Playa del Carmen . Mexico
As our plane descended into Cancun we could see plumes of smoke rising to the south and west. Later in the week as we began our drive across the Yucatan Peninsula to Merida, we thought we may have to turn back due to heavy smoke and fires along the side of the road. We learned these were simply controlled burns as part of a reforestation process in areas along Autopista 180, the main highway between Cancun and Merida. We met my sister Ellen at the airport, and the car rental at Alamo was no different than the US process. The Yucatan Peninsula has an excellent bus system to all cities, ruins, and resorts, but the forecast this week were lows in the searing during the night, and oppressive during the day. A car with the AC blasting was a welcome luxury, and made it able to cover more ground during the week. Leaving the airport we saw the high rise hotels of Cancun in the distance, but instead of following them we turned south on Highway 307 towards Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Still considered the touristy Mayan Riveria, the cities south of Cancun see far less wear and tear by the masses. Even though Playa del Carmen has it’s share of T-shirt’n crap shacks, it’s easy to find secluded beaches, small towns, good food and a less frenetic atmosphere than the standard cities and resorts the rest travel to.
Driving in Mexico wasn’t nearly as challenging as I thought. The Mexican states of Quintana Roo along the Caribbean Sea, and Yucatan on the north and west gulf side of the Peninsula, have excellent infrastructure and modern roads.
Our first few nights were spent at a hotel a few miles south of Puerto Morelos, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
I had read that Playa del Carmen was becoming another Cancun and didn’t have much to offer . I didn’t doubt it’s grown at a rapid pace, but a close examination behind the souvenir stands and bars revealed an eclectic, hip community similar to US college towns.
Walking down the pedestrian only Quintana, (5th Street), we stumbled into a library, (actually just one rack of books), and a juice bar which sparked further curiosity. Any establishment that eschews the tequila shot in favor of luring people in with books and a DJ has my attention. This was the Hotel Basico, a new boutique hotel with a rooftop bar and club. We were invited in, and rode up the open air caged elevator to the roof, with great views of the beach and 5th street below. I forgot to ask whether the chairs hanging in the net above the lobby were being stored for actual use, (quite practical), or just a funky art project. We didn’t stay at the Hotel Basico, but it provided a great atmosphere.
On the sleek minimal rooftop patio we took in the beach view had some drinks. Also on the roof are two small hot tubs and some canopy beds for relaxing the night away. Next time we come to Playa del Carmen this place is definitely on the lodging list.
Our other nights and dinners along the coast were in Puerto Morelos. Since our hotel was a 15 minute drive to Playa del Carmen, we visited Puerto Morelos on the nights seeking somewhere close. It’s a quiet town about two miles from highway 307 along the beach. Some damage from Hurricane Wilma was still seen on the thatch roof buildings. Other than a few side streets most activity in town is centered around their Zocalo.
The Hola Asian restaurant on the southeast side of the Zocalo features excellent salmon, and we enjoyed talking with a lady from New Hampshire who’s been living and working at the Hola Asian for several years. It surprised me how remote Puerto Morelos seemed, even though it was sandwiched between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, two cities catering to tourists. Hopefully the 30 mile buffer on each side will never be filled in. The hotels and resorts along the coast are isolated and all inclusive, so it’s a financial benefit for them to not locate near small town gems like these.
Our first night wandering around Puerto Morelos some other tourists asked me if we were staying here. They were also staying down the coast and wanted to be here in the future. I believe there are some hotels within walking distance of the hotel too.
Above: Puerto Morelos Beach. Below: The “Free Soul” bookstore