Discovering a fascinating civilisation
Puerto Costa Maya, where the Caribbean and Antilles MSC cruise ships dock, is out of sight north of Mahahual, but its influence is felt on cruise-ship days, when the village springs to life with souvenir stands and jet-ski rentals along the slick seafront promenade, an extremely miniature version of Playa del Carmen.
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. On an MSC Caribbean and Antilles cruise you will typically stay around Mahahual, while divers and anglers head south to Xcalak. If you stop for only one ancient site in the Río Bec area, Kohunlich is your best excursion choice.
The ruins, seldom visited by anyone other than enormous butterflies and wild parrots, are beautifully situated, peering out above the treetops. The buildings date from the late pre-Classic to the Classic periods (100–900 AD) and the majority are in the Río Bec architectural style. Foliage has reclaimed most of them, except for the Templo de los Mascarones, which is named after the five 2m-high stucco masks that decorate its facade.
Disturbing enough now, these wide-eyed, open-mouthed images of the sun god, Kinich Ahau, once stared out from a background of smooth, bright-red-painted stucco. Also look for an elite residential area called the 27 Escalones, worth the detour to see the great views over the jungle canopy from the cliff edge on which it is built. Set in a drier area with sparse trees, these two neighbouring ruins are an interesting contrast to Kohunlich.
Kinichná’s hulking pyramid, built in metre-high stones, layer upon layer by successive leaders, barely clears the trees, but you can look over the surrounding terrain (and spot a glimpse of the Dzibanché ancient Maya archaeological site), now broken into farmland.