Tourists are flocking to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

By Jim Kerr, Contributor

An eclectic throng of tourists strolls the pedestrian-only thoroughfare known as Avenida Qunita, or Fifth Avenue, in the once bucolic fishing village of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The little town along Mexico's Caribbean Coast teems with sun-burned, bikini-clad girls, mothers pushing baby carriages and bearded, tattoed men ambling down a canyon of T-shirt establishments, craft shops, tour kiosks, real estate agencies, resort fashion boutiques and restaurants hunched shoulder-to-shoulder in the blazing sun of the Mexican Yucatan.

The beach, with a few tethered fishing boats mixed in with colorful blankets and umbrellas, is two blocks away. And the little town square adjacent to the busy ferry dock is the only reminder of what this tiny town was like 25 years ago. As late as the 1980s, Mexicans and foreigners alike passed through this dusty, sleepy fishing village only to catch the ferry over to Cozumel, located a few miles off the Yucatan coast. But the advent of Cancun, a planned government resort complex 50 miles north, reshaped the entire area. "I came here four years ago from Acapulco," said one Playa store owner, "because this is where the tourists are coming."

And come they have. Playa has many small hotels and B&Bs, and just south of the commercial zone lies Playacar, a high-end residential and resort community with no fewer than a dozen all-inclusive resorts, a shopping complex and an 18-hole golf course known as the Golf Club of Playacar.

Designed by Robert Von Hagge and opened in 1994, it's a welcome and peaceful retreat from the bustle of "downtown" Playa. Tight, high-shouldered fairways weave through a Maya jungle mostly hidden from the few roads that traverse the zone. Laid out on a limestone plateau, it meanders around sinkholes, or "cenotes," once used by the Maya to collect rainwater. More than 200 Mayan ruins have been incorporated into the layout. At 7,202 yards, with a slope rating of 14.8 from the blues, it's arguably the toughest course in this part of the world and can often take five hours to play.

The claim as most difficult has thus far been a fairly easy one to make. There are only six courses in the Yucatan, if you include the 2-year-old Cozumel Country Club on the Caribbean island of Cozumel, opened in November, 2001, and the long-established Yucatan Golf Club 10 miles north of the colonial capital of Merida. The rest are located in the so-called "Riviera Maya," a tourist-rich zone which stretches almost 100 miles along the Caribbean coast from Cancun to the ancient Maya ruins of Tulum.

Golf in Mexico has traditionally been a passion of the wealthy upper class, played on private courses located near large urban centers such as Mexico City, where the first golf club in the country opened in the suburb of San Pedro de los Pinos in 1905. It took tourism, specifically along the Pacific Coast and Baja Peninsula, to dramatically pick up the pace of course construction during the past 20 years. When Cancun was launched, golf was a natural addition to the east coast as well, although the limestone terrain, marshy landscape, jungle foliage, salt water intrusion, heat and other elements presented challenges that only 20th century technology could feasibly and economically overcome. Indigenous ruins were another sensitive issue. The area is catacombed with Mayan excavations, burial centers, cenotes, and abandoned population sites. In keeping with Mexican tradition and conservation policies, courses were built around untouched ruins, incorporating the natural surroundings. This often means alligators, lizards and birds have the right-of-way, and their natural habitat of jungle and lagoons are part of the scenery.

Pok-Ta-Pok and Caesar's Park courses, both in Cancun, and the Golf Club at Puerto Adventuras, a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, are examples of early golf venues in Quintano Roo, Mexico's only Caribbean coastline state and the fastest growing state in the country. They are nothing special, but the most recent links addition, and a challenger to numero uno in the area, is the Golf Club at Moon Palace in Cancun. Opened in November, 2002, the Jack Nicklaus signature course measures 7,165 yards and, like the others, was created to harmonize with lush vegetation. The par-72 design is flanked by thick jungle, lots of natural wetlands and numerous protective bunkers. Hole 17, a short par-3 that plays to an island green, and No. 18, a 446-yard par-4 over water are likely to make the most collected of golfers come unglued.

In terms of future growth, there's no telling where it will all end. Thousands of workers poured into the newly dubbed Riviera Maya from all over the country to work and live in newly created Cancun and in transformed Playa del Carmen, building dozens of resorts spaced out over many miles of beachfront property along the east coast of Quintana Roo.

Playa's once-rickety pier has been replaced with a concrete structure where high-speed catmaran passenger ferries leave hourly for Cozumel, and cruise ship passengers alight from tenders sent from ships anchored offshore. While the majority of cruise ships coming to this area call on Cozumel (where 1.8 million passengers disembarked in 2001), several ships call weekly at Playa and other ports. An old hotel at the base of the dock has been swallowed by a much larger complex where the prime tenant is an air-conditioned McDonalds. Senor Frogs, part of a Mexican bar and restaurant chain popular with tourists, occupies the other side of the street next door to the luxurious, beachfront Continental Hotel. The only semblance left of the old town is the square, where ladies sell long slices of fruit from carts shaded by colorful umbrellas, children play during the day and local musicians serenade the locals on weekend evenings.

Only a few feet beyond, street hawkers, who have arrived in large numbers to cash in on tourism, are omnipresent both day and night, selling everything from time shares to tours. From here you can go on scuba outings to Cozumel, fishing expeditions to Isla Mujeres, archeological sojourns to Chichen Itza, or daytrips to Cancun. Buses to the latter leave hourly from the new central bus terminal two blocks from the ferry dock, and the fare is $3.50 one-way. The ferry itself, which makes the 30-minute crossing to Cozumel numerous times daily, costs $9 one-way, an easy daytrip for golfers headed for the Nicklaus-designed Cozumel Country Club.

Where to Stay

Playa del Carmen has many small inns and B&Bs, but most Americans prefer one of the dozen or so all-inclusive beach hotels in the resort community of Playacar, just south of Playa del Carmen. For details on lodging visit South of Playa nearer Tulum is the luxurious Melia Cancun Conference Center and Golf Resort.

Where to Dine

Nearly every restaurant in Playa del Carmen is directly on Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) or a block or two away. Prices are affordable, and many establishments have American or European owners. At the Tarraya Restaurant and Bar you can watch the fishermen bring in the seafood that will shortly be prepared and on your plate. The La Parrilla Mexican Grill on Fifth and Eighth features live Mexican music and has been recommended by Fodor's since 1988. Try the breakfast buffet at El Tukan Maya Restaurant & Bar at Calle 14 between Sixth and Fourth. Of course, the all-inclusive resorts in Playacar and Cancun each have a variety of dining options.

Other Things to Do

There are three very popular sidetrips from Cancun and Playa. Xcaret, an hour from Cancun but only minutes from Playa, is one of the best attractions in Mexico combining nature, history and activities. The word Xcaret means "inlet," and the limestone rock of this large park is catacombed with underground rivers and cenotes. You can still see nearly extinct jaguars and pumas on specially built islands, learn how sea turtles are raised for release back into the wild, interact with dolphin, wander through a wild bird aviary with 30 different species, and be surrounded by butterflies in the world's largest butterfly habitat. The entrance day fee is about $45.

Established nearly two decades ago, Xel-Ha is the grandaddy of eco-attractions in the Yucatan, and while it has been upgraded and expanded over the years, it retains a serenity and natural beauty unmarred by any mechanical gimmicks. Like Xcaret, its chief characteristic is an inlet from the sea, and the Mayas used it off and on for centuries as a trading port. A large lagoon, teeming with tropical fish, is fed by a river emerging from the jungle. Lockers are available for a small fee and you can rent snorkel equipment for the whole day. There are hundreds of nooks and crannies to explore in the huge lagoon, where reefs and rock formations create a perfect habitat for sea life.

The third major attraction is Tulum, a Mayan city built like a walled castle or fortress overlooking the blue Caribbean sea. A number of buildings sit perched on a cliff where the morning sun lights a dazzling white sand beach nestled between the ancient structures. It probably served as a landmark for Mayan ships in pre-historic times, although most of the construction dates to the post-classic period between 1200 and 1500 AD, just prior to when the Spanish discovered it.

Tulum, despite its recent commercialization, is worth the trip and the expense. It is only a few kilometers from Xel-Ha, and both can be easily done on one daytrip. You can rent a car in Playa for about $60 a day with insurance, which will also get you to any golf course north or south. Be prepared to pay green fees of $130 to $150, including cart, at the newer and far superior courses such as Playacar, Moon Palace and Cozumel Country Club.

The snorkeling and diving are terrific in this part of the country, either offshore or in the labyrinth of sea caves underground. Every watersport imaginable is available, and there is no lack of pretty beaches.

Jim Kerr, Contributor

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