The easy way to travel to Mexico would have been to just book an all-inclusive vacation package and stay in one of the Yucatán Peninsula’s many resorts. We saw a bunch of them on the way from Cancún to Playa del Carmen, or rather, we spotted the road signs and massive gates along the highway, the actual buildings hidden somewhere in the jungle.
But we’re backpackers, so no secluded bungalows, no private beach, and no on-site four-star restaurants.
We booked a hotel in a newish area of Playa del Carmen for the first two nights. Airbnb check-in processes can get complicated if you have to meet the host, and most aren’t super happy to give you the key in the middle of the night if your flight is delayed.
In fact, we landed on time, and it didn’t take that long to go from Cancún airport to Playa del Carmen. We checked in around 9 p.m., rushed to the supermarket to buy food and water, and passed out after a late-night walk.
Flying to Mexico from Ontario is definitely easier than flying to South America, Europe, Asia or—gasp! —Australia. It takes less than five hours and there’s no time difference. All you have to do is to change to shorts and a t-shirt once you arrive, and you’re all set.
We weren’t overly stressed out about this trip. On one hand, it had been a decade since our last stay in Mexico and I don’t feel I know the country that well because we were always just stopping by on our way to Central America. But on the other hand, it’s Mexico. Any North American hoping to escape winter, get some sun, buy cheap medicine and maybe some illegal stuff goes to Mexico—it’s not exactly a hidden gem, we’re basically neighbours who speak a different language. It’s still North America and the northern hemisphere, we assumed it would be pretty straightforward.
Well, kind of.
Here is the paradox of the Yucatán Peninsula. The entire region lives off tourism. It’s designed for Americans and Canadians escaping winter. Gringos are not a rare sight, they roam around freely.
But gringos also stick to gringo areas, like all-inclusive resorts.
And like I said, we’re not staying in a resort so we are in this weird grey area—not knowledgeable enough about Mexico to do things the Mexican way, yet not gringos enough to eat in franchised restaurants, get drunk on tequila and claim Spanish is just like English with an extra “o” at the end of each word.
Our first chore the day after we arrived was to withdraw Mexican pesos. Nothing difficult, really. In fact, Scotiabank, my Canadian bank, has a branch on Constituyentes, one of Playa del Carmen’s main avenues.
We found the familiar logo easily but it took me five minutes to understand why the ATM was refusing to take my debit card.
Turns out that in Mexico, cards must be inserted horizontally, magnetic strip first. First time ever I see that.
This was basically a sign from the travel gods—“You didn’t think it was going to be that easy, did you?”
Lesson learned, time to think like backpackers. Like at the hotel. We had the mother of what Feng calls a “splash splash shower,” a broken showerhead spraying water everywhere except on us, which is basically a showerhead’s top job. We hacked it with a towel to get a proper trickle of water.
We made the mistake of going to the closest beach, on the left side of the pier. I mean, there’s nothing terribly wrong with it but it’s crowded and kind of dirty. So again, backpacker move (literally), we walked further to find a much bigger and nicer beach.
On the other hand, getting a Mexican SIM card was super easy. We just bought one at 7/11 for 29 pesos ($2), loaded it, and that was it. Data and calls are cheap as well.
We moved to an Airbnb after two days at the basic hotel. The condo looked new and the small apartment was pretty clean and functional.
When we checked in, the condo staff made a big deal of not using the rooftop pool and gym after 10 p.m., “horario de silencio,” “quiet hours,” completely understandable. Except at 10 p.m., it wasn’t exactly quiet. In fact, we could barely hear each other in the apartment. Turned out there was a very, very noisy bar at the corner of the street keeping everybody up all night. Actually, it’s not even a bar, it’s worse—it’s a karaoke bar with drunk people singing awfully off-key until 3 a.m. I’m pretty convinced half of the rock stars killed themselves because they heard their songs in karaoke.
Food is also a learning experience. The first night, the guys had Feng’s emergency stash of instant noodles and I grabbed a burrito to go because we were way too tired to cook. The second night, the guys had another noodle meal and I had a couple of Venezuelan arepas because we didn’t want to buy groceries considering we would move the next morning. Both of my take-out meals were okay-ish but nothing special, so I decided to cook. Again, not that easy. I don’t know the local brands and ingredients that well, and I suspect I’m less into corn tortillas with some kind of filling plus sauce than most locals.
So basically, we’re trying to figure out Mexico. It’s a work in process.
Meanwhile, the beach is lovely. We had a few hot, sunny days before the Christmas rain—look at these colours!Share this article!