Tag Archives: travel

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!”

playa del carmen mexico

P1060858
The view from the rooftop of our hotel, where we had a rooftop pool and sun lounges

 

P1060866
A man hand rolling cigars on the street, outside his cigar store. For Americans, Cuban cigars are available to purchase from here

 

P1060867

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.

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

 

P1060940
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).

tulum chichen itza

IMG_9718

IMG_9721  IMG_9724  IMG_9730  IMG_9733  IMG_9744  IMG_9747  IMG_9748  IMG_9749  IMG_9792

 

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:

tulum cenotes

las-calaveras-cenote-nicklen_72498_990x742

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.

cenotes  IMG_9674  IMG_9704  IMG_9708

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….

 

 

 

 

Trinidad, Cuba: Antiquated Living

After exploring the rural farmland of Vinales, we jumped on a bus and headed toward the UNESCO Heritage city of Trinidad. We read a lot about this city online and (gasp) in our Lonely Planet guidebooks. I’ve ironically found that in the day and age of the Internet, where there’s so much noise to syphen through, that the good ol’ guidebook can sometimes come in handy. Some backpackers detest the very idea of them since they apparently give away all the best kept secrets about a destination, but on occasion I’ve found out about towns and villages in them that I haven’t seen on the Net.

Trinidad Cuba

P1060684

P1060685

P1060686

P1060687

I’m guessing that’s because these texts have been largely ignored, ironically transforming globally-published “secrets” into some cases, more off the beaten path, or subtle tourist destinations.

So off we went by bus, stopping off at a few small villages along the way which were home to convenience stores and Che Guevara merchandise, and into the ancient city of Trinidad. Trinidad is best described as a mix between Havana and Prague: It is its mix of ancient architecture, quaint shops and cobblestoned streets which pronounce its former wealth thanks to the Caribbean sugarcane trade. Like Cuba in general, pre-Castro, it was a very wealthy city that was at the forefront of Latin American economics – an example to smaller, struggling countries on how to montetize their resources in the then-booming Americas.

Upon arrival, a man in a bicycle-taxi shouted out our names. We looked at the size of him (he was small), then at the “bicycle-taxi” and its seeming lack of luggage space, and then at our backpacks, before giving each other a “How the hell is this going to work?” look. But it did work. Somehow. Although as we started peddling toward our host family’s place, the little man really began struggling and our bike almost halted to a stop. We hopped off and carried our backpacks up the hill, where we reconvened onward to El Tulipan: the beautiful home of Marga and Bernado. When we arrived, we were greeted with a beer and their last Cohiba (famous Cuban cigar). “Cuban hospitality,” I thought to myself, “is something I can get used to.”

Trinidad Cuba

P1060724

We were staying on the top floor of Marga and Bernado’s home, where we had a large outdoor balcony, a view over the bustling street, and a two bedroom apartment with a kitchen and bathroom. It had a red and pink bohemian decor, a bookshelf with some great Cuban reads, and a stocked minibar. Each morning, we would wake up to a huge breakfast spread over our table. We had eggs, a tomato salad, Cuban ham, a coconut spread, coffee, juice… So much food. We struggled to finish it each morning, but were so grateful for the hospitality and warmth we were shown. After a full day’s breakfast, we went off to explore the town.

Trinidad Cuba

P1060761

Trinidad Cuba

P1060712

P1060716

P1060735

P1060736

Trinidad is home to amazing sunsets which drape themselves over the hilly mountains and urban skyline. We watched the sunset while a bunch of Cuban kids played Cuban music for us, and later went out for Sam’s all-time favorite meal – Nutella crepes! The crepe store has to be the number one greatest thing to NOT have a big presence in Australia. From Malta to Paris, Phillippines to Cuba, the takeaway crepe seems to rule the planet and many of our hard-earned dollars have exchanged hands with the global crepe-man! As we waited for our crepes to be made, a cross-dresser walked in and began ordering his own. He came up to me, having spotted my childish, yellow Brazil World Cup watch, and asked if he could buy it from me.

“This is the missing piece of my costume, look at how well it will match my green pants and tanned skin? And these fingernails? Please, how much did you pay for it? I’ll pay you double.”

I politely declined, since the watch is probably the only sentimental thing I’ve collected this entire trip, but if it had been anything else I would have just given it to him. Cubans are fairly poor, and I’d never actually sell something to someone in that position. Like this trip and others, I’ve given a few things away, or left clothes and books behind for people to have. After talking to the cross dresser for a little while out front, we walked in the dark streets past casas, home restaurants and the occasional bar until we reached our place.

Trinidad Cuba

P1060727

P1060728

P1060754

One evening, we went for lobster next door at a family restaurant that was literally deserted. The long walk down the driveway led to a nice courtyard with a few plants and trees, a screen showing the Cuban baseball, and a few tables and chairs for us to sit in. When we arrived, there were a group of guys who looked a little bit shady but were nice. We think that one of them was related to the owner, who came out with a couple of menus which detailed some really delicious meals. Lobster, of course, was what we were going to eat since it costs a fortune back home. Lobster is basically Cuba’s version of chicken: cheap and plentiful. Sam’s plate came out with three lobsters on it – all for only $9! My lobster came out half off the plate, since it was so large. After we finished up and paid the cheque, the owner came out and presented me with a cigar and Sam with some nice beads that his wife had made.

“These are for you. Thank you so very much for coming and eating with us. My wife made this (presents it to Sam) and I rolled this (a cigar). Please come again soon, we will have more presents waiting for you!”

We were taken aback by again, the warmth of the Cuban people. Cuba reminded us a lot of Greece, in that the hospitality of the people was of huge importance to the locals. Kindness, smiles, warmth, helpfulness – simple virtues that are becoming more complicated to come by in certain faster, and more developed, societies, were heavily presented not just in Trinidad, but all over Cuba.

Over the next few days in Trinidad, we visited the beach by bus and really took it easy. Like the beaches near Vinales, there were plenty of people about who were drinking rum from the bottle while sunbaking, and men on the beach selling pizza and prawns (shrimp). One man, who worked for a hotel, told us that if we need anything to just let him know, and he would get it. We suspect that to buy drinks, you had to be a guest of one of the hotels but we weren’t sure. Regardless, we just enjoyed relaxing on the beach and observing the Caribbean waters.

Trinidad Cuba

P1060675

P1060676

P1060678

Cuba isn’t exactly touristy, but there are some tourists. Mostly, you’ll see French and Canadians, and for the first time in perhaps ever, we didn’t hear a single Australian accent while abroad. My dream of visiting Cuba was about to come to an end, as our next and final stop would be Varadero – hands down the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Better than Thailand, Philippines, Greece, Australia and Fiji. How is that even possible? I guess Cuba has a lot of untapped potential that one day, more of the world will get to experience!

Cuban Sunset