Like most places I spend any amount of time in, I was sad to leave Playa del Carmen.
But unlike most places I’m sad to leave, I actually didn’t like Playa del Carmen at all.
The second I arrived I had been disappointed. I’d left beautiful Guanajuato in search of a stunning Caribbean beach and ended up with one that was chock-full of American tourists and smelt of sewage. I’d left behind a city where barely any English was spoken, and where I had ample opportunity to improve my Spanish skills, for a city where most locals would automatically greet you in English. I’d left behind a place with delicious $1 tacos for one that’d charge $10 for some mediocre quesadillas.
I’d left a city I adored for one I immediately wanted to leave.
It was right in the middle of high season in Mexico when we arrived, making Playa del Carmen crowded and expensive. We’d known this would be the case in advance, so rented an apartment through one of our local friends.
For the first week, it felt as though Playa del Carmen was the exact opposite of what I was hoping for when I flew to the east coast of Mexico.
Dave would head out for runs and return with stories of drains overflowing onto the streets with a frothing brown liquid. We’d head to the beach for an afternoon but find ourselves blasted by thumping bass from every bar and restaurant, barely able to find a spot to lay down our towels. We’d end up in a restaurant paying ten times more than we were used to for food that was bland and mediocre. Our apartment backed onto the outside patio of a hostel that ran parties every night until 2am, keeping us awake and unable to function the following morning.
We were, quite frankly, wondering why so many travel bloggers and digital nomad-types seemed to base themselves here. I just couldn’t see the appeal.
So, I decided to try and find out.
After all, if somewhere doesn’t meet your expectations, it’s down to you, as a visitor, to make the effort to find its goodness, rather than simply complaining and leaving. I didn’t like what I’d seen in Playa del Carmen so far, but I knew it was a place many people loved. I wanted to understand why it meant to much to so many of my friends.
I started exploring the more local neighbourhoods far from the beach, finding delicious street food for the prices I was used to paying in Mexico, with not many tourists in sight. I left the main beach beside the resorts and wandered further, discovering that a kilometre or so away from the main strip was a patch of sand filled mostly with locals. A kilometre further and there was nobody at all on the beach. I purchased some ear plugs to drown out the overpowering music from the hostel.
I found that as long as I stayed away from the over-the-top party parts of town, ate street food and avoided the beach, life in Playa del Carmen could actually be pretty great.
For the rest of my time, I formed a routine that kept me far away from the Playa del Carmen most people come for. Picture the exact opposite of spring break and that was my life here.
Each morning, I’d wake up for an early morning pilates session while Dave went for a run, and then head out for a porktastic torta de cochinita pibil from a local street vendor or some freshly baked treats from a nearby bakery. There’s so much great food in this city if you take the effort to avoid 5th Avenue. For the rest of the morning, I’d either work in my apartment or, if the music from the hostel next door was too obnoxious, head to a nearby park to write.
Lunch would generally involve far too many delicious quesadillas from Las Quekas — the small restaurant below our apartment — as I’d practice my Spanish with the owner while stuffing my face with cheese, poblano, and chorizo goodness. I’d then head to the beach for a couple of hours with my Kindle to soak up the sun.
Dinner would nearly always be tacos from a street vendor — some of the best food I had in Playa del Carmen was from the popular truck, El Ray Del Taco. We’d return to our apartment afterwards, work for a couple of hours, and then spend the rest of the night developing a growing obsession with Sherlock.
I was sad to leave Playa del Carmen because I’d grown to love the routine I had there.
I liked having dozens of cheap street food carts near my apartment and I loved the convenience of having an enormous Walmart and Mega supermarket located within a two block radius. It was great to live just a five minute walk from the beach, and we were in the perfect location for day trips around the Yucatan.
Once I found a more positive attitude and made an effort to find parts of Playa del Carmen to like, I began to enjoy the month I spent there — but it was challenging to find those parts. Furthermore, I’m not sure I liked it enough to make the effort worth it. It just felt like the place has once been amazing but had been negatively impacted by tourism.
As for returning to Playa del Carmen? I can’t see it happening. I’ve loved my time in the Yucatan but I think in the future, I’d much rather spend my time in the chilled-out, yoga-filled wellness resorts in Tulum with its much cleaner beaches, or the colonial inland city of Valladolid that I fell in love with within seconds of arriving.
While I eventually found myself growing fond of Playa del Carmen, it was more of a fondness for the quality of life I had there, rather than the place itself.
Have you ever had a love-hate relationship with a place you’ve visited?