We just finished living in Playa del Carmen for one month. Yep, my husband and I decided to skip part of the Nashville winter and temporarily relocate to Mexico for 35 days. While the last seven days of our trip were solely vacation, the first 28 days of our trip were meant to be just a regular month of life: work, school, groceries, laundry… just somewhere else.
We’ve done this once before, back in 2016, when we participated in our first home exchange spending 4 weeks in den Haag. But we hadn’t done such a long trip with our child before. So we had different challenges to consider and had to remember to slow down and expect less since we’d be traveling with a threenager. We wanted to embrace the concept of slow travel, doing less. Spending more time in a city lets you settle in. You get to experience it at a different level than when rushing off to tourist attractions during a short trip.
Playa del Carmen was an excellent place to spend a full month.
I’m pretty sure some of our friends and family thought we were nuts to spend a month anywhere.
I will definitely write more about the experience soon. I will provide tips for mitigating the challenges and overcoming the inevitable frustrations of slower paced travel. We’ve had a great time and would absolutely do something like this again. PDC was a really good choice for our family experiment.
So I wanted to share the reasons that my family loved spending four weeks in Playa del Carmen. Here are all of the things we love about Playa del Carmen.
Why we love Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Our son’s school and teachers at Escuela Viva
A month in Playa del Carmen could not have been a reality if we didn’t work while we were there. Since we did not take any PTO during our time in Playa, we needed childcare. I know some digital nomad parents homeschool their children or have their kids with them all the time. That approach just does not work for our family. There’s no way in this universe that we could have effectively worked in a shared space while Skyler stayed at home.
So I made it my mission to find affordable childcare. I was prepared to have to hire a part-time nanny, but hark! Luck would have it that several schools and daycares in the area accept short term enrollments. This is due to the number of part-time expats that flock to PDC for a few months at a time. Huzzah!
We found a lovely school, Escuela Viva, that was only a 15 minute walk from our apartment that accepted students on a monthly basis. We prepaid for four weeks of M-F daycare from 8:30 – 2:30 it cost just more than half what we pay at home for only four days a week of care 8:30 – 5. The school is run in Spanish and English due to the large population of international students. 17 different countries are represented at the school with the students speaking over a dozen different languages.
If you need a school in Playa del Carmen for a month or longer, look into Escuela Viva. The Director, Alejandra Arencibia, is just lovely! She’s organized, kind, welcoming, and clearly passionate about the children she serves. Ms. Marta, Skyler’s teacher, was warm and communicative and so patient with her brood of international students. I’m so impressed by what they have done at that school. It’s so cool how they handle such a unique mix of students, so gracious and generous. We are grateful for the amazing staff. They made our son’s transition to a new school in a new city so easy!
The beautiful, sunny, warm weather in Playa del Carmen
I often fall victim to Seasonal Affective Disorder in Nashville. All of those grey, gloomy winter skies and the wet, icy weather. I’m all about that sunshine.
The temperature in Playa del Carmen from mid-February to mid -March was perfect. It was usually in the low 80s, which felt hot every afternoon on our way to pick Skyler up from school, but felt refreshing the rest of the time. Some days were extra humid. Near the end of our stay we had some brief encounters with rain and cooler temperatures during the day.
For me, it was the ideal weather most of the time and delivered the perfect amount of sunshine. I never felt the winter blues for even a second.
Being able to walk everywhere in PDC
We live within city limits of Nashville with a Nashville address, but we do not live in a walkable area. Sidewalks are inconsistent in the Donelson neighborhood, and we don’t even have any on our street. You need a car to adequately get around our neighborhood. You absolutely need one to get around Nashville at large.
So I revel in any opportunity to travel to a city where I don’t *have* to drive. I love being able to just walk out of my home and go. I love walking my kid to school in the morning. I love walking to the store, and walking to grab a quick dinner. I love that I was able to hit my steps goal most days, even after sitting and working for 8 hours.
You do not need a car to navigate Playa del Carmen because you can walk everywhere. If walking doesn’t appeal to you, there’s only a million taxis. Or you may be bold enough to try out the colectivos, local vans that serve as buses. I’ve met plenty of folks who had no issues riding the colectivos. But I know myself well enough to avoid a major anxiety trigger like that. (Being cramped in a hot van with a bunch of strangers in the middle of traffic? No, thanks.) Or you may choose to ignore the advice of many and rent a car for your trip. While you do not need to drive around Playa, we did enjoy having the option for when we wanted to do a bigger grocery run or the one day it poured rain right at school pickup time.
The easy-to-navigate street system of Playa del Carmen
Once you understand the grid of the city and can remember that addresses in this part of Mexico don’t really utilize street numbers, then you’ll be bueno.
Wait, what? There are no street numbers in Mexico?! That’s right… most of the time. We have seen a few numbers on the sides of buildings. However, when describing where a building is located, you generally give the street that it sits on and the two streets it sits between.
For example: the school Skyler attended for the month of our stay was on Calle 20 between Avenidas 40 and 45. There was no street number. (I have so many questions about how online deliveries work. Do people shop online here? Does the national mail run very slowly? How long does it take to send a letter in Mexico? I need to know!)
In Playa del Carmen, the streets or calles run NW-SE and are all even numbers, while the avenues or avenidas run NE-SW and are all multiples of 5.
Navigating this grid system is muy facil, mis amigos. And if you use Google Maps or a GPS program of your choice, you’ll do just fine.
Driving, however, may be another story… 🙂 This post, however, is about what we LOVED about Playa del Carmen. Suffice it to say, driving here is not difficult but it requires you to commit aggressively to your choices. You must turn your situational awareness up to 150%. Minimize distractions as much as possible while driving, and don’t expect anyone to play by the rules you’re used to. But like I said, that’s another story for another post where I’ll have more tips for you!
Cheap, delicious tacos al pastor everywhere
I ate my weight in tacos al pastor. Al pastor has become my go to taco order back home, but now I may be ruined for life. The al pastor here is SO GOOD. Each place puts its own spin on it. Quite literally, since they’re usually cooked on a “trompo”, a vertical rotisserie. Even the worst al pastor is as good or better than what we get at home.
We also think a lot is to be said for the fresh flour tortillas. The ones we eat at home are usually store bought. The tortillas in Playa del Carmen are usually freshly made that day. If a restaurant doesn’t make their own, they’re buying them from a tortilleria down the block. Skyler’s school sat directly across from a small family tortilleria so we saw firsthand the massive quantities of tortillas being made, packaged, and picked up by delivery people on mopeds.
Being able to walk around with drinks in Mexico
It’s so nice to just be able to walk around with a drink. I don’t care so much for myself, but my husband likes to have a beer in hand and I don’t always like waiting for him to finish. So being able to just walk around with a drink in hand is so freeing!
Take your own beers to the beach for Sunday Funday. BYOB to the smaller taco shops without alcohol licenses. Sip a hard seltzer while you read in the park. As long as you’re not causing a ruckus or acting like an idiot, you can enjoy yourself how you choose, pretty much everywhere you go.
But wait, you shout. Isn’t it illegal in Mexico to walk around with an open container? Technically, yes. It is illegal to walk around with an open container of alcohol in Mexico. But where and how this law is enforced is inconsistent.
In more touristy destinations such as Playa del Carmen, no one is going to bat an eye at someone walking around with a margarita or Modelo. But if you’re causing a scene, bothering other people, or causing harm to someone, then you should expect trouble (with or without an open container).
I am not providing legal advice, but merely describing our own experience. Every restaurant let us take our drinks para llevar. We saw groups of people, locals and visitors, with coolers full of Modelos and Coronas on the beach. Many bars on 5th Avenue explicitly hand out shots and sell to-go drinks. Everyone was drinking in public, everywhere, all the time. And no one cared. But we also never witnessed anyone getting crazy. (We were not partying with the youngins. We were in bed by 10 every night, ha!)
There is a VERY HEAVY police force in Playa. Heavily armed, military-esque guards patrolling the beaches, standing in parks, and rolling through the streets flashing their lights. You do not want to mess with them! Likewise, they’re not there to mess with tourists imbibing in public spaces.
The friendly people of Playa del Carmen
We met so many lovely people during our stay. Native speakers were forgiving and gracious about our terrible Spanish. Expat residents were eager to share their knowledge of the city. And fellow visitors had big smiles on their faces thanks to all of the natural vitamin D.
We made friends with several folks in our building, of varying nationalities. I even got the grumpy full-time Italian expat to smile on our last day in town. We’d often chat up our servers, learning about their history and how they had come to be in Playa. Many were transient, from other locations originally. We met folks from Puebla and Merida and Italy and Spain and Mexico City and Canada and Russia.
Let me tell you about Gilberto.
On our last day in town, the property manager for our apartment, Gilberto, came to collect what we owed for the electricity. There was a problem with the meter, however. So we had to sit around and wait for the property owner to call us back. Gilberto was stressed.
This man was either (a)at least 75 years old or (b) life had been unkind to him. Gilberto was so sweet, incredibly responsive and communicative, even over WhatsApp. He clearly cares deeply for the customers of the man he works for. Having owned a hotel back in the day, hospitality is in his blood.
He used to be an English teacher, so his English is exceptional. We’ve texted and talked on the phone many times during our stay. We’ve always understood one another at about 80%, which is pretty damn good if you ask me.
He tells us the Wikipedia version of his life story as we wait for his boss to call him back. Even though we’ll arrive at our hotel later than planned, I’m glad for this extra time with Gilberto. I’m glad to know who he is a little bit more than I did yesterday.
The colorful art and decor of Play del Carmen
I’m a sucker for street art. My husband laughs at my love for murals. But I just love seeing so much color in an urban setting. Cities are beautiful to me, especially when they include as much vibrancy and texture as this one does.
On the surface, I think a lot of Americans might assume that PDC is dirtier or more rundown than it actually is. The lifestyle here is just different.
What we associate with sketchy neighborhoods at home doesn’t mean the same thing here. On our walk to school every morning, we passed buildings in a wide variety of disarray and dilapidation. Many that needed much more than just a new coat of paint. Some houses that might be described as shanty-like. Some that looked uninhabitable from the outside were active family homes, with dogs barking at the front gates and hammocks swinging in the breeze in the living room. Dirty, beat up concrete buildings that would absolutely be considered a teardown in the worst neighborhoods at home are just what many of the buildings look like here.
Don’t expect every toilet to have a seat on it (apparently they are commonly stolen so many restaurants and public establishments just don’t bother putting seats on the toilets). Don’t expect hot water to come out of every tap. Don’t expect air conditioning in every building. Do expect to see stray dogs and chickens, piles of trash and bars on windows, plants in plastic jugs and laundry hanging on clotheslines. Do expect to see lots of homes and businesses painted in bold, bright colors surrounded by lush foliage.
If you adjust your expectations going in, you’ll see the beauty of life around you.
Now you tell me: Have you been to PDC? What did you love or dislike about Playa del Carmen? What should we do next time we visit? Or is there another town in Mexico you’d recommend spending a month in?