It has just started misting on an overcast early morning at El Camaleón Golf Club, and it feels like the sky’s wringing itself out after torrential rainstorms the night before. I’m 208 yards from the green after my drive on Hole 13, and the Titleist 3-wood in my borrowed bag seems like a solid choice given my lie, so I push aside our cart’s rain curtains to grab it and step up to the ball. I’m playing with a translucent turquoise one that’s exuding colorful Mexico vibes and shows up beautifully against the carpet-like green fairways.
Taking care to complete a controlled, full shoulder turn, I watch my ball sail toward the green, stopping about 8 feet from the cup—and clapping ensues. The sound of celebration is coming from a young boy, crossing the adjacent bridge over the mangroves on his bike, who’d paused to watch what had turned out to be one of proudest shots ever. Smiling and giving him a small wave, I think to myself that this is one of those golf memories that will stick in my mind forever, as he hops back on two wheels and pedals off.
He was probably en route back to Banyan Tree Mayakoba, one of four luxury resorts (also including Rosewood, Fairmont and Andaz-branded properties) that make up the Mayakoba development near Playa del Carmen in Mexico. It’s named for the Mayan word that translates to “village over the water,” which describes it perfectly. Woven into the center of it all is El Camaleón, the Greg Norman-designed jewel that blends seamlessly into the surrounding jungle-like ecosystem. It was the first PGA TOUR golf course in Latin America when it opened in 2006 and has hosted the annual World Wide Technology Championship every fall since 2007. While it’s open to the public, guests of any Mayakoba resort get priority tee times and discounted green fees.
El Camaleón’s impressive Koba Club House, which overlooks the 18th hole, feels nearly like a spa, impressing with a signature scent and sleek, modern interiors from your first step inside. There’s plenty of comfortable seating for lacing up your golf shoes, a complimentary grab-and-go snack table, a full bar and a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs—offering an expansive breakfast and lunch menu of local cuisine, from chilaquiles to enchiladas—and even a billiards table so you can practice your shot after your round. Tread downstairs to find the pro shop, which offers a nice selection of apparel and gear, as well as high-quality rental clubs. You’ll want to reserve a tee time ahead of your arrival, as the starter and his staff are (appreciatively) strict about keeping everything moving on schedule.
While many beautiful golf courses feel like they could be plunked down in any pretty corner of the world, El Camaleón provides a strong sense of place. Mayakoba is a sanctuary for more than 200 species of exotic birds, as well as many unique animals (we were lucky enough to spot two monkeys upon our arrival) that are right at home at El Camaleón. After a few holes, you get used to the blaring calls from chachalacas, scuttles of prehistoric-looking iguanas and sly scurrying of coatis, bushy-tailed native mammals similar to racoons.
On No. 7, tee off quickly so you can spend a few extra minutes checking out the fascinating cenote right in the center of the fairway. It appears it could reach down to the center of the earth (trust me: If you hit inside here, there’s no retrieving your ball), and the sound of constant water dripping softly inside is so soothing, it again reminds me of a spa. It’s easy to get caught up in watching and listening to the wildlife and taking in the scenery as you play, just the right amount of distraction to get you out of your own head to play good golf.
Though many holes on the course are laden with fairway and greenside sand traps or border Mayakoba’s canals lined with thickets of mangroves, it’s relatively easy to score well at El Camaleón, which is just over 7,000 yards, if you can keep the ball in play. Though we appreciated our cart outfitted with GPS, the course is mostly flat and would be easy to walk on a day that’s not hot and humid. A round goes by quickly and is delightfully fun, especially hole No. 15, a short par-3 that borders the beach. I can taste the salt on my lips as I grab my ball from the cup (par!), which has me nearly ready for a celebratory cocktail.
After you finish out the final hole, a straight par-5 that ends right in front of the clubhouse, staff are quick to greet you with extra waters, club washing services and — my favorite — refreshing popsicles in flavors like coconut and lime. It’s a perfect segue to the 19th hole, which turns out to be a little outdoor beach bar called Deck 19 that’s serving an enticing selection of Mexican beers, snacks and of course, plenty of tequila.
While it would be easy to while away the afternoon here, it would also be a shame not to maximize time at one of Banyan Tree Mayakoba’s 34 new beachfront pool suites, unveiled in April 2021 as part of a $50 million expansion. After a quick 10-minute transport via golf cart from the course, we’re back at our home away from home. Staying—luxuriating, really—here means the most difficult decision you’ll make all day is whether to kick back in your private pool or stroll a short distance down the sand to loungers where you can order from the gorgeous new Sands Beach Club (highly recommend the Tajin-rimmed spicy margarita and pico-topped guacamole with tlayudas).
By summer 2022, you’ll also have the option to book one of seven new over-the-water villas on property, which will offer yet another exquisite way to stay. No matter which accommodation you book at Banyan Tree, the pillowy beds will provide a dreamy night’s rest, preparing you for another morning of teeing it up. Golf, beach, repeat: It’s the kind of day anyone could get used to.