Finding Home in Playa del Carmen

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.

Steph and Tony in front of Play del Carmen street art

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?

"If you believe it, create it."
“If you believe it, create it.”

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.

Steph and Tony on the beach in Playa del Carmen

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.

The streets of Playa del Carmen

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.

Streets of Playa del Carmen

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.

Local street market, Playa del Carmen
This is the street we live on every Sunday

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.

Where we walk our dogs twice a day
Where we walk our dogs twice a day

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.

The beach, Playa del Carmen

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.

Our apartment in Playa del Carmen

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.

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29 comments Leave a comment

  1. I’m so glad you guys like it there. I have definitely softened my stance on PDC since leaving last November! Our experience there was, as always, tempered by our budget and our mindspace. I now actually look back fondly on our time there and think we really didn’t give it a chance! I think having friends – like you, or Sarah – there would truly make a difference!

    Aug. 28 2015 @ 11:24 am
    1. Gillian author

      I can definitely see how Playa may have undermined your expectations, so I don’t fault you for not enjoying your time there, especially given all the extenuating circumstances. In a way, I think Tony & I are actually really fortunate that we had spent 5 months traveling around other parts of Mexico before arriving rather than having it be our first taste of Mexico; that has allowed us to better understand Playa’s place within the country as a whole, and also to appreciate the aspects of it that are perhaps “less authentic” than some travelers might like. We have had plenty of “authentic” Mexico as it is, so being somewhere where we can enjoy some of the perks that tourism brings is actually nice—having non-Mexican food options, easy access to vets & doctors who speak English… these are things that we appreciate in a place we plan to be longer term. Also, we’re really in an excellent location, which plays such an important role: we can keep things super local if we like, but are less than a 10 minute walk from the touristy bits should we want them.

      Also, we are so fortunate that Sarah & Tyrhone were here to greet us. I figure there’s no better way to meet a place than through the eyes of those who already do love it, so I know having them here certainly helps us start things off on the right foot.

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:11 am
  2. What? Sushi? Taco crawls? Wal-mart? I’m on the way.

    Aug. 28 2015 @ 3:18 pm
    1. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown author

      Ha ha! Any time you want to visit, we are more than happy to host! We have a fold-out couch, and would be more than happy to take you on Walmart runs and to eat all the food with you!

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:12 am
  3. Yay! It’s so great that you’ve found your home from home. As you know, I’m firmly in the ‘for’ camp when it comes to Playa, but it took us over a month to really start appreciating it. You really have to find a balance between the super-touristy side and the more relaxed Mexican side, and I think the neighbourhood you live in really helps with that. Anything past calle 46 or west of 10th is the sweet spot, I think

    I can’t wait to get back there and meet up with you guys again!

    Aug. 28 2015 @ 6:42 pm
    1. Jenny @ The AdventureSmith author

      I can’t believe how quickly our first month in Playa has gone; we have barely begun to scratch the surface of all there is to see, do and (most importantly) eat here. Maybe it’s because we knew that we had plenty of time so didn’t have to rush, but for a smallish place, there really is a lot to keep you busy. Knowing that you guys are coming back is definitely keeping us motivated to explore as we want to be able to introduce you to some new places when you get back. It’s been hard to stray from that awesome list you compiled for us though… 🙂

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:18 am
  4. Yay, I am beyond excited that you guys a found a place that you truly like! I agree that there is such a huge difference between traveling somewhere and living there. And it’s weird that the things that might completely turn you off of a place as a traveler (like Wal-mart) can make living there so much more appealing and comfortable. I have a similar opinion of Phnom Penh. I love that it has such a large and involved expat scene. And I really love that there is such a great selection of international and western restaurants. I enjoy being in places that are authentic, but as an expat I really like my creature comforts too! And also, I’m SUPER jealous of that roof deck. No fair!

    Aug. 30 2015 @ 4:48 am
    1. Justine author

      I know that as a fellow itinerant expat that you can completely relate to what we are going through and the various factors you need to consider when selecting a home base! When we’re going on a short trip, we’re all about being as immersed in the local culture as possible and going without the comforts of home is no big deal. But when you know you are going to actually be LIVING somewhere for a while, it’s nice to know you’ll be able to buy, say, real cheese that isn’t secretly plastic, or that you will have the chance to be part of a community that is composed (at least in part) with likeminded individuals. And, even though no one can understand how we could possible get tired of Mexican food, the fact that there are other eating options on offer in Playa is really nice. Of course, now that we have all these choices, we just stick to the local fare, but still! It’s nice knowing we do have other options should we want them! 😉

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:38 am
  5. I fall in the hating Playa camp but you are right that it would be a different experience living there than just visiting for a couple of days. I would love to live on Isla Mujeres though, loved that island

    Aug. 30 2015 @ 5:17 pm
    1. Katie author

      Haven’t made it to Isla Mujeres yet, but it’s on our list! I tend to go a bit stir crazy on islands, so I’m not sure I could ever see myself living on one, but perhaps I just haven’t found the right one yet!

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:44 am
  6. Great post Steph and glad to hear that you’ve found home! I can relate to your first observations of Playa, especially 5th Ave, I was unimpressed on my 2 days there last year, but it seems like Playa really has the best of both worlds for expats/long-term travelers. And I hear ya about finding your tribe (so great that Sarah and Tyrhone are there too). Seeking community and connection is only natural, and is a huge part to feeling “at home”, at least for most of us! Glad you guys have some time for that and slowly exploring the beautiful Yucatan! I’ll actually be in the Yucatan again in early December, I’ll have 5 days to explore on my own after a family vacation in Tulum, so if you’re interested, it would be lovely to meet 🙂

    Aug. 30 2015 @ 6:08 pm
    1. Sam author

      Tony & I have thought a lot about where we might like to live some day, and inevitably the question of friends always comes up. There have been quite a few places in Asia that we really loved and I could see us returning to, but I did wonder whether in some of those places we might always be on the “outside looking in” so to speak, always on the fringes of a community rather than part of it. For instance, we loved Saigon, Vietnam, and I know that there are certainly expats living there, but we didn’t really feel like there was an actual community there and so apart from meeting a few individuals here and there, we mostly kept to ourselves and were, I suppose, somewhat isolated. We weren’t unhappy, but we were also only there for 3 months… I think if we were looking to be somewhere for longer term, that would be a problem. Here in Playa, there is a very strong expat community that is very involved in Playa, which I really like. I hope that we might be able to make some local friends too, but it’s nice having a built-in support network from the start.

      We have signed a six month lease so we are committed to being here until Feb at the very least, so we’ll definitely be here in December and would love to meet up with you when you come this way. Hopefully we can show you the charming side to Playa that you missed on your last visit!

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:53 am
      1. Stephenie Harrison

        That is awesome about the Playa community, Steph. Yes on my last visit, it didn’t help that I was there during an electronic music fest so the town was packed, but I did enjoy some great food and company (thanks to Sarah)! Looking forward to meeting up! I’m thinking of heading to Isla Mujures and/or Holbox for the post-family time so I can easily stop in Playa on my way from Tulum. Will keep you posted!

        Sep. 10 2015 @ 1:28 am
  7. hey guys.. can’t wait to see how your life unfolds being settled in one spot for 6 months. I fell in love with Playa the first time we visited, years ago, but our last time there we were quite put off by the whole “scene’ 5th avenue and the area we were staying had become. I think, as in many places,so much depends on location and being able to feel part of the local scene while still getting to enjoy the conveniences of a tourist town. Enjoy your time!

    Aug. 31 2015 @ 11:59 am
    1. Rhonda author

      This is our first time in Playa so, of course, we can’t compare its present incarnation to what it once was, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find that those who loved Playa for what it once was found it a bit repulsive now. It’s a weird place because away from the strip, it’s just like any other Mexican coastal town and so most travelers would probably not find much to recommend it, and yet the strip itself is so built up and “tourist oriented” that those looking for an “authentic” experience are likely to be put off. Happily, we’ve managed to find ourselves in the sweet spot where we really do get to enjoy the best of both worlds. Once again, I’m very happy we had Sarah helping us home in on a location when we were researching the town as she was able to make sure we landed in just the right place.

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 10:59 am
  8. I wish we had been in Playa at a better time. We went there before heading up to Chichen Itza and it was during a electronic music fest. The town was littered with the likes that we don’t really mix with and made any charm the place had seem overrun. We only lasted a day sadly. Maybe we should check out flights and come on down while you guys are around 😉

    Sep. 1 2015 @ 6:52 pm
    1. Emily author

      I’m sure we have a different perspective because we are here in low season (though apparently Playa does consider July & Aug high season, despite the awful suffocating weather) and are not in the heart of the tourist area AND we also have a car, but Playa doesn’t seem like a place that could ever get totally overrun. Then again, we’ve seen a House Hunters International episode that has footage of 5th during high season and it looks like my person version of hell! Definitely as you move south through town, it gets more and more touristy, and there is a part of town that we’ve only zipped through a few times and whenever we do, we always remark about how it seems like a totally different Playa that is absolutely unrelated to the Playa we inhabit. I definitely think that in Playa, location is everything, and although there are parts that are certain to be crowded and underwhelming, there are many places to escape from the madness. If you guys do decide you’d like to give Playa another go, we’d be happy to show you around & maybe help you see a side to this place you missed on your last visit. We certainly know where to find the best seafood tacos & tostadas that I’m sure will help sway your opinion… 😉

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 11:11 am
  9. I can already hear your relaxed mood and that is what it feels like when one takes a bit more time to get to know a place and relax, say hello to people that you “know” and have that happy thought that you’re now more than just a tourist, but a long-term visitor. If the locals not only know your face but know your business too, then you’ve made it!

    Sep. 5 2015 @ 8:40 am
    1. Victoria@ The British Berliner author

      I’m really looking forward to become regulars at places here in Playa (particularly at our favorite fish taco stand…); it’s always nice when you hit that point because then you really get to know the people who populate your world and can move past the strictly transactional interactions you might otherwise be limited to. The great thing about Mexico is that the locals really are so friendly that with a little bit of effort on our parts, it’s not hard to get something good started.

      Sep. 5 2015 @ 11:17 am
  10. So lovely pics of a so romantic place as well a fantastic story. It must be amazing to live there right now. Playa del Carmen changed so much since I was there about 20 years ago. I am really jealous but I wish you continues a great time there.

    Sep. 9 2015 @ 9:34 am
    1. Romy author

      It feels really good to be settled in Playa and we’re both so excited about the adventures the next six months here are sure to bring. I can only imagine what Playa was like 20 years ago as I’m sure it’s nothing like it is now, but hopefully its original spirit still prevails.

      Sep. 10 2015 @ 2:06 pm
  11. I just LOVE those last few lines!!!!! I so GET that. Welcome home. Oh, and from what I hear, our tribe is increacing with another travel blogger arriving for the long haul soon!

    Sep. 9 2015 @ 2:45 pm
    1. Sarah author

      Yes, I heard that we have another long-term traveler planning a sabbatical here in Playa! When you give your heart over to this place, it’s amazing how quickly it can come to feel like home… thank you for encouraging us to come and give Playa a try!

      Sep. 10 2015 @ 2:07 pm
  12. RELISH IT! That sounds like a lovely place to roost for a few months. Although we haven’t lived abroad in one place for more than a month at a time, I can understand your need to have options other than local food. You sound like me – variety is the spice of life! And one of the hardest things is to eat the same cuisine over and over, even if it’s an amazing cuisine. Enjoy those towels. I recently used my travel towel and remembered just how much I hated still feeling wet after toweling myself off. 😛

    Sep. 10 2015 @ 1:54 pm
    1. Carmel author

      We are relishing it, don’t you worry! I was actually really not excited about heading out to California last week, just because I was enjoying “nesting” here in Playa so much (though, like most things, I was glad that I went because the trip in Cali was great… plus I got to bring back a bag filled with Asian goodies! 😉 ). Ironically, we’ve only eaten Mexican/local food since arriving Playa—maybe the food here is just better than other parts of Mexico?—but I know we will hit a wall and be glad to have some options. I’m that person who can never understand people who eat the same breakfast or lunch day after day, so yes, having some variety will definitely be a good thing!

      Sep. 10 2015 @ 2:10 pm
  13. I’ve heard a lot about Playa del Carmen and it is somewhere we briefly thought about visiting. It’s great when you find a place you can call home, especially when it is still growing on you. Hope you enjoy your new home!

    Sep. 11 2015 @ 9:56 am
    1. Andrew author

      It’s too bad you won’t have time in your busy U.S. tour schedule to come visit us in Mexico, but I’m sure you’ll make it here one day!

      Sep. 15 2015 @ 9:24 am
  14. It sounds a little like some parts of Bali! A really popular tourist destination where some parts are just unpleasant, but if you scratch the surface you can find the hidden gems.

    Sep. 16 2015 @ 7:38 pm
    1. Karyn Jane author

      Playa definitely has shades of Bali! Interestingly, it’s sort of got a blend of the whole island, as 5th avenue really is a bit like Kuta—really catering to western tourists who want all the comforts of home & a wild nightlife, but there are definitely pockets that are a bit more Ubudian too, as you’ve got your yoga studios and organic cafés. I haven’t seen any crystal shops yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we stumble across one at some point! Still, it’s easy enough to not have either of those things in your life if you have no interest!

      Sep. 20 2015 @ 9:47 am

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