September 22 – October 20, 2016 (Hurricane season)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 180 days
Cost of living: Low
Playa del Carmen used to be a sleepy little fishing village on the Gulf Coast, but it has since developed into one of Mexico’s go-to tourist beaches. While it hasn’t reached Cancún-levels of development, it is growing in that direction. Several all-inclusive resorts on the beaches around Playa keep at least some visitors outside of the town and in their own bubble, but the city core is nonetheless very, very touristy.
However, straying more than a block or two in any direction from that center, we began to glimpse a more authentic Mexican experience. Once we moved past the overpriced tourist restaurants and tchotchke vendors, we found mind-blowing street foods to eat and quiet beaches all to ourselves.
Where we stayed
We stayed in an Airbnb↗ 20 minutes’ walk up the coast from downtown, square between the touristy core and the resorts that stretch north from the town along the “Riviera Maya.” The apartment was a split-level, and borderline tiny (even for us!). A kitchen and living room made up the first floor, which was only about 11 feet by 10, and the bedroom and bathroom occupied the same space on the second. A narrow, rail-less staircase connected the two. Fortunately, we also had access to a roof deck, which was a perfect vantage point for watching sunrises and sunsets, passing ships and periodic storms. An open hole in the floor as a bedroom door was a bit of a drawback for us since we tend to operate on slightly different schedules: downstairs lights and sounds easily made their way upstairs to disturb the other’s sleep. On the other hand, the hurricane shutters did an excellent job of blocking out unwanted light in the daytime. Luckily, we never had to use them for their intended purpose – the weather was idyllic the entire month.
As seems to be common in the tropics, our kitchen lacked an oven. Add to that one of the two gas burners didn’t work, and we were left improvising a lot of one-pan meals. We were also missing a microwave, which always makes food planning more challenging: harder to re-heat meals, harder to make coffee in the morning… harder in general. Still, we made do with simple dishes that capitalized on fresh ingredients and only required one or two heated components. We had plenty of pots and pans to go around, it was only a matter of juggling the burner space.
Two months in Asia had prepared us for the onslaught of ants we would face. Ziploc bags were a top priority on our arrival shopping list. Just about every food item needed to be kept in one, whether to combat critters or humidity. The ants in Playa were thorough investigators, arriving daily to inspect our counters and trash. As in Malaysia↗, they also roamed around the bathroom, trying to decide if sunscreen and soaps were edible or not. Our preparation paid off, though, and we never found any of our food compromised by foragers.
Playa was another place with questionable tap water, and our first ever stay with plumbing that couldn’t handle toilet paper. The water issue was easy enough, we simply walked down to the closest convenience store for a couple of 5-liter jugs of inexpensive bottled water every few days. We used the tap water for brushing teeth and (thoroughly boiled) for making food without issue. The toilet paper took more getting used to; it was against most of our ingrained hygienic tendencies to toss it into a bin next to the toilet rather than disappear it down the tubes. We respected the local system though, and after a couple of days, we got more comfortable with the idea. It didn’t smell or attract insects, and we took out the trash frequently anyway (tropics) so this ended up being easy to get used to.
The apartment was a steal price-wise, but it came with a couple of stipulations. We did have to pay our utilities in cash at the end of our stay (only amounting to another $27). The washer we were expecting to use was broken and unavailable. Luckily, we found a lavanderia right on the corner, and on just about every other corner as well. The full-service laundromat washed, dried, and folded our clothes for next-day pickup, on average setting us back about $5 per week; lightweight summer clothes come in handy when you’re charged by the kilo!
Our rental did include Netflix, giving us a chance to catch up on a year of shows and movies we’d missed. The internet was strong enough to support streaming… for the most part. Playa isn’t known for having a reliable connection, and sure enough our service would cut out for a couple minutes multiple times an evening.
Looking down toward the water, we noticed our building was fronted by a fenced-in area that seemed part failed development and part squatter village. Half-finished concrete structures were surrounded by acres of trees and damp land that should have been a hotbed for mosquito breeding. The city fumigated regularly, though. We’d hear the lumbering trucks approaching with their telltale hiss roughly once a week. That, coupled with window screens and some friendly geckos, helped minimize the nuisances (though invariably a couple would still wriggle their way indoors during the evening). Bug spray came in handy for evening walks, but wasn’t a constant necessity.
While the location put us away from the most heavily-trafficked areas of Playa, it also meant we were far from grocery stores. Oxxo, a 7-Eleven-esque minimart, was the nearest place to buy food, but it was limited to fast snacks and a few basics like pasta and cooking oil. To get to larger supermarkets like Wal-Mart, Mega, or Aki took a lot more walking – 40 minutes or so – which was not so fun in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean.
What we did
Our month in Playa was a lazy one by design. We were coming off nearly seven months juggling work and sightseeing in Europe and the chance to relax on a warm, sandy beach sounded delightful. Playa del Carmen delivered. The beach was barely five minutes away, beautiful, and with soft sand perfect for long barefoot walks. We would rarely see more than a couple other people – someone teaching a toddler to swim here, a fisherman over there – and the rest of the waterfront to ourselves. The sand was not all that wide though, and a couple evenings we discovered we needed to rush to higher ground before the incoming tide inundated the beach.
To the north of our beach was a 5-star hotel complex (where one night cost as much as our entire 4-week stay), but the guests never strayed from their signed-off segment of waterfront. Further up was a natural spring that pumped out a steady, shallow stream of cool water, a favorite with families on the weekend. Vendors sold kebabs hot off the grill or walked up and down the beach offering drinks, fruit, or coconuts. To the south, the beach stretched clear downtown, and was our favorite way to get there while avoiding the pushy salespeople on Calle Quinta Avenida. That street was perfectly pleasant near our house, running alongside the fenced-in trees that separated it from the shore on one side and lined with charming murals on the other. But from Av. C.T.M. straight through to Playacar, the street was wall-to-wall tourist shops and shouting hawkers. By the three-hundredth catcall of “honeymooooners?!” we were one-upping each other with comebacks. “Not for a long time.” “Yes, but not with each other.” “Celebrating our divorce, actually!” Mostly we just avoided that part of town, turning off of 5th at C.T.M. and opting for the much more peaceful 10 Avenida Nte.
There was a particularly fluid bend in the shoreline around Calle 48 Nte. that seemed to keep most folks from venturing north our way. We watched it erode away completely over our stay, starting as a small sandbar with the occasional high wave we had to dodge, then evolving into a series of above-water rocks we had to hop across, and finally ending up a shallow sea we simply had to wade through to keep going. The downtown beaches were a world apart, swimming with drunk and loud party goers, huge clans playing some sport or another, and an infinite matrix of beach chairs associated with each waterfront hotel. We very much preferred our scenic and serene little section of the surf.
Our one big outing was a day trip via ferry to Cozumel. The island, about thirty minutes away by boat, has a slightly different vibe than the mainland. The town of San Miguel de Cozumel is about half the size of Playa and even more tourist-focused, especially targeting the thousands of cruise ship passengers that disembark each day. The main square and side streets were full of small shops, bakeries, and local churches. We stopped in for a free tequila tasting, listening to the sales spiel and enjoying the product, but taking a bottle with us was a bit out of our price range. We may have enjoyed the ferry ride the most. It was full of sun and warm breezes, very unlike our experiences crossing Puget Sound in Washington state. The azure of the sea was otherworldly. On the return journey we spotted flying fish gliding alongside the boat.
Many people day-trip to Chichen Itza from Playa, but since we would be staying in Mérida the following month, we opted to save that experience for later↗.
Food & Drink
We ate a lot of meals made in our kitchen, shopping for our ingredients at the larger stores in town. Wal-Mart and Mega had the best selection and catered to tourists as well as locals, featuring snacks imported from the United States and lots of local fruits, salsas, and tequilas. It was the first time in quite a while that we had seen Pop-tarts or Cool Ranch Doritos. However, they were also the most work to get to, at least 40 minutes of walking away. Soriana and Super Aki were a slightly more reasonable 25 minutes away, and were mostly free of neon souvenirs and full-aisle displays of sunscreen. We ran to Oxxo (just a few blocks away in any direction) for a staple or two, but they generally carried little in the way of healthy or hearty foods, and many even failed even to stock beer.
It’s a little cliché, but the tacos were incredible. Our very first night in town – after a full day of travel from Estonia↗ – we treated ourselves to seafood tacos in the tourist center at Puerto Cocina Urbana. They were delicious and the restaurant had a collection of tasty craft beers that we saw nowhere else. Sadly, the meal cost almost as much as a US restaurant. After that, we got wise and either ate tacos from food carts near the groceries or made them ourselves. Hands down the best pork tacos we had were sold to the left of Soriana from a roadside cart. Two each were enough to stuff us, and they were only about a dollar apiece.
Food trucks and kiosks were nearly guaranteed to be good. The longer the line, the larger the satisfied-looking crowd, the better. Our favorites were grilled sausages outside the Mega, the aforementioned tacos outside Soriana, and sandwiches and fresh juice from a stall in a car wash parking lot on 10 Avenida.
The other restaurants we tried in Playa’s tourist core (there were only a couple – one for a small Oktoberfest celebration and another to catch a Cubs game during the playoffs) disappointed. The quality of the food was dismal, even if the service was pretty decent. We were happier practicing our Spanish at the food trucks and dealing with the funny looks, even when we weren’t always sure what we were ordering – it was always great!
Snack choices were similar to the States. Lots of chips, cereals, ice cream. Frit-os are the local corn chip, slightly distinct from their US counterparts, and their lime flavor was the best. Lime was a common flavoring for chips and snacks, almost to its own detriment. Tangy and exciting at first, we grew sick of the citrusy onslaught after the first few weeks and had trouble getting away from it. Pan de muerto or conchas made good breakfast snacks – both are puffy, sugary breads that pair well with coffee. Charitos, cheesy cracker puffs, won the bland-but-addictive crunch prize.
We took advantage of the supply of fresh avocados by whipping up lots of guacamole and topping all manner of meals with avocado slices.
Hot salsas (both the Spanish definition of any sauce and the narrower English interpretation of chunky nacho dip) were everywhere. After a so many months of spiceless Central and Eastern European food, we celebrated the opportunity to have some heat in our food again. Mexico gladly indulged, and peppers were as ubiquitous as lime. Mole was generally the most mellow sauce, what with the chocolate and relative lack of piquant peppers, and was especially good on chicken.Tequila is a big deal in Mexico, and the local brands blew away our preconceived notions – it turns out no salt licking or lime sucking is required to savor the good stuff. Still, we tend to prefer beer and wine. Decent beers were thin on the ground, sadly. Most supermarkets stocked the same macrobrews: Corona, Modelo, Sol, Pacifico, Tecate, Dos Equis. Bohemia was the only one with any flavor we could find with consistency. Even going out of our way, we found few craft beers. Cerveza Artesanal Pescadores was one of the few and the proud we enjoyed on the coast (though we had somewhat better luck with the selection in Mérida↗).
We had never tried or even seen a Mexican wine before, but we quickly learned that Mexico is indeed a wine-growing nation. The climate is of course not ideal for it, with only a few pockets in the northern and more mountainous regions producing any real volume. Quality ranged from downright terrible to pretty okay. The most reliable value brand was Cuatro Soles, inexpensive and inoffensive. In general, this was not our best month for wine or beer.
Flying into Cancún, it was simple to take an ADO bus from the airport to the bus station in downtown Playa (this blog post↗ helped us find our way). From there, we caught an overpriced taxi at the stand outside. We could have paid less by simply walking up the street a few blocks, but after a full day of travel and walking out into the thick heat and humidity with our heavy packs, we didn’t have the energy to fight being scalped for 6 bucks instead of 2. Uber serves Cancún↗ and Mérida but not yet Playa. There’s strong resistance to the service among local taxi drivers, presumably because it would drastically cut in on their ability to take advantage of tourists.
Despite the high temperatures, we walked just about everywhere. We tried to go out in the morning or evening to get a little respite from the heat. It is worth noting that there were quite a few stray dogs wandering the city. For the most part, they seemed more interested in each other or discarded food than in us. Still, coming across a pack of three or four roaming around after the sun set did not inspire confidence.
Most streets have sidewalks, though in our neighborhood they tended toward uneven. The might be overtaken by cars or trees or lounging dogs we wished to avoid. Crosswalks exist, but they are generally the loosest of suggestions. Like locals, we darted across whenever there was a break in traffic. Drivers seemed to respect pedestrians more than signals, so we trusted our bodies more than streetlights and painted lines.
At the end of our stay, we flagged down a (much cheaper and more honest) taxi to take us to the ADO station to catch our inter-city bus to Mérida.
Stuff of interest
Our choice for mobile provider↗ was Telcel. We bought 2 chips with a few hundred megabytes of data apiece for $8. Recargas could be had at almost any minimart. We would simply read off our phone number and hand over a round number of currency, and within seconds of keying the info in on the register, we’d have notifications on our phone of the transaction’s success.
Using Duolingo, we started learning Spanish a few months before our arrival in Mexico. We knew we’d be staying around Latin America for several months and wanted to be as conversant as possible. Embarrassingly, while we had a grasp on the most basic vocabulary and conjugations, our pronunciation was abysmal and we had zero confidence. It was also difficult to use day-to-day in Playa since everyone recognized us as tourists and defaulted to what English they had – which was, at the time, universally better than our Spanish. Even when we tried to respond in Spanish, they would wave us off. During our stay in Mérida, we took an intensive week-long course that gave us much more mastery over the language (and the confidence to use it), arguably the single most useful thing we did to prepare us for the following 6 months.
We visited one book exchange in town, and there were several other places to get English-language books (though most selections skewed toward mass-market beach reads). One at the Casa Amarilla Club de Idiomas received a huge donation of books with a surprisingly good selection of literature and new novels. We traded up with a few we had finished.
Most businesses were happy to take US dollars, at a terrible exchange rate of course. It was much cheaper for us to pay in Mexican pesos. The ATMs in the tourist area on Calle Quinta Avenida often defaulted to US dollars, and charged hefty fees for the “convenience.” On top of that, we found out through various expat groups on Facebook that they were notorious for being compromised, riddled with skimmers and serviced by shady, fly-by-night companies. We opted instead for ATMs in bank lobbies, where we could withdraw pesos at a fair exchange rate, securely and without worry of skimmers (though we always jiggled the card slot, just to be sure).
Our flight into Mexico passed over the Eastern seaboard of the United States, the closest we’ve been to our home country since we left in December 2015. We quickly recognized the distinctive border between Quebec and Maine, and even flew right by the nation’s capitol.
What we learned
Sunscreen is an absolute necessity for us, being relatively pale people. We saw people every single day that looked like hairy glowing lobsters, and that was all the encouragement we needed to keep applying the SPF 50.