Carolien van Santvoord in fairytale Mahahual: a battle against politics and the elements

MAHAHUAL – Several cruises dock in Mahahual, Mexico, every day. Then the tiny Caribbean fishing village is flooded with mainly American seniors and the prices of the catering industry on the beautiful boulevard automatically shoot up. But a few kilometers further south you will find almost untouched nature. The rustic, crystal clear blue Caribbean Sea. The palm trees, white beaches, and unlimited greenery. Countless birds betray their massive presence through beautiful harmonious singing. Here is Hotel Restaurant Maya Luna, owned by the Dutch couple Carolien van Santvoord (56) and Jan Schmeitz (69). 

Wonderful view, between the palm trees you can see the sea from your hammock

Richly filled pineapple

You have to travel a bit for it. Mahahual is a short five-hour drive from Cancún International Airport. The hotel is then only fifteen minutes from the village. There you will be overwhelmed by the tranquility. Dotted around the beach are shady palm trees, hammocks, and beach chairs. Six pelicans rest on the six poles in the water. Furthermore, there is silence. The seawater rolls rhythmically over the beach. From the restaurant, you have a beautiful view of the water. The prices of the food are friendly, and the food is delicious. Specialty: the richly filled pineapple. With rice, curry, nuts, shrimp, and more. 

The stuffed pineapple is the house specialty

Bumpy sand road

A bumpy dirt track takes you from Mahahual to the hotel. Only twice a year it is maintained by the residents themselves and then it's perfect again. “Our restaurant is well regarded in the village. People come here especially to eat something. But if that sandy path is as almost impassable as it is at the moment, it will save fifteen guests in an evening,” says Van Santvoord. She doesn't want to complain, but the state of the road is something to despair.

The sandy path towards the hotel is regularly in need of maintenance

“You pay taxes for it, but you don't see anything in return. Mahahual is the area's major cash cow. If it were distributed more fairly, this could be one of the most beautiful villages in Mexico.” The other entrepreneurs in the village are generally of little use to them. Everyone operates on their own, there is little cooperation. “When there is consultation, there are plenty of ideas. But it doesn't happen, nothing happens." 

Sargasso on the coast

A major current problem is sargasso, a type of seaweed that has increasingly plagued the coastline throughout the Caribbean since 2015. The fact that Instagram photos lose a lot of beauty is not even the worst. “It is also getting worse and worse. What are all 24 countries in the Caribbean Sea doing about it? Tidy up, tidy up, tidy up. But don't grab at the base.” She herself points to the six pelicans on the six poles. “We worked on it for weeks. Made the beach spotless, those six poles in the water with a net in between. One wave, one pole goes over and within half an hour it was already full.”

Carolien van Santvoord
Carolien van Santvoord on the beach. The sargasso is clearly visible in the background.

In the end, it is a major natural disaster, for which almost no attention is paid. The basis lies in the deforestation of the Amazon and the Congo Basin. All the rubbish and poison enter the water and flows into the ocean. Climate change is warming the water, which makes the Sargasso grow even more,” she explains. Turtles can no longer come ashore. Fish die from it. And certainly, it has an impact on tourism. “But yes, what should Mexico do? Declare war on Brazil?

Carolien van Santvoord

Van Santvoord specialized in the internet twenty years ago. Schmeitz is best known as a journalist who covered the violent elections in El Salvador for IKON in the 1980s. The story begins with him. When he goes diving with friends off the coast of Mahahual in the 1990s, the three of them decide to buy a piece of land. There's nothing yet. An elongated beach with palm trees.

Our stay this night. On the beach, maybe ten meters from the sea.

“They wanted to create a place for stressed journalists who wanted to write a book,” Van Santvoord grins. For years the subject has been discussed between the friends: what are we going to do with the land? One wants to build a house there, the other just wants to go there sometimes. Schmeitz dreams of a hotel. Then Schmeitz gets to know Van Santvoord. They like the adventure. 

“We went there, wanted to see it again on the spot. To our surprise, it turned out that a Dutchman had opened a diving school together with a Zimbabwean. And they liked a collaboration. A problem was immediately tackled there; this is a diving area, you have to offer something like that”, Van Santvoord looks back. The second problem was the internet. There isn't. ,,I was more and more specializing online, for me it was essential. That same week we drove to Xcalak, a village fifty kilometers from here. On the way we passed a house that said 'internet'. Turned out to be an American working to provide this coastline with internet. If those aren't good signs?"

Those poles in the water are a great luxury for the pelicans

Hurricane Dean

In November 2002 the time has come. Five rooms, where about 17 people can spend the night. The hotel is often visited by Americans, Europeans, and Dutch friends. From the start, it is building and maintaining. But then, in August 2007, Hurricane Dean arrives at the hotel. A particularly violent cyclone, of the fifth category. Everything that is not made of concrete will be destroyed.

“We have been closed for five months to rebuild everything. The damage to nature was even worse, not a leaf was left on the trees. That is also disastrous for tourism, it was ugly and bare here. We soon planted some banana trees; they grow quickly and provided some color again.” After 2007 it remains relatively calm here, although the threat of another Caribbean storm is there every year.

Hotel Restaurant Maya Luna has its own website, where the couple provides extensive information about what tourists can expect. They are also on the well-known booking sites for hotels. It makes the tourist noticeably spoiled. And increasingly assertive, albeit online. Easily give a bad review, because it happened to rain during his overnight stay in Mahahual. “It is quite frustrating at times, there is so much beyond your control. Many people no longer read, and almost blindly click on something. We are an eco-hotel. The description states that we do not have air conditioning. Then you get a 1 star because you don't have air conditioning. It remains special how people plan their holidays these days,” says Van Santvoord. 

Carolien van Santvoord
Carolien van Santvoord walks back toward the restaurant

Banco Chincorro

After twenty years it is time for something different and the hotel has just been sold. “It is, of course, a fantastic location. People come here to relax, to unwind. Almost everyone leaves here very positive. Tomorrow morning the sun will rise from the sea, that is a beautiful image. Sit on your roof terrace and watch it. The environment is amazing. You are very close to one of the most beautiful diving areas in the world. Banco Chinchorro, known for its many shipwrecks, is located 34 km offshore. The moon, the sea, the nature, the animals, the tranquility: this is a great hotel.” More information at

Steven van Beek
Steven van Beek
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