Maybe this is unfair to say after only three days there, but to me, Playa del Carmen is the ugly, mottled face of tourism. Its strip is the twisted sister to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. Its dollar vending ATMs and designer shoe outlets and all-you-can-drink daytime margarita locales are frankly an insult to the poverty that lies just two blocks west. A port city for cruise ship landings, Playa del Carmen is the “Mexico” your great aunt goes to when she is tired of the Florida Keys. And it is the “Mexico” that also openly advertises its investment in the drug and sex trades.
En route to the bar bathroom, you’ll maybe/probably pass a lone wolf who hisses at you out of the corner of practiced lips, avoiding eye contact. If you stop, you’ll hear a long list of the night’s offerings of miscellaneous speedballs, muscle relaxers, and MDMA cocktails. The only way it could be any more cinematically creepy would be with a trench coat display case.
In one club, a women’s bikini contest was in effect, and the whisperers found their crowd in the girl’s room, where contestants sucked on cocktails (free for women -__-) in between lines of whatever uppers were being distributed. And then the music started and they marched out single file with smiles frozen on by cocaine.
Another night, exiting a bathroom with a tight grip on my drink, other hand working as a cover, I peered around the club seeking the people I had come with. And just like that, I accidentally made eye contact with some glassy eyes floating near the DJ booth. A grey weathered man wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt and sunglasses beelined towards me. Before I could make an exit, he proceeded to speak to me in very ugly, broken Spanish. (At this point, my racial ambiguity comes into play.) I responded politely in Spanish, saying that it was my first time in Santanera, while backing away, struggling for an appropriate way to leave this strange confrontation. He looked down at his wallet while following my retreat, doing some quiet math before grabbing my arm. He then boldly and confidently threw out some numbers and solicited sex from who he believed to be a young Mexican prostitute. Yes, me. And there, plainly displayed, are his true colors as a white upper class American male. Having been with Israelis for a few days, I feel safe in saying that my response, after a few confused seconds, was appropriately Israeli. So my damnation in this situation is to be a woman with darker skin and almond eyes standing alone in a club. Fuck. That. These men enter countries they perceive to be foreign and exotic, in which their privilege offers an interesting power dynamic with the local population. Also, if she is running away from you, offering to pay probably won’t change anything. When I retold what had happen, one person responded, “Yeah, you’re not even Mexican!” Well, this is also missing the mark. This kind of solicitation would not be *less bad* if I were a local woman (or man) of color or even if I were employed this way. It is more a matter of addressing an economic climate that continues to enable slavery, though with a different face. His confidence in this confusing and demeaning exchange only assured me that, in previous attempts, he had found what he had been looking for. Disgusted, this was my last night in Playa del Carmen.
On the literal brighter side, daylight hours, I spent three days hungover on the beach with the group from Isla Holbox. Each morning I would walk along the sand before the cruise ships pulled in–and in the golden hours of dawn, it’s beautiful even when it rains. One of the more beautiful days, we took a colectivo to Playa Akumal, famous for its snorkeling access. It lies about 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. If you bring gear, you can step into the clear water to swim with sea turtles, fish, and sting rays, swimming right up to the edges of the shore. Beach bum life. No shoe policy. Todo bem.
From there, it is an easy hop south to Tulum. I even ended up racing an American guy on a unicycle, who had pedaled to Mexico all the way from Baltimore. Even though I took a bus, he won. Tulum is a biking town, the chill and quirky cousin of the more northern coked out beachside cities. It is also not so crowded, and the water is the same incredible untainted cerulean. I don’t think there is a word in English for this blue, but maybe there is one in Maya. I loved its miles of beachside cabanas and hammocks–though it is not “Mexico” per se…it was difficult to find good tacos or speak in spanish, though people seem to appreciate the effort to do so. The public beach called Mezzanine is the nicest I had visited so far, At one point, I walked the streets famished, having promised myself entrance into the first establishment to meet my eyes that would vend me something edible. I had the incredible luck to come across la juguería El Aguacate. The fresh orange, pineapple, and ginger juice had healing effects. And when I told the server that I didn’t know what pozole is, a loud booming voice called me back to the kitchen for an impromptu cooking lesson with both pozole verde and pozole rojo. From there, I found a bike rental spot (70 pesos for 24 hours) and tried to keep myself occupied (easier said than done) while the hostel armed itself a guest who had unwittingly brought malaria with him. The seaside ruins of Tulum, the zona arqueológica, is best visited before it fills up at 10:30 AM. I biked there through the bioreserve with Kat, a Chinese native who studied Russian literature and lives in the United Arab Emirates. Interesting for sure. The ruins were a wealthy port city uniting sea, sky, and land. It leads right into the embrace of the Gulf. And that night, Super Bowl Sunday went unnoticed in town. It’s hard to say goodbye.