Playa Del Carmen: Come And Play In One Of Mexico’s Spectacular Locations

(Story previously published in Winnipeg Free Press)

Situated in the tropical tourist region known as Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen can be found 65 kilometers south of Cancun and 20 kilometers from the island of Cozumel. This humble hotspot provides all the sun, sand and surf as its trendy cousins, but still sports fewer crowds. At least for now.

Named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron saint of Cancun, Playa del Carmen was a rest stop and readying point for early travelers making their way from the great Mayan cities to the island of Cozumel. From the same shores that now house modern-day resorts and restaurants, they would launch dugout canoes to journey across the open water. Trade was established in the area, where local commodities like salt and honey were bartered for goods imported from other regions.

Today bartering still takes place, with the commodity being the Mexican peso or US dollar. You can still venture away from the shoreline, too, but the vessel will most likely be a kayak, fishing boat, or a parasail. But first, you’ve gotta get to the waterfront.

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

The first obvious thing about approaching Playa del Carmen by air is the denseness of the lush green landscape. As the plane descended lower and lower, and the trees began to look like actual trees and no longer like plastic Lego pieces, there was little sign of modern-day anything. It wasn’t until last minute the runway clearing appeared. Having watched far too many of those Mayday shows, it was a welcomed sight.

The second obvious thing about Playa del Carmen is the overwhelming wallop of Caribbean air that engulfs you after stepping off the plane. Its warmth is welcoming and moistness nourishing. It made me feel refreshed and rejuvenated after the long flight. It also made me aware that wool socks and fleece jacket wasn’t the best selection for arrival wardrobe.

During the hour’s drive to our resort, blessed with air conditioning to counteract the effects of thermal attire, the scenery remained the same – jungle all the way. Home to more than 1,100 bird species, prehistoric looking reptiles, and real-life scorpions, Mexico’s jungle is not the place to venture solo. So if you’re like me and you like solace, stick to the shore.

UNDERWATER WORLD

The third obvious thing is the beauty of the beaches. Riviera Maya’s coastline extends nearly 145 kilometers along the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, with Playa del Carmen at the heart of it all. Bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the beach looks exactly like those magazine pictures of turquoise blue water and sparkling white sands. If ever I’d imagined paradise, this was it.

One of my favourite pastimes when traveling, besides wandering alone into wilderness areas, is roaming along a beach. It is here I’ll find my most treasured souvenirs – seashells eroded from endlessly spinning in salt water, and rocks smoothed over from tumbling about the tides.

Under the turquoise blue water, Riviera Maya is home to the largest barrier reef system in the Northern hemisphere. Second only to Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef, the Great Maya Reef was introduced to the world by Jacques Cousteau in 1954.

Stretching nearly 1000 kilometers from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula southward to the Bay of Honduras, the Great Maya Reef is a chain of crevices, ravines, canyons, and coral gardens. It is one of the most popular and spectacular scuba and snorkeling destinations, offering 100 different dive sites and more than 500 species of fish, four species of sea turtles, and some of the biggest sponge formations in existence.

Diving takes place inland, too, where numerous subterranean streams throughout the jungle are connected to submerged caverns, resulting in the world’s largest underground river system. Cenotes, or freshwater pools, are formed by water filtering through the limestone, providing a myriad of tunnels, channels and caves to be explored.

TAPIRS AND JAGUARS AND BATS – OH MY!

Riviera Maya’s natural jungle setting is the perfect place for eco-parks, and there are several to choose from. Our group toured Xcaret, a destination teeming with opportunities to learn about regional ecology, culture, traditions, and history.

Xcaret means “little inlet” and is one of the most visited places in all of the Riviera Maya. It hosts an array of indigenous wildlife including monkeys, bats, zebus, and tapirs – whose main predator also lives at Xcaret. Jaguars are kept on an island surrounded by water and lush vegetation. To the Maya, the jaguar was a god called Balam, a symbol of power, and sovereign of the underworld. To the admiring tourist, this feline king of the tropics is majestic. To the tapir, the only good jaguar is one kept on an island surrounded by water and lush vegetation.

Marine turtles have lived in the oceans for more than 100 million years, and constitute an important symbolic figure for indigenous communities around the world. During nesting season, Xcaret establishes turtle camps in order to protect the endangered species from possible predators. To see other marine life, the Xcaret Sea Trek allows you to walk and breathe underwater, using a special helmet. Other unique experiences include snuba diving, which combines scuba diving and snorkeling; swimming with dolphins; and swimming with real-life sharks.

Even though they are labeled as ‘tranquil and friendly’ if I had to choose, I’d rather be banished to jaguar island than enter shark-infested waters. And if I could take one thing with me to jaguar island, it would be a tapir. Because when it comes to survival in the jungle, I may not be the fittest, but I’d hope to outlast by outwitting at least one other mammal.

REAL-LIFE REALITY TV

Speaking of survival… It may be obvious from the preceding paragraph I’m a fan of the Survivor series. All 17 seasons, in fact. But did you know I’m also a fan of truly trashy television?? One of my favourite shows recently was Rock Of Love. Watching Bret Michaels of Poison fame chose his soul mate was like watching a weekly train wreck. I just couldn’t look away.

So imagine my sheer surprise and utter thrill when our tour guide casually told us the gorgeous waterfall we just walked past was where they shot the ‘couples massage’ scene in the Rock Of Love finale. Hellooo! I sooooo loved that gorgeous waterfall! To me, THAT was paradise. Seeing it was like accidentally stumbling upon a sacred site. And now that I’ve been there, it’s on my bucket list to go back one day for a massage. Sans Bret Michaels.

With so much to do and see at Xcaret, including performances, ceremonies, cultural sites, sculptures, chapel, Mayan village, wine cellar, and more, you could spend an entire week exploring everything. Our few hours visit was just enough to determine it’s a place worth returning to. Sans Bret Michaels.

MOONLIGHT MUSIC

There’s an increasingly popular attraction in Riviera Maya that doesn’t involve swimsuits, sunscreen, or waterfall massages. The Riviera Maya Jazz Festival celebrated its sixth birthday in November, and is becoming more acclaimed each year.

Featuring the best of Mexico’s jazz culture, and including a choice selection of international artists, the festival offers an unforgettable seaside experience. While there are other jazz festivals in Mexico, this is the only one that takes on the beach alongside the Caribbean Sea. Beginning each evening after sunset, the stage comes alive with lights, media cameras, and plenty of jazz action. An estimated 30,000 visitors attended over three evenings, using beach towels, blankets and lawn chairs to stake claim to their piece of sandy real estate.

Performance highlights this year included the Beaujean Project, featuring twin sisters Ingrid and Jennifer Beaujean; iconic guitarist Earl Klugh; jazz giant David Sanborn; and Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham. This being my first time really listening to jazz, and experiencing a tropical festival setting, my conclusion is there’s nothing quite like listening to smooth sultry sounds while ocean waves roll in, leisurely lounging under a starry canopy night sky.

The only thing better is doing it with a Bloody Caesar in your hand, which the beach bartenders had ingredients to make – marking this the first time I have found a Caesar outside of Canada, notwithstanding the Minneapolis airport or the dozens I’ve made myself in hotel rooms. Viva Mexico!

FOOD & FINDINGS

If you are visiting Playa del Carmen, you must stroll down La Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue. This festive pedestrian walkway runs parallel to the ocean, and stretches as far as the eye can see. It offers a wide selection of shopping, dining, and entertainment, along with internet cafes, money exchangers, and other specialty shops. It’s also lined with boutiques, stores, and kiosks, giving tourists plenty of potential to practice the age-old North American tradition known as haggling.

There are three rules to remember when shopping in Mexico. First, everything is negotiable. Second, never buy the first one of anything you see, as chances are there will be five more just like it down the street. Third, don’t forget rule number one.

You can get great deals in Playa del Carmen, even on a tourist strip like the Quinta. The selection of silver jewelry is exceptional, and somewhat overwhelming. With so many stunning and inexpensive pieces to choose from, the toughest part is making a decision. Take time to look around first, not only to find the best quality, but also to locate that one special item that truly catches your eye. Because if you walk away and are still thinking about it five stores later, you know it’s meant to be yours.

Of course all that walking around and haggling will make you hungry, so stop in at one of the many restaurants along the Quinta. With ex-patriots from dozens of countries around the globe currently calling Playa del Carmen home, the town has a vast selection of food choices including Italian, Argentinean, Chinese, French and other cuisines.

My preference is authentic Mexican cuisine like ceviche, empanadas, and fresh salsa and guacamole that tastes delicious atop anything. To wash it all down, nopal juice made from the medicinal prickly pear cactus is not only refreshing, but also contains valuable nutrients that support immune, glandular, nervous, circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems.

LAST RESORTING

After a long day’s roaming it’s always a relief to rest your weary head. Being one of Mexico’s fastest-growing destinations, Playa del Carmen has had a boom in the quantity and quality of lodgings. Small hotels and rentals possess a captivating Caribbean charm, while high-end all-inclusive resorts line the waterfront up and down the Yucatan Peninsula. Looking like fenced in fortresses, some of these places are the size of small villages.

Our group stayed at BlueBay Grand Esmeralda, just outside of Playa del Carmen. With 500 meters of private beach and blanketed by natural jungle setting, every room has a view. This being my first time in a five-star hotel, I was impressed with the property’s expanse, the selection of eight restaurants, and the golf carts that drove you around from place to place. Back in my room, I was also impressed with the shower stall acoustics (Bathroom Divas here I come!), the towel animal formations placed on my bed every day, and the always full mini-bar.

Other onsite facilities include two sparkling blue swimming pools with an exercise area containing submerged spin bikes, fully-equipped indoor gymnasium, and luxurious spa area with tempting menu of treatments. The beach itself is lined with lounge chairs and complimentary kayaks, and the beach bar with swing seats is situated close-by, so you never have to go margarita-less for very long.

I could almost understand how some people go to Mexico and never leave their resort. On the other hand, if you go to Riviera Maya, you must venture into Playa del Carmen, a town that has stayed true to its roots and preserved its charm and character amid the increasing number of tourists.

Just like hundreds of centuries ago it was a rest stop and trading zone that hosted returning travelers, today it’s still a destination you’ll definitely want to come back to. Sans Bret Michaels.