I am sitting in the living room, computer on my lap and lights dimmed. The warm breeze blows through the curtains and the sound of the sensual Latin rumba band playing live in a restaurant downstairs wafts up to my balcony. The taste of red wine lingers in my mouth, reminding me to take another sip of my cabernet sauvignon from Baja California.
This is Playa Del Carmen.
I could say that I have never felt so relaxed outside of my own country before, but the truth is, quite surprisingly to myself, I haven’t felt too uncomfortable in all my time away. However what I can say is that I never thought I would feel like I could stay in a place and disregard my plans to continue further.
I arrived in Playa del Carmen three weeks ago, after a long bus ride from Chichen Itza. To my horror, I had lost my travel card loaded with half my travel funds and 2000 pesos of cash, leaving me with with less than I needed to pay the cabbie and a limited list of restaurants to eat that would accept credit card. (I later found both items stashed in a hurry in a side pocket of my backpack, an action I had warned myself not to do, for this very reason!)
I had been hooked up with a studio apartment through a contact of the dive centre before arriving in PDC. It was located in the neighbourhood of Colosio, about 2km from the busy touristic centre and far more local, with only a 300m walk to a secluded beach and only a 15 minute bike ride to the action if necessary. Unfortunately I learned that as a person fairly new to bike-riding and VERY new to the heat of Yucatan, it required a pretty good reason to get the motivation to ride a bike to town (those reasons being usually food or alcohol). I realised that if I’m removed from the general populace, I can stay that way for days, needing only wine, weed, whatsapp and Netflix to keep me company. I visited my scuba dive centre with whom I was going to do my rescue diver course, and got the paperwork and theory started, only to be disappointed when a 5 day stint of hurricane-style weather closed the ports and rendered me home-bound for the rest of the week, trying to accustom myself to the lack of air conditioning in my otherwise paradise-like studio apartment.
Since then, I have moved to an air-conditioned airbnb apartment around the corner from my dive shop, and two doors down from the famous touristic 5th Avenue. I couldn’t focus on my diving theory books in the oven heat that was my bedroom and I was falling into an unsociable hole caused by being too far from the centre. It is from here that I write. Ironically, I don’t need the air-conditioning anymore and I avoid going to the 5th as much as humanly possible.
Why? Let me tell you.
La Quinta Avenida
5th Avenue is the glitzy shopping, restaurant and bars district. Pharmacies, USA dollar ATMS, tour agencies and tequila shops line the streets for 3km. You can’t walk half a block without being called out to by street vendors trying to pull you into their shop, sell you a tour or, if you’re lucky, try to offer their services as a “temporary Mexican boyfriend”. We have come to call this street ‘the gauntlet’, defined as ‘an intimidating or frightening thing that must be endured.’ The fifth avenue is not frightening, but a blonde female foreigner needs to keep her head down and ignore the calls of street vendors. TIP: Use headphones. Even when I have no music playing, it works a treat.
I did open my mind one night and got into a conversation with two street vendors dressed as Spiderman and Venom, sitting on the curbside having a smoke with their masks off. That night turned into 8 hours of drinking at their hostel until 5am, surrounded by Mexicans from all states, an interesting lesson of Mexican slang indeed.
The sad reality is that whilst PDC was once a beautiful paradise for beach-goers and divers, commercialisation and American-owned housing developments have stripped Playa Del Carmen of everything authentically Mexican, leaving a fairly soul-less town centre and smaller shops with numbered days before they can no longer afford the astronomical rents of the glitter strip.
Taxis in PDC
I know that taxi drivers don’t have the best of reputations in any place, but here they take it to the next level. Taxis are a formidable force here, taking over the fifth avenue like mafia and blocking the arrival of Uber (sorry, Uber fans). If you take a taxi anywhere near the fifth avenue, you’ll be charged double or even triple in some places. If you are a tourist, taxis driver will charge you extra and make no secret of it (when challenging this rule, I was told that if I didn’t like Mexico, I should go back to me own country Now I know how immigrants feel when they are told similar atrocities in Australia). Do not take taxis from the main areas like the bus station either – walk a block or two for a cheaper price and always ask them the price before getting into the car. At the end of the day, however, taxis are cheaper in Mexico than probably anywhere in the world, so if you’re like me, yo’ll find yourself walking home in the rain with bags of groceries after refusing the extra 20 pesos, which after converting you realise foolishly that you’d argued over $2.00.
Other living hints I’ve discovered about Playa
- Mamita’s beach, the most renowned beach club here in Playa is full of beach beds, tourists and pumping music, and it’s not even high season yet. The best beaches are far away from the centre, less touched by tourism.
- There aren’t big supermarkets in each neighbourhood. There’s a 1 block area close to the centre with 3 major supermarkets and the rest of the time you head to a local mini mart or the ever-present Oxxo convenience store on every corner.
- Good luck finding a place with an oven.
- You may, like me, not be able to handle the heat, but when you discover the price of electricity in Mexico an the fact that most apartments will charge up to $5 USD per day, you become accustomed quicker than you’d ever expected.
- To buy anything, stay away from the 5th Avenue. In fact, if you are not here for nightlife, souvenirs or to take a picture with Spiderman or Beetlejuice, there’s no need to touch 5th Avenue after your first stroll. You’d be best spending your time finding street food stands and local taco restaurants in other neighbourhoods.
Tulum Ruins and Traveller Reunions
Playa is not only known for its beach and party scene, but also for its incredible proximity to other incredible places in the state of Quintana Roo. I met up with fellow traveller Cesar, a Texan with Mexican origins and definitely Mexican drinking habits, whom I had met at my hostel in Puerto Vallarta. We had plans to wake up early, catch the sunrise on the beach before renting a car and heading to the architectural ruins of Coba and Tulum, followed by an afternoon fishing trip.
I should have known that with Cesar, there’s no such thing as an éarly night’or ‘just one drink’. We sat at the bar on our swing seats and mixed with hostel folk, Cesar successfully managing to convince the beautiful Argentinian bartender to join us on the next day’s fishing boat. I ended up stumbling home after 4 mojitos, a tequila and who-knows how many mezcals. We both woke up way too late for the sunrise or Coba, but we headed straight to Tulum.
WARNING: If you ever go to the Tulum ruins, ignore the vendors at the entrance selling you tours for $79USD because the “line is a 45 minute wait”. The line took less than 2 minutes and it cost 70 Mexican pesos ($3USD).
It’s an amazing site with so many still intact structures, and the fact that it’s by the Caribbean sea is a plus. The Mayans really knew how to snap up the best real estate with an ocean view. The afternoon was spent on a fishing boat, getting to know our new Argentinian friends, experiencing the sport of fishing in Playa and learning to accept that not all fishing is greedy evil corporations looking to trawl everything from the ocean.
Things not to miss in Quintana Roo
- Climb the great pyramid of Coba – the largest Mayan structure that you can still climb.
- If you can handle an early morning, head to Tulum’s Paradise Beach (Playa Paraiso) to watch a spectacular sunrise.
- Come between June and September to snorkel with the gentle giant whale sharks.
- If you’re into theme parks, Xcaret is a massive attraction park with underground rivers and a spectacular evening performance of Mexican culture.
- If you’re into the local scene, head to the neighbourhood of Colosio on a Sunday to find their weekly market, selling clothes, delicious-looking food and other goods that will be far cheaper (and more negotiable) than in the 5th.
- I’m not much into the party scene, but if nightlife and surfing is for you, take a bus an hour north to the larger beachside city of Cancun.
- Head to a beach a bit further away from the centre, like Xul-Ha for some peace and tranquillity.
- Dive or snorkel in the beautiful underground freshwater cenotes.
- Take a ferry over to Cozumel Island, where there is some of the best diving in Mexico.
- If you’re up for a longer road trip, head down to the beautiful paradise of Bacalar, close to the Belize border, or Holbox island up north in Yucatan.
- Come diving with me on the reefs in Playa! That story up next.
I have grown up in a beach-side touristic city, in Australia called the Gold Coast, and I moved away with such enthusiasm that I never thought I would return to a place like that. The differences between then and now are many. I’m now at an age where I feel more self confident to ignore the falsity of this type of town. Here I’m alone and discovering a new culture and practising Spanish, a language I adore. I enjoy heading out every day and chatting with the locals who know me now not as a temporary one-week tourist, but as an expat who works in the area. I feel proud to be recognised by the manager of the cafe downstairs, the instructors in the dive shop a block from my house, and even the local taxi drivers who park on the street waiting to charge tourists through the nose to go 2 blocks.
However above all, what draws me to this place is that I have found my place in the world as a scuba diver, and I’m in the perfect place in the Mexican Caribbean to pursue that dream.
That chapter coming soon.