Across from the Mega super store the world’s saddest looking mariachi is playing to a packed open-air grill, Taqueria El Fogón. There’s not an open table in sight. One large horno a la leña, wood fired oven sits on one side of the restaurant. A cook is preparing Tacos Al Pastor. He’s cutting off pork from a tower of spit-roasted meat, a Shawrama like cooking style brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Beers are served michelada, with hot sauce, limejuice,Worcestershire sauce, and a salted rim. Waiters race across the restaurant with trays of Alambre Beef, Chorizo Quesadillas, and Tacos and Tortas of various fillings. Three bowls of hot sauce sit on every table. It’s lively and local, though a few tourists wander in. When the mariachi is done he packs his things up in a wooden crate and covers it with a black garbage bag and walks off into the night.
El Fogón is just a five-minute walk from La Quinta, Play del Carmen’s main pedestrian avenue lined with shops, restaurants, and small hotels. In Cancun, where the entire “hotel zone” sits isolated on a sand bar away from the main city, any smidgen of local culture remains segregated from visitors.
Playa del Carmen, the largest town on the Riviera Maya, still has its charm. True there is a Wal-Mart now and a Señor Frogs, Häagen–Dazs, Starbucks, and McDonald’s, but the other side of the highway is still endless expanse of green jungle. Playa del Carmen is still a town, and while the massive resorts cover the route there from the Riviera Maya, they have managed, for the most part, to stay out of the center.
Jack Perlman landed in Playa by default. After seeing a Cancun with a Planet Hollywood and All Star Café, he asked where he could find a similar atmosphere as the one he found six years before during his previous visit.Everyone told him to go to Cozumel. They said to take a taxi with a broken windshield to Playa del Carmen to catch the ferry.
“A broken windshield?” he asked.
“Yes, because the road is all dirt and the only cars that will make the drive are the ones that have already had their windshield cracked from the loose gravel.”
He made it to Playa del Carmen, just a small fishing village with ferry dock, but missed the boat to so had to stay the night in town. He found a cheap hostel for $7 a night right on the beach. The next ferry came and went. He didn’t leave. It’s been 17 years.
Perlman can now be credited with changing the atmosphere of Playa del Carmen almost as much as anyone. When he first bought property here he paid someone who said “from the pole to where that bird is.” There were no titles. Perlman helped bring American-style title insurance to Playa and transparent business practices.Some might say this was opening Pandora’s Box, but so far Playa has managed to grow somewhat controlled.
Even though he is backed by investors such as the owner of Equinox Gyms in the U.S. his five condohotels are still smaller boutiques properties with a few dozen rooms. Each project has a theme ranging from Mayan to Mediterranean. For his latest development, El Taj (two complexes and a beach club), Perlman, who travels to Indonesia often, brought several containers of woodwork back from Bali. The trunks of Balinese palms make up the pillars and hand carved woodwork, onyx stone, and the occasional image of the Buddha feature prominently throughout the complex. The top floor is an homage to an Ewok Village with palapa roofs and gardens that create the feeling of some sort of forest canopy or sky world. Prices range from $350,000 to $1.25 million per unit in the El Taj, which coincidently is the same location as the $7 per night hostel that Perlman once stayed in. All of the condohotels (*note: individual investors buy each unit and they’re then rented with hotel like amenities and services) sit beside one another in a two-block radius in the very heart of town.
Playa isn’t the place it once was, Perlman admits, but it’s still relatively undiscovered and you can still get a sense of the real Mexico here. It hasn’t lost its essence like Cancun has. It’s still a place where the Mexicans, albeit wealthy ones, come to vacation. The town center is small and still compact. While hotels, condos, and restaurants take over the first few blocks from the beach, the rest of town is residential. There are still produce markets and street vendors scattered all over the city.
On Benito Juarez, not far from the ferry dock to Cozumel, there are half a dozen street carts. One sells Shrimp tacos. Another sells Cochinita Pibil, a Mayan preparation of pork inside of a banana leaf, which can be eaten in tacos or as a torta (sandwich). Other vendors sell cut up green mango and other fruits sprinkled with salt and chile powder. Down the street, the beachside Taqueria Taraya slings out Yucatecan plates like Ceviche, Octopus Tentacles in Chipotle Sauce, and Fish Tacos.
The creative class has put down roots in Playa too. At the design hotel Basico from Mexico City’s Habita group, their second floor restaurant, Marisqueria, serves coastal Mexican street food right from a replica mobile food cart. Fine dining restaurants like Mosquito Blue, Negrosal, and Yaxche are priced high, but actually serve food on par with New York and Los Angeles restaurants. One hotel and restobar, La Reina Roja, is covered in neon red lights and has risqué mannequins staring out onto the city from every balcony. One shop, La Sirena, sells kitschy Mexican Art, much of it dedicated to skeletons and luchadores (Mexican wrestlers).
The entire pedestrian only Quinta Avenida runs for several dozen blocks and is the place to be at any given time. Some spend more time here than the beach. There is a little bit of everything, even Cancun. On Calle 12 leading from the beach to Quinta Avenida, like a cross between Bourbon Street and South Beach, there is a string of bars and lounges that are filled every night with youngish revelers. A dwarf dressed in different costumes each night tries to lure people into one, while other bar employees pass out coupons for free drinks. This is could be Cancun all over again, though thus far it’s contained within a few block radius. That accident probably won’t happen a second time in the region. Cancun is a disaster ecologically, aesthetically, and culturally. Too many large, corporate developers came too quickly and the atmosphere of one of the finest stretches of beach in the world simply collapsed into a cheap, commercial strip bears no resemblance to a foreign country.
With Playa there’s hope. Expats came here looking for something other than Cancun and set up lives. They’ve brought better hotels and condos and delis and gyms and gift shops, but a Cancun it’s not. There are too many people involved here to let Playa get out of hand.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.