When many people think of Playa del Carmen, Mexico, they automatically think of a heavily touristed party destination for Americans. As a result, it’s no surprise that many independent travelers don’t really have a desire to visit this town at all.
However, every now and then, some independent travelers do end up here, usually when en route to or from Central America, and of course, most of these travelers, at least the ones I’ve met, typically have the same initial reaction upon arrival.
“Playa del Carmen is not for me.”
And I can understand that. For those in search of wild adventures in new and exotic lands, seeing a gringo as soon as you get off the bus, one wearing an over-sized sombrero while inhaling a constant stream of beer from a neon purple, 3-foot long plastic drinking vessel, is not a good start.
Just walking down the street, passing t-shirt shops and sports bars, seems to lead many travelers to declare, “What am I doing here?” and to start thinking about their next destination.
Actually, about four years ago, I backpacked through Playa del Carmen during a brief one month trip to Mexico. And not surprisingly, I stuck around for only 2 days, not wanting to spend another minute here. It simply wasn’t the type of travel experience I look for at all and after one walk along La Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue), which is a mile-long, pedestrian-only street full of cafes, restaurants, boutique hotels, bars and shops geared towards tourists, I was ready to head elsewhere.
After all, more than any other form of travel, I am at my utmost happiest when I am traveling around destinations where very few travelers care or dare to visit at all. These are the adventures that I live for and that prove the most rewarding to me.
So what am I doing here right now, right in the middle of touristland, if I had such a forgettable experience in Playa del Carmen only a few years ago?
Well, the interesting thing about Playa del Carmen is that the people who stick around for a while, beyond that initial “Get me the hell out of here!” phase, tend to undergo a drastic transformation, one that has happened to just about every friend, family member and traveler who has visited me here. Their initial disappointment suddenly turns into an intense attraction, and instead of looking for the next ticket out of town, people start asking me for apartment recommendations instead.
The phrase of the day then becomes: “I could easily live here for a while!”
And that’s the key. They could easily LIVE here for a while, which is much different than visiting this town as part of a Latin America backpacking adventure.
WHY I LIVE HERE
These days, I love Playa del Carmen. I wouldn’t have spent so much time here last year, and then returned this year, if I didn’t find it to be a perfect place to live. I may enjoy traveling through remote and barely accessible regions of the world, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in those places for an extended period of time, at least not right now. And due to the nature of my digital work, I need to spend about half of each year living in one place, as it’s too difficult to get significant work accomplished while on the road.
From what I’ve discovered so far, Playa del Carmen offers a combination of impressive benefits that is difficult to ignore for anyone looking to live overseas, especially if you prefer to live near the beach.
What are these benefits exactly?
Most nationalities receive a free 6-month tourist visa upon arrival, making it quite easy to stick around for a while. And if you leave Mexico and then return, even if it is only a couple of days later, you’ll receive another 6-month visa valid from the date of your reentry. Working visas are a little more complicated to obtain, but nothing that a lawyer can’t sort out for a couple hundred dollars, especially if you’re hired by a Mexican company or take the necessary steps to start your own business here.
For those of us who are from the US or Canada, Mexico is a most convenient foreign destination. The airport in Cancun (which is located 45 minutes north of Playa del Carmen) is very well connected, with regular non-stop flights to cities such as Fort Lauderdale, New York, Boston, Houston, Raleigh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Phoenix, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. As for me, the flight from Mexico to Florida, where my family now lives, is significantly shorter and cheaper than a flight from almost anywhere else in the US to Florida.
And even for Europeans, there are frequent, direct flights to/from Belgium, UK, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, making Cancun a surprisingly simple destination to reach.
If you’re not a digital nomad, Playa del Carmen offers a handful of work opportunities that could help you pocket some money while living down here, although a good working knowledge of the Spanish language would be needed. Under the table jobs are available in bars, restaurants, hostels and small hotels and you could always try to teach English (or Italian, French or German) informally. In addition, you could apply to work as a Timeshare salesperson at one of the dozens of resorts in the area, as they prefer to hire foreigners for these potentially well-paid positions.
And for those who simply require an internet connection to get your work done, most apartments come with Wi-fi and there are at least a dozen cafes around town that offer air-conditioned lounges with comfortable seating and Wi-fi (and that don’t mind you sitting there for a few hours working and sipping one cup of coffee).
Playa del Carmen has an abundance of sun, fresh tropical breezes, white sand beaches and warm Caribbean waters, all of which seem to play a role in keeping the body feeling healthy. You’ll also find a never-ending supply of tropical fruits and freshly-prepared fruit juices available for sale on every street corner. Throw in free dance and yoga classes in the park, a public sports complex complete with well-maintained basketball courts, tennis courts and a running track, as well as several modern gyms that offer inexpensive monthly memberships, and it’s difficult to avoid living a healthy lifestyle.
Yes, the throngs of vacationers that flock to Playa del Carmen are actually a major benefit for anyone thinking about living here for a month or more. How is this possible?
To put it simply, tourism equals infrastructure.
It may very well be that, during a travel adventure, we thoroughly enjoy sitting on the floor of an old, rusty, overcrowded bus, bouncing along a dirt road for 27 hours just to reach a destination that is 100 kms from where we started. However, I’m willing to bet that most of us don’t really want to go through that very same experience every time we need to go to the market to buy tomatoes.
Thanks to tourism, getting around the entire region that surrounds Playa del Carmen (known as the Mayan Riviera) is not only easy, but comfortable and inexpensive as well. Air-conditioned minivans travel between every town and village in the Mayan Riviera, often leaving every 15 minutes and running 24 hours a day. The cost to travel anywhere in the region is rarely more than $3 – $4 per trip and for an additional 50 cents or so you can even take a luxury bus, complete with free Wi-fi and plush seats.
The roads here are some of the best in Mexico, the taxi operation is well-organized and uses a simple flat rate system, and a quick online search for car rental Cancun shows how inexpensive the rental rates are as well. And it’s all thanks to tourism.
A VARIETY OF FOOD
When I’m traveling, I almost never eat anything but the local cuisine of whatever country I happen to be visiting (the exception being Indian food, which I will eat anywhere I find it). So for the most part, you won’t see me eating sushi in Honduras or enchiladas while in Malaysia.
However, when I’m actually living somewhere for an extended period of time, I do prefer to have a variety of cuisine available, because truthfully, one does get bored when eating the same food for several months in a row (again, except for Indian food of course!).
Luckily, as a result of having so many tourists from around the world vacation here, Playa del Carmen offers an excellent selection of Italian, Japanese, Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, Chinese, South American and German restaurants in addition to the endless local Mexican eateries scattered all over town.
There are also supermarkets, fruit and vegetable markets, organic markets and even shops that sell the ingredients necessary for one to prepare any type of international cuisine at home. I’ve found Thai curry powder imported directly from Thailand, homemade pesto from Tuscany and even grape leaves from Lebanon.
COST OF LIVING
For many people, this is the one factor that makes or breaks any destination, in terms of deciding whether or not a place is suitable for long-term living. I’ll be honest, in terms of costs, Playa del Carmen is no Chiang Mai, Thailand, where comfortable, perfectly-located studio apartments can be rented for $300 US per month and large plates of freshly prepared Thai food barely cost $1. Things in Playa del Carmen are a little more expensive than that, but in comparison to other destinations, and especially in comparison to what I would need to spend in the US for a similar lifestyle, it’s still remarkably cheap.
For those on very tight budgets, you could definitely survive here for around $1000 US per month. On the other hand, if you have $1500-$2000 US per month to spend, then you could live very well, with not much to worry about at all. That would include renting a 1-2 bedroom apartment, eating out frequently, going to cafes and bars and partaking in a variety of activities each month.