Costa Esmeralda what? Where is it? That’s the first question I am asked when I talk abut my discovery! As a matter of fact I was puzzled myself as well. It was not possible that during the 6 years of my life spent in Cancun I had never ventured out to explore such beauty, and so relatively close.
Just a few hours’ drive from my home and I find myself in another world, a world of natural treasures where time seems to be passing more slowly than anywhere else and where people, well…they are one of a kind. The locals here, even more than anywhere else in Yucatan, are simple and genuine with a deep and most heartfelt sense of hospitality that makes you feel truly welcomed, as if you are a VIP. They are very proud of their heritage and very grateful for your interest in their homeland, I mean genuinely happy, not ‘’money-making’’ happy. They love their peace and tranquillity and slow-paced life, far from all the hustle and bustle of the ‘’real world’’. This is the antithesis of the fancy and so-often-in-the-spotlight Riviera Maya and Cancun; no marketing is needed here, or fancy advertising; no huge hotels, just the locals, watching over and showcasing their beautiful environment, natural reserves, their ancient Mayan sites and their historical town with the little plazas and churches, simple and sacred. In every plaza, you will always see a huge space: there is always a playground, either a basketball court or a football field, or just a piece of land available for children to use, and it is safe, kids out playing (when the heat becomes bearable) with no danger at all; like one big family. Every time I get out of my car with my camera they look at me with curiosity and shy smiles, and when I dare to ask if I can take a picture, they answer with a happy and proud “Yes,” and timidly strike a pose.
This is Costa Esmeralda. This is Yucatan.
Allow me to show you the tour I did:
It was just a 2-day trip, though I wish it had been longer as there was so much to see in such little territory, especially if you are fascinated by every little thing, just like me.
I stayed at the Hacienda San Francisco de Tzacalha, which I highly recommend; a stunning property and a perfect example of how an old colonial estate can be turned into a beautiful hotel, conserving the layout of the original property, the very essence of each building, in every detail; spread out in a huge and impeccable garden, thus merging culture and nature with the addition of modern facilities.
It is also perfectly situated for the itinerary I had planned. I arrived late in the afternoon before exploring another area further south, Ek Balam and Rio Lagartos, another beautiful region, and after about 8 hours driving around and exploring I was happy to get there and crash on my bed, not before looking around the stunning property, I might add!
The following day I was so happy to find that everything I wanted to visit was very close-by and that I wouldn’t have to drive such long hours. After consulting with the lovely concierge of the Hacienda, my first stop was in Dzilam de Bravo, a very simple fishing town, where I looked for Sayachuleb, the location where I would take my tour around the lagoon: a 3-hour boat ride among mangroves, flamingos and the ever-so-popular, ojo de agua. I strongly suggest you stop here and do the same. More info here.
It was around noon when we got back, and I was ecstatic, I just couldn’t wait to discover more. My enthusiastic guide, Corrado, confirmed the beauty of the place and gave me some extra tips (I love the way people appreciate it when a foreigner wants to know about their home and history, and go out of their way to make you feel at home).
Right outside Dzilam de Bravo you will find directions to the coast road, which is where I had planned to go. It was promising, a nice, smooth, newly-paved road, an easy drive with no heavy traffic at all, just a few cars. I was in a contemplative mood. The road was like a shiny bridge over the huge, light-blue lagoon, generously unfolding before me, a stunning landscape. I wished I were already a good photographer in order to be able to capture it and really do it justice. I did however try, stopping my car at regular intervals to shoot those beautiful images into my camera and bring them with me and all the way to you: lagoon on one side, pink salt lakes on the other, amazing. I was in awe and I kept asking myself this question, “how could I have waited 6 years before discovering this?”
After a good 30 minutes’ drive along Costa Esmeralda you get to the town of Santa Clara, the previous home of the coconut industry, along with salt and henequen, products that made this area flourish in the colonial era across the XIX century. Nowadays, it is still a tradition to make delicious coconut products, typical of the Yucatan region: cake, candy, syrup and all sorts of sweets made for local distribution (industrial production has been discontinued). It’s worth stopping the car and trying those specialities, and if you happen to be hungry there are a few restaurants specialising in fish. (Octopus is a local speciality and they catch it here, especially in the month of August, when octopus fishing season is open) Here is a typical fishing boat for octopus.
I found out that the peninsula of Yucatan, especially the area extending from Progreso to Rio Lagartos, is the main supplier of octopus in Mexico, to Europe, and to Spain and Italy in particular.
Driving on, you will find many beach spots, a few with local restaurants and beach chairs. You realise here that there is only local tourism, and come to appreciate how people enjoy their own country and nature.
The water has different colours to the Caribbean side but is still alluring and fascinating; the blue is lighter and the sand whiter; the fair wind can be deceptive and you may feel like you are not burning; always remember your sun protection.
I was already happy with what I had seen so far, but I got to a point where it became even better than I imagined. A tiny bridge separated the lagoon from the beach and the water on both sides was many different shades of blue and green, but always light; the beach was a wide stretch of white coral sand that never ended and had different depths, creating small pools and tiny islands, fascinating! Of course, there were a lot of people, so if you like the quiet, I would suggest going on a weekday, as I am sure you will find the whole beach reserved for yourself.
I wished I had the time to stop and take a swim, but I wanted to continue my tour and get back to my beautiful hacienda and enjoy it. Sadly, I left the beach behind and continued driving in amazement, with a silly and incredulous smile on my face. I could not believe that this was my first time here. Oh sorry, I already said that!
But the surprises weren’t over.
Following the precious indication of the concierge at the hotel, I was directed to the Mayan ruins of Xcambó, a small, and yet fascinating, Mayan city, raised as a very important centre for salt production and distribution, and now an interesting stop for a quick visit to what remains witness to a glorious past. It was very easy to find, I knew from my GPS that I needed to turn inland and leave the beautiful Costa Esmeralda behind, with the promise that it wouldn’t be long before I went back, and Xcambó was right there after the turn. In fact, its proximity to the sea was one thing that made it such an important commercial settlement.
After the visit I decided I was done, and fully satisfied with my day, I headed towards the beautiful hacienda which awaited me. I was pleasantly surprised about the newly-paved road and the beautiful surroundings on my way back.
Suddenly, I spotted some pink dots on the horizon, which became clearer and clearer along the way. Flamingos to my left, one…two…ten…fifty…no…hundreds of flamingos hanging out undisturbed in the lagoon, to my left and then to my right… it was a show! Nature was revealing itself in its best apparel. I had never seen so many altogether, fascinating! I was so excited that I was about to stop the cars passing by and say, “Stop, look!” I resisted, feeling that it wasn’t probably a good idea, but I kept staring at them for a while, in contemplation. They looked so free and careless; maybe I was a little jealous…
As I tried to freeze those beautiful images into my camera I realised how far I still had to go with my photography technique, especially after subsequently going through the pictures on the computer. Frustrating as it may be I wasn’t going to be put off. The journey, I mean, the other journey… the longer one…. is long and I will enjoy every minute of it, living the ‘here and now’ (so stick with me for a while if you wish to see beautiful pictures).
In my happiness I drove back to the Hacienda and continued to enjoy my day, satisfied with my beautiful discovery of the Costa Esmeralda.
I am very grateful to you, dear reader, for making it through to here. If you have come so far you might be interested in reading about my boat ride on the lagoon of Dzilam de Bravo and the beautiful Hacienda I was staying at.
Happy travels my friends!
PS: If you wish to have more information on Costa Esmeralda and surrounding, want to make any observations or just want to say hi, feel free to write in the comments below, or via email.