Playa del Carmen and Cozumel Island

We left Cancun with an uncomfortable sense of complicity. We didn’t fill in the causeways, destroy turtle breeding grounds by constructing heavily subsidized tourists resorts or create a false economy by purchasing an all inclusive holiday package. We didn’t engage in the multi-national dialogue of wet t-shirt competitions. But we were there and we were some of the million tourists eating, sleeping and defecating without regard to the residents or the long term. Such is the nature of most tourism.

We arrived in Playa del Carmen by the ADO bus and bunked at the new and shiny Hostel 3B. A good hostel. I took an inexplicable dislike to the beach. This was unfortunate as Playa del Carmen consists of doof doof clubs, people hawking tourist souvenirs and a beach. The highlight of our Playa del Carmen sojourn was our day trip to Cozumel Island. We hired a motorscooter for 400 pesos and did a circuit of the island. We saw iguanas sunning themselves on the Mayan ruins of San Gervasio. We snorkeled amongst the fish along the relatively undeveloped eastern shore of the island. It was a fun day. Another a day Matt and I visited one of the many cenotes named Chacmool. He dived, I snorkeled.

Playa del Carmen of Playa del Carmen

Fifth Avenue - main street, tourist zone


5-7 January

The sun is setting over tourist downtown Cancun. I´m sitting in a well-appointed computer and tv room inside Hotel Mundo Joven on Uxmal Street, about a two minute walk from the ADO bus station. Beside me is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I finished King Leopold’s Ghost a few days ago in Montreal. Outside the hostel there is a mish mash of apartment buildings and villas. Some are hotels, some are hostels, some are bed and breakfasts, others are commercial buildings and the more gentrified homes of local residents. Matt is reading Donald Westlake´s God Save the Mark on a deckchair of the hostel’s rooftop terrace bar (complete with sauna, hammocks, palm trees and wood paneling). Occasionally the bar staff put on American rock to drown out the sounds of traffic, nesting birds and barking dogs. 

This morning we took advantage of a snorkeling tour advertised by the hostel. A tour bus picked us up at 7am. We stumbled over basic Spanish greetings. Gracias, gracias. We picked up two other couples from resorts in the hotel zone, driving along the edge of Cancun’s notorious lagoon before heading to ‘Snorkeling Adventures’ (written in an Indianna Jones font) somewhere in the Puerto Morelas park. The sand was cool and white, the weather warm, the wind mild, the water green or blue depending on your optical spectrum and propensity to colour-blindness. We swam or rather bobbed in our life jackets (propulsion supplied by flippers), saw colourful fish and slightly less colourful coral. It was fun. After snorkeling we relaxed in ‘Snorkeling Adventures’ beach-front garden. Deck-chairs, drinks, copious amounts of sunscreen, tips in conch shells.

Before I came to Cancun, wikipedia had informed me that Cancun was once a fishing village and had been earmarked for development as tourism. It grew and grew to become the swirly lumpy vomit that ensues from millions of Americans (and Canadians, Australians etc) swilling alcohol and partying on their week vacation. I saw signs advertising wet tshirt competitions and Cancun’s Playboy Club, photos of Latino Hooters girls and taxis advertising ‘The Principles of Pleasure, an Adult Spa.’ I am yet to see the lumpy vomit. I suspect that I am not looking at Cancun closely enough. I also haven’t spoken to any Mexicans.

This evening has been spent trying to get a grasp of Cancun’s history. In brief: Cancun consists of the mainland and a long barrier island that, during the construction of tourist Cancun, was joined to the mainland through the building of causeways. These causeways meant that the Cancun lagoon, an important fish breeding ground, no longer connected to the sea. Large tourist resorts were built on e island forming the Hotel Zone. Cancun’s geology is calcareous and largely porous. Some bad decisions were made with waste water. Bye bye clean drinking water and bye bye healthy lagoon. Land was set aside for agriculture to feed Cancun. Unfortunately the soils in Cancun were too thin to support the level of production required to feed the exploding population. Cancun is fed from imports. Mexicans migrate to Cancun in the hope of capitalizing on the millions of tourists. Social stratification increases. I now have a much better sense of which particular chunk in the Cancun vomit is mine.

Wiese, P.V. 1996. Environmental Impact of Urban and Industrial Development. A case history: Cancun, Qintana Roo, Mexico 
Weise, a retired exploration geologist, outlines the construction of Cancun and the environmental and social impact of that development. The linked paper was presented to a conference on Earth Sciences Processes, Materials Use and Urban Development and is now hosted on the UNESCO website.

Torresa, R.M., Momsen, J.D. 2005. ‘Gringolandia: The Construction of a New Tourist Space in Mexico’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95: 2, 314 — 335

Cooper, M. 2003. The Real Cancun: Behind Globalization’s Glitz. The Nation. Republished on

Note to self: Would like to spend more time providing more detailed history of Cancun and my place in it that uses more references to discourse and less to vomit analogies.

Cancun kitsch

This afternoon, back in downtown Cancun, we walked along Chichen Itza street to a plaza market then along Coba and Yaxchilan Streets. We ate luke warm buffet lunch that is sure to give me food poisoning and took in the skilled and finely crafted kitsch of hotels and restaurants in the area. We saw pseudo-mayan facades, wood panelling, mosaic sidewalks and caricatures of ambiguous moustached men in sombreros (or cowboy hats). I´m not sure who was being stereotyped… cowboys or Mexicans. A lot of money, effort and time has been put into creating these pastiches. Kitsch yes but sure to come with interesting academic discourse on tourism-led, transnational, multinational, multi-layered, multi-ball social change.