Having just come back from a little overnight in Playa del Carmen after dropping off the kids at their hotel in Tulum, I thought I would share a few impressions from Playa – as folks around here call it because it’s too hard and time-consuming to actually say Playa del Carmen – from a visitors/slash neurotic foreigners (the original viewpoint of this blog when it started 20 years ago) point of view.
Playa is heavily policed
In the touristy part around the 5th avenue area, the police presence is massive. There are armed policemen at every intersection and at one spot that I saw, a tank-like armored vehicle that probably came from the US Army’s surplus after the Iraq invasion was successfully completed.
Since you hear a lot about the gangs, the narcos and the violence that has plagued the area, this dark undertone to all the happy people selling stuff on the street and the trendy restaurants and shops, should be reassuring and not threatening. How you will react is entirely up to you. And in spite of their rather intimidating aspecto, what with their bullet-proof vests, machine guns, and all-black uniforms, they seem friendly enough though and don’t mess with anyone.
Touts is one of those weird words that I have trouble writing, just because it sounds so 18th century. But apparently, that is the official word for those guys in the street, that are trying to get you to come into their (or a friends or employers) store along the Quinta Avenida.
Predominantly men, they pester each and every passerby, inviting them to come and see their cigars, their hats or their tours. If they are waving a plastic covered menu, it’s a restaurant they want you to try. And listen to their banter, which is incredibly original – “hey, I remember you” and funny (sarcasm). If any females walk by, you can be sure that they will have a #metoo moment and be ogled and commented on by the touts, who usually hang around in small groups. As a tourist you can ignore them completely and if you don’t understand Spanish, the better it is for you since you won’t know what crap it is they are spouting.
Beyond the verbal sales pitches of “good price” “cheapest price” and “best price” there are signs everywhere advertising discounts of up to 50% (on selected items). These are crappy things that never sold as well as they were expected to and so, are things you don’t want anyway unless you can’t pass up a good bargain on some plastic Made in China glass holder that says Playa del Carmen or the purple top with fringes from last year.
Mexico is famous for its lax pharma laws and cheap drug prices and that, combined with the ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines in the US, means you will see pharmacy counters in the gift shops advertising everything from anti-depressants to anti-biotics to erectile dysfunction drugs with dubious labels. There are legit pharmacies a few blocks away where you can buy real drugs and medicines at local prices and so, you really don’t need to shop here unless you are afraid to venture into the “real” Playa del Carmen, a fear which is unfounded (read the part about the police, above)
The rich and the poor
You can see the disparity between the rich and the poor on the touristy streets of Playa. The wealthy tourists from abroad and from within Mexico stroll past high-end shops especially around the luxury shopping mall complete with Starbucks and all manner of luxury brand stores, while the miniature young women from Chiapas with their wares displayed Mayan market style on the very same streets right outside. Note that these women usually have small children in tow, who are entertaining themselves on cell phones, and who add a sympathetic look to the scene, invoking a sense of guilt to passers-by and thereby perhaps making it more probable to get that sale.
At one point, a shiny black Mercedes Benz coupe drove past a police checkpoint which was interesting since a) it was a black Mercedes that costs probably about a million and a half pesos and was driven by a twenty-something-year-old and his female cohort which might raise an eyebrow or two; b) they had a child on the lap of the female in the front seat, a clear violation of transit law and c) the car had no plates, another violation and normally a reason for the police to pull the car over.
In any case, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for a weekend escape from your routine if you enjoy a little beach time and some great restaurants. Other than that, I wouldn’t come back for more than a day or two as the whole ambiance seems just a little too much for my laid back Yucatecan self.