El Camaleón Golf Course is one part jungle, one part mangrove forest and one part Caribbean Sea. This 7,100-yard (6,461-meter) ecological trilogy is a once in a lifetime golf thriller comprised of landscape freaks of nature, exotic people, friendly wildlife, and oceanfront vistas that are worthy of the Louvre.
Golf legend Greg Norman, or the “Shark,” shattered a myth when he carved a golf course from the deepest part of the Playa Del Carmen jungle. He left no doubt that one can “go green” and still create a world-class golf experience.
In 2007, its first year in existence, Golf Magazine declared El Camaleón “Best International Course.” The same year, the new home of the PGA’s Mayakoba Classic was honored with a rare Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certification.
This cenoté, a gaping cavern of an underground limestone shell hovering atop a running, is an example of the unusual landscaping on this Greg Norman designed course.
Why all the fuss? On the first hole, before having time to adjust the GPS on your state-of-the art golf cart, golfers witness their initial “only at El Camaleón” moment. On the second shot of the 532-yard (484-meter) Par 5, be prepared to stare down a yawningly monstrous cenoté (“see-no-tay.”)
What is a cenoté? This uniquely Yucatan gaping cavern is an underground limestone shell hovering atop a running stream.
During the construction of El Camaleón, this particular cenoté was discovered beneath the ground of what was to become the first hole fairway.
One choice was to blanket the cenoté with the most beautiful green tones of paspalum fairway grass you have ever seen. But Greg Norman’s design mantra is one of least disturbance. Norman decided to preserve the cenoté and make it a course feature that golfers won’t find anywhere else on the planet. Score one for the Shark.
The second hole, a 142-yard (129-meter) Par 3, includes a skittishly friendly family of iguanas near the second green. Directly behind the green and near the third tee box, is another cenoté. Are you getting the picture here? At El Camaleón, golfers become real-life characters in a National Geographic documentary.
Your personal fact-is-stranger-than-fiction account of 18 holes will have friends back home wondering if, before the round, you sampled the tequila bar at the nearby Fairmont Mayakoba Hotel.
When trying to describe the feel of El Camaleon’s front nine, check the Mexican translation guide for the words “jungle” and “serenity.” Beyond the abundant bird life, iguanas and occasional meercat, what is notable is the quiet of the surroundings. Silence is golden in this mutual admiration society featuring you, the wildlife, and this awesome natural setting.
Eco-friendly travel is available at both the Fairmont Mayakoba and El Camaleón.
The blissful tranquility of the opening holes eventually gives way to a symphony of chirping frogs. This cheerful chorus is a golfer’s first clue that he or she is entering the mangrove portion of El Camaleón.
Beginning on the eighth hole, golfers are flanked by thick clusters of mangrove trees standing shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the fairway.
The commitment to the mangrove by El Camaleón and the Fairmont Mayakoba is significant. Prior to construction, environmental experts stressed that replenishment of the mangroves was non negotiable.
In Playa Del Carmen, the trees are an integral link between land and sea. The mangroves not only serve as a buffer during hurricane season, but their impact on the overall eco-system is essential. This is especially true for the area’s pristine coral reef, one that is the second largest in the world. Today, the benefits of the decision to preserve the mangrove are evident in a golf environment that is thriving with life.
The course’s mangrove and palm trees bow to the ocean on the show-stopping 15th hole. In shades of ultra blue, the Caribbean Sea frames the putting green on this 144-yard (131-meter) Par 3. Upon completing your round, the 15th is where you’ll recall the course living up to its heritage. Like the reptile it’s named after, El Camaleón is a course of many colors.
Just when you thought El Camaleón had finally outdone itself, golfers encounter the 17th hole. At first glance, the 386-yard (351-meter) Par 4 is rather unassuming. But then, to the left of the tee box, is a small electric boat channeling quietly along a canal. This vision of a gondolier navigating a boat with a thatched roof seems like a scene out of Humphrey Bogart’s African Queen.
Surprisingly, these miles of meandering canals are man-made. In fact, the building of the canals took six long years. The canals of El Camaleón and the Fairmont hotel properties create an aura reminiscent of ancient Italy. The presence of the canals translates to the area being heralded as the “Venice of the Mayan Riviera.”
Las Brisas Terrace Bar, at neighboring Fairmont Mayakoba, is a great place to unwind and reflect on the golf game when finished.
The perfect capper to a round at El Camaleón is to head to Las Brisas Terrace bar at neighboring Fairmont Mayakoba.
Following a round of golf that left your senses on overdrive, you can’t help but appreciate the gorgeous elevated view of this quaint outdoor bar.
This open-air emporium creates no walls between you, the white sand beach below, and water that is bluer than blue.
Have the bartender pour you a frosty cold beer with a lime.
After savoring every ounce of the cerveza, sit back and reflect on your once in a lifetime round of golf.
If You Go
Mayakoba Golf Classic
Greg Norman Golf Course Design
Tim Cotroneo is a freelance writer from St. Paul, MN, with a passion for golf and a future Caribbean zip code.
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