Mexican Riviera Recon: Evaluating Our Options

by Nate

We’ve both visited Mexico enough to know we’re going to love the beautiful beaches, friendly people, lush tropical vistas, and great food.

What we don’t know is exactly where we’re going to live or what our daily life will be like. It’s difficult to really know what living in a place is going to be like until we do but, with so many unknowns surrounding our move, it felt like a good idea to try and find out.

The best thing about the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is how accessible everything is -even without a car. You can get from Cancun at the northern tip of the peninsula to the Chetmual at the southern border in only a few hours. It’s an hour from the Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen by bus, 2 hours to Tulum, and maybe 3 to Chetumal. That’s a lot of beautiful tropical beaches, jungle, and lovely Mexican pueblos (towns) a short drive away.

This means we have a lot of options for where we can live once we move to Mexico. And these options, in turn, present many choices about how to live. This is why we scheduled a return trip to Mexico to research the differences between the towns and cities we might live in and to get to know their personalities.

Before I left I published the post “Field Research: Celebrating The Anniversary Of Our Decision To Move To Mexico” on why we booked this trip and what we were hoping to achieve.

Where I Visited

The trip was five days long, with two of them being almost entirely travel, which left 3 days and an evening for exploring and experiencing the area. On our first visit to Mexico together in December 2019, Sarah and I stayed in Playa del Carmen and spent most of our time on the beach (or in the water). We also briefly visited Tulum -though our experience wasn’t very positive.

By all reports, Tulum has the some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and is a haven for weirdos (our people). Since we didn’t have a great experience the first time, we figured that we needed to devote more time to Tulum on this trip.

Of the 3.5 days, I spent 2.5 in Tulum and one day running around in Akumal and Playa del Carmen. Before the trip I spent a couple days mapping locations and exploring the streets of each city with Google Maps Street View.

By the time I arrived in Tulum I had spent some time memorizing the map and made a short list of places to go check out. Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, we’d seen a lot of during our last visit and I just needed to explore a few neighborhoods we’d missed. Finally, Akumal and the surrounding area was also on our list, if I had time.

The “Riviera Maya” stretches from Cancun to the southern border of Mexico with Belize, just south of Chetumal.

What I Did

I walked a lot and took a lot of pictures. But that wasn’t the sum of it.

Getting to know a place isn’t just about seeing it…it’s about feeling it. It’s about listening to the birds (or the traffic). The number of people that walk by you. Who makes eye contact. Who doesn’t. Where the grocery stores are located and how long it takes to get to the beach. But also how you feel while you do all these things.

Inner Tulum has a quiet, understated charm if you know where to look…

Sensing+Exercise (It’s a joke, I walked a lot…)

Exploring a city on foot with no headphones in my ears and no other stimulation than the scenery and my thoughts created an opportunity to engage with the city from an animist framework. There’s something very meditative about walking “by yourself” for miles (and miles) and this a state of walking-liminality is really perfect for engaging with place.

Spending time actively sensing the life within a place is the same thing as “sensing the life-force of a place”. This is only amplified by doing so in-motion; gaining access to new nooks and crannies, alleyways, and idiosyncrasies with each step you take.

“NO SE VENDE” reads the sign on the fence. Never figured out what it was…

So that’s what I did. I walked the streets, in a semi-random search pattern based around the few hotspots I had planned to visit in advance, driven only by basic needs and whims -like hunger.

“I’m hungry, and I haven’t checked out that area over there yet. Fuck it, I’ll walk.”

My “hotspots” were a few recommendations I’d received from sources I found while preparing for the trip and, obviously, Tulum’s beaches. The recommendations were mostly restaurants and food truck parks (all very good and I’ll discuss in detail in another post). Tulum’s beaches are separated into a north/south orientation along the beach road (split by a circle intersection with Cabo Ave. that runs back into town).

Tulum’s public beach is a quiet paradise with few tourists and no supervision.

Las Playas de Tulum y El Espiritu de Tulum

Exploring the two beaches was also done on foot (in sandals to be specific). Several hours of traversing white sandy beaches, clambering over sharp-edged volcanic rock -and no small amount of trespassing- gave me ample opportunity to appreciate the less-human elements of Tulum.

The north beach, “la playa publica”, is open and accessible to all; but a very, very long way down a narrow jungle road you wouldn’t want to walk at night. The south beaches, in sharp contrast, are mostly hidden from view by miles long walls of private resorts.

In Mexico all beaches are public beaches, but their access ways are not necessarily. In some cases you can sneak through the less private / less secure hotels. This is how I found myself sitting in the dark, listening to the waves break on the rocky shores of Tulum’s south beaches, a few hours after my arrival.

On my first night in town I snuck through the open entrance to Hotel Zamas at the southern end of one of the spotty hotel zones that appear in wider areas along the beach road. It was dark, and for a long while, empty; though a family later emerged from a bungalow at the far end of the beach a couple hundred feet away to entertain their kids in the surf.

This is the hotel property I snuck through to get to the beach the first night in Tulum.

In either case, I was left pleasantly alone and able to do a formal sensing exercise; engaging with Tulum in an exclusively spiritual sense, for the purposes of making some sort of contact with the city as a conscious entity.

As an animist I believe that, in a literal sense, there is a real and verifiably intelligent consciousness attached to every complex form of organized material in the universe -though mostly in ways we simply can’t comprehend.

There’s reams to unpack in that simple statement but for the purposes of this story, suffice it to say that “I believe” it is possible to engage in a form of dialogue with place. In practice this looks (a lot) like me simply talking to myself but, subjectively, often results in induced mind’s-eye visions and inspired gnosis (clairsentience, knowledge via feeling).

Tulum is filled with art and trash. There’s much to mourn in how this magical place has been treated over the centuries.

From this kind of engagement with the “city spirit of Tulum”, I got the impression that the area is well aware of its fraught history of cyclical colonialism and has no love for “invaders”. As I found, residents -both native and expat- seem to share this reserved, prickly nature towards the hoards of invading tourists; and I could hardly blame them or the city itself.

What it would be like situating our family in this environment became the subtext of the remainder of my experiences in Tulum. And that’s in no way a negative statement…it’s simply the obvious trouble I’ll need to sit with, and process, as I evaluate potentially restarting our lives there.

The area in central Playa del Carmen from Calle 44 to Calle 50 is filled with swanky, quiet condos all only a few steps from the beach.

The Neighborhoods of North Playa del Carmen

I went to Playa del Carmen to investigate the north end, above the Hilton/Hyatt area which splits the beach nearly in half. At the Hilton, it’s crazy on the beach. Go north 10 blocks (but on the beach) and there’s only a handful of people across a stretch of sand and sea that’s more than a mile long.

The neighborhoods between Calle 40 and Calle 50 are the north-most reaches of tourist-friendly Playa del Carmen. Above Calle 50 the streets turn from the European-style affectations of central Playa del Carmen to the dilapidated realities of urban life in Mexico.

The Elements, in particular, was a pretty great location. The beach is literally across the street.

A few neighborhoods in the quieter streets between Calle 40 and 50 caught my attention, but while they felt suitable for a short stint when we first arrive, I’m concerned about resiliency if we tarry too long in such a close-quarters, urban environment.

The accessible food supply in Playa del Carmen is largely restaurants and a Wal-Mart, beyond a handful of small abarrotes (grocery stores). Organic food is available, but it’s certainly no cheaper than it is in the US. Quality meat, organic greens and vegetables, and unrestricted access to sun and personal space are much harder to guarantee in a city like Playa del Carmen, unfortunately, than in rural or semi-rural Mexico.

I love this bar. They’re very friendly, there’s live music, and the location is killer. It’s also crowded with tourists…

Not to mention the tight pedestrian thoroughfares or the crowded areas dotting the long beach. Regardless of how you feel about the health risks of vacationing during the p*ndemic (I don’t care), unmasked white people being served by masked brown people is an uncomfortable visual that’s simply a reality of tourist destinations in this era.

Living in Playa del Carmen is not off the table, but this trip certainly helped us prioritize what we’re looking for, what compromises we’re willing to tolerate, and what conditions we need to be happy.

Half Moon Bay is heartbreakingly gorgeous. If we don’t live here, we’re at least going for a week at some point…

The Quiet Life In Akumal

I was able to squeeze an unexpected visit to Akumal on the way to Playa del Carmen, on the last full day of my trip. Making it to the quiet beachside pueblo by 9:30 am, I was able to travel the 30 or so minute distance to the adjacent Yal-Ku lagoon on foot.

Looking at Google Maps, the distance seemed a little daunting for someone on a schedule, but I’m very glad that I decided to make the trip.

Akumal is a strip of beautiful beach called Half Moon Bay, a small town across the highway, and an adjoining lagoon named Yal-Ku. The lagoon is on the north side of the scenic bay, surrounding a small peninsula of premium beachfront real estate as it spills out into the Atlantic ocean.

The break in the beach, a few hundred feet away in this picture, is where the Yal-Ku lagoon meets the Atlantic ocean.

After a long walk down a quiet road, homes and condos started appearing out of the jungle, teasing ocean vistas just on the other side of what was visible. Some were massive villas with manicured lawns; others square plots circumscribed with 3 and 4 story condos.

The peace and quiet was delightful. As I wandered through I traded buenos dias with the locals outside in the cool mid-morning, who were mostly either obvious tourists or service professionals (cleaning, lawn care, etc). This was my least favorite observation of the area. It was very nice, but quite “colonialized”, and this would wear on me if we lived there for any significant amount of time.

Still, it’s an absolutely gorgeous place that I would love to spend a few weeks admiring up close…

Making Space For The Spontaneous

Though I spent a good many hours preparing for this trip by researching the area online, I’ve learned to encourage the unexpected by making space for the spontaneous to add enchantment to my experience.

Sometimes it’s as simple as leaving room in the schedule to stop and smell the roses. Sometimes it means being willing to throw plans out the window when they don’t feel quite right. In this case it meant wandering for hours down dusty streets and long beaches, through new towns, and into hidden places, until I’d worn blisters on my feet.

The spontaneous can take many forms; that’s the point. In this case, spontaneity helped me form new relationships with locals. It’s historically challenging for me to make friends but I recognize the difficulties we’ll face trying to figure out everything for ourselves in Mexico if I don’t prioritize relationship-building in our process. It’s who you know, as they say…

With a (very) little effort, I ran into a friend that Sarah helped me make the prior year -a local whose shop in Playa del Carmen we visited repeatedly. Walking around aimlessly the first morning in Tulum, I found myself at his new store in the city within minutes. I spent time with him twice that day, and came back the next for help finding a gift for Sarah. He’s been a great resource for information and I consider the time I spent hanging out with him to be some of the best, and most useful, moments from the trip.

This is my friend Donald. We met when Sarah and I visited Playa del Carmen in 2019 and kept in touch. His store in Tulum is on S. Orion, a block down from Don Cafeto on the main strip (HWY 307).

Likewise, I frequented a hippie food truck park called Trucks For Tulum with a great little bar in the back on a few nights and summoned the liquid courage to chat up strangers at the bar. Not my favorite past-time, I still managed to connect with a few folks that I really enjoyed getting to know.

One of the best things about traveling is meeting other travelers. To be there, you’ve both had to go outside your comfort zones, at least a little, so you know the other person is likely to be more adventurous than the average person you’d encounter in the US. To live in a foreign country requires an even greater sense of adventure. For someone that struggles with chit-chat like me, it’s much less work to find things to talk about among these kinds of people.

Leaving room for the spontaneous is like rowing while also trying to catch wind in your sail. It’s good to have a foolproof plan but a bit of luck usually produces the big results. My plan was pointing my various walks in the general direction of something I’d pinned on Google Maps but, on the ground, I allowed those walks to take me wherever felt right.

Trucks For Tulum” is straight out of Portland, OR or Austin, TX…a hippie / bohemian oasis for locals and intrepid visitors.

Sometimes that meant walking a very long way into an area I didn’t know. Sometimes it meant walking around a block to get a feel for how residences and infrastructure like abarrotes, carneritas, and little auto mechanic shops overlapped.

In Mexico, it’s extremely common for families to live behind their restaurants and shops, which diversifies smaller neighborhoods in a pleasant you-know-where-your-mechanic-lives kind of way.

Central Playa del Carmen had none of this pueblo-style-charm. All condos and retail spaces, the narrow pedestrian Avenidas criss-cross wide divided lane Calles, carving grids of urban precision to regulate traffic and emphasize commerce. It’s a distinctly western vibe with the ever-present hallmarks of capitalism looming large.

Playa del Carmen is a great city and I love spending time there…but I am concerned about the idea of urban life during this p*ndemic.

By comparison, Tulum’s best features are its unpretentious nooks and crannies…a taco stand here, a food truck park there, nestled in between other non-assuming -and nearly invisible- small businesses. These places aren’t so much vying for your attention as available if you’re interested.

And the quiet residential peninsula situated between the Yal-Ku lagoon and Akumal’s Half Moon Bay, a completely different wonderland of contemplative vistas and carefully manicured private paradises, was absent of either urban efficiencies or pueblo-charm. Only one or two hotel restaurants exist in the area, inspiring locals to develop a country-club-esque culture where residents and visitors can be seen zipping to and from the hotel strip to the south of Half Moon Bay on golf carts at all hours of the day.

Yal-Ku is simply amazing. Both serene and pristine, this is a secluded bit of paradise.

I’d have never visited Akumal if not for my preference to wander. Stopping into the serenely beautiful Yal Ku lagoon park wouldn’t have happened without a coin-flip style decision at the entrance to Akumal. Lucky me…it was quite the sight and worth an hour’s hike out of the way.

Spontaneity is the key to enchanted experiences in the modern world. If one follows a plan too closely, one mostly gets what one expects.

Magic blooms in fields of uncertainty. Letting whims and impulses influence a process opens wide those inner doors of possibility and, it’s in this mobile / liminal state, that I was most able to observe and appreciate these wonderful places -to commune, and communicate, with them.

And goddamn I can’t wait to live there…

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