Category Archives: South America

Playa Del Carmen: Ultra Touristy but Worth the Visit!

Playa Del Carmen was the first place we saw after we flew out from Havana, Cuba. Cuba was stuck in a time warp – an old, rugged Caribbean country trapped in time, crippled by US sanctions and suffering under Fidel Castro’s communist rule. The streets were made from dirt. Sometimes cobblestones guided the way from our casa to the endless array of living art; the people on the streets were institutionally poor, but if there was one neighbor they could count on, it was the Mexicans.

Fast forward to our landing in Mexico, and we can totally redefine what the term “culture shock” means. Playa Del Carmen literally overwhelmed our senses. We became uneasy. There were too many stores, too many restaurants, too many tourists, and too much wealth to comprehend after becoming so used to the most bare of commodities. It was a genuine shock to our systems, and I didn’t like it. The Mexico I envisioned wasn’t the one I found in Playa Del Carmen, but travelers more familiar with the nation are probably thinking “I could have told you that,” the same way I could tell people about Phuket, “well, you’re in for a treat!” PDC is cosmopolitan, and more similar to Santa Monica than anything else. It doesn’t feel like you’re in Mexico, it feels like you’re in a very enticing, beautiful, hectic party zone straddling along a blue, seaweed-riddled beach and obscenely overpriced restaurants. While it’s certainly not value for money and a poor representation of Mexico overall, it’s nonetheless worth checking out for a few days if, outside the blindingly white architecture (which is, I admit, nice to look at), you feel the need to pay ten times the amount for anything and everything, than you would in other parts of Mexico. A physical metaphor for PDC would involve me holding up a bunch of hundred dollar bills and burning them in front of your face. A physical metaphor for say, Tulum, would involve me holding up a bunch of hundred dollar bills and saying to you “You can have as much of anything as you like. Hell, you could live here for a month and still not spend it all!”

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The view from the rooftop of our hotel, where we had a rooftop pool and sun lounges

 

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A man hand rolling cigars on the street, outside his cigar store. For Americans, Cuban cigars are available to purchase from here

 

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The polarity of that demonstration sums up clearly what we’re talking about here: backpacker zones, off the beaten path locations and everyday living, versus a highly commercialized tourist hub. While PDC is nice, I still wouldn’t recommend it to people who weren’t backpackers and were more the Fiji honeymooner type. Those who aren’t wanting to experience much of the culture, but instead want to stay somewhere fancy with plenty of amenities, and don’t mind the fact that it isn’t a true reflection of that country, culture or standard of living, are probably better off somewhere like the Maldives. It’s not that PDC isn’t beautiful in its own way, it’s just that the overpriced nature of everything there is so unreasonably obscene that it’d be silly to recommend it. So, you might be asking what constitutes “unreasonably obscene” and whether that’s just the backpacker talking. Rest assured, being from Australia we are more than used to expensive prices; in almost every category except for rent, NYC for us is good value bordering on cheap for many things. So when I say that PDC is unreasonably expensive, I’m talking about (in US dollars):

  • A one scoop ice cream cone is $9
  • A medium sized bag of M&M’s is $13
  • Somewhere, that shitty, bottom of the barrel tequila you tend to find in seedy bars all over the planet is $37 a bottle, when it’s $22 in a high alcohol tax country like Australia (and it’s made in Mexico)
  • Three small tacos from a nice restaurant is $23, but down the road, Pablo is selling bigger, tastier ones from his stall for $1
  • Day of the Dead Skulls are north of $70 in some places, but in the backstreets of PDC they are $10

I mean, if these prices were an accurate reflection of Mexican life they’d all be rolling in money, there’d be almost no poverty, little reason for drug wars and probably a lot less murders, and M&M’s share price would be through the roof! It’d also mean that when I walk down the tourist streets of PDC, I wouldn’t be harassed every five seconds to buy drugs.

So while this post sounds negative, I just thought I’d highlight the obscenity of the place, given it’s a third world country. Saying all this, there are some nice hostels and hotels to stay at, but given that the beach is covered in seaweed, I can’t even recommend it to honeymooners. Maybe stop off for a full day and night to see it, but other than that, head for Tulum.

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Super expensive Mexican food that isn’t even as good as the street vendors = highway robbery! Beware of the tourist trap!

 

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The disappointing beaches of Playa Del Carmen :(

 

Our time in PDC wasn’t massively eventful: When we checked in, a security team swept into one of the rooms beside the rooftop pool we were swimming in and began clearing the rooms. Rooms above and below the room that a man and woman were staying in had to be checked out, presumably for occupants. After being given the all-clear, the man and woman entered. Started playing The Black Eyed Peas. For the remainder of that day, security stood outside their door and above on the second floor. They might have been famous, or infamous drug lords for all we knew, but outside of witnessing that bizarre scene, PDC was filled with food, late-night runs to 7-11, attempts to swim at the beach – only to be blocked by seaweed, and a day trip to Cozumel Island. Nothing in the way of culture really happened, but the tourists were flying through in hoards and the drug dealers on the streets were very open and loud about the products they were offering.

Our plans to go whale shark diving were interrupted by a strong hurricane, so our final days before flying onto America were spent doing what we did the first time we arrived – trying to find something to do, anything that was cultural or historical, in a place truly devoid of it all.

 

 

 

Dead Divers, $1 Tacos and Beach Bicycles: Tulum, Mexico!

Cuba was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. People overuse that phrase but given that Castro is near death, sooner or later the Caribbean nation will open its shores to commercial tourism and what has been trapped in time, will be fast forwarded to the present. Go while you still can. While it’s still on lockdown, and while you can still experience a type of society that your grandparents once spoke of.

Our next destination was Cuba’s best friend – Mexico. Castro had sailed from here many decades ago to overthrow the US-backed genocidal Batista government, and from what we had heard, it was dangerous in some areas and wild – in a good way – in others. We flew into Cancun and immediately caught the bus toward Tulum – the supposedly rustic jewel in Mexico’s thorny crown. Excited thoughts about sky-blue, crystal-clear oceans and vibrantly-colored fish swarming amongst sea turtles were quickly extinguished when the bus driver decided to put on a film about shark attacks. The optimist in me reasoned that the South African-set film was irrelevant to Mexico, regardless of their giant tuna fishing industry, so I watched Halle Berry make poor decision after poor decision with indifference.

Our hostel reminded us of the type of hostels you see in the Greek islands: big, white, minimalist and with moderately-functioning air conditioning. We had a communal pool, a bookshelf at reception, and a few large lizards to keep us company. Next door to us was a small, roadside shack serving up $1 fish tacos and a Mexican drink that was delicious, and whose name I’ll never know. Food in Mexico is cheap. It’s delicious. And it’s a lot more healthy than the Tex-Mex that has swept the planet. We wandered around the streets and came across a bar with the Mayan Galactic Butterfly symbol that I had dangling around my neck, and that featured at the beginning of my first travel novel, VAGABOND. We had plans to visit but never quite made it: Between long days at the beach, Mexican beers and satiating our Argentinian-born fetish for steak, our days mostly ended in food comas. At least when we weren’t exploring Mayan ruins or the underground river systems running through caves (known as cenotes).

Tulum is a relaxed Mexican village that runs at a decrepit pace compared to the extremely commercialized Playa Del Carmen. This suited us well, since we preferred the more local vibe which gave an authentic impression of everyday Mexican life. We hired bikes for our time there, and rode them every day down to the beaches and around the small town. Bikes are cheap, and definitely the best way to get around and see things you’d otherwise miss on a bus or in a cab. The main reason people come to Tulum is for the Chichen Itza ruins. These are ancient Mayan ruins with a real wow-factor. Not many people hang around for too long beyond that, but it’s highly recommended you do if you want cleaner, less-populated beaches and a cheaper location to live up your Mexican fantasies. I say cheaper, which should really read “accurate” or “fair,” since the expensiveness of Playa Del Carmen and Cancun is not a reflection of Mexico’s cost of living, but of the hotel conglomerate and package tourists who drive up prices to a completely unnecessary level. If I were in Switzerland, then paying $30 for three tacos may not bother me, but when they’re $1 down in Tulum and actually taste better, well, nobody likes being stooged.

Chichen Itza ruins can’t really be described in words, so I’ll just post the photos below. All you need to know before undertaking your own research is that they are some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins in Latin America, and house a few engineering, sonic secrets that were used by rulers to exert power and influence over the people (“clap” when you’re facing them, and have a friend stand to their side a few metres away, and you’ll know what I’m talking about).

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Tulum isn’t just a great place for Mayan ruins and Caribbean beaches, though. It’s also home to numerous underwater river systems that snake their way through caves, called cenotes. This became a new fascination of mine, but largely the only good ones in the world are found in Mexico, so if you want to experience this natural wonder, which has usually been exposed thanks to a giant sinkhole in the ground, then you’ll have to get over there. As you might imagine, underwater caves make for a great diving and snorkeling experience. A fair few divers get lost and die in them, since they’re risking swimming through an underwater, pitch black maze with a flashlight, and this is no more evidenced than in this famous cenote below:

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Suffice to say, Mexicans want you to be a very experienced diver. We’re told it’s nothing like diving in the ocean, and in order to get over the psychological component that comes with underwater cave diving, you should be gradually trained with a certified dive instructor. We visited a few different cenotes during our time in Tulum and loved every second of it. At the bottom of sinkholes, deep underground, were blue waters filled with turtles and black catfish, protruding stalactites from the rock ceiling stabbing deep into the abyss, and countless caves that presumably led to some foreign underwater utopia. Probably filled with treasure. Definitely filled with more dead divers. Bright orange strings could be observed from various cave entrances but they soon disappeared into the dark recesses of wherever these caves led. The water was cool, bordering on cold, but certainly refreshing from the warmer Caribbean waters under an even hotter Mexican sun.

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The cenotes were a definite highlight of our time in not only Tulum, but Mexico as a whole. I’ll even go further than that and say they were a top ten experience of Latin America. Tulum, for us, retained that rustic, weathered charm that is so prevalent in South America, and delivered environmental eye-candy around every corner.

Next, we decided to visit Playa Del Carmen, since Cancun was filled with nothing but resorts and if we were going to leave Mexico, we wanted to leave Mexico with a Mexican experience.

At least that’s what we thought at the time….

 

 

 

 

Castro’s Paradise: Varadero, Cuba

Before we made our way to Havana for our last days in Cuba, we travelled to Varadero – a famed Caribbean beach where Castro owns a home. The beach area is among the most famous in Cuba and when you arrive, you can immediately see why.

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P1060774The Cuban Caribbean epitomizes every starry-eyed image the world has had of escaping the daily grind while kicking their feet up on a postcard-perfect beach and sipping on mojitos. Cuba is the kind of place you can disappear in (in a good way, and obviously in a bad way if you’re a journalist or somebody generally outspoken against Castro). It’s said that Assata Shakur is living in Cuba after fleeing from the USA, where she was charged with murder. As a member of the Black Panther party, she was harassed by police and became the center of a witch hunt by the FBI, who viewed the Black Panthers as a threat to national security. Evidence suggested that Shakur didn’t commit the murder, and with dirty cops in the mix and tampered evidence, she felt she would never win her freedom honestly and so fled to the sunny shores of her country’s enemy. Cuba has refused to extradite her to the US, publicly backing her case.

My bet’s on the fact that she’s living somewhere in Varadero. Wouldn’t you? This snapshot of history that I’m sharing with you really has nothing to do with the photos above, but I thought I’d share an anecdote that goes some way toward reflecting the relationship between Cuba and the US.

Varadero

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The beach was far more beautiful than any of my photos can show, and really offered a Caribbean escape in one of the most sheltered countries in the world. As a culturally rich island, Cuba gives visitors a unique travel experience that you can’t get anywhere else. Blessed with remarkable Caribbean blue waters, white sand, $2 mojitos, old American cars and a genuinely intriguing history, it’s a country that’s at the top of most people’s “To-Do” lists.

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We said our goodbyes to Varadero after five days and headed back to the heat of Havana….

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Our last days in Cuba were spent frantically trying to find a hotel that had operating Internet, so that when we arrived in Mexico we wouldn’t be homeless. The biggest culture shock was arriving in Playa Del Carmen from Havana – we expected a lot less from Mexico, but were greeted with the extreme end of tourism and tourism prices. We later countered this with a solid amount of time in Tulum, where we cycled around remote beaches and dived in the cenotes.

For our last couple of nights in Havana, we stayed at a historic, grand hotel called Hotel Sevilla. This hotel is basically everything you think of when you think of the 1950s – old world charm, Cuban cigar smoke in the air, heat, and live bands playing Cuban rhythms in the courtyard! It’s important to note that in Cuba, your idea of a five star hotel isn’t what you will receive. It’s not that the Cubans are trying to stooge you, but things are fairly old and the infrastructure poor. Cities like Havana struggle, but Cubans do their best to make you feel welcome. Basically, you’ll enjoy the rugged charm of a place like Hotel Sevilla, but don’t come to Havana expecting it to be an idyllic, honeymoon getaway. No matter how much money you spend, your hotel standards won’t measure up to what you’re used to staying in if 5 star hotels are more your style!

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