Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Though I struggle to remember his name now.. something like Lionel, or Leon or Leonard, I met an ex-pad drunkard in a bar on Caye Caulker and we chatted for a bit about Playa Del Carmen in Mexico. It was a rainy night and the only little pizza shop in town was packed full of people escaping the rain and enjoying pizza. Lionel with his chewed up, alcoholic face invited us in and immediately gravitated to me based on the fact I was Australian. Some 30 years ago, in a bar in New Orleans an Australian had defended him in the face of a bully, who didn’t like his shoes.
‘Chucked him out by his hair..’ he said.
And since then he’s had an overwhelming fondness for Australians. Just our luck.
I noticed he kept his own tab of beers against the bar. Unsure if it was a matter of trust, or a trophy but he had close to 30 strikes down there.
‘You don’t wanna go to Cancun’ he says, hand on my shoulder. ‘Full of tourists’.
‘Go to Playa Del Carmen, it’s much quieter.. and even if you want to go out, you can still go to Avenida 5.’
Sounded okay then. And it was easy enough to get to. ADO buses ran a service every hour but there was also a slightly cheaper collectivo service that ran as soon as they were full. We took one of these and blasted our way up the freeway. It only took some 50 minutes. We bundled out onto the street, got our bearing and set off to look for ‘The Yak’ hostel. A new, but continually ‘featured’ hostel with evidently a great ‘vibe’, and things like movie nights and live music. When we got there we found it completely staffed by young Israelis with the exception of the service staff. I don’t want to bang on about it so much but the place was pretty underwhelming. I mean the ‘vibe’ they were right about, we had one night packed in around a solo guitarist/singer and it was really awesome but the apartment we stayed in was a bit drab and smelly. It was outside the main complex, facing the street, meaning we had to buzz in and out of the communal area all the time. Add to that we had to ask for it to be serviced. Typically you want any accommodation in Latin America serviced once a day to at least empty the toilet bin. If you’ve forgotten from my previous entries, toilet paper is not flushed, but deposited in commonly open-top bins. The television had two watchable channels. The kitchenette was under-supplied and not usable and there wasn’t a microwave as advertised. I’m banging on about it but suffice to say it was pretty ordinary. Now we’re not the type to say ‘Yeah everything was fine thanks’ and then write up hell on TripAdvisor so we let them know and they were great about it and so let’s just leave it at that. The Yak. Now you know.
So Lionel, clearly we have different expectations as to what ‘full of tourists’ and ‘..much quieter’ means. I can handle the few odd Germans with ‘walking-sticks-and-complete-hiki ng-attire’; I don’t mind a bunch of yobbo Aussies and even some rowdy Yanks but when you get look-alikes from the entire cast of Jersey Shore, you’re encroaching on what I consider to be ‘..much quieter’. Dudes in massive sunglasses, shining, puffy muscles and tiny pants who drag on their arm a ‘cosmetically enhanced Barbie’ in a tiny little pink bikini and high heels. Typical demographic. On the plus side it does make for some brilliant people-watching; and I’m sure we were spectacle for others as well.. I suppose, I dunno, we’re pretty normal. I’m sure they’re really wonderful people.
The pedestrianised Avenida 5 is enclosed by the Starbucks, McDonalds, designer boutiques selling sunglasses, diamonds and the like for hugely inflated prices, even by home standards. The parade of people continues throughout the day and night and the streets surrounding the Avenida are littered with bars and thematic restaurants, tattoo shops and souvenir markets. Beyond about 2 blocks or so the spectacle tends to normalize somewhat and become more local. The typical pedestrians of Avenida 5 are warned not to venture past the standard 2 blocks on account of the local areas being dangerous. Which is highly over-stated, but serves as a nice escape.
The beach is pretty nice. Sections of it are loaded full of vacationers slobbing about in their beach-chairs, dropping nachos on their inflated sunburned bellies and requesting locals massage their weary grubby feet. There’s isolated patches where it’s harder to see this, but not that many and considering we had some travel to Cuba to organise, we didn’t spend a lot of time at the beach. Besides, we’d done plenty of nacho slopping in Tulum.
Sigh. Okay this has to be done. There’s a restaurant in Playa called ‘Chabad House’. It’s a Jewish institution and unbeknownst to us specifically and exclusively caters for the local and visiting Jewish population. We were just hungry for a shwarma, or some hummus or falafel and climbed the stairs only to find the tables all joined together with plenty of hungry people, many from our hostel and some with some brilliant Yamulkas. I immediately relented and with a ‘whoops’ expression on my face turned around and made down the stairs. Rebecca was waved to come in though; when she didn’t, a Jewish man approached her and listening from below, the conversation went something like.
‘Hi… come on in!’
‘Hi! What’s happening tonight?’
‘We’re celebrating .. ‘
‘Are you Jewish?’
‘Look it up on Wikipedia, I’m eating!’ and with that he turned and vanished in a puff of dust back inside, leaving us to make our way down the stairs and into the night. Rude.
Perhaps we were naive to the exclusivity of the restaurant but it was no reason for the sudden change in character when it became obvious we weren’t ‘one of the club’ so-to-speak. A simple ‘I’m sorry, but generally these types of events are for members of our community only’ would have sufficed. Having traveled reasonably broadly I can attest that Israelis unfortunately have a reputation of being ‘difficult’ whilst overseas. We’ve witnessed a variety of episodes in the past and it’s not to say it’s any worse than ‘drongoism’ typical of Aussies or British lads but it’s clear that some of the mud sticks. It’s not uncommon to see signs out the front of hostels stating they will refuse entry of Israelis.
We’re aiming to get to Israel later in the trip so I’m hoping my understanding of the situation can improve, for now it’s just disappointing to see. In searching for an explanation I found this article:
And it does a good job at trying to explain it.
Still, it left me fuming and unable to let it go.
Anyway… I had continually heard from other divers that the place to dive in this region is in one of the many freshwater caverns formed by sinkholes or ‘cenotes’. I signed up at a local dive-shop who offered to take the girls as well so they could still experience the cenotes through snorkeling. I will admit I did have some concerns. Cavern diving means overhead underwater environments, probably quite dark, probably quite enclosed. I’m a bit claustrophobic but not enough to sway me from the adventure.
We gathered our tanks and gear, loaded up the Hilux and took off down the freeway to Tulum; Marco, our Argentinian dive-master cranked the stereo and let down the windows. We turned off the freeway and bumbled along a dusty road and parked the truck in amongst a handful of other dive-
‘Lets get going, this place will be busy in an hour’ Marco states. We gear up and wander down to Chac Mool cenote. There’s this opaque pool of water underneath a rocky overhang. They’ve built a nice poolside setup out of the natural rock so we have a ladder to climb down into the water. Marco briefs us and it does little to help the small anxiety I have. It went something like.
‘Ok now this will be new to you, and it’s normal to feel anxiety. You’ll be going into dark water, so here is a flashlight..’ (he hands us a flashlight) ‘Now there’s a few caverns but we’ll be going through some tight overhead environments, like tunnels to get between them. There’s a line down there if you lose your way because the water gets ‘oily’ when the salt meets the fresh; it’s not your eyes, it’s not your brain, but you’re not going to be able to see very well..’
He says some other stuff about what to do if we freak out, and to stick close together etc.. but it all evaporates as soon as we get underwater.
The water is like glass, it’s like breathing through purity. It’s almost indistinguishable. The sun forms fingers through the rich blue as we look towards the surface. We can see through the surface water at the shimmering silhouettes of the trees around the opening. The depth drops to about 10 meters, there’s openings for tunnels in a few directions here and there but we take a line into an opening in the rock. The rock floor and ceiling become stippled in pattern and suddenly there’s an oily shimmer in the water turning any shapes into oily shadows. Its a bit disorientating but I found if I looked to the left or right a bit I could kind of side-step it. We kick through the tunnel, careful not to stir up sediment and it suddenly opens up into a broad cavern. We’re surrounded by natural rock formations on all sides but if we look to the top we can see a small opening where the suns light shines through the water, and the roots of trees creep through from above. It’s a completely different world.
The second dive is at cenote Kukulkan and the difference here is the abundance of stalactites/mites .. they’re affixed to cavern ceilings and floors and rocks angled at all degrees. It’s like swimming through the jaws of Tyrannosaurus. We surface mid-dive to a tightly enclosed cavern that’s fed air by a few natural ventilation shafts. It’s dark and there’s a few curious catfish swimming around the surface. The roots of trees emerge from the ceiling and dangle down into the water. We descend again and make our way back.
It’s hard to use words to completely give it justice so take a look through someone else’s video:
We leave the chaos of Playa Del Carmen for what we anticipate to be a quieter time on Cozumel. It’s only short ferry ride across the water.