During my lengthy stay back in 2010/2011, I had nothing but positive things to say about the town of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It was as ideal of a destination as there could be for someone like me who prefers warm climates, beautiful white sand beaches, a laid-back environment, diverse food options, a town that is walkable, a location that is easily reachable from the US and a region with plenty of options for day/weekend trips to interesting sights.
To live in Playa del Carmen was living a dream as far as I was concerned, which is why I called it my ‘home’ for over 1 year.
Fast forward to last week…
I returned to Playa del Carmen for the first time since June 2011, wondering whether I would find the same ‘perfect destination’ as before. If I did feel the same way, I knew that I would have a hard time leaving and that the chances of me using Playa as my base once again where extremely high. On the other hand, there was always the chance that I would discover a completely different place this time around, one that no longer appealed to me as much as before.
One week into this visit and I still haven’t reached a conclusion.
Oh, they are still made of pure white sand and the water is still as turquoise and as mesmerizing as ever. The beaches do seem a bit more crowded during the day than I remember, even for high season, and it is harder to find a nice stretch of empty sand, something that wasn’t difficult at all a couple of years ago. But hey, whenever I do step foot onto the beach, and glance out at the Caribbean Sea and the island of Cozumel in the distance, I feel that same sudden ‘whoosh’ of calmness overcome me, just like when I lived here, and any negative feelings or bad mood instantly disappears. The beaches of Playa are still some of my favorite beaches on the planet.
This might not seem like something that is important but for someone who works online and prefers not to sit in my apartment all day, having a nice variety of welcoming cafes to use as my ‘office’ is something I do take into consideration. When I was here before, there were about six cafes on my circuit, all of which offered comfortable seating in an air-conditioned setting, fast wi-fi, good coffee and staff who didn’t mind if I sat there for a few hours on my laptop (I would buy something every hour or so). Well, I was sad to see that out of those six cafes, only two remain these days. And after asking all of my friends who live here, many of whom work online as well, I have yet to find any other suitable replacements. (The cafe Ah Cacao is still my top choice to get some work done and it is now almost my only choice.)
Without a doubt, this is the biggest change since 2011. While you can still live cheaply in this town, it is significantly harder to do right now. For those looking to spend long periods of time here, consider this…my 2-bedroom apartment that I rented for around $800 USD per month in 2010/2011, now goes for $1500 USD per month. Where $500 per month used to get you a very nice one bedroom apartment, that amount will generally get you a studio these days, and most likely not in the exact city center. There are exceptions of course but it is more challenging to find such good deals at the moment. And of course, costs for just about everything else have gone up as well – hotels, food and drinks (some restaurants and bars have raised their prices by 50% in 2 years), activities and just about anything else you need to spend money on. Playa del Carmen is no longer a dirt cheap paradise unfortunately, catering more towards those who have a good amount of extra cash to throw around. It’s not impossible to eat, drink and play cheaply, but you really need to ask around to in order to find the ‘out of the way’ places that don’t cater only to tourists.
For the most part, all of my favorite eateries, some ‘out of the way’ and some not so much, are still here and are still serving up the dishes that I couldn’t get enough of during my previous stay. From Dona Mary’s tostadas on Avenida 30th (where I made a video about how to actually eat a tostada) to El Fogon on Avenida Constituyentes, to the no-name quesadilla, salbute and panucho eateries scattered around, to Mr. Kiwi’s tortas and the always delicious breakfasts at La Cueva del Chango, among many others, I’ve been reliving my dining escapades from when I lived here. And if you do stick to the restaurants around Avenida 30th, you can still have a filling meal for around 40 pesos / $3.50 USD, keeping your food costs way down. (Buying food from the supermarket seems to cost about the same as before and is a great way to save money if you live down here.)
Overall, Playa does have a different feel than I remember. I always used to state that despite the tourism here, it was still possible to go for an entire week without seeing another foreigner if you stayed in the more local areas of town. These days, that seems somewhat impossible as vacation rentals have spread into so many more neighborhoods and tourist-oriented restaurants and bars are now found in much greater numbers away from the main 5th Avenue. And with what appears to have been a massive increase in the number of foreigners now calling this town home, either long-term or for a few months, the time has definitely come to classify Playa del Carmen as a tourist town. Is it still possible to live here and stay somewhat away from the mass tourism? Yes, absolutely, but at the same time, being a part for the tourist culture is no longer completely avoidable.
I do want to note that the locals living in Playa have so far been as welcoming as ever and even on 5th Avenue, which is a 1.5 mile long pedestrian-only stretch of tourist shops, restaurants and bars, the atmosphere is still quite relaxed, with local vendors not nearly as aggressive as in many other similarly popular tourist spots around the world. People here are laid-back and for the most part, helpful and kind. While I have heard an unfortunate story or two from others living here, most of what I hear confirms that Playa has maintained its reputation as a friendly destination.
One other thing I do need to say is that on several occasions, I have been absolutely shocked by local people who have actually remembered me from 2 years ago. So far, there have been five instances when I have walked into a cafe where I used to spend time working on my laptop or into a local restaurant that I used to frequent, and one or more of the staff members immediately yelled out “Derek!” (they don’t know me as Earl). And I can’t even explain how that makes me feel considering that it has been 20 months since my last visit and that most of these cafes/restaurants have hundreds of ever-changing customers every single day. It’s really incredible and it has blown me away each and every time.
As far as what I look for whenever I’m thinking of staying put for a while or as I continue my search for the ‘perfect home base‘, there is no doubt that Playa del Carmen offers just about everything I could possibly want. I’ve had a blast this week running around to all my favorite spots and the time spent on the beach and in the water has so far been nothing but therapeutic.
Does everything feel as comfortable as it did when I lived here? No, and that’s why I have yet to reach a conclusion as to whether or not Playa really is the perfect location for me.
Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been gone for so long that I feel more like a stranger right now. I don’t know many people here these days and it’s hard to ‘settle in’ when I know I’ll only be here for just a short time at first.
Or maybe it’s simply because things are rarely the same the second time around. As travelers, we often revisit certain places in the hopes of reliving our previous experiences but rarely do they prove to be as rewarding as the first time.
Of course, I’ve only been back here for a week. So it is possible that after a few more freshly-prepared tostadas, watching a few more sunsets while floating in the Caribbean Sea and making a few more new friends, I could very well find my groove again and make the decision to call this beach town ‘home’ one more time.
(Note: This post looks at Playa del Carmen as a place to live for a while, not as a place to visit short-term. I will always love this town/region as a travel destination and I absolutely cannot wait to share my favorite spots with the group of 10 cool individuals who are arriving in a couple of days to join my Wander Across Mexico Tour!)
Photo: Playa del Carmen Beach (Wiki Commons)
Does Playa del Carmen sound like a place you would want to live?