When you’re on the Mexican Caribbean Coast, you wonder if there are any small beach towns left in Mexico. Tulum must have been like that a few years ago, but it has developed into a succession of resorts creating a barrier between the town and the beach.
Well, there is at least one beach town that stayed small in Mexico, but you literally have to go off the beaten path to reach it.
With no big hotels and only a couple of small local restaurants in the tiny town centre, the isolated village of Xcalak has not been touched by mass tourism.
Why visiting small beach towns in Mexico?
Since we landed in Cancun, I had been overwhelmed by all the tourism development all along the coast. From Cancun to Tulum, you can find a myriad of big resorts between the road and the beach. Tulum is slightly different but still very developed, and not in a sustainable way despite the false eco-image that the town has built over the years. A majority of visitors only stay in the tourist areas, ignoring the challenge of the waste they create (see the Dark Side of Tulum). Almost everywhere along the coast, we can question the impact of tourism on the local Mexican communities and ecosystems.
I was surprised by the lack of authenticity in all these places. For authenticity, you have to go to the Pueblo (the town centre), and it is not by the ocean. It’s far away from the beautiful postcards you always see.
Even Mahahual, 2.5 hours drive south of Tulum, has lost most of its small beach town charm since tourism took over with large cruise ships docking there every day. It used to be a quiet fishing town, but it felt like a developing seaside resort with many restaurants and tourist shops. Another place where authenticity is fading.
So we went even further south. We drove for more than 1.5 hours to finish the few kilometres on the most southern tip of Mexico’s east coast. While the drive was lovely with the beach never too far away, we thought we were lost a few times. The good news was that as long as we could go south, we hadn’t arrived yet. With no network to follow the GPS, we were using the compass. Yes, we were off the beaten track. We found out later that a better road exists in parallel but, honestly, the feeling to go to the end of the world wasn’t such a waste of time.
We finally arrive in what seemed to be the only small beach town in Mexico’s east coast: Xcalak.
What’s different about the town of Xcalak
There were only a couple of restaurants in town, and the few hotels were simple houses. No resort. No shopping. No banks. Just a simple fishing village with its inhabitants and a couple of resorts and dive centres a bit further outside the village.
You’re off-grid when you stay in Xcalak. Electricity only comes from the sun and the wind, or from generators. There’s no need to turn off your phone not to be interrupted: there’s simply no network. They have an Internet connexion at the dive shop, but not always.
You don’t see many tourists in town. Well, you don’t see many people at all. It’s so quiet that some people would call it boring. But we didn’t go all the way down there just for the calm. There are great things to do in Xcalak.
Things to do in Xcalak, a rare small beach town in Mexico
Diving is how we first heard about Xcalak. We were looking into options:
- to dive the famous Blue Hole in Belize – which we did not do because of the budget (>US$1700) and of the time (at least three days).
- to dive Chinchoro – which we did not do because we were not enough divers (minimum 6) – maybe we should have tried our luck in Mahahual instead?
Staying in Tulum and looking at Xcalak as an option to dive the Blue Hole? If you have more time than us, you’ll be interested to read that article about how to travel between Caye Caulker and Tulum to check if it’s better to go to Belize instead!
Although these initial plans weren’t feasible, we still decided to go to Xcalak as we liked the authenticity of the place and the eco-tourism story behind it. Plus, it was an opportunity to dive the Great Maya Reef, the second-largest barrier reef in the world (after the Great Barrier Reef) that goes all along the Mexican East Coast down to Belize and Honduras.
Xcalak is a Reef National Marine Park, one of the rare marine reserves that got protected before mass tourism reached the place.
Our first dive in Xcalak took us through beautiful canyons and gave me the chance to spot my first nurse shark ever. But to be honest, from a reef point of view, although the reef in Xcalak was fantastic, I wasn’t more impressed by our dives in Xcalak than in Cozumel.
The real highlight of Xcalak diving happened during the second dive. I will never forget the time we spent surrounded by schools of hundreds of huge tarpons that seemed bigger than us.
Unfortunately, the wind picked up and our night dive got cancelled.
Your underwater pics don’t look that good? Check out my tips for beginners to take underwater photos that aren’t blue!
With our dive cancelled, we had some free time to go kayaking in the mangrove, which was a nice way to do something different. We were entirely by ourselves exploring the mangrove and the lagoon.
It was a real pleasure to paddle quietly in the Mexican mangrove. Mexico is among the countries with the highest degree of mangrove deforestation in America. Except in Sian Ka’an in Tulum, we didn’t see many mangroves in the north of the Mexican Caribbean Coast. In Cancun, the mangrove forest was replaced by huge hotels.
Xcalak is a fishing village described as a haven for flyfishing enthusiasts from February to April. You can join local fishing guides with more than 25 years of experience for a private boat tour.
What I wish I didn’t find in Xcalak
Although Xcalak is a reserve, it broke my heart to see that much trash on the beaches and in the mangrove. After a minute on the beach, our hands were full of rubbish. And this was just a few metres away from our room, at the dive centre. Of course, picking up rubbish can feel like a drop in the ocean when you consider the overall amount of trash in Mexico.
Moreover, we were told by someone in Tulum that because of currents, all the rubbish from the Caribbeans would end up on the Mexican Coast. Still, I feel any small effort is worth it: every single plastic bottle is better out of the ocean. Anyway, it was still a better use of my energy than sighting and complaining about it. And what if it could inspire others? What if half of the visitors start spending five minutes cleaning up the beach? These small actions can go far to help the local environment.
All the resorts would clean their beaches to please clients. Why wouldn’t a dive shop do a similar effort? It would make a lot of sense, especially in a reserve.
Tips for your visit to Xcalak
We didn’t see any ATM in Xcalak, so you’d better bring some pesos with you as credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere.
There is no “real” grocery store in Xcalak; you’ll only find snacks and a few basics there. So if you don’t want to eat at the few restaurants for every meal, you’ll need to load up before arriving in Xcalak. Or you could try your luck finding a grocery truck going around town with fresh products – but we never saw it during our stay.
We enjoyed the food we were served in Xcalak, but that didn’t come as a surprise. I am a seafood lover, so I’m not hard to please in a fishing village! Eating at the restaurant was a nice way to participate in the economy of the village and improve our Spanish by chatting with locals. We tried to restaurants in town:
- Sylvia’s restaurant – where it’s worth having a meal to check out the mural decorations more than for the food itself (that wasn’t bad at all!)
- Toby’s restaurant – where we loved the food as much as the ocean views and the idea of a dog parking! We had a lionfish ceviche there, which is super rare to eat in Australia as lionfish isn’t an invasive species down under.
The dive centre also serves food, which can be super convenient. There are more restaurants outside the town on the beach road if you need more choice.
The best time to visit Xcalak is during the dry season, from November to April. The wet season in Xcalak is from May to October, and you may want to avoid visiting Xcalak during the hurricane season (September/October).
We got pulled over by corrupted Mexican Police Officers on our way to Xcalak. We managed not to pay the bribe they were asking. If you plan to drive during your Yucatan Peninsula holidays, I recommend keeping only coins or very small notes in one wallet the corrupted officers may ask to see.
Where is Xcalak?
Xcalak is the most southern town on the Mexican Caribbean Coast, just near Belize. You’ll have to turn right 5km before Mahahual to go to Xcalak. Otherwise, you can opt for the beach road as a fun and beautiful option, but it will take you a lot longer.
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