Riviera Maya 2009

Our little escape from winter

December, 2008. The Portland media dubbed it the Arctic Blast. Worst December snowstorm in 40 years. Portlanders got almost as sick of hearing those words as they were of the 14” of snow that accumulated day after day after day. Few realize that our fair city is at virtually the exact same latitude and elevation as Montreal, but the North Pacific Current moderates our climate to the extent that significant snowfall is a relatively rare occurrence. Not so in December, 2008. Ronda and I were among the many Portlanders who got pretty sick of it. Drove us to the Internet to try to arrange a last minute trip to someplace wet and warm.

We are both Mexicophiles with many, many trips under our belts but neither of us had been to the Caribbean coast. We both knew that Cancún was to be avoided like the plague. While visiting Zihuatanejo several years back, we hopped a bus to neighboring Ixtapa and were horrified. The pertinent syllables were “eeek” and “stop”. We both picture Cancún as in the same class. Playa Del Carmen, with it’s relative proximity to the Cancún Airport and location near the center of the Riviera Maya, seemed like a good choice for a base.

The bus trip from the Cancún Airport to Playa confirmed the impression I got from my glimpses out of the airplane windows: the Yucatán Peninsula is very flat and very densely vegetated. Our walk, luggage in tow, from the bus station to the Magic Blue Hotel was along the town’s main commercial street, Quinta Avenida. Quinta is an almost always crowded pedestrian mall lined with overpriced tourist joints. It did not take us long to realize that Playa is way too touristy for our tastes. Our hotel (Magic Blue) was quite nice in most respects. Centrally located on the busy Avenida 10, walking through the double doors into the central courtyard was like walking into a peaceful sanctuary. The grounds around the swimming pool were immaculately landscaped and maintained. Our second floor, palapa roofed room had a large front deck complete with a hammock (YES!!!). Really, the only problem with this location was the noise. The hotel is kitty-corner from an abomination (spread from Cancun) called Coco Bongo. They do
some kind of a cross between Cirque du Soleil and heavy metal band impersonation (with an open bar) until 5:30 AM – it was like having a subwoofer strapped under our bed. Luckily, I brought earplugs. I needed them.

The aforementioned main drag in Playa (Quinta) was 1 block away. The pedestrians on this mall are more likely to be European than Estadounidenses, but they are mostly drunk (or hungover) and tacky nonetheless. After a couple of days (and Ronda’s utterance of “There’s not much México here”) we wandered a few blocks west and found Avenida 30 and something resembling México. There we found a few really good eateries that, while still overpriced, were half the cost of those on Quinta with excellent food. We ate most of our meals there after our discovery. Also on 30th we found the Mega store. This Mexican superstore chain carries just about everything. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my trips to Mega (for tequila and limes and avocados, etc., etc.).

We have no need to return to Playa. Cancún (the cancer) is unfortunately spreading south along the coast. The sad part is that it’s not limited to towns. We rented a car for a few days and drove down the coast with our (supposedly recent) guidebook in hand. We’d stop at kilometer posts along the Federal Highway listed as little dirt roads that will take you to one or another beautiful, secluded beach, only to find some monstrosity of a wall and gate and guard post for another all-inclusive mega-resort. You really see and feel what a horrible sin this is when you do manage to find one of those dirt roads that haven’t (yet 😦 been infected and bounce on down to some incredible beaches. We managed to find a few, including the 1st and 2nd most beautiful beaches I have seen in my life. On one (#1 – near Tulum) Ronda said to me “this looks like the beach in the Corona commercial”. Funny thing is, I had just read that morning that a Corona commercial WAS filmed on that beach.

To say we fell in love with the beaches near Tulum would be understatement. We are scheming how to return next winter to spend a month. Unfortunately we never saw the town of Tulum. We had bad maps and didn’t realize that the town was on the highway just south of where we turned off to get to Beach #1. I’ve looked at town photos, though, and I’m pretty sure it’s a place we would enjoy. Walking through the Mayan ruins at Tulum it doesn’t take long to figure out why they wanted to settle here. Beach #2 was at Xpu Ha, about halfway between Playa and Tulum. There’s a coral reef a minute’s swim off the beach with fabulous snorkeling.

After we turned in the rental car, we took a bus north to Pto. Morelos. About halfway to Cancun, the town has somehow escaped the mega development and is still mostly a Mexican beach town. I overheard a conversation in a cantina that indicated that the locals are continuously fighting hard to keep it that way. Though the beaches are not as knockout gorgeous as #1 and #2 (there’s a miles long line of seaweed along the beach everywhere except where adjoiners have removed it with equipment) they are still great. The reef offshore is a national park. The town is Mexican. I could return.

About the time of our visit, a government drug czar was kidnapped, tortured and murdered near Cancún. Our government is actively warning tourists away from México in general and the Mexican Riviera in particular. I must say, we never felt unsafe or threatened in any way during our trip. Maybe my love for this country acts as rose-colored glasses and keeps me from seeing things I should. I’ll have to keep an eye on the situation down there as we formulate future plans to visit.

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