From traders, pirates, and border disputes to cinemas, grocery stores, and a billiards hall. What is the history of Xcalak and how did it became the sleepy beach town it is today?
Ancient Xcalak History
In the beginning
Once upon a time (let’s say 200 B.C.) on the Yucatan’s southern coast, Mayan traders took advantage of two natural openings in the world’s second largest barrier reef. The coastal reef was dangerous to cross and these openings allowed Mayan traders to safely bring their dugout canoes to shore. That made it a good spot to establish a trading post and a settlement.
The Mayan people named the settlement “Xcalak”, meaning “the twins” for the two openings in the barrier reef. And so began the history of Xcalak…
Keep reading after our Peek into the History of Xcalak infographic, for the narrative version of Xcalak’s history. It may not be 100% accurate, but 95% is close enough (and a lot more fun). Picky historians may want to close their eyes.
Strangers arrive from across the sea
The ancient Mayan settlement at Xcalak eventually folded but things went well for the Mayan people in the rest of the Yucatan, until the 1500s. That’s when the Spanish arrived and immediately began plundering Mayan gold. A sad time in Yucatan history, the poor Mayans watched their stolen gold leave with the strangers on their ships.
Karma being what it is, the Mayans soon got the satisfaction of watching the Spanish gold ships get plundered by seafaring newcomers – the British.
With Spanish Yucatan to the north and the British Honduras to the south, the waters around Xcalak weren’t really supervised by anyone in particular. This chapter of Xcalak’s history was full of pirates, Mayan rebels, and people seeking a safe haven not controlled by domineering foreigners.
Mexico becomes a country
After they got used to living in the new world, the settlers of Spanish descent got tired of sending all the good stuff back to Spain. In 1821, they declared independence and became Mexico, a country of its own. After some fighting and negotiation, Mexico established a border with the British just six miles south of Xcalak.
Wanting independence for themselves, the Mayans rebelled against the settlers, starting the Mexican Caste War. The thick jungles of the southern Yucatan were an ideal place for the Mayan rebels to dig in.
Mexico won the Caste War, but couldn’t get rid of the rebels in the remote jungle. In 1915 the Mexican government established a navy base in Xcalak. This navy base was Xcalak’s official start as a village in Mexico.
The jungle forces stationed in Xcalak guarded the Mexico – Belize border, dredged a canal from the Caribbean Sea to the Bay of Chetuamal, and brought an end to the Caste War.
It was time for Xcalak to prosper and to enter modern history.
Modern Xcalak History
The glory days didn’t last
The 1950’s was an exciting time in Xcalak history – successful coconut plantations meant that exporting coconut surpassed fishing as the town’s #1 occupation. Xcalak had a movie theater, grocery stores, a billiards hall, and everyone had electricity in their home (this was a pretty big deal at the time).
The population was growing, the industries were growing, and Xcalak was becoming an important shipyard. Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last long.
In 1955 Hurricane Janet came through town and destroyed everything the only way a Category 5 hurricane can. The town and the coconut palms were effectively wiped out. The survivors put down their coconuts and picked up their fishing lines. Xcalak history repeated itself, and it was a fishing village once again.
Off the beaten path
In the late 1980’s, Xcalak was accessible by road, and along that road came some adventurous travelers. They found the remote location, excellent fly fishing, and pristine beauty bewitching. From this encounter (and others) Xcalak’s tourism industry was born.
Entrepreneurial expats established Costa de Cocos and the predecessor to XTC Dive Center, and tourists started to visit. Travelers were slowly discovering that there was a place in Mexico where you didn’t have to put up with rowdy spring breakers, beach touts, or noisy bars. Sure, there were a few annoyances like the bumpy beach road and the lack of ATMs, but a visit to Xcalak was worth it.
Xcalak resists the mega-development that changed Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and (currently happening) Tulum. A National Marine Reef Park controls fishing and watersports, and marine life thrives.
Today Xcalak is a quiet fishing town that retains a laid back vibe. You won’t find Señor Frogs or Coco Bongo – you’ll find miles of unspoiled white beach, clear turquoise waters, gads of tropical fish, and some of the best fly fishing in the world.