Winter Escape: Playa del Carmen

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Sure, we haven’t seen that much snow this year, but still, New York can be so…blah in the winter. If the thought of visiting Cancún makes you feel like slitting your wrists, don‘t worry…an affordable paradise IS within reach. In order to save, you might have to endure bad eurotrash techno blaring at the beach. But other than that, Playa del Carmen in the Mayan Riviera is chévere, and with our vacation tips, it can even be cheap. Check it out:

Getting there:
– Fly Jet Blue from JFK to Cancún, and then take a bus to Playa del Carmen, ($380-$450 if you book at the right time). OJO: Schedule your arrival for the morning or afternoon even though nighttime fares might be cheaper. JFK is notorious for delays, and daytime flights is the only way to ensure you’ll make it into Cancún before the last bus to Playa del Carmen, therefore avoiding the $85 taxi to Playa.
– Once you land, look for the ADO buses into Playa. (Around $8-$12 for the 45-minute trip).

Where to stay:
A) Call Lorenzo Casto at 011-52-984-806-2163 and ask him to hook you up with an apartment for the week. It’ll cost a little more than a hotel, but you’ll be able to fit more people and cook!. Tell him Ramiro sent you and he’ll give you a good deal.
B) Try one of these nice but not-so-mega-caro hotels:
Coco Rio: Classic white stucco and curvy architecture makes for a peaceful atmosphere even though you’re just a few feet from the hype of la Quinta Avenida. But it fills up fast, due to the reasonable prices ($60/low season $80/high season) so book ahead.
Hotel Girasol: Close to everything, very basic, but clean and prices are excellent ($34-$58 per night, depending on the season, A/C). Just don’t expect too many perks (One of the amenities on their website: “hot and cold water”).
Posada Mariposa: Gorgeous and right on the beach, it offers “palapa” rooms, which means you sleep under a grass roof for $60-$135 a night. The expensive rooms are the thatched roof ones, though, so if you’re broke, opt for a standard.

Getting around:
Walking is really the best option. Taxis are hard to get during high season, so if you need to go across town, hop on a colectivo van for about $1.  Like every other public bus in Latin America, they are sooty, sweaty, tightly-packed and bumpy, but they run from 5am to 10pm and you can find them all over the city. Just look for the name of the place you’re heading to on the front windshield..
To get to Cancún, Tulum ($2), Mérida ($25), or any other long trip, go to the ADO bus. Don’t even think about renting a car. It costs more than in New York, ($70/day for even the smallest tacomobile), and parking is a pesadilla.

What to do:
Mamita’s beach is accessible between 28th and 30th Streets. This is basically a pseudo-South Beach with lots of tangas, bad techno, and fresas lounging around drunk on white mattresses. Drugs here too…so don’t be surprised if some people seem all…um…revved up. Just head for las orillas or walk either down or up along the shore until you get to a more secluded spot. There’s also a volleyball court, lots of nice gente sencilla, and the ocean is aquamarine and clear like you’ve never seen it at Rockaway Beach. If you’re looking for total peace and quiet take a van or bus to Tulum Beach/Playa Paraiso, it’s far less populated..…(OJO: Chicos, don’t try to get naked on the beach. We saw a guy get arrested for doing so. Chicas have no problem though.)

La Quinta Avenida: Avenida principal for tourists (i.e. it’s pretty tacky and has a Senor Frog’s), but the good thing is, it’s closed off so you can walk down the middle of it. You can find everything here, but bien caro. So if you need something basic, walk to la Constituyentes or la 30 Avenida (5 blocks from la Quinta, avenues skip numbers.) For cheaper artesanías, go to Calle Corazón, just off la Quinta, or head higher up Avenida Benito Juárez into el Centro.

Tulum: About 40 minutes from Playa. Mayan ruins, cool beach, nice seafood restaurants and much more low-key than Playa (there’s even a hotel here without electricity). OJO: Don’t even think about taking the $90 tour to get here. If you show up on your own, entrance to the ruins (including the beach below) costs only about $4 for adults and is free for kids under 12 (good thing Ramiro’s kids are short so we could pass them off for half their age!)

Xcaret: 20 minutes from Playa. Again, tours to this Maya-themed park are mega-expensive. Instead, come on your own after 4pm, pay only for the show ($45, ouch!) and you can wander around free in the park for an hour or two. The show is worth it though, actors recreate the super-chingon Maya sports of hockey with lit fireballs, and basketball using only their hips; and you can see bailes folklóricos from all over the country. Not too cheesy, and actually awesome a la vez.

Cenotes: The entire area is covered in small, very deep lakes. Many are undergound, and you can swim in some. If you’re not squeamish, it’s a great time. Read more here.

Other Maya spots: With a bus, you can get to Ek-Balam and Chichen-Itza (both incredible and large ruins), and you can also go to Valladolid, a cool, traditional small town with an incredibly beautiful restaurant in the town square. If you don’t mind the 3 hour drive, you can also visit Merida, one of the nicest small cities ever, that’s full of art museums, dope Yucatecan food, skater kids, and soothing singing trios. It’s actually nicer than Playa…but no beach.

All that stuff about not drinking the water or eating raw food has to be fake, cuz we ate todo lo posible and didn’t get sick. Anyway, to save money, share a giant plate of arrachera (flank steak) that comes with guacamole, rajas, queso, cebollas, frijoles, and papas for $6 bucks. Do not even think about eating fast: there is no fast service here. At all. Ever.
Best cheap spots:
El Fogón on Constituyentes between 30th Ave. and 25th Ave.  Tacos al pastor, arrachera, big portions, and not as smoky as some of the other grills. Not open for breakfast, but the neighboring two spots are, and are pretty good too.
Cafe Corazón, 5ta Avenida and 28th avenue. Good hot chocolate, jugos naturales, and sandwiches. Not as cheap but here you can find greens and fruit when you get tired of all the meat.
Pozoleria La Abuelita, 30th avenue around calle 22. There’s a 12-year-old waiter here, and he’s excellent! Really good pozole rojo, plus cool rockeros both hang out and work here.

For some reason, nightlife in Playa is pretty limited to mid-90’s Euro-techno, but here’s a few other spots with variety:

Mambo Café, calle 6 y la 5ta avenida. At first, you may think you have stepped into a scary version of Latin Quarters. The DJ sets are so atrocious they don’t even qualify as kitsch. But…at 1 am the live band will start to play and if you are a salsa-freak or a merenguero, you’ll be en el septimo cielo after a long week of fake Danny Tenaglia. Just don’t come earlier than 12:50am or you will have to watch everyone staring at the walls and not dancing at all. OJO: Watch out for the over-emotive bad dancers who will step on your feet again and again. I’m not kidding, I had bruises.

El Angus, 10th Avenue and 26th Street. Depleted after fleeing so much techno, we wandered around wishing we could hear some rock en español. Then suddenly…through the haze came the sound of Manu Chao, and El Angus’ portly, super-cool owner, Don Javier, invited us into his cafe/restaurant to drink free tequila, eat free tacos, and dance to quebraditas and Cafe Tacvba. Everyone here was nice and fun (think the crowd at Mehanata)…and while on normal days, stuff ain’t free, the prices are not out of control either.

Alux, Avenida Juarez, a few blocks from the highway. We can’t promise good music, but we’re suckers for gimmicks, and this bar is in a real cave! Chido.

DON’T GO TO MUSHROOM. Ramiro’s cousin owns this bar yet he charged us full price minus just 80 cents for a beer and wine. Culero!

Avisos varios
– Don’t travel in May (jellyfish), or in September (bad hurricanes).
– To play tennis, basketball, or run, go to the stadium on 20th Avenue and 27th Street. It’s open all the time.
– If you get sick, don’t go to the expensive tourist clinic where you will pay at least $30 to $60 just to see a doctor. Instead you can visit any “Farmacia Similar” where a para-doctor-type guy will prescribe you medicine for a fee of only about $2.
– The police here ain’t joking, there’s none of that corruption you may have heard about. So don’t act like a fool, because they will haul you in with a quickness. (We saw it happen more than once.)