Don't be a Playa Hate-ah

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

I stood on the main hotel road of Cancun, sun (the hottest it had been since my arrival) and backpack on my back, waiting for public bus R1 to take me to the city centre and specifically the ADO bus station. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long and soon I was whisking past resort after resort thinking that I wouldn’t be staying in luxury like this for some time. And then I pulled out my Lonely Planet. Phil, a friend from back home, was soon arriving in Mexico and Playa del Carmen was his first destination whereas I had dismissed it out of hand as a package holiday town. Oddly it wasn’t the reading of the town's description that caught my attention, it was the map. Here was a town with hostels rather than hotels that seemed to straddle the vacation/experience divide. I changed my mind then and there and decided that yes, I was going to stop in Playa, at least for a night. Then I looked up and realized that the hotel strip was winding down, for we had just passed the Aquamarina Hotel, where John and I stayed last time. I honestly thought about jumping off to check if any of the same staff were there but decided against it. Then it was a question of figuring out which traffic circle had the bus station and jumping off there, which was easier than expected. And finally, buying my ticket and plunking myself down on the first long-distance North American bus trip I have done since our car broke down in whimsical Winlock, Washington.

The bus ride was 38 pesos which isn’t bad at all, and aside from the fact that the bus wouldn’t start (and we had to switch busses) the ride was utterly uneventful. The road was pretty dull with more billboards than scenery, and I have to say that the Spanish and Asians have attended the same school of planning. The idea appears to be to let anyone build anything as close to a major road as possible. After getting off the bus, then the backpacking part really began. Somewhere near this main road, 5th Avenue, was a hostel and I had to find it. So I started walking. I had not gone far (though I had expected to cross one sooner) when an older man came up to me and asked if I was looking for a hotel or hostel. “Hostel,” I answered. Well, he knew of one. Thankful but on guard as always, I followed him as he told me he’d lived in town for 35 years, originally from Texas, and then went on to talk about the hostel and its namesake, Maria Sabina. She’d taken the Beatles around Mexico and had all sorts of celebrity connections from what he was telling me. I figured he was on their payroll but it didn’t hurt to look. It turned out he wasn’t – the people at this hostel are just well-loved in town and he was doing me a big favour. They were immediately friendly, the rooms were 130 pesos per night (I managed to get 110 for agreeing to stay 3 days), the rooms and bathrooms were clean, there was free breakfast and wifi and tequila at 8. Sold. My room had a balcony on the 5th floor with a view towards the ocean, air conditioning (!), lockers (great for peace of mind) and though I wouldn’t touch it, a TV. Downstairs one level was an open-air lounge with wicker chairs and hammocks, where we’d gather and socialize before heading out, the floor below that a kitchen, and so on. I feel like I’m a shill for this place now, but if you’re reading my blog, you deserve to stay somewhere this good, so here it is again. Maria Sabina, 6th St between 5th Ave and 10th Ave. Jonathan, one of the guys that works here up until Thursday – because he offered to quit and travel with a girl whose friend bailed on her and was faced with either traveling alone (she was not up for it) or going home early – wants me to tell you that they have great parties on the weekend, though my Monday-Thursday stay precludes me from confirming.

I guess I’m enthusiastic because I felt right at home here. After getting settled in my room I popped down to the kitchen and was told by another backpacker where to find good cheap food a couple blocks away. We chatted for a bit about his travels and the perils of getting in a fake taxi in Bolivia, and then I went to explore and grab some food before it got dark. It’s always easier to be in a new place during the day. I walked the length of 5th Avenue then came back on 10th and grabbed a 20 peso torta (sandwich) and a 15 peso coconut-mango-vanilla smoothie that were mmm-good and satisfying. Back at the hostel I missed the tequila but noted three of the guys were drinking massive 1.25 L bottles (they call them missiles here) of Sol, available next door for 25 pesos. Four minutes later, I was sitting with a group of them chatting and drinking an oversized Sol. Jonathan was taking two English girls out for salsa lessons and sure, I’d go along. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really a class going on that night but he tried his best to teach the girls who tried their best to teach me. Their effort was admirable but I’ve got some work to do. The four of us bought two 2-for-1 mojitos and then met up with the rest of the hostel gang at Coco Mayo, which is pretty much how every night here ended. I stayed for a while, danced a while with the group and left at around 2 AM. I walked by Coco Bongo on the way home and stopped to inquire about the price to go in so late. $20 US and I’d been wanting to check out the show anyway, so I ventured inside. It was worth every cent. Though the club was not really big enough to house it (tall but small) which I think partly resulted in people more apt to stand and watch than dance, I didn’t mind. If they were playing a Kiss song, or Rolling Stones, or Elvis, or Michael Jackson, or even La Bamba (you’ll notice that the music they played definitely helped me enjoy myself) there were professional dancers, people in makeup and suits performing professionally choreographed dances. The Michael Jackson one was phenomenal. For La Bamba, they had someone playing the saxophone live. And when they, I presume, wanted to play some other songs (otherwise, why else?) they had a skit with Freddy vs Jason and fake blood gushing everywhere.

I got home that night around 4 and slept until 9:00 or so when the light and noise or the dorm was too much. Guillermo, one of the guys in the room, was going for an interview at a nearby resort and recommended a section of beach where there is good music, lots of young people, but not too crowded, Momisa or something along those lines. I got directions and walked with two German girls there after the morning rain abated, or so we hoped. It hadn’t, but we didn’t get anything more than a drizzle before the sun really came out. And man, was it powerful. I kept looking at them and wondering how, with no sunscreen, they weren’t getting burnt. I had SPF 30 and I definitely was feeling warm. “But if they’re not burning (the one was quite fair), surely I can’t be?” I would tell myself before finally decided that somehow that was exactly how it was going to be. So I retreated to the hostel for some lunch at a nearby restaurant (empanadas I believe) and went into the hostel. To my surprise, Phil – the guy who had indirectly convinced me to make Playa a stop – suddenly appeared. When he got settled in, we went strolling around the town and found some muy excellente street food. Tacos con carne, 10 pesos each and just ridiculously tasty. Plus, from another cart, something else which is escaping me that was also very good. On a whim we booked a dive off Cozumel and agreed to wake up at 8 AM the next day to make the 10:00 ferry.

I woke up plenty of times before 8:00 thanks to a booming storm all around us. Thunder that shook the room and rattled the windows. I should’ve gone to watch, but if I’m asleep and I get out of bed, that’s probably the end of that particular night. Still, it never occurred to me the next morning that it might still be raining out there when I neglected to pack anything more than snorkel, towel, windbreaker, camera, and book. It wasn’t raining when we left the hostel but basically just as we got under cover waiting to board the ferry to Cozumel, the rain came angrily down, sideways enough that even far under the roof we were not staying completely dry. When it came time to board, the 100m sprint to the ferry was done hunched over with the windbreaker trying to shield my camera. No harm done and the ferry, aside from a rollicking ride on the verge of getting sick, was fine thanks to an enclosed first level. But the walk from the ferry to the dive boat wsa not and everything except my camera and book (which I’d wrapped in the towel and shielded with my body) got wet. But both survived the ordeal and are better for it. Now the dives. Our first was a wall, 80-90 ft deep, and it was really great. I love diving walls because of that feeling that the depth continues forever, fading from blue to empty black. We saw a turtle and a few other things before going to our second dive : a wreck. We went down to look at it and then, though we shouldn’t have, went inside and swam down a few rusted and eery hallways. Then along where we saw a bull shark, a toad fish, and yet more underwater awesomeness.

Finally, back on land Phil and I first hunted a washroom which was nearby the actual dive shop we’d gone from (had we only known). Then we hunted food and found a pretty great little restaurant that served us some great food, That was when we realized we’d missed the 4:00 ferry and had three hours to wait for the next ferry at 7 PM. So we waited, strolled around, and luckily ran across Javier Soler, a local artist/sculptor who builds fibreglass designs and has aspirations of taking them and placing them in a lake to give snorkelers something else to look at and hopefully make some money. He was a very jovial and genial guy that loves his work and Phil and I had a great time chatting with him. Our next stop was much less successful, and that was for a Sol with Lime in a can. Sounds like it would be okay, right. But then, after some grimaces, looking closer at the can verified what we already knew... it was with lime alright. And salt! What psychotic decided somebody would want to drink beer with salt (and not just in a rim but in every sip) I don’t know, but he owes both Phil and I a beer. Finally, the ferry home, some more street food, and so ended my last night in Playa del Carmen, a much more charming place that I’d ever expected. Tomorrow, for real this time, Tulum. I could stay at this hostel for a few more days but it’s still early in the trip and I have that drive to get moving and see the next place. Probably a mistake, but if I find anything like this in Tulum then it will probably not be a mistake I’ll make twice.

Playa del Carmen Photos

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