The beaches that line the 250km of coast between the southern edge of the Sian Ka’an reserve and the Belizean border, may not be as picture-perfect as those in Tulum – they’re often shaded with pines, not palms – but they are beautiful in their sheer emptiness. Despite development pressure in the form of a cruise-ship pier, the Costa Maya, as the area is known, still has a very end-of-the-world feel. The two towns in the area, Mahahual and the smaller Xcalak, were hit hard by Hurricane Dean in 2007. Mahahual was rebuilt, but Xcalak is still quite battered. Beachcombers typically stay around Mahahual; divers and anglers head south to Xcalak.
Inland from the coast is the surprise respite of Laguna de Bacalar, every bit as clear and beautiful as the Caribbean and harbouring its own special wildlife. Like the Costa Maya, its shores are a respite from development up the coast.
Inland from the Costa Maya and some 35km north of Chetumal, the gorgeous Laguna de Bacalar stretches along the east side of Hwy-307. If you haven’t checked a map, it’s easy to mistake it for the Caribbean, glinting through the trees in flashes of colour from palest aqua to deep indigo. About 45km long and 1km wide, it’s the second-largest lake in Mexico (after Laguna de Chapala, south of Guadalajara), but still attracts only a small number of Mexican tourists and a small expat community with a bent for ecology and yoga. The birdlife here is exceptionally vibrant.
The small town on the edge of the lake, Bacalar, was once a key point on the pre-Columbian trade route, and unexcavated Maya remains surround the lake. The Chilam Balam of Chumayel, one of the Maya’s sacred books, mentions it as the first settlement of the Itzá, the tribe that occupied Chichén Itzá.