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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Is Playa del Carmen finally starting to turn things around?

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Is a new day dawning for Playa del Carmen, or is it just a mirage? Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During a recent business trip to Cozumel, which took me through Playa del Carmen, I was pleasantly surprised by all the positive changes. This led me to wonder: Is Playa del Carmen finally getting its act together?

But first a little context. 

Over the past few decades, Playa del Carmen has gone from a tiny fishing village to one of the world’s busiest tourism destinations. But this transition has by no means been a smooth one. 

A dirt road in Playa del Carmen during the early 1990’s along a stretch of what today is the Quinta Avenida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Back in the mid-1990s, Playa del Carmen was mostly known as the place one took the ferry to Cozumel, which by then was already established as a popular spot for domestic and international tourists.

My memories of Playa del Carmen during the mid-’90s are of pristine beaches spotted by a few tiny palapas with hammocks, an extremely bohemian atmosphere, and the occasional topless Italian tourist.

Yours truly in the year 2000, 18 years old in Playa del Carmen during one of my dozens of visits to the beach from my hometown of Mérida. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During this time it was possible to enjoy La Playa on a budget of 100 pesos a day by eating at local cocinas económicas, buying drinks at mom-and-pop shops, and sleeping under the stars on a hammock. Those were the days. 

By the time the 2000s got started in earnest, so did development in once-sleepy Playa del Carmen. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But this idyllic state of affairs was not to last. By the end of the 1990s, Playa del Carmen began to boom with the construction of dozens of hotels, restaurants, and shops. Playa’s main road running parallel to the beach was closed to traffic and rebranded as La Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue.

Before long, the restaurants started to get a lot fancier, and by the 2000s several high-end shops and hotels opened up along the length of the strip. But don’t get me wrong, the early 2000s were a great time for Playa del Carmen. Sure it had changed, but it was still possible to have lots of fun on a budget and its bohemian atmosphere was largely intact, even if now you had to deal with tons of street vendors selling trinkets and tickets to Xcaret. 

Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida in 2003. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But by the end of the 2010s, it seemed like the writing was on the wall for Playa del Carmen. As organized crime started to move in, local businesses started to fall like dominos ⁠— especially along the Quinta Avenida. 

Several of Playa’s most iconic bars like the beachfront Captain Tutix, and best taco shops like La Boca del Lobo, were long gone by the start of the millennium’s second decade, and so was Playa’s image as an affordable hippie paradise. 

During this time, walking down the Quinta Avenida or the beach, one was constantly being offered drugs or sex ⁠— which enticed other types of tourists. But visitors and their money continued to arrive in droves, which at the end of the day was the only thing Playa del Carmen’s authorities seemed to care about.

Another problem that really began to manifest during this time was beach erosion partly caused by irresponsible construction practices. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

As the resort end of town continued to grow, so did the surrounding city itself, which by this point was just as big on the opposite side of the highway where most of Playa’s tourism workers were housed. 

The security situation continued to deteriorate but was considered manageable until the January 2017 shooting at the popular Blue Parrot nightclub, which claimed five lives and injured 15. 

The shooting was a wake-up call and many holidaymakers began to look at Playa nervously and decided to stay away, at least for the time being.

Mariachis have long been a staple of Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida, which is cool even if they only seem to play the same three songs foreigners seem to know. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

With all of my favorite places in Playa del Carmen shut down and worsening security, I wrote off Playa del Carmen as a paradise lost and only returned for work or on my way to somewhere else. It was time to move on. 

But last month I made my way to Playa del Carmen for work and found it had changed considerably in just the last year.

Playa del Carmen’s Oceanfront Parque de Los Fundadores looked rather spectacular in the early morning last month. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

One thing I noticed is that the pushy drug dealers who used to approach me at every block seemed nowhere to be seen, at least during daylight hours. To them I say good riddance, they really made Playa feel sketchy and not the sort of place you would want to take your family. 

Also being reined in, at least in areas frequented by tourists, is the city’s police force which had become infamous for extorting money out of inebriated tourists in the wee hours of the morning.

When out drinking in Playa del Carmen, it really is best to pace yourself to avoid falling victim to scams, or worse. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

“It’s very important on many levels that security be restored to Playa del Carmen. That is why state authorities with oversight of the federal government are taking a more active role in fighting corruption and abusive practices which target local residents and visitors alike,” said Cristina Torres Gómez of Quintana Roo’s state government security taskforce. 

A recent report by Travelsafe Abroad noted that while the vast majority of visitors to Playa del Carmen never experience any security issues, it’s important to not flash money or expensive items in public. The site also advises tourists to avoid wandering too far into town, especially beyond Calle 46, known as Avenida Colosio. 

“Does anyone else miss the day tourists were afraid to go beyond Avenida Colosio because they thought it was too dangerous?” says Manuel López, a Playa del Carmen native who contributed to a Facebook thread. 

Long ago are the days when Playa del Carmen was a carefree fishing village. Yet, some of its essence can still be found if you are patient enough to seek it out. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

This being said, it is important to keep in mind that keeping one’s wits in Playa de Carmen is still extremely important. When going out to party, it is always a good idea to make sure to return to your hotel as part of a group and not allow yourself to get drunk to the point that you may black out. 

There is also the reality that crime rates in the areas that house the workers of a great many of these restaurants, hotels, and resorts continue to be tremendously high; to say nothing of low pay and extremely demanding working conditions. But then again, this is hardly unique to Playa del Carmen. 

Despite what many newcomers seem to believe, the small chapel on the Quinta Avenida across from the ADO bus station has actually been in the same spot for over 20 years. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatá Magazine

During this most recent visit, the city looked very clean and long overdue infrastructure projects like repaving Quinta Avenida looked great. As it was just before the Day of the Dead, the city has adorned several public spaces with Catrinas and other colorful decorations on a grander scale than before.

I also noticed several automated bicycle rental kiosks for tourists to move around, which already existed but in much smaller numbers. The archaeological site just behind the ferry terminal looked extremely well tended, while previous visits it seemed quite neglected.

The closure of several restaurants during the pandemic also seems to have made way, at least for now, for smaller local shops selling everything from churros to tacos de carnitas — which were delicious, by the way. 

Delicious tacos de carnitas at 30 pesos a pop on the Quinta Avenida in 2022 is quite a deal if you ask me. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Of course, this positive outlook is also helped by the fact that the smelly, slimy and all-around awful sargassum which invaded Playa del Carmen’s beaches are finally gone, after a particularly disastrous season. The Playa in Playa del Carmen being of course the destination’s main draw for hoards of beachgoers. 

Sargassum-filled beach in Playa del Carmen in 2021. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

So am I imagining things or is Playa del Carmen back on track? This is of course an open question, but in my view, the answer is yes. Let’s hope this trend continues. Safe travels!

Sunrise over Playa del Carmen’s beach in November 2022. Absolutely stunning. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
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