Think of 100,000 vacationers whooping it up at hundreds of gorgeous resort hotels, theme parks, shopping malls, block-long discos, zipline mazes and the like dotting an 80-mile-long strip of beaches on the Mexican Caribbean. Then try to imagine a tiny spot – right in the middle of all this action – looking much like the poster child for a sleepy Mexican fishing village.
That’s the town of Puerto Morelos, wedged in on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula between the mega-resort areas of Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
Wander around Puerto Morelos for a while and you’ll get a good taste of “the real Mexico.” Chances are you’ll meet some of the friendliest people on the planet going about their business, mostly in shops around the town square.
You can walk from one side of the village to the other in 15 or so minutes without spotting the likes of a McDonalds, Taco Bell or Pizza Hut. And you won’t be bothered by vendors or timeshare salesmen. Down on the beach you can soak up the rays without being hassled by jewelry or blanket peddlers.
Among a handful of tourists seen around town are snorkelers and scuba divers, lured here by the underwater delights of a close-in section of the great Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Awaiting visitors a few minutes from the shore is a Darwinian wonderland of virginal stony corals – 65 species in all – and a chance to swim with turtles, eagle rays, crabs, lobsters and about every kind of tropical fish you can think of.
The port’s serenity is in stark contrast to the peppy scenes elsewhere on the Cancun/Riviera Maya coast. Oddly, not too long ago it was a whole different story.
Up to the mid-1970s, before the Mexican government debuted Cancun as the first of a number of built-from-scratch super-resorts, the beaches of the eastern Yucatan were mostly just long strips of barren sand, home to jackrabbits and a few Maya fishing families. And Puerto Morelos was the only city of any size around these parts.
Its story goes back some 90 years to the days when chicle farmers, shippers and sailors got together to do business in this ancient Maya port.
The chicle (a resin used to make chewing gum) came from inland forests of sapodilla trees. Boiled and shaped into bricks, the goods were loaded on railroad platforms pulled by mules or horses over tracks through the jungle to the port, then shipped around the world.
Why ship from here? Because Puerto Morelos is the only deep-water port (meaning it’s accessible to large or heavy ships) in this neck of the sands. Originally used to ship locally grown mahogany, the port hit the big time in the 1920s when – after the demand for mahogany fizzled out – area planters instead began focusing on the growing world market for gum resin.
At one time, the port’s streets were lined with warehouses full of the gummy stuff awaiting incoming ships. Then, in the mid-1900s, gum manufacturers started using a cheaper synthetic base for their product – taking the wind out of chicle sales, and the port’s main business.
Fast-forward to today, and Puerto Morelos (named after a hero in Mexico’s war for independence) probably looks much like it did before the world’s chewing gum craze put it on the map.
Word about this oasis of tranquility is slowly getting out. For instance, a number of resort-hotels now line a few miles of the beaches on both sides of the port. (Officially, Puerto Morelos and its surrounding hotels anchor the southern end of Cancun.)
Grand Residences comes to town
“The charm of the village was a big factor in drawing us here for our Grand Residences hotel project,” said Mark Carney, marketing and sales director for Royal Resorts, Grand Residences’ parent company. The luxury, family-friendly property opened last December, and it’s since been named the top resort among Puerto Morelos’ 23 hotels in the prestigious TripAdvisor ratings. Affiliated with Leading Hotels of the World, Grand Residences now offers 103 suites and is planned to grow in phases to 278 suites over the next few years.
Besides large home-like units with kitchens, features of the property include champagne sunset cruises on the resort’s yacht, an afternoon “high tea,” restaurants and bars, a spa, a fitness center, a kids club and a teens club.
Guests of the resort wear rubberized wrist bands containing a microchip to open their room doors and raise elevators (rather than swiping or inserting a security card) by simply waving the band. “We’re looking at all kinds of future applications for the wrist chip,” said Grand Residences General Manager Carlo Bicaci.
Bicaci noted that an association of the hotels has pledged to preserve the village’s old-world ambiance. For example, hotel execs are working with the city to spruce up its downtown area by planting more trees, painting worn out spots and adding benches and trash cans. In the hotel areas, all newcomers to Puerto Morelos must replace any trees or plants cleared out during construction, and only low-rise buildings are allowed.
Fun in the cenotes
Tourists willing to tear themselves away from fun in the sun on the Caribbean beaches can soak up some local culture on an inland adventure trail called La Ruta de los Cenotes. Roughly paralleling the old railroad tracks used to transport chicle to Puerto Morelos, the road runs from a point just outside the port to an eco park about 30 miles into the jungle. Along the way are all kinds of large cenotes (natural sinkholes or wells), some as deep as 50 feet.
Among popular stops are the cenotes of Verde Lucero, Boca del Puma, Siete Bocas and Las Mojarras. Visitors can enjoy swimming in the wells and in underground rivers, rock climbing, ATV tours and – of course – browsing around gift shops.
A new neighbor
Expected to be a popular stop among the 20,000 people who hang their sombreros around Puerto Morelos, including long-time resident families, hotel workers and foreign transplants (mostly from the U.S. and Canada), will be the town’s first supermarket, planned to open shortly by Mexico’s big Chedraui market chain. “We’ve been waiting for (a supermarket) for a long, long time,” said Siesta Tours owner Francisco Cuevas, who runs snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing trips out of Puerto Morelos for guests of the big hotels.