Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Playa del Carmen surprisingly different than what I expected. I thought I'd be traveling to a young, up and coming town; but in reality, the area has seen more development than many Caribbean islands I've been on.
Aspects of the city remind me a lot of Philipsburg (the capital city of Dutch St. Maarten), or perhaps a fusion between the two distinctly different districts of Cancun (the tourist-laden Hotel Zone and the common downtown area). Only three or four blocks off the main pedestrian promenade—the beachside boardwalk tiled in alternating colors of brick known as 5th Avenue—the look and feel makes an abrupt shift towards that of a more typical Mexican city street scene. When there are more shops selling tacos than trinkets, it makes me happy.
After hunting around for a place when I arrived on the afternoon of the fourth, I ended up in a hot little 4-bunk room at place that's setup more like a economical hotel than a hostel. By far one of the best parts of staying at the Colores Mexicanos was the three fun, female roommates in their 20's that I had (for a few nights) from Germany, Holland, and England. I think the chick from Germany was actually more jovial than I am—which is hard to find, and odd sight to behold.
Playa del Carmen has plenty of fancy, chic hotels (like the Deseo or Mosquito Beach) that look rooms keys should be handed over with a martini. There's a neighborhood just to the south called Playacar that hosts a community of large, visually stimulating homes, and sprawling resorts sitting on either beach or golf course access. Unlike Cancun they're less intrusive about it down here, and build low, but wide complexes.
It's scary to think this place can get much bigger, but my guidebook (circa 2004) says that the town is growing at a furious 24% a year. "Locals" have told me that people are immigrating here because the opportunity for work is unquestioned.
On Sunday I watched a park across from my hostel fill up with people—just idling. I inquired about what the deal was, and it seems that once a week the farms around the area empty out (on their day off) and they come to Playa del Carmen to wire money home, get haircuts, use the telephone, and socialize. Average pay for a field worker is about US$10/day, and the majority of the people spending the night in town will do so on the ground.
My time in town allowed me to meet some interesting people, such as a Richard Kohler, a photographer who happened to pop into his gallery that I was checking out at the time; Kevin Haley, a sculptor who is now specializing in the beautiful act of "illuminating Caribbean art forms" (such as conch shells and starfish); and Francia, one of the people I met celebrating Cinco de Mayo on a beachfront nightclub.
After dancing and chatting with Francia, a former resident of Mexico City living in Playa del Carmen for the past three years, she ended up inviting me to go swimming at a cenote the next day. I awoke on Saturday morning after a short sleep, and was picked up at my hostel. She drove me over to her parents place (a really nice two story home) for introductions to (and breakfast with) her parents, sister, and a visiting uncle.
The cenote, about 45 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, was great in the afternoon heat, although that spring water can be awfully chilly! After a little cliff jumping into the sinkhole and swimming with the friendly fishes, we (Francia, her sister, and uncle) returned to her home for a great, home cooked dinner with some of her family (her parents, two sisters, and two uncles—phew!). I do love being included in the simplest of things with locals, it's always memorable.
Sunday afternoon I took and afternoon day trip with Francia and her uncle up to Puerto Morelos (in between Playa del Carmen and Cancun) for an offshore snorkelling session along the huge Mesoamerican barrier reef that extends down into Belize—I'm told it's the second largest in the world.
A smaller, humbler, fishing city with visible signs of wealthy development, Puerto Morelos is probably what Playa del Carmen looked like 10 years ago (and is exactly the kind of town that I had originally thought Carmen would be). Fishing and snorkelling/scuba currently seem to be the big economic drivers in the town.
The snorkelling excursion was pleasant—my first time ever using a boat to take me away from shore—but I have a strong feeling it's even better off the coast of Belize. I've never been scuba diving before, and wonder if I'll run into an economical country/outfit that will allow me to try it.
Today I took the opportunity to enter into the movie theatre for the first time in months and saw Mission Impossible III. It was entertaining (and great to see a movie again), but I think half the shots of Tom Cruise were of him sprinting this way or that (reminding me of the fun German movie Lola Rennt)!
Tomorrow morning I'll be jumping the border into Belize, heading for a city called Orange Walk. I don't know much about it, other than it's an agricultural hub for the region (in both historical and present times). I've selected it because I'm not ready to go to Belize City yet (which many people seem to despise), and it's far enough away from the border and coast to hopefully take me away—albeit briefly—from the common traveler circuit.
Like some type of addict, I feel like I'm ready for another fix. There's a traveler's high that I experience when I'm taken out of my comfort zone and dropped someplace new. Like walking into someone's home for the first time, things are similar and certain items can be expected, but there's always a little tingle when you see the way someone else lives for the first time. I love the sensation, and now seek it out.
Tomorrow I get to tingle again.