Playa del Carmen: town
Quintana Roo, Mexico
There is a tendency today by many to look for an ideal place to live. Well, I found mine. My paradise is called Playa del Carmen. I invite you to peep into my private life, to reveal why.
At first sight Playa is just a tourist destination with turquoise sea and white sand beaches. But Playa is certainly more than that, if you look closer.
It does not mean it is perfect but it is as good as it gets. So follow my tale of my new home.
I arrived in Playa in December 2013, with my husband Rhod and our son Rhodri. We have chosen to live downtown, rather than a gated community in the residential zones of Playacar (preferred by many). So far we have lived in five apartments, as the long-term contracts are usually for 6 months. Our apartments varied; we started with 2 bedrooms and a pool, then when our son went back to Europe, we downsized. It all depends on your budget and where you want to be. Playa is a town of contrasts in the sense that there are plenty of luxurious apartments and houses on the seaside but the majority of the Mayan population lives in modest housing on the other side of the highway.
We are currently renting a loft studio in the centre (with a bedroom on the upstairs balcony). The trick is to find an apartment with windows opposite each other so you get a natural breeze, that keeps you cool inside. Sadly, the architects in Playa completely disregard the basic rules like that, but we managed. Our owners are Italian and they know about design.
My street is my life and we chose the location very carefully. My apartment is in Calle 4 (Street 4) and Avenida 40 (see the photos below). Pretty central and, above all, an authentic area, a bit of the old Mexico. My water aerobics class is in Hotel Casa Tucan pool, also on Calle 4. Our group is very mixed: Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, occasional French, English, Dutch, Slovak or Ukrainian. We also party and take day trips together. Some of the Americans stay in the hotel for six months and we mix our social life with them. If you have seen the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, you'll get the picture.
Our favourite pub is Manne's Biergarten, also on Calle 4. The German owner Manne serves the best draft beer in town (Germans know how to do it) and his pork roast, sausages and sauerkraut remind us of Europe. In our first year we took our Spanish classes next to the pub, at the language school Chichén Itzá. It is a family-run school and we really felt part of the owners' family, Alex and Yvonne. There are other language schools here but they are more corporate.
One of the best Italian restaurants in town, Romeo, is also next door to the school. My laundry is also in Calle 4. Near my house is the corner shop Oxxo. It is a true blessing to have a corner shop and they are open 24/7. You can top up your phone here, buy alcohol (except Sunday afternoons, as there is a special law in Playa for Sunday afternoon prohibition), pay all your domestic bills, do bank payments. A wonderful service and quite an institution! One day I will make a sitcom about Oxxo from standing in line here, watching life passing by, of all sectors of society. It is a miniature of Mexico!
My street has undergone some substantial changes in the last few years, due to the fast growth of the city. Playa is the fastest growing city in Latin America and Riviera Maya the fastest growing destination in the world. When we arrived in 2013, we were told: 'You should have been here 15 years ago, when it was a low-key fishing village'. Well, it is not a village any more; new hotels, condos, shops, schools and clinics appear daily. But it still has a village feel; I always bump into somebody I know when I step out.
My street currently has a cluster of ten small Mexican homes that have already been sold to create space for new developments (sad, really! And no idea where these poor souls will go). Their houses are deserted and in a terrible state right now but this will change within a year.
Playa is affordable (cheaper than the UK and the US) and offers high quality living. Other attributes? Warm climate, lovely beaches, and a laid-back environment. Playa is Mexico, by now a bit Americanised, with all the amenities and services you may need.
Playa is also a walkable city, yet another element that attracted us. We walk everywhere. That keeps us fit, which contributes to our daily good mood. The only downside is the state of the pavements. You have to watch where you are going to avoid holes and different levels of the pavements (each property builds and maintains their own pavement so they vary a lot in height and quality!). If there is heavy rain, the streets get a bit flooded. You need to wear rubber shoes on such days (the rainy season is mostly between June and October), or walk barefoot, like I do. It is literally a 'singing in the rain' scenario.
The warm climate is another thing that I love about Playa; the average year-round temperature is 29°C. I get up every morning and immediately have a happy grin on my face. That bright sea light coming through the window! I feel like I am on a holiday straight away. Just imagine being on a holiday every day of the year! In the summer the temperature does not get higher than 35°C. It is mostly the humidity that is a bother, though. We have learnt how to cope with it, more or less. For example, we go shopping in the early morning or late evening, to avoid the heat (and the crowds), and we always sit in the shade when on the beach. We still get a tan.
My local beach is at the end of Calle 4, where else? It is a 10-minute walk from my house. There are superb hotel beaches for the tourists, then the town beaches where us locals go for a dip and then there are fantastic beaches outside Playa where we tend to go for a day out. Whichever beach we choose, all have white soft sand and turquoise waters. Saying so, for the last two years the beaches have been inundated by large and smelly amounts of sea grass and the town is not always clearing it away. Also, the sewage infrastructure (which is generally not good here) is not coping with the new developments, so most of the town beaches have deteriorated in the last two years. We tend to choose places where the hotel or bar owners clean the beaches regularly.
When the sea grass arrives I avoid the main town beach between streets 4 to 10, and head instead to Playacar Phase 1 or the beach at Street 34 (both with no beach bars) or Mamitas beach (with a beach bar). Outside the city Xpu Ha and Akumal beaches are usually kept clean. The beaches are crowded, however, but you can still find quiet spots such as Esmeralda, Xcalacoco, Tankah Bay and Paamul. I like the beaches where locals go because I love the way they embrace the sea. The Maya come to the beach in family groups to have an all-day picnic (usually on Sundays). They take their grandmother into the sea by the hand, in her full clothes (they will dry fast). It is beautiful to see how they respect the elderly and help them. They are all covered in sand from top to toe, because they play with the children in the sand without worrying if they get dirty. They build sand pyramids (not sand castles). They laugh. They don't need the expensive lounge chairs to be happy on the beach. Their happiness comes from within.
My friends and neighbours
To be a friend, you need to be a friend yourself. If you think you are superior, the locals will feel it, but if you are genuine and not a bigot, they will love you. My best friend here is Mexican and I also befriended foreigners. As for the locals, Mexicans take pride in their country and they are really welcoming. If you walk a street, you will get smiles and greetings from them, something that is not common any more in England or Europe. If you live downtown like me, you will hear laughter from your neighbours. Mexicans do know how to enjoy life, even if they are poor. They laugh when they cook at home (we can hear their laughter from our apartment), they play music and, for that matter, you will hear music everywhere around you in this town.
The genetic diversity in Mexico is fascinating; there are 65 different indigenous ethnic groups and in total, about 21% of the population is indigenous today. Here in Playa they are Yucatec Maya. Since the Spanish conquered the country, the indigenous mixed with the Europeans (not just the Spanish, also the French, for example) and Asians. Racially mixed people are referred to as mestizos. In 1847, after three centuries of persecution, the remaining Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula erupted into a revolt, but in the end they lost. Today some of the Yucatec Maya work in the travel industry but a lot of them still live in the jungle villages (their ancestral land) where they raise pigs and grow vegetables. They are poor but proud people, maintaining their cultural heritage. You will see them on the beaches where they sell their artefacts (woven bracelets etc) or honey that they produce in the jungle. (Their honey is superb. After all, they have been producing it for centuries. I would not buy honey from a supermarket, after tasting theirs).
There are a few indigenous people in my personal life and I like them all. Lupita is a Yucatec Maya, originally from Cobá, but now lives in Playa. She looks after the apartment I rent for vacations. She is the mother of Dominik, Joceline and Xóchitl (a beautiful Mayan name of a flower). Her husband Tirso works as a taxi driver. Her mother María still lives in Cobá, in a wooden house with a palapa roof (thatched roof made of dried palm leaves), a typical Mayan house from centuries ago that the local Maya still live in (in the jungle villages). Her children attend a school in Playa where they are taught in Spanish, while the school in Cobá still teaches in both Spanish and Yucatec Maya language (small villages tend to still provide bilingual education).
Eduardo is an electrician and plumber but he can do just about any job. He is originally from Mexico City. He is Aztec. Aztec descendants are generally taller than Yucatec Maya; their facial features are also slimmer. He came to Playa like so many other Mexicans, as there are plenty of work opportunities due to the town's growth. His assistant Juan Daniel is Lacandón Maya from Chiapas; he arrived in Playa only three months ago, in search of work.
Juan is a waiter at Casa Tucan restaurant where we regularly exercise. He is like a member of our family now. Well, they all are. He is a Yucatec Maya from Mérida, where he also has a small ranch for growing vegetables and keeping a cow. His aim is to buy the second cow before he retires and then live on the ranch. His brother's family are working on his ranch in the meanwhile. The families keep close here in Mexico; they help each other.
Plenty of large supermarkets to choose from. I shop mostly at Walmart (US super), Mega, Chedraui and Soriana (Mexican supermarkets), occasionally at Sam's Club or City Club (American owned). For vegetables I go to Dac vegetable shop; it is a joy to shop there for organic vegetables, ranch eggs, a variety of chillies and certainly dill or lemongrass that you can't get elsewhere. I love discovering the more exotic fruits and vegetables and learning how to cook with them. There is nothing that you can't get in Playa. You just need to know where to go.
For clothes shopping we now have a lot of new brand shops (Zara, Benneton, Tommy Hilfiger, H&M), too many to mention so here is the Playa guide for the fashionistas, for a range of budgets. The same applies to hotels, too many, there is a choice for all budgets. If you are walking and shopping on the pedestrian zone, the vendors will try and catch your attention. Stay calm, smile and keep going. At some point you will buy something; it is just difficult to resist, and they know it.
For a truly good Mexican breakfast try La Cueva del Chango (Monkey's Cave) set in a garden, for French pastry breakfast go to Chez Céline. For a Mexican lunch with a difference I go to La Perla Pixán (Pearl Soul), they have cuisine from different parts of Mexico and, above all chapulines (grasshoppers) and pulque (an ancient Mayan fermented cactus drink), which you can't get anywhere else in Playa.
For a traditional Mexican meal with tacos and meat grills most locals go to El Fogon. I prefer La Parrilla where they also make special Maya flambé coffee (with Mayan liqueur Xtabentún) over the fires to entertain you while their mariachi band plays traditional (folk) Mexican songs. There are plenty of Argentinian steakhouses and Japanese sushi restaurants. For fish and shrimp tacos I like Las Hijas De La Tostada. For good Italian we go to the stylish Afrodisiaco (the photo on the left) or cheaper and jolly Papa Charly Pasta Factory (with flambé pasta). For romantic dining the answer is the cave restaurant Alux. And coffee or chocolate? Ah Cacao. After all, it was the Maya who invented chocolate drinks.
My leisure time
My husband and I both work but every spare moment we have we go to the beach or a cenote for a swim, or we travel. There are plenty of trips around Playa and further away; see my posts for the suggested trips. Our son loves snorkelling and diving here, particularly in the cenotes and with sharks (there are also whale shark trips in the summer). I do water aerobic three times a week, to keep fit (many people engage here with yoga or salsa dance). It is perfect for this climate as it is outdoors, which is my preferred way of living here. I have also acquired a 'serious' hobby here: I read and study (at home) all about Mayan history and mysteries. It is very exciting because mayalogy is currently at its peak (as they can now decipher about 85% of the hieroglyphs). I feel it keeps me attached to Mexico and its people and their amazing heritage.
We party in friends' houses or we go out for meals or music evenings. For a Friday night cabaret we go to El Jardín, for a night with local artisans to Le Lotus Rouge, for guitar music to Luna Blue bar, for a drink with ex-pat friends to Alive bar. We take part in all Mexican celebrations, and there are plenty. Concerts and fireworks on Mexican Independence Day (16 September, not the Fifth of May as they celebrate it in the US) are held at the main town square. Carnival parade is a five-day celebration before the Catholic Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
Day of the Dead (1 and 2 November) is my favourite festival. Mexicans truly celebrate death (and life) rather than mourning. In Playa this is combined with Halloween; the whole town promenades along Fifth Avenue and we spend ages beforehand preparing our costumes. Hundreds of people just walk about in costume along the pedestrian zone; it is one big joint celebration embraced by both locals and visitors. Catrina is a favourite mask and costume. It was created by José Guadalupe Posada as a satirical portrait of those Mexican natives who were aspiring to adopt European aristocratic traditions in the pre-revolution era. A lot of shops use Catrinas as decoration for their shops now. Riviera Maya Jazz Festival takes place at the end of November, in many bars and on the beaches of Playa.
Christmas festivities officially begin with the Posadas, a series of nine parties occurring every day from the 16th of December. It is a re-enactment scene of Mary and Joseph asking for lodging before arriving at the manger. Birthdays are celebrated with beating a piñata. I also took part in a few charity projects, The KKIS Project (Keep Kids in Schools) and the fundraising events for the Bomberos (local fire brigade).
I personally feel safe in Playa. My American friends who live here say that it is safer in Playa than back home in the US. You can walk here at night; I never had a problem. However, I suggest walking in company if you had more than a couple of drinks or so. As the city grows, so does the risk element, so to speak. Imagine a town that had 15,000 people only 15 years ago and now it is 350,000 or so. Bicycles are stolen, if you don't secure them properly, and sometimes there are home robberies. The key is to choose the right district to live in.
There is an overwhelming armed police presence in town and on the roads, mainly for drug control. There are a lot of nightclubs in Playa although the Blue Parrot Club, where we had a recent fatal shooting by a drug cartel (in January 2017) is now closed, as is the popular music festival BPM. Since then there have been more shootings, but always targeted. There are two drug cartels in Playa and the third one (they call themselves the New Generation) is trying to grab the market. Tourists are safe, the violence is within the cartels (although the media back at your home may portray it differently to you). Marijuana might be offered to you by a taxi driver, in a nightclub or when you are walking on the pedestrian street. Tourists buy it but it is illegal to possess it (although since spring 2017 its use for medicinal purposes is legal).
I am not sure if I balanced this account favourably enough for Playa, but I do love it. I just spilled my beans on the table, so to speak. There are certainly more plusses than minuses.
My heart got attached to the people here, their rich history and culture, and their ability to enjoy life. Everybody lives outdoors. I take sunshine for granted now, I smile too, and I am relaxed. I always embraced life but somehow it feels stronger here.
If you found a better paradise, tell me where and why. I will listen carefully.
How to get to Playa:
Playa del Carmen doesn’t have an airport. You can fly to Cancún (50 minutes by car) or Cozumel (50 minutes by ferry). Once you leave the customs area at Cancún airport, there will be an ADO bus company booth to purchase tickets. There is another one right by the bus terminal. Buses run every 40 minutes. You can pay in either pesos or dollars (177 pesos or 9 USD). It will take you to the main bus station of Playa del Carmen at the southern end of town, on the corner of Avenida Benito Juarez and Fifth Avenue. Taxis from here will generally cost 50 pesos to anywhere in town, except Playacar Phase 2, which should be 60 pesos in daytime and 90 pesos at night.