Thanks to warming water and shifting ocean currents, seaweed is piling up all along the Riviera Maya.
In Playa del Carmen, the city of 250,000 that’s halfway between Cancún and Tulum, the sargassum has been so bad that resorts, beach clubs and the city itself are doing whatever they can to prevent it and clean it up, including installing a yellow floating barrier to keep out the macroalgae and hiring workers to rake the shoreline almost around the clock. According to recent reports, Playa del Carmen alone is removing more than 200,000 pounds of the spiny brown seaweed each day.
In the past 20 years, developers have added high-adventure ropes courses and water parks, some of which double as all-inclusive resorts, all along the 75-mile stretch of highway just inland from the coast, so many tourists are heading to these parks or the dozens of natural cenotes, or underwater rivers, that are carved into the limestone throughout the peninsula. You could also take a 40-minute ferry to the island of Cozumel, whose beaches have been slightly less affected by the seaweed.
In Playa del Carmen, we found some beaches, including the ones in front of the Parque Los Fundadores right next to the ferry, almost entirely clear of seaweed, thanks to the constant raking of city workers, but we didn’t go to Playa in early August to sit on the beach.
My boyfriend and I were there to learn how to scuba dive during a three-day certification course with Diversland, a local shop where we met Patrick McVeen, an American who spent years as a skydiving instructor before ditching parachutes for diving tanks.
Frank and I were his only students, and on the first day of the class, McVeen and his co-worker picked us up from our Airbnb a few blocks from the beach and took us to their office, where we covered the basics of the diving equipment and the physics of what happens to your body when you descend 30 feet below the water.
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With an affable ease, McVeen led us through the technical knowledge we needed to pass the test a few days later and the importance of remaining calm underwater, but he also told us stories about extreme technical diving that made us grateful we’d only be sinking to 10 meters below the surface. Although the website said that two of our dives would be in cenotes, after learning about the dangers of cave diving, we were relieved to find out that all four of our dives would be in the open water less than a mile from the shores of Playa.
Sea turtles stick to Akumal Bay, whale sharks are found north of Cancún at Isla Holbox, and bull sharks don’t return until November, McVeen told us, but even without those larger animals, being underwater, among the purple sea fans, red fire coral and Playa’s famed black coral, it was amazing to explore the marine landscape. We saw huge schools of big-eyed, yellow-striped fish, as well as sea urchins and eels.
Even though we had plenty to look at, McVeen led us through a series of underwater tests to make sure we could remove our masks and then safely put them back on, clearing the water with a rush of water out of the nose. We had to drop and recover our air regulator, learn how to communicate how much oxygen we had left in our tank using hand signals and practice helping our diving partner breathe from our tank.
After we passed all of our skills tests, we spent the rest of the time simply looking around at all the flora and fauna under the sea. I spent a few minutes on my knees on the sandy bottom, staring at what looked like a poster of underwater sea life and thinking back to a project I did in third grade about coral reefs. That’s where I first started to learn some of the names of the plants and animals I was finally seeing firsthand, and the monument of the moment hit me. A few tears mixed with the salt water already on my face. I can get sentimental about anything, but rather than fight it, I let the beauty of this quiet scene soak into my memory bank.
If scuba diving isn’t something you’re up for, snorkeling remains one of the best ways to experience Playa, Cancún or Tulum, even with the uncertainty of the conditions on the beach. If you are curious about scuba diving but aren’t ready to sign up for a three-day course, you can sign up for what’s called a discovery dive, where a diving instructor spends the morning going over the equipment before heading out on a boat in the afternoon for a trial dive.
Although I’m a strong swimmer in relatively good shape, I still found the first dive much harder than I expected. My ears struggled to adjust to the pressure, and I could feel the wobbliness that came from the nitrogen mixed into the oxygen. After a good night’s rest, the second day of diving was much easier than the first, but it took a full two weeks for the fuzziness in my ears to subside.
That’s also how long it took for my certification card from Professional Association of Diving Instructors to arrive in the mail, complete with a photo McVeen took right after my last dive. With wet curly pigtails and a mask print on my face, I look exhausted and utterly delighted, wearing a grin on my face is as wide as the blue horizon. That card allows me to dive in open water anywhere in the world, and you can be sure that smile and memories of this first trip will return the next time I do.
What else you need to know about Playa del Carmen
With so much good food and so many cenotes and ruins to explore, there’s so much more to do in Playa than go to its beaches. We flew into Cancún, rented a car at the airport and drove 45 minutes south to Playa, where we were staying at an Airbnb on the northern edge of downtown.
Tourism in Playa is centered around Avenida Quinta, a 1.5-mile pedestrian-only thoroughfare that runs the length of the city, from Playacar, one of the original resorts in the area, which is built up around a small set of ruins, to Punta Esmeralda, a beach that’s popular with locals and is one of the few places where you can find a small cenote that runs into a beach.
Because we skipped the all-inclusive resort option, we got to explore the city through its restaurants, including several eateries that specialize in not only ceviche but also the tomato-based cocteles and the spicier aguachiles.
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At every stop, we chatted with servers and sometimes other diners, many of whom were locals, about which cenotes they liked best and how the seaweed was affecting the city. You won’t find Uber or Lyft in Playa, but you can hire a white-and-blue taxi or rent a bike from a local shop. We walked most places but also enjoyed the use of a rental car.
Not everyone feels comfortable driving in a foreign country, but I loved the freedom of having our own car. We could stop at the cenotes and ruins we wanted without having to rely on a bus, and street parking was relatively easy to find. Warnings about tourist run-ins with the police are widely exaggerated, and drivers were no less frenetic than those on MoPac. Just watch out for the topes, or speed bumps, which are quite larger than the ones in America.
Having your own car is one of the best ways to explore the hundreds of cenotes in the region. Landowners are still discovering cenotes, some of which are entirely enclosed in caves or caverns and others are open at the surface. Most of them charge a fee, some as much as $15 per person, and all the locals seem to have their own favorites, such as Cenote Azul or Chac Mool.
We stopped by two totally enclosed cenotes called Tankach-Ha and Multun-Ha after a sweaty day at Cobá, the well-preserved ruins that are about 45 minutes inland from Tulum. The ruins of Cobá are among the only that you can still climb to enjoy an incredible view of the sweeping jungle in every direction. Many tour companies offer day trips to Chichén-Itzá or other runs in the region, but Cobá was nice because we could ride bikes in the shade and the archaeological site wasn’t overrun with cruise passengers.Get More Performance for Every Dollar Spent On AWS Ad by Intel See More
Back in Playa, we loved exploring the city’s supermarkets, restaurants and stores, both on and off the pedestrian avenue that the locals simply call Quinta.
Without any actual paintings, the Frida Kahlo Museum that opened in Playa in 2017 is a shadow of the Casa Azul in Coyoacán, where the artist and her husband lived (and fought and divorced and reconciled and lived out their days), but Kahlo fans will enjoy the hourlong tour, where you can learn about her life while enjoying illuminated photos of some of her most famous works, including “Self-Portrait With Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” which is part of Harry Ransom Center collection at UT.
Our favorite meals were at El Zorro Plateado, a relatively new restaurant on the far north end of Quinta on Avenida CTM, where we loved dinner so much that we ate breakfast there the next day. Not unlike Dai Due in East Austin, El Zorro Plateado is built around a live fire, so many of the dishes are made with ingredients cooked directly over the flame, including fish wrapped in hoja santa, elotes served with a homemade spin on American ranch dressing, a breakfast rice dish made with kale and green onions and chilaquiles tossed in a salsa made with chile morita.
At Amate 38, a restaurant just off Quinta on Calle 38 that specializes in Yucatecan specialties and feels like it’s situated in the middle of the jungle, we found sopa de lima, a lime-heavy chicken tortilla soup, and poc chuc, a thin pork cutlet served with a trio of salsas. Axiote is another quiet culinary gem a block off Quinta on Calle 34 that featured duck tacos, cochinita pibil, as well as escamoles and chapulines, ant larvae and grasshoppers, two traditional ingredients that are worth seeking out anytime you’re in Mexico.
Of all the cevicherias we tried, our favorites were El Doctorcito, a watering hole on Calle 12 that’s popular with locals and serves craft beer, fried fish tacos and spicy Sinaloa-style aguachiles, and El Curandero on Avenida CTM, where we enjoyed a ceviche with six types of fish and seafood and tried a brand of mezcal called Local, which also makes three kinds of salt to serve with the earthy, smoky spirit.
At Curandero, we had a long conversation with our server, a Mexico City native who was as passionate about animals as mezcal. He told us about his years working in an animal rescue center near Mexico City and what he learned in the agave fields of Oaxaca. It was a reminder that Playa, just like many tourist destinations along the Yucatán coast, is a city that is happy to host visitors but whose culture doesn’t revolve entirely around them.