On February 29, 2024

Maiden voyage to Playa del Carmen and a compelling invitation to Tijuana, Baja Norte

Editor’s note: Bruce Bouchard, former executive director of The Paramount Theatre, and his partner Maureen McKenna Padula have traveled from Rutland to the Riviera Maya for the past three years. This series covers adventures, food, and testimonials from Vermont to the tropics. 

Approaching Thanksgiving of 2020, when I was a month out from retirement, after 45 years of working in the arts, I came home from a day’s work at The Paramount, to find my wonderful partner, Maureen McKenna Padula, with a mischievous look on her face, a look of surprised delight and a hint of conspiracy. She was wagging a copy of International Living at me. 

“OK, I give up,” I said. “That look seems to mean something sneaky is lurking?”

“Well [deep breath]….we are going to Mexico!!” she said.

“What?” Are you nuts??!!  Mexico is a Covid hotspot!” I exclaimed.

“No, wait…listen… I have been doing research and guess what, Mexico is one of the rare places that is open and also, no one is there,” she reasoned. “Hotel prices are dirt cheap, and we can easily find outdoor dining where we can socially distance. There is a national mandate on wearing masks and we will be just fine. In addition, the Caribbean Sea is 80 degrees and the median January temperature hovers in the 80-85 range. Need I remind you that the Vermont January temperature is projected to be below freezing — all month!”

Yep! The idea sure was growing on me rapidly. We were eager for more details — beyond the compelling feature in international iiving — about a place called Playa del Carmen in the area in northeast Mexico known as the Riviera Maya.

A bit of context

The Riviera Maya has left its mark on the map as a tourist region, as it has a number of Mayan ruins sites, cenotes (deep natural wells or sinkholes, that expose groundwater underneath — there are 10,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula), beaches, fishing, diving, restaurants, hotels and nighttime entertainment that  offer something for all types of travelers. The hotels, all-inclusive resorts, or AirBnB/Vrbo rentals in the thick of things make this area easily accessible and vibrant with its perfect tropical climate.  

Playa del Carmen is known as the heart of the Riviera Maya and is home to a famous pedestrian street, Fifth Avenue, where most of the restaurants are located. There are also many superb establishments off the path, more moderately priced. Parallel (and one block) to the beach on La Quinta (“The Fifth” as the locals call it) features shopping centers, souvenir shops, art galleries, nightclubs, international brand stores and outdoor performance art. This is simply the best people-watching location you can find! It is thought that on any given day, at any given time, there will be 4,000-5,000 people walking, eating and exploring the 4-mile stretch of The Fifth. To us, only The High Line in New York City is comparable as a long, urban pedestrian path.

The nightly sport in Playa for a majority of travelers, is a quick trip to The Fifth, for an outdoor cocktail, a brisk after-dinner walk, or to just plunk down on a bench to people-watch.

By Bruce Bouchard
Casa de Las Flores offered a comfortable residence for $29 per night on our first venture to Riviera Maya. We were hooked!

Just 75 years ago the entire coastal area was a dense jungle, populated by numerous indigenous tribes, active pirates, and only a handful of small trading ports along the 120 kilometer (75 miles) coastline. A book, published in the mid-50s, “The Lost World of Quintana Roo,” (the governing state of the Riviera Maya), by Michel Peissel is worth a read. The book chronicles Peissel leaving his Wall Street activities (at the ripe age of 21) to walk and explore — sometimes at the literal tip of a spear — the coastal Mexican jungles of Quintana Roo well before Cancun, Playa and Tulum became the tourist meccas of today.  

The trip gains traction

After an arduous search of websites, AirBnB, and Verbo, we settled on a small boutique hotel, Casa de Las Flores (The House of Flowers) located in the center of Playa, four blocks from the beach. Covid had driven the price down to $27 per night! Everything moved quickly and before we knew it, we are on our way to new adventures.

It is relatively simple to travel to this area. While there are no direct flights from the nearby airports (Burlington or Albany) the time from Rutland to Cancun, with one connection, took us only about 7 hours total. Local transportation from Cancun to Playa is either by taxi ($75 with a $10 tip) or the national commercial bus line ADO at $12 one way. 

One of the great pleasures of this journey is to walk out of the Cancun Airport and to walk into barometric pressure and 80+ degrees and hop onto the bus, knowing that aromatic climate will be with you for the duration of your stay. The Caribbean breezes are intoxicating, and the sky is a vivid blue. The sea is the color of turquoise jewelry.

We opted for the ADO bus line, modern, clean and efficient and 40 minutes later, we disembarked and made our way, five blocks on foot to our hotel. 

Casa de Las Flores is a great little find, immaculate, painted in vivid colors (navy blue, sky blue and ochre), and features a large painting of the Mexican artist  Frida Kahlo holding watchful guard over the pool. She, seemingly, is everywhere in Playa, on shoes and clothing, murals and restaurant walls, including a swell little Frida Kahlo museum, beautifully curated and containing both stories and reproductions of some of her works (more on this in the next column in this series, episode 4). The hotel is spartan and perfectly pleasing; a good king-sized bed, and a lovely bathroom – with plentiful hot water — at $27 per night it’s a deal of a lifetime!

By Bruce Bouchard
Bajaaya, aka the Center, offered a mountaintop retreat where we met our newly found friend Luis Robles for a “treatment.”

The central courtyard has retained a good deal of the jungle (a signature Playa construction approach) with gigantic trees reaching 50 feet to the sky between the two two-story wings of the hotel. The full effect is of an establishment that might have hosted Ernest Hemingway or Tennessee Williams. We were perfectly happy there. 

In the first week, we got to the pristine beaches every day, savored the 80-degree water, walk the full 50-block length of Fifth Avenue, languished by the pool and  talked to American, Canadian and European ex-pats at various watering holes, learning key ingredients of “living in Playa.” 

We savored many of the area’s most popular restaurants, featuring not only the great Mexican cuisine, but also the signature food of many nations. The average dinner price for two runs about $50-$60 including wine and a healthy tip. Fifth Avenue eateries consistently use U.S. dollars when listing prices, but we heartily recommend doing your homework and stretching out beyond the famous tourist avenue. Be the food Thai, Greek, Italian, French, Jamaican, or, of course, Mexican cuisine, which ventures well beyond tacos, tortas, burritos and quesadillas…you can find it here. Local dishes specialize in exotic baked fish in glorious sauces — Alambre and Veracruzana to name two of the most popular. Oh, and there is a huge food-truck culture here and one can eat for 20% of the cost of the dine-in restaurants, and have plenty of food (tacos, burritos, tortas, et all reign supreme). Plastic chairs surround the trucks and are packed with locals and tourists alike. Rule of thumb: if the trucks or restaurants are full it is safe to assume that they are good!  

A lifetime chance encounter

Toward the end of our stay at Casa de Las Flores, on a balmy afternoon, I was sitting on the balcony outside of our room, facing the courtyard, when a young man, half-in and half-out of a wetsuit made his way down the walkway across from our room, carrying the long swim fins — 4 feet in length. I called out six words that led to a lifetime friendship: “What’s up with the swim fins?”

Luis Robles, 26, answered: “I will come over and tell you!”

We spend three hours talking and learned that he hails from Tijuana, in Baja Norte [just south over the border of San Diego] and that he works in a 100-year import/export family business. He is mature, charming, and urbane well beyond his years.

I enquired about his part of the endeavor, and he responded, “I run the tire division, I buy them and get them shipped from China to Ensenada [40 miles south of TJ] and sell them all over Mexico.” 

We also learn that not only is he a hard-core diver, but he has come to Playa on this trip to compete in a deep free-diving competition, which he had just, that very day, taken the top prize! He claimed to be able to hold his breath for 6 minutes! 

We dined with Luis that evening and learn much more about his remarkable four-generation family at the very top of a mountain on the southern border of Tijuana. During the conversation, he clarified that the import/export part of his life is an avocation. “But Luis, if that is so, what is your vocation?”

“I am, along with my parents, a psychotropic healer” (Mexico is well ahead of the U.S. in the application of psilocybin and root therapy for therapeutic recovery treatment.

By Bruce Bouchard
Frida stood guard overlooking the pool at Casa de Las Flores.

Full stop! Having just read Michael Pollan’s seminal book “How to change your mind: What the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, and transcendence,” I was immediately intrigued.

Luis offered a life-changing opportunity.  “My family is in the process of building a center, dedicated to human awareness and healing in Tecate [50 miles east of TJ on the border of the U.S.]. We regularly host small and large groups for psychedelic treatments/ceremonies. I would very much like you both to come.” 

He emphasized that the “treatments” have nothing to do with raves or partying, that as leaders in the burgeoning movement of recovery and evolution they curate ceremonies carefully, guiding participants to breakthroughs and discoveries large and small, challenging and rewarding.

We stayed in close touch over the ensuing months, and during one call, he said, “My family would like to offer an invitation to you and Maureen to come to TJ, stay with us and then venture to the Center.” 

We happily and enthusiastically accepted Luis’ kind offer and in the following year we took a journey to Baja Norte and experienced genteel hospitality at the hands of his lovely parents, Tito and Eneeth. From their verandah at the top of the mountain, we looked out at the skyline of San Diego and could see planes coming in to land at the San Diego airport. At night the harsh lights of the most heavily traveled border in America delineate “The Crossing.”

The next day we ventured to the high desert (3,500 feet) outside of Tecate, to the Center, known as Bajaaya, a 150 square foot room with 30-foot ceilings and wrap-around verandas. On a clear night, from this remote location, in the hours before dawn, prone on a table on the verandah of the Center, one can see hundreds and thousands of stars…while not looking up at the sky, but rather, OUT at the universe — a key reveal….but then, the full reporting of that experience is a story for another day.

The rest of our time in Playa raced by like a high-speed Acela and we prepared to return to the cold Northeast. But Playa has hooked us. Its heart-centered ethos of “family as the center of life” is inspiring. One regularly sees on the avenidas y calles, husbands loving wives, and older children loving and caring for younger siblings. The country’s motto seemed to be “No Problemo” and “No Worries.” It was most appealing: gentle, polite and respectful.

The thing we took away from our first visit is that these humble and gracious people are happy with their lives, they live simply, the majority are devout, and what they do have… is enough.  We planned to return each year for a minimum of three months.

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