After another ferry journey (again accompanied by adverts for duty-free jewellery at Diamonds International, and Band Aid singing their absurd and patronising song about Africa), I’m in Playa. As the largest town on the Riviera Maya, and the second-biggest on Mexico’s Caribbean coast (after Cancún), Playa is tourism central (it’s impossible to imagine what these places would be like without all the tourists – Sleepy? Empty?). The statistics of the whole region defy the imagination – Cancún’s first hotel went up in the 1970s, yet it now has 30,000 hotel rooms and 4 million annual visitors. And Playa, which in the 1980s was a small town of 1000 people, now has a population of over 150,000 (not counting all the tourists). The sandy streets of the 80s are now paved avenues full of traffic, with hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops. And being the high season, it’s very busy with people like me, as well.
But all this development and popularity does make it a lively place. Unlike Cancún, Playa was an actual beach town before it grew, so it has a different feel to its northern mega-resort counterpart. For a start, you can walk everywhere, rather than having to take a taxi from your hotel to a restaurant, or gamble with your life crossing a four-lane highway after having one too many tequilas. The main thoroughfare, Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue) is pedestrianised, and lined with everything tourists could want, from tacky souvenir stores to some very upmarket clothes shops, and every kind of restaurant. Plus four Aldo’s Gelato, two Haagen Daz, and a Ben & Jerry’s (Playa must be the ice-cream capital of Mexico). And the street goes on for miles – I walk down it after dinner, and I still haven’t reached the end after an hour. At the southern end, on the beach by the Cozumel ferry terminal, the sand sculptor is still there, repairing his fragile nativity scene after being damaged by the elements (or perhaps by drunk/clumsy people). And in the adjoining park, there are five Mexican men in traditional-looking clothes sitting on top of a metal pole that must be at least 20 metres high. To the sound of a flute and a drum (played by the man in the middle of the group), the other four men launch themselves off the pole and slowly descend to the ground, spinning round the pole all the way. I have no idea what it’s all about, and I’ve had a long day’s diving in Cozumel (and I’m full of ice-cream). So I leave them to their aerial acrobatics.
Unlike Cozumel’s beaches, Playa’s beach is right in town – so no hiring bikes or cars, or taking taxis, just to be able to swim and sunbathe. The sand is soft and white, and the sea is bright stripes of green and blue. It would be a wonderful spot, were it not for the fact that it’s overcast and raining. While I hide under a parasol (and enjoy the double rainbow that results from all this inclement weather), eventually the rain stops and the sky clears, just long enough for me to change into my swimming trunks and get in the water. Whereupon it clouds over and starts raining again. I come back out and go back under the umbrella. After several more aborted swimming attempts, I give up and retreat into the nearest bar.
Playa’s eateries cover every kind of cuisine – Avenida Quinta must have one of the most diverse ranges of food in the world (with the possible exception of the canteen at the UN). And there are hundreds of them. And they’re all packed. But like so many international tourist towns, the local food is conspicuously absent here. The last time I had any Mexican food was back in Cozumel, when my Christmas Day dinner consisted of Lomo Relleno, a delicious dish of pork loin stuffed with figs. And having eaten lovely (but expensive and foreign) food for several days now, I follow the advice of the hotel staff and eat in a local taquería. It’s full of what looks like locals, and the menu is in Spanish, but I use my basic knowledge of Mexican food and my pidgin Spanish to order the Arrachera, a huge plate of marinated and tenderised steak. It comes with a skyscraper of tortillas, salad, guacamole, and three(!) different chilli sauces. It’s half the price of the food I’ve eaten so far, and twice as delicious.
Back at the park, and the flying Mexicans are at it again. Only this time, I overhear one of the ground-level performers (the tin-rattler collecting the money) mention “Chaac” (who’s the Maya god of rain). So I guess it’s some kind of ceremony to pray for rain (or maybe to pray for rain to stop, as it is the end of the yearly hurricane season). Anyway, this group of Papantla Flyers (as they’re known) are one of many around the country who still practice the ancient custom of falling out of the sky and flying round a pole to appease the gods (but not everywhere in Mexico – several state governments have banned it, due to injuries and fatalities!). As the ceremony’s being performed in a tourist town every day for crowds of non-Mexicans who don’t know the first thing about it, I’m not sure how authentic it really is, but judging from the number of onlookers and the amount of money in the tin, it’s popular.
It’s my last day in Mexico, and Mr. Sun has got his hat back on. In the sunshine, Playa’s beach is whiter than ever, and the sea is sparkling turquoise. Clearly, everyone has the same idea as me, as the beach is heaving with slowly cooking bodies. The random pieces of brown flesh as far as the eye can see, frequently moistened with suntan lotion, and turned over regularly to prevent burning – it reminds me of rotisserie chickens in a giant oven. And there’s a few large broilers around too. There are the older tourists who’ve been in the Sun way too long, skin the texture of leather and the colour of strong tea. There are the strapping young men who’ve clearly been in the gym, striding along the beach or playing volleyball, their big square bodies the size, shape, and colour of mahogany wardrobes. There are the Italians and Spanish and Israeli women, as effortlessly brown and attractive as always. And there’s me, my misshapen body as white and bony as a chicken wing. As I have the same peculiar desire to tan as everyone else, I find an empty lounger and let it all hang out along with everyone else. In the sea, there are swimmers, boogie boarders, canoodling couples, excitable dogs, and a man on a bizarre levitating platform that’s seemingly powered by a nearby jet ski (I saw this a few days ago in Cozumel, and I still have no idea what it’s called). As this is Mexico and not Belize, it isn’t long before a waiter appears and asks if I’m a guest at the resort who own all the loungers. And when I say no, instead of politely telling me to eff off, he politely tells me that I have to order a drink. And then goes and gets it for me (as I say, it’s not like Belize, where they’d probably let me lie on the lounger, but not get me the drink!). That’s the rest of the day sorted then…
For my final Playa meal, I go back to the neighbourhood taquería, this time trying the Alhambra, a concoction of ground beef, melted cheese, and chorizo sausage. Yum. Then it’s to the Walmart to buy some Mexican rum (I can’t come to Mexico and not do any shopping). And then it’s back on the freezing ADO bus to Belize City.
It’s a relatively painless journey back to the border (for a start, you only have to pay your ticket fee once, in Mexico at the bus station of origin, rather than going through the two-stage payment nonsense that happens when you travel from Belize). And although there’s an exit fee to leave Mexico, at least the official at the border explains it to everyone (in Spanish and English), and puts the collected money in a drawer (as opposed to the last time I crossed the border in this direction, when the man took my cash and stuffed it straight into his pocket).
The only incident on the journey is caused not by money-grabbing Mexicans, but by over-zealous Belizeans. As we all shuffle into Belize, the officers stamping the passports ask the usual questions (even though I’m a non-Belizean-passport holder, I have all the appropriate stamps in my UK passport, so I get a cursory check and I’m on my way). When the last two tourists get to the desk, they’re asked for the address of the hotel that they’re staying in. And when it turns out that they don’t have one, they’re turned away by the officials. Maybe it’s standard procedure to require a reservation from everyone; perhaps it’s because it’s the high season; possibly it’s because the tourists look like scruffy backpackers who’ll just end up sleeping on the beach and getting robbed; it could be because Belize is famous as a transit country to the US (although I doubt the two iPod-carrying Europeans are poor immigrants trying to get to the States for a new life!); or maybe the Belizean official is just being a petty jobsworth. Whatever the reason, they’re not coming in. After an interminable wait, as the backpackers, the Belizean officials, the Mexican bus driver, and several well-meaning locals (including the toothless old man who cleans the toilets) all have a discussion about what to do, it’s clear that the Belizean officials aren’t budging. So everyone is herded off the bus and into the car park, and the bus collects the two young men and goes back over the bridge into Mexico. The unfortunate guys are then unceremoniously dumped off the bus (although, I suppose they’re lucky the Mexicans let them back in, or they’d be stuck in the no-man’s-land between the two countries). The bus then comes back into Belize, picks the rest of us back up, and we continue on our way.
On the way back, I try to feel some sympathy for the two guys, but it’s now 6 a.m., we’re an hour behind schedule (and still have another two hours to travel), I’ve barely slept all night, and I have another fat man next to me, taking up all of his seat and half of mine. So all I can think is: next time you arrive in a new country, and you’re asked for a local address by the immigration officials, have a hotel reservation. Or just do what I do and lie!