From Playa del Carmen to Laguna Bacalar - Mexico round-up

Start of my mexican road: Beach life in Playa

The plane wasn't full and somehow got seated to an empty row of three - plenty of space.

The plane wasn't full and somehow got seated to an empty row of three - plenty of space.

It took a while but as the 11 hour flight from London to Cancún was drawing to an end it finally started to dawn on me that I'm on a holiday - on an actual holiday - going somewhere a bit further away. The flight itself went relatively fast, BA had a nice selection of movies and ok food and the 3 hours of sleep I had the night before (thanks to another night of zouk and late night packing yet again) helped me to pass out instantenously as the flight took off.

It was +27 C when I arrived to Cancún in the afternoon. I got randomly picked for security screening in customs (yes, it was random! :D) and got to practice my Spanish right away with the cute & smiley customs officer. Found the bus to my first destination, Playa del Carmen without effort and was on my way. Was happy I had an easy start (good choice for my first Latin American stop?) and the bus was good even in European standards - was I really in the "shabby & dangerous" México??

45 minutes later I was in Playa del Carmen and quickly was on the map and walking to my hotel: a cute place, nice & very clean room a block from the beautiful white fine sand beach and block from the main tourist avenue. Easy breezy. All I got done that night was a little walking and some lovely and quesadillas for dinner (for under 2€ - a street up from the main tourist traps), a beer and I was happily watching Kung Fu Panda in Spanish on the telly in my room -- and fell asleep before 9 pm local time. That was 3 am UK and 5 am Finnish time so I think I'm forgiven for that.

I opened my eyes a couple times during the night and at 6 am decided to drag myself up (personally I could sleep for 12 hours straight if I feel like it) to see the sunrise. I just made it to the beach when the sun peaked from behind the horizon :) Pelicans were flying along the shoreline and I was soon off to a hearty desayuno and to the beach to get some color on this pale pale skin!

In the afternoon I continued roaming the city and found some nice shopping and more cheap Mexican food (I’m in food heaven!). I went to see the sunset at the beach and had some excellent fajitas for early dinner. I promised myself I would only take an hour nap before heading to a closeby bar that stated “SALSA 8.30 pm” but was no way I got myself up anymore… So another night of sleep until 6am sunrise and another day of roaming the city, shopping, lying on the beach – the usual holiday stuff!

Salsa!

On Saturday I was able to break out my holiday routine of beach – walking – eating – sleeping. I somehow forced myself to stay awake until 10pm when I dragged myself out to the salsa place I found on Google, la Bodequita del Medio. It was a nice walk along the other end of the main avenue and yes it was a Cuban place, yes they were playing salsa but no, no one was dancing like a suspected. I walked back, past all the other restaurants and bars and nothing interesting. So decided to see a movie on the TV and try again at midnight. Again the same place and again no dancers.

But finally – as it was midnight – there was more people out! Actually my hotel is on the nightclub disctrict and there was tons of people right around the corner … how have I slept through all this the past week?? On my way back from the dead-quiet salsa place, by accident I noticed people standing around and watching something happening on the second floor of one bar... And heard salsa… And it said “beer 1 dollar” so decided it won’t kill me to go see what’s up :D Then I noticed the “free salsa lessons” sign! I think I had missed the salsa lesson (but who needs lessons anyway, I’ve never had any in salsa anyway – so far) but certainly didn’t miss salsa dancing!!
There was some really good dancers there and saw tons of fancy trics on the floor. Luckily one guy came to ask me to dance pretty quickly so had no time to worry about my skills and was off to good start. I got around to do salsa, bachata and merengue with the locals, including one superb salsero.

The Mexicans there (was purely a local joint) had a nice steady frame and were tall guys so easy for me to dance with. Got lots of compliments too… maybe this is the confidence boost I need to get some motivation with salsa! Was cool to just watch them too, was like back home in a Helsinki latin dance club – the dance scene seems to be small here too, even smaller than in Hki. Drinks were definitely cheaper here :D The local dance teacher was the dj with his laptop hooked to a sound system.People were really into dancing and having fun, smiling and keeping a close eye contact with the dance partner.

If you end up in Playa del Carmen and want to salsa I suggest you look up Corona Bar at Avenue 5 (around Calle 22) – Saturday night appears to be the main thing. If I heard right through all the salsa blaring they have salsa classes every Tue and Thu 8-10pm at a sports center at the corner of Avenue 20 and Calle 34(?).

My Playa

So I what have I accomplished in my four-five days here in Playa del Carmen.

  1. Relax. Sleep. Enjoing this whole "I'm in a beach town" thing. Sun - in moderation. I still look like a ghost compared to the Mexicans but happy I haven’t burned myself so far.
  2. Some shopping (one really cool cheap watch some other small things). I’ve been walking around the town a lot already and found my some nice hangouts, shops etc. Though just when I think I’ve gone through all the interesting looking streets I walk a bit further and find more! Found even some nice non-touristy clothes and shoe stores - can tell you there's a LOT of lovely clothes, shoes, hats, bags, jewlery and home decoration stuff – in addition to a ton of tourist crap of course - and I would lovely to buy lots but will pace myself and save the shopping enthusiasm for some cheaper locations. Just a couple small things, hehe. It’s also just fun to walk around and people watch, love that. And practice my Spanish everywhere I stop which is not hard since people are quite talkative here.
  3. A start in the salsa! It's been a delight to hear salsa, reggaeton and even bachata almost everywhere! Already on the bus over here I heard bachata playing on one guy's earphones. But yes, it's a little bit painful as I have no dance partner with me here. Though it’s a pain to stay up late (and I have to say I kind of liked being up early when the sun is shining softly and the streets are less crowded) I’ll definitely continue with my mission of dancing the world!

Last night is over in Playa… met some nice people over these days, Alfredo from the beach, the Croatians at my hotel, the salsa people at Corona bar. Today even had for hours a conversation in Spanish (about Mayas, Incas, Europeans, why men are like microwave ovens…), mostly me listening and saying some things here and there but my Spanish is progressing. Everybody seems nice and welcoming here – I’m trying not to be the grumpy Finnish girl!

What’s next? Valladolid, a city or a town really, 2,5h bus ride west from here. Chichén Itzá is also closeby! One thing I also really need to do in the near future is laundry… :D
Your “Finnish spy in Mayan Riviera” will continue her missions here and post more observations later :) Maybe not so much detail in the long run, not to bore you guys!! ;)

About Playa del Carmen (PDC) in general

Playa is a small town south of Cancún in Southern México (Quitana Roo district), Yucátan area. A couple avenues next to the beach (going north to south) are very touristy, but once you go past them the prices drop radically and you can see more locals. Maps are within the tourist area on every street sign so it's easy know where you are.
Hotels are plenty (spotted at least two "backpacker hostels" too close to all the action) and come in various shapes and sizes - and prices. There were lots of 'vacancy' signs now in early Dec so you can surely just drop in. New Year is apparently super busy and people even sleep on the beach (maybe because they have passed out – lots of bars here). Also lots of tour organisers, dive shops, money exchanges, ATMs, restaurants, bars, drugstores, beachwear shops... You can take language courses, massages, go fishing, hop on a ferry to Cozumel, island just in front of Playa which you can see from the beach. You can also see lots of birds here and but no snorkeling spots right off the beach. Lots of cenotes are closeby though.

Mexican food in PDC is fantastic (skipped the über tourist restaurants altogether so can't speak about them). Tried several taco/quesadilla joints in one block up from the main tourist drive (which is Avenue 5) and all fantastic and the price - though not very large differences - was a good indicator of quality: cheapest from 14 pesos (less than €) per quesadilla - two to three will fill you. Or there was a nice lunch menu for 6o pesos (around 4€) with soup, main course and soft drink.

Safety-wise I felt completely fine. Police are present pretty much everywhere and I felt generally very safe. No one will hassle you too much (it’s not like walking the street in southern Turkey), people are very polite and if you say “gracias no” that will do. Life is made very easy for the traveller. The main incentive to come here is surely the beach. It's beautiful white powder sand, also the water is clean as are the city streets. Now the weather is a pleasant +25-28 with a nice breeze. I can recommend this place, might even come back myself!

 

End of my mexican road: LAGUNA BACALAR – THE LAGOON OF 7 COLORS

After cooling down in the mountain air – and spending a fun-filled Chrismas eve – I hopped on a long-haul, direct, hour overnight back to the steaming hot Caribbean coast. I had a hard time to decide where to go next… I knew I was going to Belize for New Year so decided to skip trying get through Guatemala (and Tikal) in only a couple days and took the more chilled out route to the Mexican coast. Closest place to Belize – or the nicest one close to Belize – was Laguna Bacalar. So first a 13 hour bus to Chetumal! Nice scenery greeted us when leaving San Cristobal:

The 13h ride was lovely though, slept almost all of it on the deluxe bus that happened to be mostly empty. Well I did wake up at 3am for a hand luggage check in the middle of nowhere by a camouflage wearing officer (a completely non-eventful thing). The bus arrived 5.30am to Chetumal where I jumped on a local bus to Bacalar.

Bacalar is a sleepy village next to a beautiful lagoon. There’s basically nothing to see there - except for the lagoon. A couple restaurants and grocery stores but that’s all. A very helpful tourist info though, they had lost of brochures, maps, info and even gave me a photo-dvd of the area. And this was a tiny village... The tourism industry in Finland might have a couple things to learn from this!

So I enjoyed the sun at the lagoon (with a whole bunch of Mexican holiday-makers), swam in the clear water, took a boat ride around the lagoon and walked to a nearby (4km away from the village) cenote. It was a relaxing two days. I think even one day would have been enough :D I was ready to head to Belize!

On the third morning I left to Chetumal (the most boring and the first confusing city in Mexico), the capital of Quitana Roo region. And the port to Belize – you can cross the border by land and sea. I took the 2 hour water taxi straight to the Cayes (islands). Adios México!!

Although I didn't feel sad about leaving Mexico, I'd say it was one of the nicest places I've visited (and that's a lot coming from me!!)! And so I was stamped out in the small booth in the small pier in Chetumal. Didn't even have to pay the departure tax that some people had to.. Mexican standard bureaucracy!? :D

 

Mexico round-up

To sum up my first three weeks on the road - my favourite things about Mexico (the Yucatan peninsula and Chiapas):

  • Beauty everywhere: the towns, the landscapes, the people, the food, the nature... colors, I love colors!
  • Cheap. Cheap. Cheap. So cheap.
  • Great food everywhere, especially all the local stuff. Panuchos! Tortas! Salsa verde! Jamaica! Yummmm :)
  • So much to see – beaches, historical sites , jungle, mountains – and so easy to travel: you can’t miss all the travel agencies in every corner and it’s even super easy to DIY-travel with the cheap first class or the dirt-cheap second class busses or colectivos (shared taxi vans).
  • Lovely, friendly, smiling people – both locals and other travelers.
  • Great music (blaring) at every shop and restaurant, reggaeton, bachata, salsa where ever you turn... and even some dancing!
  • Sun: maybe it rained once the whole time (and I missed it, was indoors).
  • Everything works. Hostels are cheap and perfectly fine, buses run on time, the cities are easy to navigate, everybody's helpful. There’s wifi almost everywhere :D

What I could nag about if Mexico hadn’t been so great:

  • No water pressure. I mean like Finnish water pressure.
  • It’s so damn hot sometimes, couldn’t do any sports (not that I got very lazy) :D
  • Poverty, little kids begging and selling stuff as soon as they can walk (though not as pushy as in Asia). And lots of tourists on the beaches (but you can mostly avoid them if you really want to).

Ok so no surprises here, couldn’t think of any really intelligent negative things about Mexico – I loved Mexico! Only wish I would have had more time there. But I know I can always return there later even if this trip continues in another direction :)