PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO. Time for a break. Mention Mexico to some people, and they roll their eyes. Then they start talking about drug cartels and the latest drug-deal-gone-bad movie featuring dismemberment and blowtorches.
But it’s not that way. It’s more like “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.”
Tourism here has greatly recovered from both the cartel wars and the global financial collapse. The most recent posted figures from journeymexico.com, for instance, show a dramatic rise. From January to August 2014 some 19.3 million tourists visited, an increase of 19 percent over the previous year. Lots of Americans. Plenty of Canadians. And more visitors from China and Russia.
Can they all be stupid? I don’t think so, in spite of abundant tequila consumption. And they certainly aren’t broke. If so many Americans are coming here, maybe things aren’t as tough as some media reporting would have us believe.
The walking-around evidence gives the same message. Walking down the beach from our condo rental, we passed the enormous Wyndham Viva complex, an all-inclusive hotel. Lots of Americans there, of course, but the second-most common language I heard was German. (Trust me, April is still a good time not to be in Hamburg.) It was the same on Avenue 5, the long, busy pedestrian boulevard that ends in the ferry pier to Cozumel.
So, what’s the word from the sunny side of the street? Here’s my list.
It’s easy, and cheap, to get there.
Lots of airlines fly to Cancun, about a half hour’s shuttle bus or cab away from Playa del Carmen. The airfares are attractive, about the same as making a flight to the east or west coast from Chicago or Dallas. Call it $400 plus, round trip, if you buy right. You can fly to Mexico two or three times for the price of a flight to Costa Rica.
And there are non-stop flights! We flew non-stop out of Austin. It took less than three hours, about the same time as a flight to Tampa, San Diego or San Francisco. Flight time and plane changes depend on your departure point, of course, but Cancun qualifies as one of the easy get-aways. We flew on Southwest, which is opening flights to multiple destinations in Mexico. We did the trip on points and a companion pass.
More places to stay.
The devastation caused by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and the global financial crisis notwithstanding; there has been a fiendish amount of development here in the last ten years. Plenty of choices, at all price levels.
Much of that development has been of upscale all-inclusive hotels with daily rates that would give Nero pause. The folks who bankroll this stuff may overestimate the fat-cat population. The 4-star Playacar Palace all-inclusive, for instance, goes for $625 a night, for two, for an ocean view room in winter. Look for 5-stars and you can easily spend $1,000 a night.
Fortunately, you can also go in the other direction— there are lots of 3-star choices at $100 a night or less.
A bigger menu of places to stay.
Check Homeaway.com or vrbo.com, and you’ll find another set of options: condos, villas and houses. This was our third experience with Homeaway. We rented a one-bedroom condo in Playacar. It was part of a small complex with a splendid, nearly empty beach only 200 feet from our balcony overlooking the pool. Some Mayan ruins as well as lovely houses lined the streets into town. The walk was less than a mile. The tab for 4 nights, $975.
Choice is good. As long as we have choices, the system is working. When it’s $1,000 a night or nothing, well, that’s when we’ll celebrate a guillotine revival.
Is it all fun and smiling faces? Sorry, no. A shadow is falling on foreign travel, but it isn’t drug traffic. We’ve seen it in Cabo San Lucas. We’ve seen it in St. Kitts. It is luxury mallification. Luxury branding is inescapable. Everyone’s nose is rubbed in visions of diamonds, countless $10,000 watches, and other jewelry that few people want to buy and only the most affluent can afford to buy, ever. It dilutes the great sense of ease that vacations bring us.