The first time I visited Playa Del Carmen was fifteen years ago (f&#$ I’m getting old!). After spending six months in America on tourist visa, I had to leave in order to extend my stay. In New York I met an Israeli girl who had just gotten back from a month in Playa. She described it as an inexpensive heaven and mentioned that her friend Natalie is still there if I’m interested. How do I find Natalie? I asked. It would be easy, Playa is small. She said. The next day, I walked into an STA travel agency (remember travel agents?) and booked a roundtrip ticket to Cancun (which is about a one-hour drive from Playa).
In my first night in Playa I stayed in a cheap hotel, an ex-brothel – the one that the Israeli girl had stayed in and highly recommended but neglected to mention that it was a complete shit-hole. The next morning, I left the zero-star Blue Water hotel and looked for something more “fancy”. Back then there was only one four-star hotel in town, which I couldn’t afford, or cheap, extremely basic hotels. The bungalow I found in Zula hotel was ten dollar more than the first shit-hole, but ten times nicer and was actually charming in its own humble way. The bed was like a giant swing, it hung from the ceiling on heavy ropes and was covered in a mosquito net. The only bummer was the shared bathrooms that were inconveniently located outside of the room, but the charm and tranquility of Playa made this a trivial detail. After I moved myself to Zula and had breakfast (don’t remember what I had, probably some tropical fruits), I began to look for Natalie.
Natalie couldn’t be found anywhere! Instead, I found Brian, a sweet and handsome American boy, who was at the end of his six-month trek through Central America. Brian jumped at my offer to sleep at my “fancy” bungalow and act as my bodyguard/boyfriend for the next five days. Fifteen years ago, people knew how to rely on their instincts – I didn’t need to Google Brian to know that he was one of the good guys.
Eventually I did bump into Natalie, who had been partying in Tulum, but we didn’t click like I did with sweet Brian. Who needs a Natalie when you have a Brian?!?
Fifteen years later, I came back to Playa with my more handsome (than Brian) husband and sons and my best friend (Gab), who came from Israel with her husband and two sons. We all stayed in a cozy, five-star house in Playacar (PaseoUxamel) that we rented through Airbnb.
Playa is no longer the small, humble town I remembered, it’s a big, fat city now, still charming, though. It’s definitely more expensive now than it was back then. I felt like my wallet was being milked all the time, we were constantly accosted by people who wanted to sell us something. Nevertheless, we had amazing time together.
After a couple of days in Playa, we decided to take a ferry to Cozumel, which is a next-door island. My husband took Leo for a scuba diving session and I took Alex to snorkel at this beautiful beach. I can’t remember the name of the beach, how could I? I was too distracted. Alex was way too grumpy to enjoy snorkeling “why am I too young to join their scuba diving session?”
Later that day, we drove to the other, less touristy side of the island to look for a good, authentic place to eat.
The weather that day was very stormy. I don’t know who was more angry, the wind, the sea, or my starving men. In mid-September, which is off-season, in the northern part of the island it was hard to find an open restaurant. Everything was closed and the beaches deserted. We drove along the shore until we finally found a restaurant that was completely empty but was happily willing to prepare food for us. The place looked like a dump but we didn’t have any other options. After my husband gave me his hungry-angry look I didn’t argue.
It turned out to be fantastic, like a successful blind date. At first, it looked shady and ugly, with all the dirty Sharpie tattoos on the walls, but after we had a cold glass of yummy and refreshing beer and had a homey, delicious meal, we fell in love with the place. It wasn’t ugly anymore. It was warm and lovely. We even added our names to the wall just before we left.
Mexican cuisine is one of my favorites. We can live on good guacamole, pico de gallo, and a couple of fish tacos. Since we moved to Southern California our standards became high. Playa Bonita was exactly what z and I were hoping to find: good and autentic Mexican food.
We spent an entire day at Indigo beach, doing nothing but relaxing, eating, and catching up with our dear friends. They’re the ones who discovered Indigo beach and restaurant, and while the Mexican-American fusion food wasn’t amazing, it hit the spot.
Greasy street food isn’t my thing but when I passed by this truck, I couldn’t resist the sweet smell and the look of these plantains (plus his cart was ship-shaped). “Una bolsita de platanos y dos bolsitas of churros por favor!” God, that was so crunchy and delicious!
This is the home we stayed in. I wish I had this kitchen in my townhouse in LA. We did cook a few light meals, but mainly for the kids. I experimented a little bit with local ingredients. How could I be in a new place without checking out the local market and supermarket. I think I spent a good half an hour just in the dried peppers section. They have more than twenty kinds of peppers in their market! Chile Pequin, Chile de Arbole, Chile Negro, Chile Puya, and on and on. I bought all kind of peppers, fresh Mexican cinnamon, plantains (which I’d never cooked before), limes, jicama and roots that I had never seen before. I also found a brown, hard cone that turned out to be raw cane sugar.
Crunchy plantains with lime, cinnamon and raw cane sugar
- Canola oil about 1 tablespoon
- 2-3 plantains
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- cane sugar or Agave
- peel of 1 lime
- They can make a great snack for a lunch box.
- Preheat the oven to 415°F and coat a baking pan with canola oil. Peel and slice the plantains, not too thin and not too thick. Lay the slices over the baking pan and sprinkle with cinnamon, cane sugar and lime peel. Roast for 10–15 minutes, then flip. Continue to roast until the plantains are golden brown, about 10–15 minutes.