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Play Away: Treasures of the Yucatán

For more than twenty years, the Yucatán Peninsula has been Mexico's number-one tourist destination. But no matter how many mega-resorts are built in Cancún's hotel zone, you can still drive down the coast to a romantic hideaway, perhaps near the seaside ruins of Tulum, where you'll be lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean. Wherever you stay, the marvelous world of the Mayan Indians is always close at hand.

The largest indigenous population in North America, the Mayan descendants have long protected the fragile natural environment of the Yucatán by living softly on the land. The chief beneficiaries of this stewardship have been tourists, an astounding five million of whom now visit Cancún each year. With dense jungle and pristine waters all around the main resort area, visitors can, in a single day, snorkel the crystal-clear waters of the world's second longest coral reef, climb to the top of a 1,400-year-old pyramid and toast their adventures far into a wild night with a thousand new friends.

Indeed, the Yucatán once offered almost everything except great golf. But a few years ago, when the Mexican government reaffirmed its commitment to luring North American golfers, the possibilities for the game in this area became limitless.

Today that vision is turning to reality. With three new firstrate courses opened in the past four years—and more than a half dozen under construction or in planning—the Yucatán is fast becoming the next big Mexican golf locale. It's a transformation that may one day mean crowds and bustle, but for now the area offers a pleasing portion of golf in a pristine environment. And if golfers can live as softly on the land as the descendants of the Mayans have, it just might stay that way.

Just a two-hour flight from the southern United States, Cancún International Airport is situated between two distinctly different vacation experiences. Immediately to the north is the main hotel zone of Cancún, with fourteen miles of nearly continuous beachfront resorts, two older golf courses (one by Robert Trent Jones Jr.) and a nearly round-the-clock party scene.

In the other direction is an eighty-mile stretch of coastline known as the Riviera Maya and the picturesque seaside town of Playa del Carmen. To add to its three top-notch courses, you can also fly or take a ferry to nearby Cozumel to play the new Nicklaus-designed Cozumel Country Club.

Heading south from the airport, it's just a few miles to the Golf Club at Moon Palace, a lovely Jack Nicklaus Signature course where brilliant white-sand bunkers contrast against the deep green of the fairways and surrounding jungle. A third nine was set to open by the start of 2005, but what's already here, at 7,201 yards with plenty of water and Jack's trademark waste bunkers, is clearly the region's toughest track. Routed downwind to an island green, the 150-yard par-three seventeenth is a hole you could play all day long—possibly without ever hitting the green.

Fifteen minutes down the coast, construction is finishing on the Greg Norman-designed Golf Club at Mayakoba. With wide fairways winding alongside flowing waterways, the course takes advantage of remarkable natural features, including large caves adjacent to and even in the middle of some fairways. Starting at an inland clubhouse with dramatic views of azure seas, both nines loop through the jungle to forest mangroves that give way to links-style dunes. With two excellent ocean holes, when Mayakoba opens in early 2005, it will assume the title of king of Mayan golf.

Another fifteen minutes down the coast, at the seaside town of Playa del Carmen, is the Robert von Hagge-designed Golf Club at Playacar. With jungle tight on all sides and two par fives, each stretching more than six hundred yards, Playacar calls for long, straight drives and smart course management. Or forget about your handicap and shift early into coldcerveza mode, taking full advantage of the all-inclusive greens fee that covers golf, shared cart, sandwiches, snacks—and as much bottled water and beer as you can drink.

But perhaps the area's best play requires a lengthy carry over water—roughly fifteen miles of it. The hourly ferry running from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel makes for one of the great day trips in golf. From the ferry dock on Cozumel, it's just a five-minute, five-dollar cab ride to the idyllic Cozumel Country Club. This Nicklaus Design Group layout is routed through dryland forest and wetland mangroves, with iguanas, crocodiles and an incredible variety of birds everywhere one looks. Despite the overall high quality of the golf, the real pleasure here is in the course's natural fit with the laid-back feel of Cozumel, a diving and snorkeling destination where life moves at a graceful, easy pace.

If you're traveling with your golf buddies, romantic atmosphere is not only unnecessary, it's downright uncomfortable. But the Yucatán Peninsula is the type of golf destination that also appeals to couples. Case in point: the Maroma Resort and Spa, which delivers all the coziness one could desire. Once a private home, Maroma has sixty-four rooms and suites on 500 acres of exquisite shoreline just north of Playa del Carmen. The romance of its setting is upped each evening by a thousand votive candles that light the property. Returning from dinner, you'll likely find dozens more in your room and around your two-person, hand-tiled tub strewn in deep layers of rose petals. If Maroma doesn't put you in the mood, it's time to consult your physician.

Prefer a hotel with a little nightlife?There are numerous options in Playa del Carmen where throngs of visitors—many from Italy and France—stroll a lazy street called Quinta Avenida. Lined by outdoor restaurants, shops and ultrahip bars, this walking-only street is much of what has turned Playa del Carmen into one of the hottest destinations in Mexico.


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