Mahahual is a place of two faces—cruise ship days, when the town’s one road is packed with day-trippers looking to buy T-shirts and throw back a few beers; and non-cruise-ship days, when Mahahual is sleepy and laid-back, and the narrow white-sand beaches are free to walk for miles.
Whether you stay here a night or a week, you’re likely to see both, which is a good thing. You can be in a major party zone one day, and the next be the only snorkeler  in town—all without changing hotels. If you seek long quiet days every day, though, definitely stay outside of town.
Whether or not there is a cruise ship in town, Mahahual is pretty easy to manage. Most of its hotels and services are located on, or just off, Avenida Mahahual (aka El Malecón), the three-kilometer (1.8-mile) pedestrian walkway that runs through town until it meets up with the coastal road heading south, the Carretera Antigua (literally, Old Highway). Just northwest of town, the tiny residential community of Las Casitas (aka Nuevo Mahahual) has additional restaurants, Internet, and laundry services.
Global Vision International (www.gvi.co.uk ) operates a popular volunteer-for-pay program just north of Mahahual, in partnership with Amigos de Sian Ka’an, a local nonprofit. GVI “expeditions,” as they are called, typically last 5–10 weeks and require open-water diver certification. Fees are pretty reasonable considering how much scuba diving is involved: US$2,350 for five weeks, US$3,975 for 10 weeks, including room, board, and equipment, but not airfare. Advance registration is required, as the center is not designed to handle walk-ins. GVI also has programs in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve  as well as at the private inland reserve El Eden.
Just south of the grubby roadside town of Limones, a good paved road with signs to Mahahual breaks off Highway 307 and cuts through 58 kilometers (36 miles) of coastal forest and wetlands tangled with mangroves. It’s a scenic stretch, whether in car or on a bus, along which you can see occasionally egrets, herons, and other water birds.
Mahahual proper is very walkable—in fact, the main road that runs through town, El Malecón, is a three-kilometer (1.8-mile) pedestrian walkway. If you’re staying outside of town, a car certainly comes in handy, but plenty of people manage without; dive shops and tour operators typically offer hotel pickup, and there are cabs and a local bus.
Bike rentals are offered at Costa Maya Tours (Calle Cherna between El Malecón at Calle Huachinango, tel. 983/106-4647, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. and 7–9 p.m. daily) for US$2.50 per hour, US$7.50 per half day, and US$12.50 per day.
Mahahual’s bus “terminal” is a modest affair—an open-air lot near the entrance of town—but daily first-class service makes coming and going a breeze. Buses to Cancún  (US$20, 4.5 hours) leave at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily, stopping at Carrillo Puerto  (US$7, 2 hours), Tulum  (US$12.50, 3 hours), Playa del Carmen  (US$15, 3.5 hours), and Puerto Morelos  (US$17, 4 hours) along the way. To Chetumal  (US$8.50, 2.5 hours) and Laguna Bacalar  (US$5.50, 1.5 hours), buses depart at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. daily. All buses stop in Limones (US$3, 1 hour). The ticket booth is open a short time before and after scheduled departures only.
Note: Buses entering Mahahual stop in Las Casitas before arriving at the bus terminal; be sure you get off at the latter if you’re headed to the beach or any of the hotels.
There also is occasional bus service to Xcalak (Mon.–Sat., US$2.50); buses pass through the center around 9 a.m. and drive down the coastal road, passing most of the hotels there before joining the main paved road into Xcalak. The bus heading back to town from Xcalak passes the outlying hotels around 3:30 p.m.
There is a PEMEX gas station (24 hours) on the main road to Mahahual, just east of the turnoff to Xcalak. It occasionally runs out of gas, so definitely fill your tank in Carrillo Puerto or Chetumal on your way here.
Note: There’s a military checkpoint just west of the turnoff to Xcalak, where officials conduct searches for illicit drugs and other contraband. As long as you or your passengers don’t have anything illegal in the car, you should only be delayed a couple minutes.
Cabs abound in this town, especially on cruise-ship days. In general, rates run US$1 per kilometer (1.6 miles).
Sunday. The ticket booth is open a short time before and after scheduled departures only.