MAJAHUAL, Mexico -- My criteria for a vacation were simple: Warm weather. Postcard beaches. Clear, sunny skies. Long, languid days to immerse myself in beach books. A price that wouldn’t break the bank. And most of all, solitude.
So when I arrived in Majahual, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, I was taken aback — no, horrified — by the throngs of tourists, beach massage tables, souvenir hawkers, and drunken 20-somethings dancing shirtless in the streets.
Fortunately, the bed-and-breakfast I had reserved for the week was a half-hour drive from the center of town, and it turned out to be a vacation paradise where the only noise was from the waves crashing on the beach.
I had chosen the Costa Maya area, near the border of Belize, after considering Thailand, Honduras and a few other tropical spots. The Costa Maya town of Majahual is about six hours south of the Riviera Maya, the popular tourist region that stretches from Cancun to the Mayan ruins at Tulum. I’d been to Mexico City and a few colonial towns in central Mexico in the past, but I was a little wary of planning a Mexican beach getaway, with images of drunken spring breakers and nondescript all-inclusive resorts springing to mind.
But despite the busy scene I encountered when I arrived in Costa Maya — which I later learned changes depending on what cruise ships are docking — Majahual turned out to be exactly what I wanted, solitude included.
I’d gotten my sightseeing out of the way en route to Majahual. I’d flown into Cancun, then quickly left behind the colossal resorts by taking a bus about 80 miles south to Tulum for a three-day visit to see Mayan ruins and spend a little time at Tulum’s South Beach, where I rented a simple and reasonably priced cabana at the Shambala Petit Hotel. Restaurants, bars, bicycle rentals and yoga classes were all within a few minute’s walk of my cabana. It was nothing fancy — ceiling fans, shared bathroom and shower — but I loved the pristine beachfront location and relaxed vibe. It’s easy to find similar accommodations nearby.
Early one morning, I traveled to Coba, an ancient Mayan city about 27 miles northwest of Tulum, with a private driver arranged through my hotel. I had been warned to arrive early, but when we were the first people at the entrance a full 15 minutes before opening time, I thought we had overdone it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. By the time we finished, the place was clogged with noisy tourists and exhaust-belching cars and buses. But I’d already had a leisurely 90-minute tour of the sprawling complex and got to experience a near-silent jungle, empty dirt paths and a full view of a deserted pyramid unencumbered by climbers.
At the civilization’s height in A.D. 500-900, Coba was home to an estimated 50,000 residents and covered 50 miles. My English-speaking guide and others in the area are descendants of the Mayans and grew up speaking a Mayan language.
Coba is located around two lagoons and surrounded by thick vegetation. Highlights include El Templo de la Iglesia — temple of the church — along with ball courts and unexcavated pyramids, but the true star of the site is Nohoch Mul. At 138 feet, it’s the highest pyramid on the Yucatan and is open to anyone willing to climb its 120 steps for stunning views of the jungle and the surrounding ruins. As the ruins cover such a large area, parts of it are best seen by bicycle.
From Tulum, I took a daylong bus ride to Limones, and from there a taxi to Majahual. In high season, there are also buses from Limones to Majahual.
I’d chosen my accommodations carefully. The Mayan Beach Garden Inn has only seven rooms, and innkeeper Marcia Bales, a Seattle native, is extremely welcoming but makes it clear there are few entertainment options other than the sea. Guests spend their days — as I did — lounging in chaises, sunbathing and beach-combing.
My second-story cabana was clean, quiet and comfortable. A cool breeze kept the temperature perfect, my large private patio with hammock was much-used and my views were spectacular. The spotless beach with its sugar-fine sand was mere steps away.
Bales offers a meal plan and unless you want to make the half-hour trek to town to eat, I recommend it. She contacted me several weeks before my arrival to ask about my food preferences, and the meals prepared by her incredible, tiny team of chefs were the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten.
Bales says her clients tend to be independent travelers, not those looking for an all-inclusive resort. “Our guests are those who like being off the grid and all the things that implies, from the stars to the imperfect beaches to the conservation that may be required. It’s like going camping but in comfort,” Bales said.
For example, toilet paper must be thrown into a basket, not flushed; electricity is available only during certain hours and cell phone service is virtually nonexistent. There is wireless service in common areas however, so I was able to Skype my family back home. And if you plan on day trips, you’ll need a rental car. Some guests visit other towns or ruins, or plan snorkeling excursions to a nearby shipwreck.
When I got home, I immediately began planning my return visit. Turns out it will be sooner than I thought. After sharing my stories and my photographs, I persuaded my brother and his fiancee to get married in Costa Maya. Marcia Bales is helping them plan.