts, hostels, and vacation homes. Enjoy an appetizer or a meal at Los Aluxes Bacalar Restaurant. If you’ve seen Instagram photos of people on swings over water at Bacalar, you’ll see them here. This place was the perfect way to end a very long day of exploring the ruins.
6. See Mayan Ruins up close
This area hosts one larger Mayan site and three smaller Mayan sites: Chacchoben, Dzibanche, Kohunlich, and Kinichna. It was a rather long drive down towards Chetumal, then inland, to see these less famous Mayan sites. If you’ve been to Chichen Itza and Tulum and want to see something less touristy, these are for you. The Mexican government has done a wonderful job of preserving these historic sites and making them accessible. You shouldn’t miss Mayan ruins on your list of things to do in Mahahual.
The most visited of the Mayan sites in Costa Maya, Chacchoben, is less than an hour away from Mahahual. At its height as the largest center in 360 A.D., Chacchoben served as a ceremonial center. Most of the site is still undiscovered, hidden by the jungle. But Temple One rises majestically as proof of the importance of this location to the Mayan empire. Unlike the Mayan sites listed below, climbing of Chacchoben is limited and clearly marked by ropes.
Only 80% of the site has been excavated and it is huge! This is what you imagine when you think of Mayan ruins. You can still climb a lot of the structures and can see how big this city was over 1000 years ago. Although this site had more visitors than the other two, there were no more than 30 or so of us there at the same time. The Temple of the Masks is not to be missed and is currently being restored. So much more tranquil than the Mayan ruins to the north! It is out of the way but worth a visit if you’re in the area.
This was the smallest of the three locations and connected to the Dzibanche complex, which consists mostly of a single pyramid. Climb to the top and enjoy eating your lunch. What a view! Aside from the beautiful view, you get a wonderful cooling breeze that keeps mosquitoes at bay. Because this is the smallest site out of the three, a lot of tours skip it. We were the only ones there when we went. This location had a lot of Howler monkeys and they were a bit scary up close because of all the noise they make. If you’re tight on time, skip this ruin.
This is a beautiful Mayan ruin with some Aztec influence. It is off the beaten path, so we were the only guests there when we visited on a Friday morning. There are monkeys in the trees, adding to the true jungle feel. This is an active archaeological dig site, so some areas were closed to the public. Be sure to climb the ruins for incredible views! It will be a sad day if this attraction becomes overrun so enjoy it while few know about its beauty. And wear insect repellent or expect to be miserable!
11. Visit the town of Mahahual
Mahahual enjoys a lovely beach waterfront plentifully populated with bars and restaurants. Several resorts play music to attract tourists, but you can find quieter spots to enjoy the quiet sounds of the ocean. Resort beaches are kept clean (from the invasive sargasso) so you can sunbathe, swim and snorkel. Stand-up paddleboards and kayaks are available for rent at multiple locations.
12. Take a local tour
Kim and Victor, owners of Mahahual Ecotours are your go-to resource for specialized tours. Based on our interests and those of another couple at the hotel, they created a day trip for the four of us at a reasonable price. Mayan Beach Garden packed breakfast burritos and sandwiches for lunch so we were set for the day.
If Costa Maya is one of the stops on your cruise, contact them for eco-friendly tour options.
PRO-TIP: Because cruise ships sailing the Western Caribbean frequently stop in Mahahual (named Costa Maya on itineraries), you’ll want to check whether a cruise is expected during your visit. Remember that tours and many tourist sights will be over-crowded those days. Restaurants in town will also be more crowded so expect long waits and limited options. You can find the schedule here.
Please note that if you’re not in Mahahual through a cruise ship trip, you will not be allowed to enter Costa Maya, a center built by the cruise companies specifically for their guests. The Costa Maya Center itself contains shops, bars, and restaurants for those who simply don’t want to go any further. However, if you’re a cruiser, I encourage you to step outside of Costa Maya were a few blocks away you’ll find more affordable food and bars and have a great opportunity to sit on a beach. If you’re cruising in the Caribbean, find more port destination posts here.
Mahahual is a lovely place with a small community of ex-pats. The ex-pats all know each other and happily include you and keep an eye on you during your visit. If you’re looking for a low key destination, add Mahahual to your list of places to go in Mexico! And use this list as your guide of fun things to do in Mahahual.
If you’re looking for a low key off-beach destination to spend a weekend in Mexico, consider adding San Miguel de Allende to your itinerary!
Annick, The Common Traveler