Mexcaribe ¡Sí Señor!
The Yucatan peninsula is more than just a huge block of hotels where visitors down margaritas by the gallon. Come beyond Cancún, where a few small towns nurture an authentic and more relaxed side of the Mayan Riviera.
TEXT & photos: Marck Gutt @gbmarck
There are two sides to the Caribbean in Mexico: one of little towns where people walk around barefoot and foreign tourists make an effort to speak Spanish, and another where purchases are made with U.S. dollars and jet skis are the most representative example of local marine life. We’re going to explore the former. Playa del Carmen and the island of Holbox are the easygoing children of the Mayan Riviera, where the sea and sand blend seamlessly with public art, pedestrian streets and the idea that beaches are for everyone.
ts official name is Playa del Carmen, but only tourists call it that. To Mexicans and locals, it’s simply Playa, with a capital “P” and no article. Until a few years ago, it was a sort of nemesis to Cancún, home to rastas and alternative types, something like the Mexican version of The Beach, the movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio finds a community of bohemian foreigners living on an idyllic Thai island, but with chilaquiles instead of Pad Thai. But Playa’s not a secret anymore.
I’m back in Playa after a long absence, and I find a town that has grown, a little big city with a cosmopolitan air and a half-million Instagram photos labeled #PlayaDelCarmen. The first bohemians who came here more than 20 years ago and never left have been followed by many more from all around the world, drawn by the charms of the white-sand beach and turquoise waters they now call home. And it’s easy to see why.
I won’t spend much time talking about the coast; words don’t do it justice. It really is the Caribbean cliché of crystalline waters the color of precious stones, miles of smooth white sand and lots and lots of coconuts. Long before coconut water became trendy – and available in Tetra Paks in cities where the temperatures drop to freezing – it was sold in Playa still in the coconut. After drinking the water, you can eat the meat with a bit of chili powder and lemon juice.
With this particular treat in hand, I stroll along Quinta Avenida. Three blocks from the sea, this pedestrian street is the center of Playa life. It’s home to bars for all tribes, conversation in multiple languages, the promise of the best massage in the world and restaurants from celebrity chefs (like Enrique Olvera’s Maíz de Mar and Aquiles Chávez’s La Fishería). The street is packed with indulgence. Sorry, diet, but we’ll be taking a break until further notice.
First, I succumb to chocolates from El Gallinero at Quita and Calle 38. In this pink corner store, Didier Maillard puts into practice the chocolate-making techniques of his native France. It doesn’t matter that it’s 86ºF outside – the aroma makes it impossible to resist an orange truffle or a chocolate filled with salted caramel. Also on Calle 38, a block closer to the water, you’ll find a local classic: La Cueva del Chango. This rustic spot with outdoor tables shaded by jungle foliage is famous for traditional Mexican cuisine and wild toucans that can sometimes be seen in the trees. Their version of chilaquiles turns this traditional Mexican breakfast into a five-star delicacy.
Skipping the sketchy souvenir shops, I find gems like Le Troupe, which specializes in 100-percent handmade textile products with Mexican motifs and unique designs. A few blocks away, there’s Chez Céline, a French boulangerie, and La Bikinería, which sells bathing suits from Brazilian designers. Also on Avenida Quinta is the hotel where I’m staying, the recently inaugurated Cacao. Like most of the hotels in Playa, it’s a boutique establishment, not because it wants a pretentious title but because this smaller scale follows the logic of the destination itself. No one wants to shut themselves away in a resort here. Anyone is welcome at the rooftop bar of Cacao: a fourth-floor terrace with hanging chairs, a divine swimming pool and a front-row seat for taking in the colors at sunset. For dinner, I ask the recommendation of a friend who lives in town. She immediately suggests Imprevist, a tiny spot run by a couple and a chef who are originally from Guatemala. The Asian fusion fare includes plenty of vegetarian options and seafood. It’s a great alternative to the Mexican antojitos (appetizers) and pizzerias, which are nearly as common in Playa as the coconut trees.
For those who simply want to get away from it all and relax, another option is Playa Xcalacoco, on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen. Here, you’ll find some of the most exclusive and tucked-away hotels in the region. Boats don’t overrun the beach, and you can still hear the sounds of tropical birds and watch wild monkeys playing in the trees.
Holbox is another story – one that, fortunately, has gone largely untold. This isn’t any ordinary island. It exists thanks to the local mangrove swamps that hold the sand together. In fact, this little piece of land technically isn’t land at all. It’s a sand bank where the only things that grow are coconut trees and happy people. It sounds a bit utopian and corny, I know, but it really is like that. The hotels don’t have doors, people walk around barefoot, the main activity is still fishing, and you can spot local wildlife without having to sneak up on it.
Getting to Holbox presents its own set of challenges. First, you have to take a shuttle or taxi two hours to the port of Chiquilá (about 90 miles from the Cancún airport). You can also go by bus, but it will take a little more than three hours. To visit Holbox, you have to be willing to travel from three to four hours, but it’s absolutely worth it.
There are nearly 25 miles of quiet
beaches around the island of Holbox.
The streets aren’t paved. People get around on bike or on foot on the white-sand “streets,” and when they’re in a hurry, they take a golf-cart taxi. There are 25 miles of coastline, but most of the residents live near “downtown,” which also has a few restaurants, cafés and little unmarked shops that sell only the basics. Here, the logic of a community-based economy prevails, people know each other by name, and everyone walks around smiling and relaxed.
By day, you can trek from one extreme of the island to the other. Both ends feature the prettiest beaches, and along the way, you’ll spot herons, raccoons, cormorants, pelicans and – every once in a while – crocodiles. Depending on the season, you can get tours from Holbox to see whale sharks, explore the islands and kayak through the mangrove swamps.
I’m staying at beautiful hotel called Casa la Tortugas. With just 20 rooms, it has a rustic, Frida Kahlo-esque style that makes for a homey stay. In many ways, its history mirrors that of Holbox. Like most of the hotels here, Casa la Tortugas was a house about 20 years ago. An Italian couple had heard from a friend about this magnificent Mexican island that no one really knew. They arrived on a sailboat (back then, there were no ferries or other regular transportation). They built a second room for guests and, over time, others for the few visitors who would come, almost exclusively in December and during Easter. That’s how it became the little family hotel it is today, employing people of different nationalities, preparing fresh fruit juice and serving up homemade bread and pasta.
It is not unusual to spy wildmonkeys in the foliage near the Viceroy Riviera Maya.
I spend the day walking down the beach and splashing around in the pool, promising myself I’ll get up early for a yoga class that I end up missing. I don’t need anything else. I kick back in one of the hammocks on the beach, walk in the ocean (which is as tranquil as a lake) and enjoy the sunsets. When it’s time to say goodbye to Holbox, I promise to return soon, not just for the setting but for the people. in
Daily flights to Cancún from Lima and one flight a week from Santiago and Bogotá, followed by ground transportation to Playa del Carmen or Isla Holbox.
For more information, visit lan.com
One flight a week to Cancún from São Paulo, followed by ground transportation to Playa del Carmen or Isla Holbox.
For more information, visit tam.com.br
Viceroy Riviera Maya
Playa Xcalacoco, Playa del Carmen
Quinta Avenida & Calle 32,
Playa del Carmen
Casa Las Tortugas
Just ask around in Holbox
Quinta Avenida & Calle 38,
Playa del Carmen
La Cueva del Chango
Calle 38 Norte s/n, Playa del Carmen
Primera Avenida, entre Calle 14 & 16, Playa del Carmen
Quinta Avenida & Calle 34, Playa del Carmen