Playa del Carmen

hipster haven

Travel days always feel like a bit of a waste of time, but on long trips in particular they are an unavoidable necessity. Often spent in airport departure lounges or, worse, bus depots or train stations, they are a time of limbo, mostly spent waiting and traveling. Hurry up and wait.

We luck out on our last day in Panama, spending the day at the Riande Airport Hotel. While the room is nothing to speak of, the pool and garden could be at a 5 star resort.

We arrive at noon, having driven from El Valle. Our flight to Playa del Carmen isn’t until the next day. We do not want to drive into Panama City proper to do anything, not that there’s much to do there anyway. We take one look at the hotel pool and know that we won’t be going anywhere for the rest of the day.

After a gut-busting buffet lunch, we settle into deck chairs with our books and our iPad Scrabble. A couple of games, a few dips in the pool, a nap, a glass of wine. Travel day done. One more to go.

The next day we have to return the rental car and that turns into an epic adventure. We are at an airport hotel so you’d think driving to the airport from the hotel would be simple, well-signed, straightforward. But it’s not. We end up heading back into Panama City, lost, dazed, confused. Get out the phone and the “maps & me” app. Turn around. Finally get to the airport. Circle around a few times looking for the car rental return. Finally find that. Get on the flight on time. YAY!

Three hours later we land in Cancun and an hour after that we are gulping the complimentary margaritas offered by our hotel, the very lovely The Palm at Playa Tequila has a way of softening the edges of a travel day. There’s a party on the hotel’s roof deck. Lots of beautiful people. Very hip. A DJ blasting techno rap. Cocktails in tall glasses. Todo va bien. It’s all good.

We were here three years ago and even at that time thought the place was a bit over the top commercial. Especially the main shopping street, Quinta Avenida. Fifth Avenue, just like in New York, ha, ha, the locals joke. There are three Starbucks, minimum, probably more. Forever 21, H & M, Señor Frogs, Coach, Victoria’s Secret, Calvin Klein. Lots of cheap souvenir shops as well.

But the restaurants and some of the shops are uber trendy. Extremely stylish. Especially the restaurants. After a month in Panama we welcome the diversity of cuisines.

The tourists are not what we see on the Pacific coast of Mexico, where there are lots of Canadians, mostly couples and families. Here in Playa del Carmen there are Mexican tourists and many Europeans. Some couples but hardly any families. A lot of young people, including backpackers. Even the couples are young. We feel old and unhip. Oh well.

The beach south of the city is chock full of gorgeous homes and boutique hotels. Unlike the Pacific coast of Mexico, where the architecture is informed by the Spanish, here the style is more modern and derived from Mayan influences. Lots of concrete, square angles, clean lines. minimal adornment, little color. It takes a while for the eye to become accustomed to the lack embellishment.

Scratch the surface and there is another Playa del Carmen waiting to be discovered. The small barrios where the locals live. The little taquerias where a taco costs $1. The public beaches where families gather on the weekend to play in the sea, blast their boom boxes and drink their cervezas.

We rent bikes one day and see the whole place, north to south, east to west, rich to poor, touristy to local, flashy to simple, trendy to basic. It’s all here.

We are on the Yucatan peninsula, a thumb shaped piece of Mexico that juts into the Caribbean Sea. Home to the Mayans, the region is dotted with the ruins of this mighty civilization. We’ve been to several in the past and on this trip visit two more: Tulum & Coba.

Our driver and guide, Servandro, hardly speaks a word while we dive from one site to the next, but once we get to a ruin and he starts talking about the Mayans he sounds like a university professor. And even though English is his second language he uses words and phrases that bewilder us with their complexity. He has some interesting alternate theories about the interactions between the Spanish and the Mayans and pooh-poohs some of the commonly held notions about ball courts and human sacrifice.

In between the two archaeological sites we dip into one of the many cenotes on the peninsula. The Yucatan is mostly made of limestone and the rock is like swiss cheese, full of holes. The holes, or cenotes, give access to the underground aquifer, often through caves. Totally refreshing after a couple of dusty hours tramping around ruins. Lunch is at a Mayan village, prepared by local women. It’s basic but tasty.

In addition to the Mayan ruins we organize a morning of scuba diving with a company recommended by Sandra, the hotel concierge. Our dive master looks like a young Jude Law with a Lucky Strike hanging out of the side of his mouth and a German accent. Hulger is fairly inexperienced and seems a bit nervous. So are we!! 

Why do I dive? I’m asking myself that question as I take yet another Gravol, this one a childrens’ chewable as it goes down without water and acts instantly. The sea is calm, the boat ride short, I had no alcohol yesterday, took a vomistop at bedtime and again this morning and yet here I am, head over the side of the boat, heaving. 

The dives themselves are very good. Nice and shallow, good visibility, lots of fish and soft coral. Stingrays, moray eels, barracudas. It’s said that diving here is more about the small stuff: little crabs, shrimps, sea spiders. My favourite are the large schools of iridescent blue and yellow guys the size of a snapper. Some of them are snappers. We’re told the names of the others but rarely remember, except for the puffer and lion fish, which are pretty distinctive looking. We see several of those. The rest shall remain nameless. Besides, naming them doesn’t make them any more beautiful. 

Why do I dive? Because there is a whole world under the sea. An airless world of shape, color and movement. A fantasy world of dreamlike aquatic life. We come from the sea, from amphibians. Perhaps diving is a form of return to that earlier time in human evolution? 

Want to see what it looks like? Check out:

After the dive we head to the hotel’s roof where a mojito quells my belly. A Scrabble win helps. The sun, the music, the pool, the views of the sea … I forget about the boat.

Craig goes a second day without me, although the allure of seeing bull sharks is tempting. That’s the advertised promise. Bull sharks have mated, had their young and are now feeding in the waters off the Yucatan. I decide my aversion to the boat is stronger than my FOMO and stay behind. Back on the roof.

He returns with stories of turtles, eagle rays and baby eels, but no bull sharks. We’ve read that they are being fed by dive companies, becoming accustomed to divers and, in some cases, aggressive toward them. Sound familiar? Reminds me of the bear “problem” in western Canada. So Craig has taken the high road and declined the bull shark experience.

Yoga loft is a few blocks from the hotel. We ask ourselves porque no? Why not? Halfway through a rapid series of planks, pushups and vinyasas we ask ourselves why? It’s torture. Fast and hard. The other hip, young yogis in the group are contorting their bodies into pretzels while we struggle to get through the basics.

We go a second and third day and it doesn’t get any easier. Micheal (famous, we later learn, the instructor, favours loud musical accompaniments, starting with Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. It gets us revved up, but too soon the line about “when I die” starts to sound like it’s coming true. Definitely time to get home and back into an exercise routine. 

We find out we are scheduled to fly on a 737 Max8. Geeezzz! What do we do? Refuse to fly? Our perception of risk seems disproportionate to reality. Many people die on the Coquihalla highway every year but that doesn’t stop us from driving on it. Many more people die of heart disease but that doesn’t mean we always make sound choices around eating bacon or steak. Life is risky, we tell ourselves.  Go in the ocean. Travel to foreign lands. Drive on the Coq. Eat that BLT. Get on the plane. Live a life worth living. 


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