Riviera Maya Golf: Mayakoba & El Cameleon

El Cameleon's designer, Greg Norman, "The Great White Shark," shows how you hit a ball so it hurts, during the course grand opening about five years ago.

Today I am wrapping up my recent return visit to the Rivera Maya where it started, at the Mayakoba Resort. I love this area as a travel destination, and explained why the region is so charming in my last post, then looked at some of the best golf courses. This is the final installment from South of the Border.


Mayakoba is the only golf resort I visited that is not all-inclusive. In fact, it’s at the whole other end of the spectrum from all-inclusive. It is a large master-planned development full of homes and to date, three independent hotels/resorts, ranging from luxury to ultra-luxury. In other words, it ain’t cheap, in dollars or pesos.

Two decades ago, Spain’s largest construction company, OHL, acquired a lot of raw – and I mean raw – land in the Yucatan Peninsula, including one unique 600-acre plot of thick mangrove forests and dense limestone along the gorgeous coastal stretch south of Cancun, along the 70 miles of blazing white beaches now known as the Riviera Maya, which was booming. OHL’s parcel was as tough a construction site as one could imagine, but the visionary company saw very expensive potential, and a billion dollars and 8 years later, Mayakoba’s infrastructure was done. Nicknamed to be the “Venice of Mexico,” it largely replaces internal roads with an intricate system of deep canals carved from the limestone, linking the hotels, their associated spas, restaurants, beach clubs, and the golf club, though in reality the canals and the gorgeous mahogany boats are used mainly for resort tours and guests travel mainly by hotel shuttle.

A flashy, futuristic clubhouse situated behind the 18th green is a reminder that Mayakoba has firmly positioned itself as THE deluxe golf resort in eastern Mexico.

This was my second visit to Mayakoba, and the first since the other hotels came on line (it debuted with the Fairmont, which also runs the golf course in the brand’s typically efficient and satisfying style).

The highlight is the Greg Norman designed El Cameleon golf course, (the Chameleon), named for the way its appearance keeps changing drastically. The first and second holes feature unusual hazards in the middle of the fairways, cenotes, or limestone sinkholes, essentially gaping cave entrances. The next sections of the sprawling layout include jungle, mangrove forest, canyon and coastal stretches, living up to its name with a little bit of everything, all beautiful.

This gaping crater in the middle of the first fairway is a cenote, or a sinkhole in the limestone peninsula that is a trademark geologic feature of the Yucatan. You will note how skillfully the author maximized his tee shot wihtout losing it!

It’s not Norman’s best work, nor is it the best in Mexico, but it is very nice resort course that is the best in the Yucatan, unless you refer the rawer, desert-esque challenge of Nicklaus new Riviera Cancun, which stands on about equal footing in terms of quality, but with a much more penal feel. Mayakoba is also as first class as it gets here, both on and off the course.

The one weakness of Mayakoba is part of its alleged strength: by trying to keep cars out of the complex, and keep the resorts separate and the vegetation wild, the developers have created a very spread out place where it can take forever to get anywhere, and going to eat at one of the other hotels sometimes feels like you are going all the way into Playa del Carmen – the opposite of a self contained, relaxing resort experience. The have gone so far as to utilize two way one-lane roads on a permanent basis, like at a construction site with a flagman, painfully waiting your turn in each direction.  They need to widen the roads, maybe pave them, and accept the fact that you need cars to get around. Still, this is easily the best assembly of upscale lodgings in the region, with several hotels here that stand toe to toe with any other in the region. There is more in the way of dining, drinking and beach options than anyplace else too. In order of decadence, the options are Banyan Tree, Rosewood, Fairmont plus rental residence pool. There is supposed to be a Viceroy hotel being built, and room across the street for a second, equal sized development that has garnered rumors of a Nick Faldo designed course.

As El Cameleon "morphs" it touches the edge of the sea twice, both on nifty par-3s.

Bottom line is that staying at Mayakoba is for the deep pocketed travelers who prefer a traditional luxury vacation experience to the region’s more common all-inclusive, and the golf at Mayakoba is a must for any player popping down to the Yucatan.

Next stop? China!

2 Responses to “Riviera Maya Golf: Mayakoba & El Cameleon”

  1. greg

    Larry, there are so many great courses now in the area near Mayakoba I wounder why you didn’t mention them. Iberostar, Bahia Principe, Playa Mujeres etc. Sepcifically Iberostar just ten minutes away is perhaps the best in the area.

  2. Larry Olmsted


    I know you are invovled in golf i the Riviera Maya and want to say Gracias for doing such a great job.

    You are talking about just one of my posts. You haev to read more, I did sperate posts on Iberostar, Bahia Principe, Moon, and Riviera Cancun. I actually have covered more courses in your area than almost anyplace else – you should be happy

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)