(LifeWire) - Welcome to the Costa Maya
You're forgiven if you assumed that the Costa Maya is the same place as the Riviera Maya - but in fact, the term "Costa Maya" refers to the area south of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, in the southernmost part of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. A family trip here means you'll be far from the maddening crowds of Cancún and even Tulúm, but you'll have to earn it with a lengthy drive. Your rewards? Lovely beaches, world-class diving, and ecotourism options galore.
Direct flights are a sanity-saver for families - especially those with small children - but a destination this unspoiled means that you will have to get as close as you can by plane and drive the rest of the way. Chetumal Airport receives connecting flights from Mexico City (an expansion is planned to welcome international flights); from Chetumal, the drive to hotels in Majahual and Xcalak takes about 90 minutes. You can also fly directly into Cancún International Airport from most major North American cities and make the 4 1/2 hour drive down the coast; it's a great way to explore the Tulúm and the Riviera Maya. If you prefer not to drive yourself, there is now bus service between Cancún or Chetumal and Majahual.
There is an alternative: to arrive by cruise ship. Majahual's cruise dock (about a half-mile from the town) has welcomed over 1 million passengers a year since it opened in 2001. Carnival and Royal Caribbean are two companies that include the Costa Maya on their Caribbean itineraries.
How's the Beach?
The Costa Maya's beaches are lapped by calm Caribbean waters, but not all are suitable for swimming. Some beaches are a bit rocky or scrubby and therefore may be better for snorkeling than long walks (the beaches at Xcalak, for example). The most popular beaches are Majahual and Uvero Beach, about 20 miles north of the town of Majahual - perhaps too popular, as they're main attractions for cruise-ship passenger crowds.
Maya Palms Resort & Dive Center: Located six miles south of Majahual, this family favorite is on a secluded beach. There are dive and non-dive packages, Mayan ruins tours, and snorkeling and fishing trips available. The resort also has a van transfer from Cancún's airport ($100 per person roundtrip).
Balamku Inn on the Beach: Also just south of Majahual, this comfortable, sophisticated ecohotel has lovely palapas with private terraces. A full roster of activities and tours can be arranged, including fly fishing, jungle and ruins trips, and massages on the beach. Children under age 3 stay free.
Mayan Beach Garden Hotel: In the village of El Placer, about 12 miles north of Majahual, this property comprised of solar-powered beach cabanas is located on a good snorkeling and swimming beach. The resort offers cooking and Spanish lessons, and it's a prime perch for bird-watching. Plan to rent a car if you choose to stay here.
Casa Carolina: This small bed-and-breakfast is on a Xcalak beach. Each of the four rooms has a balcony facing the Caribbean and a kitchenette. It's a great spot for snorkeling and diving; fishing trips and day trips to the ruins can be arranged.
The Explorean Kohunlich: If you want to spend more than a day in the jungle and you're traveling with teens (the recommended minimum age is 14, though younger children have stayed here), then this luxurious all-inclusive resort is for you. Located a 45-minute drive from Chetumal's airport and a mile from the Mayan ruins of Kohunlich, the Explorean immerses you in the environmental and cultural riches of the region.
Attractions & Fun Outings
If you've traveled all this way for an unspoiled paradise, you may want to do a whole lot of nothing; savor the relative peace and quiet of the Costa Maya while it lasts.
When you're ready to roll yourself out of your hammock, Chinchorro Reef Underwater National Park - part of the world's second-largest barrier reef and home to a number of shipwrecks - is ready to be explored by divers. On land, take the time to visit the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben, Kohunlich, and Dzibanché; your hotel can arrange the tours. Another worthwhile day trip is to Bacalar, known for the Cenote Azul (the largest underground cavern in the Yucatán) and San Felipe Fort. You might also explore the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where the tours include bird-watching in a kayak.
More Costa Maya Tips
- Single parents or guardians traveling to Mexico with a child under age 18 must present a notarized statement indicating the other parent's permission to travel abroad or proof of the death or legal absence of the other parent.
- To avoid traveler's diarrhea, stick to bottled beverages (even for toothbrushing) and avoid uncooked or street food.
- For resorts and major attractions, always check recent visitor comments at a site such as TripAdvisor.com.
- General information about visiting Mexico
- Costa Maya Tourism site
- Grand Costa Maya Tourism site (Spanish only)
- Mexico Tourism Association's Riviera Maya information
- Further information about family travel
*always check hotel/resort sites for updates