The Life of Playa del Carmen

“We had sand floors, sand roads, and no electricity. But Playa back then was a real jungle! I’d see those birds with the big beaks, what were they? Oh yeah, toucans. Down towards where Tulum is now was just jungle then, with rare animals. You could even see anteaters there! And there were monkeys who’d jump between the palm trees outside my house.”



Playa’s “jungly-est” street today.


“Were they naughty monkeys? Did they try to steal food from you?” I asked.


“No, those monkeys were still afraid of people, so they never came too close. When I was a kid, we lived across from the ocean. We used to have huge sand dunes on the beach here, can you imagine that? You had to climb your way over them to reach the ocean. And you didn’t need a boat or diving gear to see activity beneath the waves. I remember walking along the shore and spotting sting rays, dolphins, and tons of fish. Actually, there were so many fish that you could take a bag, scoop it underwater, and catch fish just like that.”




“Whoaaa, sounds like the Maldives,” I thought out loud.


“Yeah, I think so!” she continued. “But when investments starting coming in, the first thing resorts did was cut right into the coral reef, ignoring all regulations so they could build on the beach.




My family and I lived in that house on the beach for two years. It was quiet and beautiful, but very uncomfortable. There was only salt water to shower with, and no air-con or fans, so even after showering, you’d still sweat. I felt sticky all the time. Even my house now doesn’t have air conditioning. But at least we have fans.”


A few moments later, she fanned herself and turned the air-conditioner in the hotel’s reception down a few degrees. “It’s so hot here!” she said. I couldn’t disagree with that.


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Sorry for the grainy shot, Marian. D:


This woman’s name was Marian.


Marian had lived in Playa del Carmen her entire life. She experienced its transformation from a small, rustic village with only a few sand roads, to one of the top tourist destinations in Mexico. The Playa you’ll find today is jam packed with resorts, shops, and never-ending construction for new condo buildings. It has become another concrete jungle, barely comparable to the pristine paradise of the past.





For about a month, every night I would go down to our hotel’s reception and chat with Marian, during her shift. She had happily offered to help me practice Spanish after hearing I wanted to improve. For about an hour each evening, we’d chat in Spanish together. She told me about life here in Playa del Carmen, and the drastic differences forty years ago versus twenty years ago, versus today.


I found her childhood stories and memories especially fascinating. Imagine growing up on the beach, like she did, with only the bear necessities and in the middle of a mostly uncultivated jungle. It was like hearing something out of Robinson Crusoe.




She also gave me insight on how this region’s Mayan roots continue to influence traditions and deeply held superstitions in the local society today.


Back when she was a kid, Marian described the town as having one small school for children of all ages and no supermarket, just corner stores with the basics. To get such a fancy thing as a pair of sports shoes, you’d have to travel to Cancun, the next town over. There were no hotels, flashing lights or well, much of anything besides homes, families, fishermen, the ocean and jungle. And sometimes the odd traveler.


Despite its small beginnings and lack of infrastructure and facilities, tourism has always been the lifeblood of this town, its one and only industry. Here’s an excerpt from a Canadian’s book on how far back the legacy of tourism here dates:


“Playa del Carmen’s original name was Xaman-Ha. It was a key jumping off point for Mayan pilgrimages to Cozumel. The Mayans believed that Ixchel, the godess of the moon, love, pregnancy, and childbirth (in short, fertility), lived in Cozumel, so it has been a major destination for honeymooners for centuries.


Playa del Carmen is only about sixty kilometres south of Cancun. Cancun’s tourism industry got a start through a government-funded development project in the 1970’s. It took time for the tourism boom that took Cancun to creep down what is now called the “Mayan Riviera” and reach this once sleepy fishing village.


About ten years ago, Playa del Carmen had no electricity, no telephones and no running water. It is now a vibrant, modern tourist centre and some sources believe it is the fastest growing community in Mexico.”


Taken from The Traveling Adventures of the Buttonville Flying Club, page 74.


(There were shrines to Ixchel on both Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.)


This book was published in 2008. There is still some debate in the expat community about when electricity officially arrived in Playa. Here are some guesses/experiences:


According to expats in the area: “Electricity from PDC began supplying Cozumel by CFE underwater cable in 1980.” (H/T Jeremy.)


And according to Yaz: “35 years ago there was only Molcas Resort and basically there was nothing else just the Ferry to go to Cozumel and local fishermen.”


According to Monica: “My first visit to Playa was 1989 and there was no electricity. Even in the few restaurants. ”


According to Barry: “I was here 30 years ago and Playacar did not exist and nor did 5th ave.”


So, it seems finding an exact date for when electricity arrived is difficult. Regardless, Playa has certainly come a long way in a short time.




Marian remembers when men came to dig under the sand roads and install the first pipe lines.


“But,” I blurted, “if there were no restaurants or hotels in Playa when you were a kid, and there were still tourists, where did the tourists stay?”


“They stayed in homes with locals and paid a small fee,” she answered. “The families and visitors would all cook and eat together too.”


Thinking about the separation of locals and travelers that has come about thanks to streamline, independent travel (which in many ways is amazing) made me jealous of the authentic, down-to-earth experiences those tourist must have had in the old days. Nothing compares to that.




“My family took in travelers too. We hosted Germans, Italians, Canadians, Americans, anyone. They slept in hammocks on the top floor of our house. They loved it because we were right on the beach. It was 50 pesos per person back then.”


“Ah, I would have loved that too,” I happily interjected.


She smiled, then brought me further down Playa’s timeline: “When Playa saw more development years later, a group of Italians established themselves in somewhat of an expat group on Quinta Avenida, where there were a number of restaurants. Nowadays the expat majority is made up of Argentinians. They own a lot of the properties and set up restaurants.”




We’d arrived in Playa in March, so we’d met tons of Canadians escaping winter. There were plenty of long-term American expats too.


But the tourism aspect wasn’t what Marian and I were interested in talking about. The history of Playa seemed so much more intriguing than modern-day.


“What about the Mayans? How much did you have to learn about them in school? Do they still have any influence on this area today?” I shot out these questions one night in the beginning of May.


Mayan ruins in Playa


Cinco de Mayo was coming up. That night we’d been low-key complaining about not being able to experience holiday festivities during the lockdown, although Cinco de Mayo was really only a festival that took place in Puebla (and the US, haha. She was super surprised to hear that Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo, lol.)


I should mention here that Marian considered herself a Christian, but was still largely affected by the superstitions she grew up with.




“We didn’t really learn about the Mayans in school. And Cinco de Mayo isn’t a big deal here. But you should be here for Day of the Dead! It’s beautiful. They light up Chichen Itza and have a big parade down the main street in Playa. Children put candy in the little houses built for the Alux.”


Candy for who?


You’re probably familiar with stories of Celtic gnomes and leprechauns, or maybe you’ve seen little houses all over Asia dedicated to animist spirits. You’ll find stories of spirit-like, mythical entities throughout history and in cultures from around the world.


Aluxes are little spirits from Mayan legend in the Yucatan peninsula. They’re said to be about three feet tall, and are usually invisible, though they sometimes show themselves. Like leprechauns, the Alux enjoy playing tricks on people and, like children, throw tantrums if they don’t get their way. In words that describe many mythological creatures, they’re arbitrary, territorial, and mean.


Building them small houses where locals place offerings of food and trinkets is believed to help curry favor with the little hooligans, helping to avoid harassment.


Marian said many locals in Playa would experience things like their keys showing up in the bedroom, when they had put them in the kitchen, or the TV remote being moved around the house.


When angered, especially if someone tried to build a house on their territory, the Alux would throw rocks and wreck havoc until appeased.


There was something locals would put at the edges and corners of their property to keep the spirits away, but I forget what it was now! Arg, sorry.


I could see the bonafide belief in Marian’s eyes as she warned me, “You’d best not leave your clothes to dry too long outside either. The Alux sometimes take them.”


She was uncomfortable when I explained the similar story these beings had with ones in Asia and Ireland. When I told her about the decorative, little houses for spirits all over Asia, she was perplexed. It seemed Marian expected me to consider the Alux as singular and unique.


We talked about how the Bible addresses spirits, or angels and demons, and how that plays a part in history and folklore. The fun part about Mexico is being able to openly talk about religion and the Bible, as most people hold some form of reverence for the unseen.


“Look at the crucifix, understand how much Jesus loves you.”

We exposed each other to some different perspectives and were able to have a true cultural exchange, just by sitting down and talking. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things in the world, and something that should happen more often! Herein lies the beauty of travel, and I’m happy this was able to happen even in the midst of a crazy lockdown in Mexico.


Food is also a great connector. XD
Just had to insert some food pics here XD


Most of my Spanish knowledge comes from reading, so I’m very thankful for Marian’s patience speaking with me and allowing me learn from her experiences and perspective growing up in Playa del Carmen. What a unique life she’s had!


Many thanks, Marian!


(And if you were wondering, yes, Marian told me, children do grow up having birthday parties with piñatas. It’s a real thing. 😀 haha)


Hope you enjoyed reading! And maybe you learned something new or surprising about Mexico. I would love to know what stuck out to you most in the things Marian said.


Or if you have any questions about coming over to southern Mexico at the moment, feel free to shoot me any questions or concerns.


Have a good one! 🙂

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