The Mayan Riviera that stretches south from Cancun all the way to the Mexican border with Belize is one of the fishiest stretches of Caribbean coastline there is, but escaping the throngs of tourists can be a real challenge. A decade ago, a short drive to Tulum was all it took to get away from the craziness and into some really great fly fishing. These days, though, Tulum can be just as chaotic as Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and there are more and more anglers plying the green Caribbean waters for bonefish, permit and tarpon. It pays to venture even a bit further.
Enter The Xflats, a stunning and remote fishing lodge located just a bit north of the little fishing village of Xcalak, which sits almost on the border with Belize. Tucked into the seaside jungle, The Xflats faces the Caribbean, but a short panga ride will find fly fishers wonderfully isolated in the protected waters of Chetumal Bay.
Given the sheer size of Chetumal Bay and its access to a virtually unlimited sea-side flats complex, The Xflats offers anglers a truly special fly-fishing experience and a solid shot at recording a "grand slam" — the documented catch and release of a bonefish, a permit and a tarpon. The Xflats employs a stable of quality local fly-fishing guides. Some, like Nato, the fishing don of Chetumal Bay, have decades of experience in these waters.
Bonefish swim right off the beach at the lodge, but the real treat for sight-casting flats anglers is to tangle with them on the flats of the bay. Schools of hundreds move from flat to flat and through the mangrove creeks of the bay. Larger fish in the 5-pound range tend to ghost through the flats in smaller groups — usually in pairs or in threes. These fish can be found tight to mangroves, and The Xflats guides know where to find them. A good cast will up your odds, but for seasoned flats fishers, tying into these hard-fighting fish is a virtual guarantee in the waters in and around Chetumal Bay.
Permit, too, cruise over the turtle grass on the Caribbean side of the little peninsula where The Xflats is situated, and they are predictably belligerent. Anglers who have targeted permit in the past will be surprised by a couple of things when chasing this prized game fish with The Xflats as home base. First, the sheer numbers of fish will raise eyebrows. It's not uncommon to see 30 or 40 permit in a day. Second, they seem to be just about anywhere. They turn up right off the dock at the lodge, and you'll see them show up out of nowhere while you're stalking bonefish on shin-deep flats.
Finally, the tarpon of Chetumal Bay and the inshore reaches of the far southern Yucatan are as wily as they are plentiful. Sometimes anglers will find them rolling right off the town dock in Xcalak, and sometimes, they hover over freshwater inflows of the cenotes that keep Chetumal Bay's waters bright and clean. And they come in all sizes, from 80-pound behemoths to 10-pound juveniles. Tarpon fishing from The Xflats can be very good.
LODGING: Guest rooms at Xflats are roomy and comfortable, and all include an en suite bathroom and a balcony or patio that overlooks the sea. The grounds are manicured and maintained daily by an attentive local staff, making it easy to wander along the beach with a fresh cocktail or challenge your fishing buddy to a game of cornhole after a day on the flats. The main lodge hall houses both the cozy bar and the spacious dining hall, as well as a lounge area for guests who want to catch up on the news or sports scores from back home. It also features a handy fly-tying station for replenishing the flies lost during a day on the bay.
FOOD/DRINK: Meals at Xflats are wonderful, and include lots of locally sourced seafood—from snapper and grouper to lobster and shrimp. Prepared by local cooks in traditional fashion, meals are filling and absolutely delicious. Breakfasts range from chilaquiles to good old bacon and eggs.Lunches are eaten on the boat and ordered up the evening before. Occasionally, guides will provide delightful home-cooked meals made by them or their wives. Pre-dinner appetizers, like fresh ceviche, come out of the kitchen about an hour or so before the main course — typical dinners feature inventive seafood, chicken and pork dishes — and complimentary margaritas are served then, too.
CONNECTIVITY: The lodge has satellite internet that's generally dependable. There is some cell service available in Xcalak, and don't be surprised, while you're out fishing, to suddenly hear the phone you left on in your dry bag start to chirp and vibrate. Some rogue cell signals from Belize will turn up now and then.
Having flown in the night before, your shuttle driver will meet you at your hotel bright and early for the five-hour ride to Xcalak and The Xflats lodge. You'll travel through the resort towns of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, adding in a stop for lunch and a cold beer. Then you're in the hinterlands of southern Mexico, the tourism chaos in the rearview mirror. You'll make another stop in Mahahual for fresh chicharrones and another cold beer or two. The last leg of the trip — a 45-minute cruise down a paved two-lane road — cuts through the jungle, and you finally arrive in the little fishing village of Xcalak. A few minutes later, your driver pulls into the manicured grounds of the lodge. Time for a margarita and dip your toes in the Caribbean. You're here.
One of the lodge's knowledgeable guide teams has you in the panga at 8 a.m. sharp, and your motoring south. A quick cut through a very fishy channel gives you your first look at the vast, green waters of Chetumal Bay. Minutes later, you're on the bow of the panga, and your assistant guide is standing next to you, helping you strip fly line off your reel. Your guide is atop the platform, poling you across an idyllic tropical flat.
It doesn't take long. "There!" your guide says, "Two bonefish, 11 o'clock." The assistant guide at your side points off into the water, and there, tucked up next to a tuft of mangroves, you see them. Two very respectable bones slide effortlessly through the crystal-clear water.
"Cast your line," your guide says. You've been practicing, which is a good thing. A quick backcast to load the rod, and you send your Gotcha flying. It lands four feet ahead of the cruising fish.
"Strip. Strip," your guide says from the platform. "Strip. Set!"
The line goes tight, and your first Chetumal Bay bonefish charges off into the ether as you clear line and let it run. It's bonefishing at its finest.
You're back on the bow of the panga bobbing across a complex of turtle-grass flats in about five or six feet of water. Now, it's a waiting game. Minutes go by. Nothing. More minutes. You keep staring off into the blue-green waters of the Caribbean, hoping that the guide's fish-eye is better than yours. A few more minutes go by. And, then, chaos.
"There's a school 200 feet out coming right at you!" your guide half shouts and half whispers. "Get ready. They're coming." It's the moment you've been waiting for. Your shot at one of the most-prized game fish on the planet.
Finally, you see a sickle-shaped fin break the surface, and there they are, having closed to within 30 feet ...
Your guide steers the panga through the cut, and then he opens up the motor and off you go into the backcountry. The ride is longer this morning, which gives you more time to ponder the merits of you saltwater fly cast. About 30 minutes slip by, and then the boat slows, and your guide slides the panga into a little lagoon.
"Cenoté," he says, pointing tight to the mangroves. There, you can see where a cool-water spring flows into the bay, and circling that spring is a mass of baitfish, small jacks and the ever-present needlefish. "The tarpons ... they like it here," your guide says. And, within minutes of taking the casting platform, you're staring at a chain of about six 20-pound tarpon moving around the edges of the spring.
"Get ready," your guide says, as he turns the stern of the boat to give you the best casting angle. "OK, cast."
Bonefish, permit and tarpon. You've tried them all. Now what? Your guide, Balbino, suggests a bit of a boat ride into the wilderness of Chetumal Bay to look for bigger bones, and, if you're lucky, a permit. And, if those two come together, you can spend the afternoon looking for tarpon. How cool would a Grand Slam be?
As the boat cruises over the flat water of Chetumal Bay, you drift off a bit and start to imagine catching all three trophy species in a single day. Before you know it, the engine quiets and Balbino directs you to the bow of the boat. You're up. Can your Grand Slam dreams come true?
Your guide motors the panga seaside this morning, north about 20 minutes and then cuts the engine. He poles you toward the beach as you climb onto the platform.
"This is where we see big bonefish," he says. "Eight pounds or so." That's a big bonefish anywhere, but especially big for this part of the Caribbean. The bones you cast to the other day might have been half that big, and your guide says they were respectable fish.
As you drift along the beach, you take in a wildlife wonderland. A sea turtle swims under the boat followed by a pair of giant eagle rays. And then you see them — a dozen or so dark shapes moving up the beach, tails catching the sunlight. Without a word from the guide, you send your Crazy Charlie toward the school, and in seconds your hooked up. It's not an 8-pounder, but it's big, and if it has its way, it'll be in Belize if you don't put the hammer down and get it on the reel.
It's your last day at The Xflats, and you find yourself oddly sated, yet regretful at the same time. You just spent a week fly fishing in Mexican paradise, and the thought or returning to your "real life" is a bit much. So you don't think about it.
Instead, you ask the guide to steer you back into the vast expanse of Chetumal Bay, where, with your fish-eye fully dialed in, you spend your final day on the casting platform putting an exclamation point on your trip to the Yucatan. More bones. More shots at permit. More shots at high-flying tarpon.
You'll be back. No doubt about it.
- Guided fishing Fully guided skiff and walk-and-wade fishing
- Lodging Classy, rustic-Caribbean accommodations.
- Meals Delicious, locally-sourced meals; vegetarian options available; daily appetizers.
- Beverages Non-alcoholic beverages and daily pre-dinner margaritas; cash bar
- Ground transporation Complimentary shuttle from your hotel in Cancun to The Xflats
- Fishing licenses All needed fishing licenses are included
Guests traveling to Xflats fly into Cancun (CUN). From the airport, an included shuttle will transfer you along the busy Riviera Maya, past both Play del Carmen and Tulum and off to southern Mexico until you arrive at Xcalak and the lodge.