Aided by a team of environmentalists, course architect and golf legend Greg Norman used ancient Mayan forestry techniques in carving a unique jungle layout that annually plays host to the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Mexico’s only PGA Tour event.
Opened in 2006, Norman’s course is the centerpiece of Mayakoba, a sprawling $2.4-billion resort 70 kilometres south of Cancun featuring three luxury hotels: Fairmont Mayakoba, Rosewood Mayakoba, and Banyan Tree Mayakoba.
Following in the footsteps of Los Cabos on the Pacific coast, Mexico’s premier golf destination, the resorts of the Mayan Riviera — a 140-kilometre stretch of white-sand beaches that wind south of Cancun through the popular resort town of Playa del Carmen to the Mayan ruins of Tulum — have aggressively built courses by top architects. From just a handful of layouts a decade or so ago, the roster has expanded to 14 today.
“Spectacular scenery, great sites for courses, a booming tourism economy — the Mayan Riviera has everything to become one of the world’s great golf destinations,” says Norman, who also built a second course, Playa Mujeres Golf Club, closer to Cancun.
According to surveys, the Mayan Riviera is also one of the safest tourist regions in a country that has been rocked by drug-related gang violence in recent years.
There are courses in the world that feature towering waterfalls and raging cataracts; others tumble down mountainsides or wind through alligator-infested swamps. But El Cameleón, built at a cost of $23.5-million, surely ranks among the most unique.
Adopting a Mayan forestry management philosophy called socoleo, Norman’s team of experts learned which trees were expendable, which were crucial to the eco-system, and how to minimize the impact of the cuts in weaving the course through the environmentally sensitive jungle and mangrove forest.
Protecting the menagerie of wildlife routinely encountered by golfers — ranging from pelicans, toucans and flamingoes to monkeys and the course’s namesake chameleons — was an equally vital concern.
Norman’s tight and constantly challenging 7,084-yard design includes two par threes, the 7th and 15th holes, that play right to the edge of Mayakoba’s l.6-kilometre beachfront. Just offshore is a prime stretch of the Mesoamerican coral reef, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
At a course that surprises golfers with almost every swing, the biggest shock is found smack in the heart of El Cameleón’s opening fairway. Early in the construction, the ground suddenly collapsed, almost swallowing an excavator. Revealed was a cenote, a cavern formed over millennia by rainwater filtering through underground layers of limestone.
Rather than fill in the gash, Norman, a strong proponent of the “least disturbance” philosophy of design, left the cenote (dubbed the Devil’s Mouth) in place to rattle golfers on their opening tee shots.
Revered by the Mayans as sacred places, the labyrinth of underground cenotes at Mayakoba (Mayan for “city on the water”) provided the inspiration for the overall design of a resort touted by marketers as Venice on the Caribbean.
Planners for OHL Group, the Spanish developer, saw that by chipping away the top layers of rock, they could tap into the freshwater flowing beneath the surface and build an interconnected system of canals through the jungle to serve as the resort’s main transportation system. Guests make their way around the 240-hectare development in thatch-roofed electrically powered boats known as lanchas, as well as by bicycles and golf carts.
El Camaleón, though in just its seventh year of play, has emerged as the headline attraction in one of the world’s fastest-growing golf destinations.
Vying for attention are popular nearby courses such as Playa Paraiso Golf Club, a heroically difficult P.B. Dye layout where hazards include a 12-foot-high bunker face and a tee shot over a river of rocks; Moon Spa and Golf Club, a 27-hole Jack Nicklaus signature design surrounded by jungle, lakes and sand dunes; Playacar Spa and Golf Club, a Robert Von Hagge jungle layout booby-trapped by water hazards; and Norman’s second design, Playa Mujeres Golf Club, offering a thrilling mix of lagoon and ocean-front holes.
The Mayans, a sophisticated people who closely studied the stars, never foretold of golf’s coming. But, clearly, the game is a natural fit in this sacred landscape.