Searching for soul in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Naked yoga, full moon parties and topless joggers — I’m on the beach in Playa del Carmen and happy to see that this beach town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast hasn’t lost its bohemian vibe. My introduction to Playa del Carmen began in the 1980s. There were no resorts or condos, just endless stretches of white sand, mangroves and mysterious underground cenotes.

Tidal pool perfect for swimming at Playa del Carmen Mexico

Tidal pool perfect for swimming at Playa del Carmen Mexico

Chickens ran freely across dirt streets and rooms with air conditioning were a luxury.  I swam in the clear blue waters, watched brilliant sunrises and flirted with invitations from a persistent local to dance naked atop a Mayan ruin. My love affair with Playa del Carmen began.

Bali beds at Paradisus Resort, Playa del Carmen Mexico

Bali beds at Paradisus Resort, Playa del Carmen Mexico

Things have changed since those early wild days. Luxury resorts on the Yucatan Peninsula now attract about six million international tourists, the streets are paved and the cenotes tamed. Over the years, I’ve passed though Playa del Carmen  on writing assignment (Westjet’s Up and Enroute) but hadn’t spent any real time there. I often wondered how much it had changed. Had it lost its soul?

Launch of Passion by Martin Berasategui

Launch of Passion by Martin Berasategui

On a recent assignment to cover the launch of Passion by Martin Berasategui, the Michelin-starred chef’s first restaurant in the Americas I had a chance to find out. My base was a suite at Paradisus, a luxurious resort located at the northern edge of town. Enormous in scale, its most intimate option is the Royal Service wing in La Perla, the adult-only section overlooking the beach.

Path to beach at Paradisus Resort with mangroves #Cancun

Path to beach at Paradisus Resort with mangroves #Cancun

Early morning I awoke at sunrise and took a taxi into town. I drifted through the streets but couldn’t connect with its growth –too many cars, billboards and construction.

Construction and billboards in Playa del Carmen Mexico

Construction and billboards in Playa del Carmen Mexico

I connect to a place by walking so decided to hike back to the hotel along the beach, heading north. The curve of the sand looked vaguely familiar and, as I passed beach bungalows with sarongs draped across hammocks, gawked at a pair of snake birds in the mangroves and drank a cold cerveza under a grass palapa,  my spirits began to pick up.

Coco Bay at Playa del Carmen

Coco Bay at Playa del Carmen

By the time I swam in the cool waters on a deserted stretch of beach, encountered a topless jogger and chatted with a local Mexican family enjoying a Sunday swim, I had reconnected. My love affair with Playa del Carmen was renewed.

Swim up suites at night Paradisus Cancun Playa del Carmen

Swim up suites at night Paradisus Cancun Playa del Carmen

Later that night, as I watched the moon rise over the dark mangroves and sipped a chilled tequila sangria,  I realized I didn’t have to dance naked or go wild to tap into Playa’s soul. It had worked its magic all by itself.

But I still might give that topless yoga a go.

 

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Showing 6 comments
  • John Bekas
    Reply

    I envy people like you that were able to explore Playa del Carmen before it become a popular tourist spot. My wife and I first discovered Playa in early 2005, and we loved it so much that it has been our home since the fall of the same year.

    The cars, billboards, and construction are necessary evils as Playa grows. Unfortunately, the previously peaceful Centro has become a bit congested. Luckily, our downtown is slowly being moved across the highway, which will hopefully alleviate some of the congestion and return some of the previous peace and tranquility back to the area.

    The good news is that all up and down the coast, from Cancun and the Riviera Maya to Mahuhual and the Costa Maya, there are still plenty of serene spots to visit, making Playa del Carmen the perfect home base. Spend one day at the tranquil beaches in Tulum, and return for an fantastic dinner in Playa. Spend the next day snorkeling in Puerto Morelos and return for the nightlife on Calle 12. There is so much to do in this area.

    Playa is definitely a magical place. It’s why many visitors to the area tend to visit again, year after year. Come visit us again soon!

    • Michele
      Reply

      Hi John ..how fantastic you are able to live in such a beautiful spot. One of the other journalists spotted 53 different species of birds during our 5 day visit to Playa …amazing. I will be back again soon enroute to Belize this winter so welcome any suggestions for Tulum or other southern locales. Best Michele .

  • Wendy Greene
    Reply

    Hi Michele,
    Love your website and love this post. I feel as though we have so much in common – I too come from a communications background! So happy to have met you today on Twitter. Keep telling stories!

  • Pat
    Reply

    We have been visiting Playa for 14 years; the change has been unbelievable. Playa has become a city… traffic, condos, chain restaurants and stores. This year we are staying in Tulum….. we hope to find the ‘old’ Playa.

  • Tomas
    Reply

    Happy to hear you were able to find again the peaceful and lovely beaches unspoiled by progress!

  • David Treacy
    Reply

    Hey Michelle here is your 2015 update straight from the horses mouth in Playa Del Carmen. Full moon parties = yes, topless joggers = yes, I think even more so than in 2011. It seems Playa despite all the new developments is still very bohemian in nature, and eco building projects, and tours are also becoming very big such as in Sacbe. Recently I have also been invited to alot of Temezcals, Peyote ceremonies and “healing music” festivals. We covered some of it on Wonderous Worldif you want to check it out in the culture section. Don’t worry Michelle, your little Mexico gem is still worth visiting! 🙂

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