Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Caribbean Coast, Mexico

After a hot and humid time in Merida, we were delighted to get back to the beach, this time in Playa del Carmen, half way down the Mayan Riviera between Cancun and Tulum. We are staying at the B&B Casa Ejido, one of a three residence complex in the Ejido Colonia of Playa. In Mexican system of government, an ejido is an area of communal land used for agriculture, on which community members individually possess and farm a specific parcel. In some cases these ejido lots have been used for houses and hotels and are sometimes sold to foreigners, not always with happy results. Colonia Ejido is a local neighbourhood about fifteen minutes by bus and foot from the main drag and beach of Playa so it’s far away from the constant hassle of Mexican mass tourism, about which I am very glad. Most of the people staying here, and in the apart hotel across the way, are young students of local language schools, mostly glued to their smart phones and laptops who utter the occasional grunt in response to our “Buenos Dias”.

The B&B consists of one very large palapa-roofed house with six separate bedrooms rooms inside and a large communal living room, dining room, and kitchen which everyone can use, and two cabanas, separate small cabins. We were fortunate enough to get the cabana right next to the pool – huzzah!

Unfortunately, while the pool looks pretty, it is pretty dirty and not swimmable at the moment (and maybe never will be). Many of the many birds living here use it as a gigantic bird bath, swooping down from the bushes and trees above to immerse themselves. (And the number and variety of bird song here is incredible, all sorts of tweets, twits, screeches, trills, and shrieks, beginning about 5:30 in the morning).

Although it would be really nice if we could swim in the pool, even if it never comes to pass, we still are really enjoying the dim, cool interior space of our cabana – since the sun never shines directly into our room, it’s always pleasant even on the hottest day. We have access to the communal kitchen and also have a very tiny kitchenette with a one burner hotplate, a small fridge and a toaster.

We borrowed some of the B&B’s rickety bikes the first night here and rode around the area; although we headed off in completely the wrong direction, we eventually found our way down to the beach and back again as the sun was setting. We have spent our first few days here on the beach, first at a hotel with beachfront loungers, then, when that proved to be pricey,

at the Wah Wah Beach Bar. Wah Wah, the closest spot to Juarez Avenue, has free loungers and cheap beer so naturally it is our preferred watering hole. [Now, a week or so later, I can confirm that we really like Wah Wah – the service is good and friendly and they have one of the best locations on the beach].

Playa’s beach is bright white and the water is a gorgeous light green-blue, just as I remember from our last visit here in 2007. Fifth Avenue, the main tourist strip parallel to the beach, is pretty much the same, although some of the stores and restaurants have changed.

Even though it’s low season there are still quite a few tourists here, although not enough to keep all the tour touts and tequila sellers happy. Playa is high pressure sales all the time. “Mister Whiskers, Santa, Pancho Villa, Jesus Christ, John Lennon, Mr Harley” – Ty gets them all, every day – “wanna buy cigars, tequila, tours, rent a car, rent a bike … (more quietly) some smoke …?” I am more or less ignored, except when I’ve got my sarong over my head in which case I’m assailed with “Take off your cape; enjoy the sun, you’re going to die anyway” … nice.

One block off the strip, the place is dead – no tourist enters any of those stores or restaurants. And Benito Juarez, the main street leading back to our place, is where the locals shop; nary a tourist to be seen other than us – weird. 99 percent of the visitors here must never travel further into Playa than Fifth Avenue, a Disneyland of shopping, eating, and drinking that has no Mexican authenticity whatsoever – on Fifth Avenue one could be anywhere.

Yesterday we decided to visit the island of Cozumel, about an hour’s ferry ride offshore. Sunny when we left the cabana, a torrential thunderstorm hit when we were about ten minutes offshore, absolutely drenching Ty and I who were sitting on the back deck of the catamaran ferry.

We arrived at Cozumel’s enormous cement dock and had a walk about downtown, constantly importuned by touts for rental cars and timeshare presentations. Was it ever dead – Sunday on Cozumel is the only day that massive American cruise ships don’t visit (which is the reason we decided to go that day) but I didn’t think that the entire place would have rolled down the metal doors and shut down. Granted, a few restaurants and bars were open around the main square but the place was so void of people that it looked as if a bomb had gone off and vapourised the entire population.

We walked from the Plaza Mayor down along the main street, trying to find someplace – any place – to have a beer, finally stopping at the seaside bar of the Hotel Barracuda, where a big group of Mexico City federales were frolicking in the water and trying to learn how to swim.

It was a bit of a strange sight to see grown men wearing bright orange water wings.

A further bit of walking revealed not much other than a gigantic grocery store and some huge all-inclusive hotel complexes so we flagged down a cab to take us to Paradise Beach, a place we remembered fondly from 2003. Wow, has it ever changed. The last time we visited, there was no cost to enter and no cost to play on their floating plastic iceberg and trampoline.

Now, the place has a gigantic pool and poolside bar and a vast number of loungers and umbrellas set up for the hundreds of cruise ships day-trippers that descend on the place every day but Sundays. We were charged a relatively small fee to use the chairs and pool but were not told that this fee did not allow us to use the giant rubber floating “toys”, now expanded to six in number.

After swimming out to one slide and clambering on, we were informed by a staff person on a kayak that using these would cost an additional $12 US each … we declined the opportunity.

It seems that Paradise Beach is no longer a paradise; it’s been remodelled as an all-inclusive beach club aimed at American cruise ship people and was about as appealing as a trip to Disneyland (with apologies to those of you who like Disneyland, it’s absolutely not my thing). In fact, the entire island seems to have been pimped out for the cruise ships and there was none of what we remembered as a nice Mexican island vibe left – nothing, nada, nichts. Too bad.

See a few more pics here.


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