For most people, heading to the beach when you’re in Mexico is a no brainer. But for us, our recent decision to make the long trek down to the sandy tourist town of Playa del Carmen was definitely a gamble.
If you’ll recall, we spent our first five weeks in Mexico on the Pacific coast, enjoying the sun and sand of the Riviera Nayarit region… though the truth is, we didn’t enjoy ourselves very much at all. There were a lot of reasons why this is the case, not all of them due to the area itself, but we still left La Peñita decisively declaring—once and for all—that we were definitively NOT beach people.
So why, five months later, have we not only purposefully made our way to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, but have done so with the intention of extending our normal one-month-per-destination timeline and are actually planning on sticking around for a while?
As with everything, the decision to come here and stay was both complicated and obvious all at once. There were a lot of points in Playa’s favor, its proximity to the Belizean border (our six-month tourist visas expire next month…) certainly being one of them. We had two friends who have already chosen to base themselves here, which was pretty much two more friends than we had based anywhere else in Mexico, and from them we had heard that Playa had a robust and active expat community, all of which sounded like an excellent foundation for seeking out new members of our tribe. Plus, as much as we have accepted that we’ll always thrive better in a city than on the beach, the thought of getting to do some diving, snorkel with whale sharks and turtles, and plunge into icy cool cenotes thrilled us. Additionally, our research suggested that there were plenty of non-beachy things to do in this part of Mexico, from exploring ancient Mayan ruins like Chitchen Itza to rambling around beautifully preserved colonial cities and soaking in some culture. With a car at our disposal, most of the Yucatán peninsula’s gems are an easy day trip from Playa, and it seemed that we’d be unlikely to get “desert island fever” here.
So, three weeks ago, these two non-beach bums headed back to the beach.
You’d never guess it from the tourist brochures, but Playa is nothing if not a divisive destination: visitors definitely either love it or hate it here. Prior to arriving, we’d read or encountered the two camps in pretty much equal measures, and so we arrived in a strange state of wariness but still willing to keep an open mind. Which side in this low-stakes battle would we take?
This isn’t the first time we’ve thrown caution to the wind and taken a leap of faith and, in case the title of this post didn’t give it away, just as it did last time, so far our gamble seems to be paying off. While I would not go so far as to say we have tumbled madly in love with Playa (yet!), we certainly seem to be on the warm, fuzzy feelings side of the equation.
Here’s the thing: I get why people visit Playa and leave less than enchanted. It’s a weird hodgepodge of a place, where pockets are super local and kind of run-down in that dilapidated way that the non-touristy parts of Mexico often are, but there are parts where looooots of money has been sunk into it and it’s been gussied up (some might say Disneyfied…) for rich tourists. The main strip, Fifth Avenue, is a pedestrian street that stretches from the northern reaches to the southern end of town, and is a lovely place to go for a stroll… but the farther south you venture, the more shops you’ll encounter selling wide-brimmed sombreros and ugly sarapes, the more you’ll be approached by touts who shout out “Hello!” rather than “Hola!”, the more you’ll find your strides matching the deep thumps of booming bass that pumps out of dance clubs or the upbeat sickly sweet pop that blasts from the air conditioned boutiques. The first time we took a wander down Fifth, we marveled at this strange universe we had found ourselves in, clearly the least Mexican place we had visited in the last six months (including parts of Arizona!).
If this were your first impression of Mexico, or your only experience in Playa, I’d absolutely give you a pass if you left unimpressed. This part of Playa feels like a playground, somewhere you can unwind and pretend to be a world traveler, without having to deal with any inconveniences or challenges. The menus all have English on them, many quote their prices in USD, and even the ATMs will give you a choice of whether you receive your cash in pesos or dollars. (Word to the wise, however: the fees on these machines are likely insane, and they are prime real estate for scammers… don’t be surprised if your card gets skimmed if you use them!) Authentic Mexico it ain’t.
But that doesn’t mean that all of Playa revolves around tourists. Our first apartment sat on the northern fringes of the tourist area, but in order to get the guidebook bits of town, we had to walk past tortillerias and fruterias and lavanderias and little corner shops and taco stands. Our neighbors were Mexicans who spoke to us in Spanish so rapidfire, we’d be lucky if we could piece together their meaning from every third word we caught, and small gangs of scrappy dogs roamed the streets. It felt like we were in an utterly unremarkable Mexican town, one that—if it didn’t immediately feel like home—felt like it had the potential to do so.
What we like about Playa is that we get to have it both ways here: We live in a local Mexican neighborhood where our neighbors have chickens, there’s an awesome Sunday street market, we get to practice and improve our Spanish, and there are plenty of cheap eats to be found. We’re just steps away from famous Fifth Avenue, but we’re in the quiet end of town, so it’s perfect for walking the dogs in the morning, where we’re kept company by fellow dog walkers, people out for a bike ride or a jog, and a dazzling array of street art.
But the conveniences and comforts of “Western” life are never far whenever we need them—in ten minutes we can walk to burger joints, salsa & sushi bars (thankfully not one and the same!), French bakeries and posh cafés. We’re a five-minute drive to Walmart and three other major supermarkets, and there’s a movie theater ten minutes away. If Playa should ever feel too small, we are less than an hour from Cancun, where we can do Costco runs to buy high-quality dog food for the pups and fancy towels and sheets for ourselves. There is an Indian restaurant several Thai restaurants, and even some Venezuelan joints too. There are places selling kombucha and yoga studios featuring weekly meditation sessions. There’s a weekly local expat newspaper written in English that highlights activities and events happening around town and attractions to seek out in the area, and there are several conversational Spanish groups that meet up on various nights of the week.
Playa del Carmen likely wouldn’t be the kind of place that would interest us if we were simply taking a vacation to Mexico or were planning to go back to the States or Canada any time soon. However, when you’re looking to base yourself somewhere to actually live for a while, your priorities and criteria change. We wanted somewhere where we could not only enjoy what Mexico has to offer, but enjoy our lives too. Playa appears to offer a pretty great blend of local life and creature comforts, and feels very livable to us; we don’t feel stifled here. Within a week, we had given it a hearty “That’ll do, pig” and started our hunt for somewhere to rent longer term. A week after that, we’d found a place (essentially in the same neighborhood as our first apartment) that we loved that was under budget, signed a six-month lease, and moved in.
We’ve been in Playa for three weeks now, and I’m kind of embarrassed by just how little we have done since arriving. I mean, the apartment hunting took up some time, but not nearly as much as we had anticipated. We’ve also done more shopping runs (and spent more money…) than I care to remember to outfit our new home; although it was furnished with major things like a bed, fridge, some dishware, and ONE frying pan, we have pretty much had to pick up everything else, like pillows, pots, a bathmat, etc. There’s a fairly bad seaweed problem—blankets of scratchy, smelly stuff called sargasssum washes ashore—at the moment, so we’ve only been down the beach twice. It has been so swampy and hot out that we spent our first two weeks here feeling sluggish and exhausted, like our faces were melting off, and worrying that the dogs would roast in our oven-like studio apartment whenever we left them without the (pricy) airconditioning running. Thankfully, things have either cooled down a bit or we’ve acclimated and, better yet, at our new apartment, electricity is included in our rent, so we can keep it cool with impunity! We have gone out for meals with friends a few times, participated in a four-day group taco crawl sponsored by the local expat paper in which we were on the hunt for Playa’s best fish taco (we found it! But I think it deserves its own post!) and made some new potential friends, and checked out a free screening of a cute Colombian animated film down on the beach one evening.
Apart from those activities, however, we’ve mostly been laying low and (if I’m being honest) reveling in the knowledge that we’re staying put for a while. The three-week mark is generally the time when we realize that we’re going to be leaving a place soon and I manically throw together a spreadsheet in which I attempt to list all the activities/attractions/sights we have neglected and need to squeeze in before we move on to parts unknown. It is so liberating to realize that, although we have done so little, there’s no need to rush; we can enjoy this time being still and rediscovering simple joys like the pillowy ocean that is the king size bed that is ours for the foreseeable future; our rooftop deck WITH HAMMOCKS; and wide, quiet streets for strolling with the dogs twice daily. Just as we did in Ho Chi Minh City, after moving into our new home and realizing there were no towels provided, we decided to splurge on the fanciest ones we could find—velvety soft, like the pelts of teddy bears—as housewarming gifts to ourselves.
At every other point this journey, the thought of stopping somewhere for so long and acquiring any amount of stuff has struck fear into my heart, but it’s been remarkably easy and surprisingly soothing—like slipping into a warm bath—to plant ourselves here in Playa. I’m determined for us to not get complacent and to really take advantage of everything this part of Mexico offers, but oh it feels so good knowing that we’ll have time to not just get to really know this place, but to have it seep into who we are too.
I can already feel Playa changing us and working its magic: Last Friday, the internet in our apartment was down, so I went to work at a nearby coffee shop. When the internet there went down (proof that this is indeed Mexico!), I decided to call it a day, slung my bag over my shoulder, and started the walk home. It was early afternoon, and the sun was at its hottest, but there were still people milling about in the cafés and restaurants that line Fifth, their flip flops crusted with sand and saltwater drying their hair into clumpy dreadlocks, sipping margaritas and poring over maps. My laptop slapping against my outer thigh with each stride, I picked up my pace as I thought of Tony & the dogs waiting for me, and felt a surge of giddiness course through me. I felt, in that moment, like I was where I belonged, that I had a life I could hold onto. I was no tourist, I knew exactly where I was going: home.