The Pleasures of Playa

Twenty years ago, there barely was a Playa del Carmen. It was a tiny fishing village about 36 miles south of Cancun (which was barely there, either). The town had no electricity; time was kept by sunrise and sunset.

Today, Playa del Carmen is a thriving port for cruise passengers, and remains a favorite getaway spot for European travelers, who discovered it in the early 1980s.

Cruising the western Caribbean, Playa - as it's affectionately known (the word means "beach" in Spanish) - is almost always a port of call or a service call for shore excursions.

About 15 years, when we were vacationing on Cozumel, my husband and I became curious about the town across the strait. Beached-out one day, we decided to hop the ferry and wander around Playa, then rent a car and check out the ruins at Tulum. But there were no cars for rent, the taxi drivers must have been taking a siesta, and there was little to do but walk on a magnificent beach.

We came upon a small palapa restaurant/hotel where fishermen were bringing in the day's catch. The owner, an American ex-pat who treated us to a beer, asked if we'd like to come back in a couple of hours to consume a red snapper that had caught our eyes. We assured him we would. As we kept walking, we noticed the bathing suits on the sun-worshippers got smaller, and then there were none at all. Very interesting, this Playa del Carmen.

Returning for our promised lunch, we strolled the small grounds behind the restaurant where very basic lodging was provided (think hammocks and rum). We sat down to the best fish we'd ever eaten, and soon the juices of tropical fruits served as side dishes were running down our chins. We would definitely return to Playa.

Over the next few years, we spent at least a week in or near Playa every winter and watched the little village begin to grow as more tourists discovered it. During the Gulf War, we trudged down the dusty main street for the single hour of early morning TV news each day at the Chicago Sports Bar. One year we were asked to "stand up" for a couple who'd decided to get married in Playa. The wedding was at the Sports Bar. There were two telephones in Playa at that time, neither of which worked.

The tourists were heavily "Euro" back then, and the same dog trotted up and down the main street. An expensive shrimp dinner set us back less than $10. Pizza at Las Mascaras was about $3, and spaghetti at the roof garden of the restaurant/hotel next door was even less. We laughed at the once-a-week cruise ship passengers with sunburned knees and video cameras who walked down the beach. The men carefully looked out to sea while filming the topless ladies.

Times change. Today, Playa is a thriving, pulsating, happening place for land travelers and cruise passengers alike, and we still come back at least one a year, by land or by sea.

What used to be just a tender stop for cruisers on their way to "Coz" is now a real port. Ships toss their lines over or tender in at what veteran cruisers call The Gravel Pit, a few miles south of Playa. The formal name of the port is Calica. It's not much more than a jumping-off point for shore excursions to Tulum and Xcaret. If you want to set out on your own to see Playa, be prepared for rapacious cab starters in Calica who charge you per person for a taxi.

There's no bargaining at Calica, but you can cut a deal for a taxi trip back to your ship.

Over the past year, another port on the Yucatan mainland has become a semi-popular stop for cruise ships. Its name is Costa Maya and it's about as far out of the way as can be. There are grand plans for Costa Maya, most of which have not yet been realized.

STROLLING ON FIFTH AVENUE The real Main Street of Playa del Carmen is Avenida Cinco - Fifth Avenue, just a block from the beach. As the evening approaches the streets are closed to cars--it's pedestrian traffic only, except for cross streets. There are plenty of restaurants and stores--and plenty of people urging you to eat and shop in them. The unending hustle can become wearisome.

Our highest marks for the prettiest (and most expensive) stop go to Pancho's Fifth Avenue, where the food is terrific and the margaritas are lethal.

Along Fifth Avenue you'll find purveyors of some of the worst junk in the universe (they expect to bargain) and some nice things, too. Silver jewelry is always a good buy in Playa (remember to bargain!). Just make sure the pieces you buy have the ".925" stamp on them. One-third off is a decent deal. The closer you get to the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street, the higher the prices.

In Mexico, many prescription drugs may be purchased over the counter at a price far less than you'd pay in the U.S. for prescriptions. Just make sure you know exactly what you are getting.

For golf addicts, the course at Playacar is a challenge. Greens fees are not inexpensive (close to $200 the last time we checked), but the clubhouse is attractive. It's a "links" course. There are other courses further south.

SHIPS' TRIPS The most popular shore excursions here are to Tulum and Xcaret. Tulum is the only Mayan ruin site that fronts on the sea. The Castillo is magnificent, but not recommended for climbing by anyone with weak knees or vertigo. Most of the site is low-impact, and there's a jitney to carry visitors from the main center to the ruins. There are beautiful beaches just below the ruins, and a kilometer or so away is the risque Don Ernesto's restaurant and beach club, where bathing suits are considered formal attire. The visitor center at Tulum includes intense shopping possibilities, and there's even a Subway sandwich shop if you need a taste of the U.S.

A trip to Tulum will probably include a snorkeling-resting-swimming stop at Xel-Ha, where many cenotes (deep underground wells) are just waiting to be explored.

The other major option is Xcaret, the Yucatan's answer to Disney World. In a stunning contrast to most shore excursions, Xcaret is a bargain. Buses run back and forth on a frequent schedule all day while you're in port, so you can return to the ship for lunch and then go back to swim with the dolphins. Dolphin swimming is not inexpensive ($80 at last check), but most folks count it as the best dolphin experience anywhere.

The park is beautifully maintained, with plenty of snack stands and some excellent restaurants. Fast food is offered in the visitors' center along with a well-stocked bookstore and gift shop. Alongside, there is a small museum featuring representations of all the excavations/ruins in the Yucatan and as far south as Guatemala.

Small Mayan ruins are scattered around the park; and there's a turtle hatchery where you can first see baby turtles about the size of a dream in an aquarium, then follow their growing-up process, moving from pool to pool, to hunkering adults the size of a dishwasher with flippers.

For the semi-adventurous, swimming the underground river is a slice of aquatic heaven. Turn in your clothes and belongings (you'll be given a key to lock your own personal possessions bag, which will be waiting for you at the end of the float) and just go with the flow. Minimal swimming skills and water-comfort level are all that's required.

WAY OUT OF THE WAY Coba, one of the least excavated Mayan ruins, is within striking distance, but it's a mosquito-challenged, high-hiking experience. Chichen Itza, famous for bloody sports activities centuries ago, is only practical to visit by airplane, at considerable cost. To have a look at how the world must have looked at the moment of creation, a visit to the Sian Kian biosphere should be on your life list.

CANCUN If you really want to go to Cancun (which means "nest of snakes" in Mayan - how appropriate), there will probably be bus transportation available from Playa, Calica, or Costa Maya.

PLAYA TODAY There are a few more dogs, many more restaurants, and lots more stores. The phones work on almost every corner and there are several Internet cafes. Look for us on the beach outside the Albatross or at the bar at Limon's the week of Thanksgiving. We'll meet the ship when you arrive.

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