Mahahual came into existence in 1959 when the nation of Mexico gave land to fisherman from other regions, mainly Veracruz, Acapulco and Campeche, to form a cooperative that would serve the future needs of the area as it grew. At this time, the area was part of the Yucatan Territory, a wild and untamed portion of Mexico, that did not even have official statehood. The chosen location, behind a shallow reef just 100 meters from shore with deep water inlets at both ends, would provide protection from storm surge as well as the deeper channels needed for the boats to go back and forth into the ocean. For the next 15 years, the town quietly provided a living for a few fisherman families and caretakers for the occasional coconut plantation that dotted the Mexican Caribbean shoreline.
In 1974, Mexico created the State of Quintana Roo and made Chetumal, just a little over an hour to the south of Mahahual by car, the capital city. With the new capital came a new group of middle class bureaucrats who began to use Mahahual as a weekend beach destination. A tourist economy began to sprout with a few hotels, restaurants and bars popping up in the downtown. By this time, Cancun was well into its tourist development, and the pristine reefs in the area began to be noticed by divers from around the world, and so came the first small dive operations. The beginnings of a change from sleepy fishing village to tourist town had begun.
Regional businessmen put in places like the Hotel Mahahual and the Tequila Beach Club, both still in operation today, and the town began to host regional visitors from the even further than the capital city, like the much more rapidly growing Riviera Maya/Cancun area and Merida, the largest city in the Yucatan peninsula. Foreign investors began to buy remote beach properties and come to the area as their little tropical hideaway. For the next quarter century, the town grew slowly and so too did its eclectic/off the beaten path identity.
In 2001, as the result of a joint effort between Mexico’s government and a local Mexican developer, Puerto Costa Maya opened. In much the same fashion that a sports team would work with a local government to build a new stadium in the US, the port was built and the government was paid back in taxes the port produced in the years following. Cruise ships began to contract with the privately owned port and the town quickly became a favorite for all who visited. The sand streets with coco tree covered beaches and small shops selling fish tacos and ceveche, was loved by all who came into town. By 2006, Puerto Costa Maya had passed Puerto Vallarta as the 2nd busiest port in Mexico. Over 600 ships had visited the port that year and the town was suddenly growing at much faster pace. The local economy was growing as well and the town was alive with the sort of activity that gave Mahahual a unique feel and ambiance. Shops and restaurants were open at night and the real town, not the one created each day for the cruise ships, came to life. Foreign investor owners began to open businesses as well as build their own homes in the area, adding to the interesting local ambiance. The town was a boomtown in the 2006-2007 years.
On the night of August 20th, 2007, a category 5 Hurricane Dean tore through Mahahual, its eye coming into the mainland just 4 miles from the town, destroying the pier at Puerto Costa Maya and closing down the entire town’s cruise ship industry indefinitely. This indefinite shutdown forced ships to contract with other ports into arrangements that lasted usually about two years. The town and the cruise ship industry it had been built to accommodate, was shut down, taking the local economy with it in the process.
During the next two years, Mexico used the opportunity to complete, what was scheduled to have been a 4 year/4 phase master planned infrastructure improvement project, in less than 2 years. With the port shut down and the town at a standstill, the project went faster and at a lower budget. The malecon, a 2 mile concrete oceanfront pedestrian walkway was built, new streets were put in with underground utilities, controlled drainage and new lighting. A state of the industry sewage treatment facility was installed and the new town was ready to welcome back the cruise ships after two long years or remodeling. Cruise industry inspectors approved the new port and town, and Puerto Costa Maya prepared to welcome back the first ships in 2009.
A funny thing happened on the way to the new party in Mahahual though. The world had changed in just a few years and so too had the cruise industry. The global economic meltdown, particularly in the US, the number one source for the industry’s Caribbean cruisers, forced the next round of contracts to move ships to other areas, like Europe, where the economies were still healthy. To get back into the US market, cruise lines were forced to cut prices and find ways to still make profits. Itineraries with fewer stops meant fewer port fees, and also allowed ships to save fuel by traveling slower, all the while keeping guests buying expensive cocktails, internet and bottles of sunscreen while they wait for the next stop. It was also during this time that the cruise lines all began to build their own ports, again to maximize profits and unfortunately, at the expense of privately owned facilities like Puerto Costa Maya. Where before 2007, a Western Caribbean cruise was often a 5 stop itinerary, they are often now 4 or even 3 stop cruises, and most with at least one of those stops in a port they own. All of this has resulted in Mahahual’s Puerto Costa Maya’s growth being slow and still today, only about 40% of the volume seen before the hurricane in 2007.
Although the cruise portion of the local economy was slow, the town’s hotel and tourism related businesses continued to grow, be it at a slower pace, and a small boutique destination began to form. Today, small hotels, dive shops, restaurants and bars, and tourist related businesses are at an all time high. In spite of a less than ideal transportation situation, with the closest airport being 4 hours away in Cancun, the town’s hotels are seeing slowly rising occupancy rates and local night time business is again coming to life. The feel of the town is again very much like it was in those years of 2004-07, which was a very fun time to be in Mahahual.
To know one’s self, they must first know their history. Those of us who know where Mahahual was just a few years ago, before Dean changed our little world, as well as how we got there, are very excited about Mahahual’s future! Are we going to become the high volume cruise ship destination we once were or will we become the Mexican Caribbean’s Aspen, with a boutique tourist industry? Perhaps both? Who knows what our future holds but those of us who know Mahahual’s past, know that whatever we become, it will be a beautiful and interesting slice of Mexico and hope all will come to see and experience it. Orale!