First to clear up any confusion, “playa” is pronounced “ply-ah” and it means beach in Spanish.
After the laundry debacle of 2015 we drove East across the Yucatan peninsula to one of my favorite beach bum towns, Playa del Carmen. 4 years ago I was working in a miserable desert in Iraq and decided I wanted to spend my 3 weeks off entirely on the beach. So I booked round trip tickets to Cancun, and quickly found myself in the much smaller town of Playa del Carmen. There I made a great group of friends, relaxed and got certified as a cave diver in Mexico’s famous cenotes. I hoped to show Natasha a bit of the paradise I remembered and to put our feet up for a few days after so many miles of driving without 2 days in the same place. However, we were in for a bit of a surprise.
Playa del Carmen has now become a cross between my old beach bum town and South Beach, Miami with a different sort of local character. The main road, 50m parallel to the beach, has developed more than I could’ve imagined in 4 years. Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs, Nike stores and high end make up stores now line the first 5 blocks of the main strip. Yes, there were 2 Nike stores within a few blocks of each other. A modern steel and glass mall with underground parking has been built with a second under construction. Ex-pats on hipster bicycles now outnumber the Mexicans on scooters. All this coupled with the fact we visited during Semana Santa (Holy Week) meant huge crowds and none of the quiet beach we were looking for, at least in the downtown area. Part of me was crushed, but the moment we wondered a few blocks away from downtown things got better. Quickly the restaurants lost their tourist trap feel, the crowds dispersed and the Playa del Carmen I remembered was there. The whole experience is actually incredible.
All the comforts of home (Wal-mart, Forever 21 and Sunglass Hut) are blocks away from the best taco, chorizo nachos or Mexican seafood you’ve ever had. Then mixed into all of this is a kind of cool “hipster” organic foodie culture. The food options were varied enough and at up to a level that they felt like the boutique restaurants of NYC. However, the one thing I would advise to avoid is the sushi. We went to one of the “better” sushi places in town and every single roll had some kinda cheese in it, must be a Mexican thing. Playa del Carmen definitely felt like a different town than the one I knew, but still remains one of my favorite beach towns.
We arrived without a reservation (huge mistake during Holy Week) and wandered around looking for a place that fit our budget (of as cheap as possible please). However, everything was booked up or extraordinarily expensive ($100 / night??? Incredible…). But while I was getting my bearings and trying to show Natasha some of my old favorite places we stopped at the Jungle Caribe, a boutique hotel I stayed at during my last visit. Now flashback to 2011, my friend Chris and I are staying at the Jungle Caribe while we spend all day getting trained on how to cave dive. A hurricane rolled in (the first in 5 years), all the tourists left and the town shut down. We were one of two guests at the hotel, us and a German couple on their honeymoon. The 4 of us spent all night “weathering out” the hurricane with the German owner, manager and one staff on duty. By “weathering out” I mean we tried to drink all of the wine the owner had in stock while it rained a little bit outside, great night. Now flash forward to 2015, its 9pm and Natasha and I can’t find a place to stay. At the Jungle Caribe they tell us they’ve got their cheapest room available so we take it. As we’re checking in who do we see drinking wine at the very same table as 4 years ago, the German couple, the owner and the same staff. Incredible. We sat, drank wine and caught up. The more I explore this planet and keep discovering how large it is, the smaller and smaller It feels as I run into familiar faces.
Well what did you guys do there?
Beach, beer and books mostly. One incredible experience was Akumal Beach, about 20min south of Playa del Carmen. This is a calm beach guarded by a reef that sea turtles use for nesting, eating and generally just hanging out. We grabbed some snorkel gear, jumped in the water and found ourselves surrounded by 4 ft sea turtles almost immediately. We spent hours following them around and Natasha got to see her first Eagle Ray (one of the most graceful animals I’ve ever seen). Again, the crowds were pretty bad due to the holiday, but once we swam far enough off the beach we were basically on our own. Definitely worth checking out if you are coming through here.
We spent a morning diving one of the cenotes off the beaten track, good advice from our dive guide. When we arrived we had this little cenote tucked in the jungle all to ourselves. The first dive the guide and I went on a proper cave dive almost all the way to the next cenote. We saw some wild formations and squeezed ourselves through a couple restrictions to get our adrenaline going. The surprise came when we surfaced after almost 2 hours underwater, a tour bus with about 50 people had emptied out right into our cenote! We came back to dozens of legs kicking the mud up off the bottom, not to mention the fuss we created when we appeared out of nowhere. Poor Natasha had lost her reading spot to the crowd, so we jumped back in for a cavern dive for her to get a taste of cave diving. Cavern diving is cave diving where you always stay in the natural light and limit your penetration to 60m. Still had fun, and found some bones of an animal that must’ve fallen into the cenote and drowned.
The last day in Playa del Carmen we hopped on a boat and tried out drift diving off the island of Cozumel. Cozumel is about a 40min boat ride from the coast and surrounded by great dive sites, which my aunt has been faithfully diving for over a decade. Natasha got a taste for drift diving, where you essentially feel like an astronaut being swept over the top of a reef. No swimming necessary, just float, relax and enjoy the show.
Time to deviate from the plan
Every time we told people in Playa about our big drive south, the response was almost unanimous, we had to visit Punta Allen. Punta Allen is a village at the end of a 56km beach covered peninsula south of Tulum. It is one of the only ways to access the Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve, a huge protected area full of dolphins, turtles, crocodiles and hundreds of bird species. The peninsula road itself is also incredibly scenic, with the ocean to the east and a natural lagoon to the west and sometimes only enough land between the two to fit the dirt road. While the dirt road has been recently renovated, it was still the first time we got to really enjoy a little bit of off-roading.
We spent the night camping on the beach at a picturesque little ecolodge. The ocean breeze meant the first nice and cool night in our tent and waking up to an ocean front sunrise. The next day we enjoyed breakfast on the beach and made our way down to cozy little Punta Allen. We hired a boat and lucked out with our captain, Fernando, who did an awesome job touring us around the lagoon and mangroves for two hours. Dolphins jumped and played in the waves and wake, Natasha sat transfixed on the bow of the boat, huge 6 foot turtles raced along with the boat and we got an ecotour of the local mangroves. We even got a glimpse of Fernando’s 13 foot crocodile that he feeds out the back side of his house and has hilariously named “Coco”. Punta Allen was our highlight of Mexico and highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area (specifics at bottom of this post).
Goodbye Mexico and on to Belize
After a late and lazy start from Punta Allen, and our wild boat tour, we drove back up the peninsula, but were running out of daylight. We found another cozy little beach campground just a few km away from the famous Tulum Mayan ruins. Another night of cooking, hammocking between palm trees and waking to the sun over the ocean had us ready to head Southbound again.
The Belize border wasn’t bad, but it was our second crossing and we were starting to pick up on the pattern. Check out of customs first, then immigration. Then fumigation, immigration and customs into the new country. Only hiccup this time was apparently we didn’t get entry stamps in Northern Mexico (which is weird because we remember him stamping something) and they almost didn’t let us into Belize. Fortunately the immigration officer was no match for Natasha’s puppy eyes and we were on our way to drive through Belize’s four highways (yes, there are only four of them but more to come on that later)
Saved the best for last
Here are the photos from the nights camping on the beach near Punta Allen and then near Tulum. Two of my favorite nights/mornings of the trip so far. Cooking out of the back of La Bete with the sand under our feet. Roasting marshmallows for improvised s’mores (brownies, marshmallows and saltines). Hammocking on a professional level. Sleeping to a cool breeze and ocean waves all night. And finally waking up to a sunrise over the ocean right outside our front door.