After being asked on multiple occasions for golf picks on the Riviera Maya of Mexico it was high time to actually pay a visit. Following in semi-famous footsteps, I chose the Fairmont Mayakoba, home to a PGA Tour event later this month.
After a three-day stay, I’m left with only one thought: What took me so long?
For orientation, Mayakoba is the premier gated development on the Riviera Maya, a beachfront section of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula that sits just south of Cancun in the state of Quintana Roo. Mayakoba is scheduled to host four resorts, two of which, Fairmont and Rosewood, are already open, with Banyan Tree and Viceroy on the way. For tourists, the region has long been known for its side trips to the spectacular Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza, but for golfers, this tropical retreat overlooking the Caribbean Sea had been a virtual desert. That’s all changed.
As Fairmont’s Director of Golf Douglas Goubault explained, “In 1992, there were 1,950 hotel rooms on the Riviera Maya. Today there are more than 33,000. Where there was no golf—now we’ve got 10 courses, with five more on the drawing board. And even in this economy, there’s not much slowdown here.”
The highest-ranked layout on the Riviera Maya is Fairmont Mayakoba’s El Camaleon, an absolutely unique Greg Norman design, whose name “the Chameleon,” is an apt depiction of this ever-changing track. Unlike many modern courses, El Camaleon is hardly a bombers paradise. Many of its flattish fairways are bracketed by impenetrable mangroves, others are dotted with bunkers and trees and still others are slashed with lagoons and piercingly clear canals carved through limestone walls. That might explain why the Mayakoba Golf Classic’s first two champions, Fred Funk and Brian Gay, are two of the most accurate drivers in golf.
The medium-sized greens are filled with wonderful, intricate contouring. El Camaleon definitely oozes an Old World feel, and its ever-evolving nature lives up to its name. Surprises start at the par-5 opener, which features a small cenote (a natural, often water-filled, cave-like sinkhole) jabbed right into the middle of the fairway. Mind you, it’s perfectly fair. The cenote can only be reached by a 315-yard drive from the 554-yard Boox tees (285 from the Sak tees that I played), though Golf Operations Manager Ernesto Perez pointed out that Bubba Watson hit up alongside of it—with a hybrid.
Perez was full of interesting stories about the course and the region, but his most dramatic story from here on out will likely be his account of the hole-in-one he scored during our round at the breeze-infused, 116-yard, par-3 7th, which takes in sweeping views of the beach, the Caribbean Sea and the Fairmont’s seaside gourmet restaurant, Las Brisas. What a hole to make an ace! After high-fives, hugs and first-bumps were exchanged, Ernesto revealed that it was his first ace—which meant he had six more to go to catch his father, Ernesto Perez Acosta, one of the greatest golfers in Mexico’s history. As it happened, I had witnessed his dad play at the World Series of Golf at Firestone in 1977, an event he gained entry to by winning the individual portion of the 1976 World Cup. We’re talking about an impressive heritage.
Young Ernie managed to squeeze a 2 out of the second, a 3 at the 10th and a 2 at the 15th, putting him 4-under for the par-3s on the day—a first in my experience—as was the sight of prehistoric-looking iguanas slithering about in the sunshine. Taking time out from his heroics on the par-3s, Perez observed that the back nine is the stronger side, with more challenge, better variety and more length in the par-3s. Mayakoba bares its teeth at holes 12, 13 and 14, a good par-5 sandwiched between two gigantic, into-the-wind par-4s, each hemmed in by dense, native flora. Make sure you venture to one of the two back tee boxes at 15, a windy seaside stunner that plays two clubs longer than its 155 yards. From the middle and front tees, you can’t see the beach until you’re right on top of it.
My middle day explored the culture of the region, consisting of an eco-tour of the Mayan Muyil Forest, complete with temple ruins and a stroll through the jungle, followed by a float trip down the narrow, twisting, clear waters within Sian Ka’an, a biosphere reserve protected by the World Heritage Alliance, which Fairmont Mayakoba supports as part of its environmental program to promote the local economy and sustainable development. This other-worldly experience will make you forget anything to do with sliced drives and three-putts.
Back on property, you have a choice to walk the secluded pathways provided on this sprawling Fairmont property, or you can hop on boat, golf cart or bicycle. A treatment at the award-winning Willow Stream Spa awaits, or perhaps a breakfast at La Laguna of “Eggs Divorced,” with its spicy red and green sauces making a happy marriage in your mouth. You might venture into the charming town of Playa del Carmen, 15 minutes to the south—or just drift off to the Tikki Beach Bar next to Las Brisas—and forget all about deadlines and stresses.
I was lucky enough to conclude my trip with a chat with Ernesto Perez Acosta himself, who was in from Tijuana to visit his son. He regaled me with stories about shagging balls for Arnold Palmer as a kid, then playing with him 20 years later, about winning a team event with Nancy Lopez, about fabled names such as Nicklaus, Trevino and Ballesteros. As I laughed and nodded and glanced around at the birds and iguanas and jungle setting, it washed over me just how many incredible places golf takes to you to — and how many amazing people you meet. Contact Fairmont Mayakoba at 011-52-984-206-3088 or visit Fairmont.com/mayakoba; rooms start at $279 per night; golf at El Camaleon is $200-$260.Photo: The par-3 7th at El CamaleonCredit: Great White Shark Enterprises