Playa del Carmen is a town centered around tourism; a relatively new addition to the Caribbean coast which has seen exponential growth over the last 25 years. I remember my first day here, last September, arriving at the ADO bus station in the bustling southern end of town. As we walked through the dense heat along 5th Avenue, the main pedestrian thoroughfare, our backpacks strapped to our backs exacerbating the discomfort, I remember thinking, “I hate it here.”
As you know, it didn’t take me long to venture beyond the tourist center and discover the other side of Playa; the side filled with taco stands, brightly colored VW beetles and lazy dogs lounging in the sun. I promptly fell head over heels with the vibrancy of this town built from crumbling, brightly painted concrete; the jungle threatening to overtake empty lots and upturn cracked footpaths.
The thing I love about this town and why I am still thrilled to call it home, is that there is always something new to discover. I love walking down a new street I’ve never seen before, or trying out a new local eatery. I love getting to know this place, yet the longer I’m here the more I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
This was made clear to me a few weeks ago, when a Mexican friend took us to his favourite restaurant. We were going for one reason, to sample the dish he had sung the praises of many times before – Pozole.
Pozole is a traditional Mexican soup, though it is really more like a stew. I’m no chef, so I’ll leave the deconstructing of dishes to the experts, but there’s one thing I do really well and that’s EAT. So it was a real treat to try a dish I’d never had before, at a local eatery I would probably never have discovered on my own.
We entered the non-descript building via a flight of stairs and found ourselves in a small room with several tables covered in vinyl and an old map of Mexico hanging on the wall. The kitchen ran along one side, completely open to reveal a team of four women moving from boiling pot to frying pan like a well oiled machine.
Steam from various bubbling concoctions filled the air and made our hungry stomachs groan in anticipation. There were several items on offer, scrawled on a whiteboard in the corner, from Pollo con mole (chicken with a chili and chocolate sauce) to Cochinita pibil (braised pork), but as we were just there for the Pozole, the only decision left was what size to order.
The boys ordered a large each and I went for the medium, as our friend had warned us about the generous portions. When the steaming bowl of delicious goodness was placed in front of me, I was glad I hadn’t gotten greedy (for once!). The red broth was filled with plump corn kernals, beef and chicken (though I hear the ingredients change from day to day), and was served with the traditional garnishes of sliced lettuce, onion, radish, lime, and slices of HOT habenero chilies. One of those bad boys in the bowl was enough to infuse the entire soup with heat, without even eating the chili itself.
Mexican pop sounded in the background as we ate, but it wasn’t until a stout man in a collared shirt rose to leave with the customary “Buen provecho” (enjoy your meal), that I realised the music was coming from his phone.
We certainly did enjoy our meal, washing it down with the accompanying aqua de jamaica (hibiscus tea), and finished off by,would you believe, two crispy-fried tacos (flautas), filled with potato and garnished with sour, crumbly cheese (queso fresco). All for the princely sum of 45 pesos ($4) per person; it was a pretty sweet deal.
Filled to the brim, we thanked our gracious hosts and slowly filed down the stairs, our pozole-filled bellies causing us to lumber, rather than walk, to the car.
We could have quite as easily gone home for a food coma-induced nap, but instead, we found ourselves in our friend’s car speeding along busy 30th Avenue as buses, scooters, bicycles and collectivos jostled for space on the road, completely ignorant of the concept of ‘lanes’.
Before long we had pulled up at an interesting looking shop-front, and were greeted by the friendly, albeit, slightly scary looking doorman.
Our friend had taken us to his local mystical store to buy a herbal salve for Tyrhone’s problematic neck muscle, which had been plaguing him for a while. I was just delighted to check out all the other ‘magic’ concoctions and treatments lining the shelves.
It seemed there was a remedy and treatment for just about everything, from soaps to help you get rich or find the love of your life, to herbs for basic ailments like colds and flus.
Tyrhone threatened to get the above spray, to stop me nagging him about doing the dishes,
and I pretended to ignore him as I admired the colourful religious kitch.
I bought this Copal incense along with the herbal ointment for his muscle pain, since I couldn’t find a remedy for him consistently leaving his pants on the floor.
Really though, I had been craving the scent I first smelled inside the mystical church of San Juan Chamula during our visit to Chiapas last year, and had since heard it was Copal, a substance derived from tree resin, burned during ceremonies to cleanse negative energy.
Later that afternoon, we made our way down to the beach, where my attention was drawn to these sweet Mayan women in traditional dresses, walking along with two male companions.
And once again, my love for this somewhat garish tourist town was renewed; buoyed by the knowledge that at least some tradition and mysticism is alive and well.
*The ‘Pozole place’ is located on 6th street, in between 10th and 15th Avenue. Look for the exterior above. There are several ‘mystical stores’ around town, and I have since seen a few on 30th Avenue.