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Near Cancún, yet a world away

Special to The Times

For years travelers trying to escape the tourist hordes in Cancún needed a four-wheel-drive vehicle to survive the sandy, rutted road leading south to this town. First-timers found the place as difficult to reach as it is to pronounce.

Xcalak is pronounced "schka-lak" or "ish-ka-lak," depending on how you twist your tongue. It's more than 200 miles from Cancún at the southernmost tip of the Yucatán Peninsula and has been known as much for its isolation and lost-in-time ambience as anything else. Scuba diving, fishing and beach bumming were known to be first-rate, yet one was hard-pressed to find a single T-shirt shop.

So last summer, as my wife and I sped along on a paved highway toward Xcalak, reveling in the ease of the journey, the implications began to dawn: Change was coming to town too.

The Mexican government has included Xcalak in a broad plan to develop tourism along Yucatán's Caribbean coast, from Cancún and Cozumel south to the border with Belize. This southern stretch has been given the glamorous name La Costa Maya, the Maya Coast. The attempt to expand tourism is logical, considering that the Mesoamerican barrier reef (also called the Belize barrier reef), second in size only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, runs along this coast.

Naomi and I had chosen Xcalak hoping to beat the tourist masses, in search of a place where weathered gray houses still skirt dirt roads and wild night life is confined to the jungle. As we drove into town, it became apparent that the march of tourism from Cancún must be more like a crawl. We saw the remnants of buildings, battered by tropical storms of long ago and awash in the sand that we later found out envelops everything here. The roads don't have names. The main street, if it can be called that, has a couple of homes that double as vegetable and refreshment stands.

Parallel to the main street is the coast road, which leads to the town pier, a bar and the beach, the center for local celebrations. The heart of the community, though, remains the Caribbean. The coast road hugs the water, heading north past inns nestled among mangrove and coconut trees. A mile out of town, we reached ours.

A warm welcome The four-room Casa Carolina was reasonably priced, $65 a night, and the hammocks pictured on its Web site had called out to me. Good thing I answered. Upon arrival we found ourselves 30 yards from the water, surrounded by little else but white sand, palm trees and a breeze.

Owners Bob Villier and Caroline Wexler greeted us like old school buddies. Bob used to be in public relations but now certifies recreational scuba divers and trains dive instructors. Caroline, a former social worker, said that after 25 years of immersing herself in personal tragedies, she was ready to help people have a good time. She makes guests' dinner reservations, arranges day excursions, even catches the market truck that comes to town twice a week, delivering supplies to lodgings, food to residents and, occasionally, ice cream to the town's children.

Those kinds of simple pleasures aren't taken for granted here. From 16th century pirates to Hurricane Janet in 1955, Xcalak has endured its share of problems. Janet decimated a town that had grown to 1,200 people, thanks to successful coconut plantations and fishing in the prosperous early 1900s.

Today it's a community of about 300 still transitioning to the government's vision of a small-scale resort for eco-tourism. Scattered inns, most with just a few rooms, have opened in the last five years, and clearly the town's future prosperity is tied to the barrier reef, teeming with life offshore. Our first morning, we walked to the dock in front of Casa Carolina and eased ourselves into a new national marine park.

I swim more like a clam than a fish, but the water — warm, shallow and clear — made the task easier. Naomi was like a mermaid, pointing out parrotfish, angelfish and elkhorn coral. But after 45 minutes of mask clearing and gulps of salt water, I had drained enough water from my mask to fill a bathtub.

At day's end, as we drank Coronas under a palapa that soon will be Bob's Bar, Villier blamed my misadventures on my mustache. Shave, he suggested.

The next morning I greeted the sun without my whiskers for the first time in 18 years. Not only did my mask seal, but I looked a decade younger.

Bob invited us to join a dive party headed for La Poza, an unusual coral formation. Naomi, first in the water, spotted a shadow in the depths below. The phantom shifted to silver, and soon hundreds of tarpon burst into view.

I dived toward the fish, slender giants 4 to 6 feet long and up to 100 pounds, with yellow eyes and silver-dollar-size scales. They veered away, but on my ascent for air, they followed me toward the surface, some no more than 10 feet away. I was amazed by their effortless speed and power, not to mention their curiosity.

We also encountered two eagle rays flying through the water, spots on their backs, their heads shaped like a Cessna airplane. A green turtle stroked gracefully by as we returned to the boat.

Although the Caribbean could have enchanted us for weeks, our curiosity turned to what lies inland. From the coral reef's calm waters, we took a small boat south 15 minutes and went through an ancient Maya canal running west to Chetumal Bay.

The Mayas excavated the channel to improve trade routes. It still snakes through mangroves, at times narrowing to the width of the boat. Once out of the canal we took in the bay, its sandy bottom rising to form little islands among blue lagoons.

For fly-fishers like me, the bay has another draw: bonefish. After it's hooked, the fish speeds away with the line, even after it has been reeled in several times. The "bones," as they are called, are 2 to 8 pounds here, though a legendary 18-pounder caught and released in Chetumal Bay is enough to keep this place high on fly-fishers' lists.

For six months I tied flies in preparation for the challenge. I packed more fishing gear than shorts. My personal goal of catching bonefish, tarpon and permit (a spiny species with a forked tail) in one day seemed within reach.

There we were, Naomi and I, surrounded by beautiful beaches and ankle-high in azure water, casting our lines. We felt like a living magazine cover. Until the page turned.

I took my fly rod, waded to a spot that looked promising and started to cast when the rod split in two. Naomi, being the sensitive and intelligent woman that she is, gave me half an hour to sulk in solitude.

The next day Caroline Wexler hooked us up with a man she described as the "gentleman of guides," someone who could change our luck. Victor Castro made his home waters, and his ability to spot bonefish, feel like our own. Under his guidance, Naomi and I caught and released seven.

These joys help make up for Xcalak's deficits: limited electricity (Casa Carolina runs on solar power) and water (the town relies on wells) and an abundance of bugs. The minuscule critters left Naomi itching for days.

But none of these things mattered much while we enjoyed Xcalak's natural wonders. One day we took a morning boat ride back into Chetumal Bay to Bird Island, home to many of the 155 species in the Xcalak region. We didn't see the largest local inhabitant, the manatee, but a white ibis and roseate spoonbills kept us company.

Banco Chinchorro, a part of the Mesoamerican reef that the Nature Conservancy describes as the most biologically diverse in the Mexican Caribbean, attracts the most seasoned divers. The atoll is 1 1/2 hours away by boat. The XTC dive shop in Xcalak runs trips for $150 per diver, but with so much else to keep us busy, we skipped the trip.

Xcalak was all I needed. The town is not for everyone, but it is for me. I'm hesitant to reveal my enthusiasm for it, lest waves of newcomers change the town's personality. My friend Luis Cárdenas is smart. He told me Xcalak is one of the two most beautiful places in all of Mexico. The other place is still a secret.

Chuck Pawlik is a photographer, writer and teacher in Mexico City.

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