From Playa to Cancun: Last Stop on the World Tour

One block away from us in Playa Ejido was a very nice small park – La Ceiba – which has colourful sculpture, a cafe with brightly painted furniture, several art studios, some for kids, and a cinema.

We had originally planned to stay in Playa for four weeks; however, by the third week, we’d had enough of the hard sell everywhere and wanted a change of scenery. I was, though, happy to meet world traveller Nikoya, a woman originally from Vancouver now staying in Playa via twenty years in Chang Mai, Thailand.

We spent a nice evening wandering the Fifth Avenue strip the night before Ty and I hit the road. And I was also happy to share my space with the two small frilled lizards that kept us company – here is the tiniest, and most skittish, one.

Our last few days were spent on the beach and the weather was grand, much better than it had been, pretty well clear and getting hotter. Just as in many of the places we’ve visited over this past year, here, too, the beach is eroding. Although people on forums that I’ve read say that beach erosion is a natural phenomenon (and, yes, it is), the kind of erosion we see here and elsewhere has two primary causes – rampant development and global climate change. The building of gigantic hotel and condo developments, and long piers jutting out into the ocean, disturbs and changes the ocean currents, taking sand from one area and depositing it somewhere else. Also, with global climate change, and the melting of glaciers, the sea level is rising. Just as we saw in Thailand, especially on Koh Samui, here, too, the rising water level means that some businesses along the beach are having to pile up sand bags (or sand whales as they’re called here) or put their sun loungers on an artificially raised platform of sand so that the sea doesn’t inundate them.

I think that the entire Mayan Riviera beach is human-made, with millions of cubic meters of sand trucked in from somewhere else (where, I wonder?) to the tune of millions of dollars. The new sand is just dumped on top of the remaining old sand, or onto rocky shores, and, in not very much time, much of it is eroded away again by the ocean. In the meantime, this sand has blanketed the reefs and killed the coral; as well, the water at the moment is a murky, turbid, milky-white (not sure whether this is temporary or the result of the sand trucked in). So, no sea life can be seen near the shore in developed areas except tiny fish.

In the middle of Playa’s main beach, in front of Fusion Restaurant, the beach has almost disappeared, revealing the original rocky shoreline.

One of the last days we were there, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places. Since swimming in that water wasn’t very appealing, we walked north, past the new Ultramar pier (one of the culprits for the beach degradation?), to the north beaches. Last time we were here there wasn’t much in this area but has it ever been developed since then. Many large all-inclusives and beach clubs line the wide beach along here, attracting young people and many locals. Right now this is the best beach area in town, from what I can see.

After checking out of the Casa Ejido we took the ADO bus up the highway to Cancun, our final destination on the around the World jaunt, before heading back to Vancouver the end of June, selected for ease of departure and, hopefully, sun and beach.

We’re staying for 2 days at the La Quinta Inn and Suites downtown before moving to an apartment in a local neighbourhood. La Quinta is almost brand new, has a small pool out back, and is nice enough for a brief stay. One really nice feature is a free shuttle bus which has transported us the last couple of days to one of the beaches in the Hotel Zone.

The Hotel Zone here is enormous, about 26 kilometers of peninsula jutting out into the ocean east of the city. And the hotels are also enormous; gigantic monoliths, huge mostly white condo developments, some older run-down and/or abandoned properties, line the beach and the lagoon the entire way.

These, and the biggest and “best” of American or Americanised culture, such as Hooters, Coco Bongo, Senor Frog’s and the like, and crappy little souvenirs shops with the usual junk, comprise the Cancun peninsula.

Unlike Puerto Vallarta, there is no malecon or beach walk here. The hotels have been built right on the beach, preventing access almost everywhere to what is public beach. To allow others who are not staying at these properties to access the beach, there are ten public entrances dotted the length of the zone but, unless you know where these are, they’re not easy to find. Yesterday, after spending a few hours at the Cabana Beach Club (not an optimum experience), we walked down the beach for about 45 minutes and could not find a public access point off the beach.

So, since we were tired and hungry, we decided to walk through a hotel property. Of course, since Ty doesn’t exactly blend into the background, we were accosted and about to be escorted off the premises until we told the security personnel that we wanted to see a man about a room. After being directed to the lobby we exited at full speed stage right and flagged down a bus outside.

Today the weather was wonderful and we rented two sun loungers on the beach at Gaviota Azul, having a lazy day playing in the big surf.

The large, wide beach was full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children.

At the moment red and yellow flags are up so the water isn’t good for swimming; however, the high waves are a blast. Ty, floating offshore, was just about pounded by a gigantic one but managed to duck under it in time. Several people enjoyed burying one another in the sand, including this little boy who placed small handfull after handfull of sand on his reclining mother.

Below is a picture of what the beach would look like if no sand was brought in to Cancun.

Although Cancun is not at all our scene, if the weather holds, it will be a very pleasant spot to spend some time frolicing in the water before heading back to what sounds like a cold and wet spring at the moment on the west coast.

See more pics here.

 

Playa: Beaches, Ruins, and Beasts

Playa del Carmen is a town divided: one small part, that along the seashore, is a playground for middle-class and wealthy gringos, mostly from the US and Canada but also Europeans; the rest, extending north, south, and west past the Carreterra Federal highway, is Mexican. Never the thwain shall meet.

Coming back from the beach the other day we got on the wrong bus; instead of taking us up Benito Juarez Avenue to 70th, it rolled along parallel to 5th Avenue and then cruised slowly back up past the highway, past the Hospital, and through the newish development of Los Flores, a vast subdivision of small row houses painted in tropical colours, catering to the locals who work in the tourist industry. Some rich dude must have sold his hacienda property to developers who are now erecting thousands of these small structures.

A couple of days ago we jumped aboard another bus, hopped out at the ADO station, walked the length of Fifth Avenue north and from there took a taxi to the Playa Cemetery. Cemetery visits are one of my little idiosyncracies; I enjoy walking through the grave sites and looking at the inscriptions and mementoes.

This cemetery has a lot of young men’s graves – a lot! – and also a section entirely for infants and babies. As I was photographing some of the memorials in the latter, Ty called out to me, saying “It’s time to go”.

Since we’d not been there very long, I was surprised but acquiesced. As we were walking back out, Ty told me that he’d seen a group of about ten young guys drinking around one grave, likely that of a fallen friend, one of whom pulled a pistol out of the back of his shorts. Definitely time to hit the road!

South of the Cozumel ferry terminal are many huge all-inclusive hotels and expensive condo developments. I find this area, known as Playacar, obnoxious. We had gone there to check out the Xaman Ha Mayan ruins and aviary. What remains of the ruins is very small, a few tiny stone house structures and an encircling wall accessed from the beach through the Xaman Ha condominium site that has been erected around them.

Walking past Playacar’s enormous mansions and condo developments to find the aviary was depressing. And when we did come to the small aviary to find that the entrance fee was 300 pesos ($22 American) each, we could not bring ourself to pay it. A total ripoff. In fact, almost any of the “tourist attractions” in this part of the world are ridiculously expensive and completely inauthentic. While all, except the Mummy Museum, of the many really cool museums and haciendas that we saw in Guanajuato were at the most 20 pesos, here it seems that you can’t get in the door anywhere without dropping mega bucks. [Grumble, grumble, grumble .... we interrupt this broadcast for a grumpy old lady grumble].

On the way back to Playa, walking along the Mayan ruin wall, we did see a wild capybara, a gigantic rodent not unlike a huge gerbil. This one was unafraid, munching serenely on grass, and about the size of a small dog.

After our aborted trip to the aviary, we stopped at the upscale shopping centre near the ferry for a coffee at Starbucks (there are no other coffee shops in this area) and had a bit of sushi for lunch, enjoying a break from the humid heat under a large leafy tree. [These two days were cloudy and rainy so the photos are not very good. And, although I've been wearing 50 spf sunscreen the whole time I've been away, I see that I have a tan ...]

At the Casa Ejido there are many small lizards: some are very tiny and black; others are larger, greyish, and have a head frill, looking like miniature dinosaurs. One of the latter (in the picture below) rears up and races on two legs along the edge of the pool almost daily in the morning. I love these guys!

See a few more pics here.

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.