The drive from Cancun To Playa del Carmen, where we had rented an AirBNB, takes you down a four lane divided toll road a mile or two off the Caribbean and through flat, dense jungle. Massive gates – like minimalist sculptures – for gated communities (a little piece of America) on either side of the road, one for the PGA Golf and Country Club. Billboards for high end restaurants with luscious hyper realistic photos of steaks, the meat either in its dark pinky, marbled rawness, or charred a rich brown-black like a burn victim in an industrial accident. Luminous, almost surreal. Lots of power lines, weaving in and out on either side of the road, as if fending off the jungle, microwave and cell phone towers – we need our connectivity – and not a hint of elevation change.
Teams of maintenance folks in fluorescent green and orange coveralls trimming the shoulders with weed whackers or machetes – either tool making the task Sisyphean given the kilometers they have to cover. Billboards for luxury villas, gated communities or lots in developments about to break ground – American real estate fever has a firm purchase here.
Theme parks with ziplines, water slides and American size entry fees, one by Nickelodeon, the cartoon TV channel, with sculptures of its cartoon figures prancing along the top of a massive entry gate. All painted a uniform, iridescent orange (even Sponge Bob Square Pants, who should be bright yellow). Something got lost in translation between corporate and the site (“Just use up that orange paint – we’ve got a bunch of it and the bigwigs from America are only here one evening, they won’t notice.”)
Our AirBNB is in a somewhat aging gated community on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen. The house itself is funky in a way that we like – not everything works exactly as you might expect but the host is responsive and he happily trades messages with me in Spanish. AirBNB hosts down here have got their photographing process totally dialed in – the photos posted on a listing are full, inviting and attractive and, while not a misrepresentation, certainly an enhancement of reality. Our place is small but has a nice back patio with a table where we have dinners.
The neighborhood is comprised of two story townhouses in varying states of repair, one or two appear empty, almost abandoned. Some have been tricked out with carports, fully tiled front yards (Mexicans have a thing for tiles), garden features and sometimes additional floors. Service trucks, smaller cars parked on the street, the occasional scooter and one or two full size pickup trucks.
Neighbors will sometimes generously share music they like: as I write this I am being serenaded by syrupy and heartfelt Mexican pop song, loud enough that I can make out the words and feel the bass.
There is a lavanderia at the entrance, an aborrote (general store), a small taqueria and the ubiquitous OXXO. Carmen at the lavanderia and I became best friends when we spent about an hour one Sunday in a Fabuloso scented haze trying to find our laundry order which had gone missing.
We go for walks in the evening and see folks returning from work, joggers and dogs being walked – the dogs grace us later on occasional evenings with a deeply moving choral performance, whose fervor, length and atonality is impressive. In the morning we are woken by the sudden tropical sunrise and the lovely songs of multiple varieties of birds that remind one that you are somewhere different from home.
Playa del Carmen’s claim to fame was as a ferry terminal for nearby island of Cozumel, years ago it was a fishing village. It has evolved as a lower key alternative to Cancun and has grown considerably – it is now a town of 350,000 people that spreads out on either side of the highway. Beaches are moderately difficult to access and we found some of the best food away from the touristed downtown in the suburbs.
The tourist area is nice to visit first thing in the morning before the crowds build, the weather gets warmer and the general hubbub increases. We went for a walk on the beach this morning first thing and, once we made our ways around the guys repairing jet skis in the narrow and ill defined public entrance, we got to a nice strip of white sand and the calm water of the Caribbean Sea. Working our way past folks doing yoga, others meditating and one or two very large, heavily tanned men who were happily established on loungers in front of their hotels, each looking like a nicely browned pork shoulder or a very large toasted coconut. Then by a roped off area with loungers and umbrellas laid out for a high end resort – within the rope there is a separate section with a small sign that says “For Premier Members Only”. While all hotel guests are created equal, some are more equal than others.
When on the Mayan Riviera it is essential to do a little dental tourism – you see signs everywhere for dental offices that will trick you out with whatever you need – cleaning, root canals, all sorts of cosmetics procedures at 1/4 to ½ American prices. Quality is hit and miss – I think it would take several visits before I’d want to get something serious done. The office we went to was stronger on marketing that it was on the actual cleaning we scheduled, but the experience was memorable and another slice of a visit to the area.
The dentists’ office was in a beautifully landscaped and gated community, in and nicely laid out retail and office area. After a fair bit of sleuthing, we found the office, on the second floor of a low commercial complex laid out in a pleasing but rather complex way. The waiting room was full of Americans, many of whom were not happy because the promised Wi-Fi access didn’t work and the chauffeur service provided by the practice was running behind (from what I could tell, way behind.)
We watched the cross cultural disconnect unfold – the Americans trying to be understanding but nonetheless pretty demanding, clearly mapping their expectations from the land of the free to their experience here and the Mexican staff doing what you do in most cultures when you have no control over outcomes which is to seek to be gracious and save face (both yours and your interlocuter’s). Frustration on both sides.
Our cleanings were mediocre and were clearly a gateway to an upsell (in my case a bunch of cosmetic veneers, so that I could have the bright white, even teeth of a Mormon missionary or Swedish supermodel). I love a good upsell. But the dentist and I had a good conversation about Mexican history – he is from Veracruz, which played an important role the the war of independence, the war of reform and the revolution. Well, to the extent you can have a good conversation with your mouth filled with fingers, implements and doodads. I would say that our cleanings, which were ¼ of the cost of one in the U.S., were about ¼ of the quality, so I guess we broke even
I should note that Lexie had her teeth cleaned at a low key office near Tulum that catered to Millenials and Gen Z – she paid 1/2 of what we did and her treatment much more thorough. And she got a cool bamboo toothbrush to take home – we all love our tchotchkes.