By: Susan Gerle
Is Mexico safe, especially places like Puerto Vallarta and Playa Del Carmen? I will say yes because I am here in Mexico on the Mayan Riviera right now as I write this article. In November I was in Puerto Vallarta. I have been traveling down to Mexico for years. I don’t worry what is said on the Internet or in the news because things happen all over the world every day. We just hear about it quicker now with the Internet. I do check travel advisories though and follow them.
I’ve made comparisons between Playa Del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta because I love both areas. It’s really hard to choose between the two when I’m planning a hot getaway sometimes. Playa Del Carmen – high humidity, turquoise water, often warmer in January, interesting culture in surrounding areas, and beautiful sunrises. Puerto Vallarta – less humidity, mountains, more cultural opportunities locally, and the most amazing sunsets! Which one shall I pick?
Playa Del Carmen has a population of approximately 200,000. The population has doubled since the last census was taken in 2005. It is located on the coast of the Caribbean Ocean in an area referred to now as the Mayan Riviera. The closest International Airport is 2 hours away, just south of the city of Cancun. The Mayan Riviera is very flat with Mangrove swamp and jungle surrounding the populated areas. The Mayan Riviera has two official languages, Mayan and Spanish.
Puerto Vallarta has around 255,000 people in the city, although there are many smaller villages surrounding the main town. The International Airport is located 15 minutes north. There is also a cruise ship terminal before the airport. The terrain is quite mountainous and many people find the vista similar to Vancouver, Canada. The big difference of course is the mountainous areas are all tropical jungles. The official language of Puerto Vallarta is Spanish.
Both Playa Del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta are located around the same northern latitude so temperatures can be very similar. Puerto Vallarta has much less humidity though during the winter although travelers arriving into either place will think it’s very humid.
The oceans are very different. Where Puerto Vallarta has rich azure seas, Playa Del Carmen and the Mayan Riviera is the beautiful turquoise of the Caribbean.
Puerto Vallarta has some beautiful beaches but you might have to search for them. The “old town” beaches are often packed with people, but just walk south a little ways. There is a trail that goes over the hill into a wonderful quiet cove only a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle. All the resorts maintain the beaches in front of their hotels. You just can’t sit on the furniture owned by the resorts unless you rent one of their chair or order a drink or food from their restaurant.
Playa Del Carmen has a fantastic beach right in town. The city even hauled in thousands of tons of new sand recently and widened the beach. Beautiful turquoise waves roll in and it is the perfect place for boogey boarding. Put your towel down early in the morning though because the beach fills up quickly. North and south of the city is a little calmer water and the swimming is great!
All of the Mexican beaches are open to the public, so even if you are staying someplace away from the beach, pick your favourite spot. Sunday is an especially busy day because the local Mexican people enjoy having their family day at the playa in either place.
Shopping in Puerto Vallarta is an experience. Not only do you have the open-air markets but the beach vendors will keep you entertained selling their wares. Wherever you go be prepared to barter. The salespeople will start high and if you are pleasant and having fun with the whole experience, you will often get the item for 50% of the asking price. If you really want something and the vendor refuses to barter, walk away. They will often change their mind and come after you. The first sale of the day is very important to them so don’t even start to dicker unless you really are interested in buying the item.
Shopping in Playa Del Carmen is a little different. Playa Del Carmen has banned beach vendors so the main source of shopping is along 5th Avenue. Hundreds of shops line the cobbled walking street with merchants ready to sell you wares from all over Mexico. The discount, clothing, and shoe stores have fixed prices but don’t hesitate to try bartering in all the others, especially the jewelry stores. Even though they may have a sign saying fixed prices, cash goes much farther than credit cards. If you are buying multiple items too, deal for the best price.
For those tourists who can’t survive more than 3 days without the conveniences of home, both cities have Walmart. Costco and Sam’s Club are available too in Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.
The bus system in Mexico is fabulous, especially for long distance travel. The large cities also have good local bus service every 5 to 10 minutes, including service from the airports. Buses often take on the personality of the driver and are decorated by him.
The local buses, especially in Puerto Vallarta, are well known for their lack of springs and poor brakes, but don’t let it stop you from having the experience. Playa Del Carmen’s bus fleet seems to be a little more modern.
You can wave down any bus going by if you are standing on a corner. If you see your bus coming and you aren’t quite there yet, you can whistle or wave for him to stop. There are designated bus stops in the hotel zones. No buses stop on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta.
You may question why the Mexicans sit in the isle seat instead of the window seat. There is more breeze, plain and simple. They will gladly let you get past them but don’t expect them to slide over. The front seats behind the driver are usually reserved for the elderly or women with babies. Chivalry is still present in Mexico. Don’t be surprised if a young man stands up and offers his seat to a woman. Please take it if it is offered.
It’s cheap to ride the buses. The price is usually between 5 and 7 pesos (50 to 75 cents). The drivers will make change but prefer not to handle large bills so try to have some change. You will be given a ticket and keep it handy. Occasionally the bus inspector gets on and if you can’t show your ticket you will be charged again. You pay for each bus you get on. There are no transfers.
Make sure you know which bus to take home before you leave your hotel, otherwise you could end up having the “scenic tour,” especially in Puerto Vallarta. If the bus driver is on his last run too, he won’t pick you up unless he knows you live on his route.
There are 2 long distance stations in Puerto Vallarta. One is for local long distance within a 3-hour radius. It would be equivalent to second class bus service. The station is located off of Calle Guatemala in Old Town, 2 blocks from Insurgentes. The cross- country bus station (Central Camionera) is 10 minutes north of the airport and you can make connections to any major city there.
Playa Del Carmen has the ADO Bus Terminal down on 5th Avenue or a new one located out by Walmart. From there you can make connections into Cancun for cross-country travel, or to Belize and Guatemala.
Note – Often in Puerto Vallarta, a musician will get on the bus and play and sing for a few blocks. If you enjoyed the entertainment, please tip a few pesos. I’ve not experienced this in Playa Del Carmen but it may occur there too.
Many people prefer to take a taxi when visiting Puerto Vallarta or Playa Del Carmen. The taxi drivers are full of good information, if you can converse with them! Try to negotiate a price before you get into the taxi because otherwise it may be more expensive than you figured.
If you walk a block or 2 off the main street, you will find the taxi prices often cheaper. The price you negotiate includes a tip but if the driver was particularly helpful, please give him extra.
I could list many dance clubs and nightclubs but a couple of my favorites are the following places. I’m sure the readers have lots of advice what to take in during your visit.
The heavy, sultry latin beat of salsa is evident any night of the week as one strolls down the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta. The Cuban band is one of many that the tourists and locals can dance to. The patrons are usually made up of 60% Mexicans. If you just want “gringos” go to Andeles on Alas Alta in old town Vallarta. There are many nightclubs and dance clubs to enjoy along the Malecon.
Playa Del Carmen Nightclub
Salsa, hip-hop and jive combines with the music of live bands to experience the vibrant beat of Play Del Carmen. For traditional music, settle back in a comfortable lounge anywhere along 5th Avenue. Many other music venues are tucked away in the finer dining places.
I can say much on this topic but it really is a whole separate article. All I suggest is when in Rome…. Try and learn a few Spanish words before you go on your holiday, like greetings and manners. You will find that many Mexicans will try to use what English they have too if they see you trying.
It is very important for Mexicans to be helpful. They may choose to stretch the truth to save face rather than disappoint you. For instance, if you ask for directions and they aren’t sure they will give an answer anyway rather than say they don’t know. Understand this is part of their culture even if it isn’t part of ours.
The Latin men in Mexico highly respect women and to them, every woman is beautiful, especially “the gringos.” Accept the compliment, ladies and learn how to flirt, and leave it there! Gringo women are a culture the Mexican man doesn’t really understand! It’s interesting to watch the interaction between young Mexican men and women though.
A short holiday doesn’t give a great deal of time to understand the culture. Personally I love visiting Mexico because family is still the number 1 thing in Mexican life. But then I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in Mexico.
Supporting a family can be very challenging in Mexico, especially the way the economy is right now. For example, the rate of pay for locals in the hospitality industry in Puerto Vallarta is still very low. A waiter or housekeeper in Puerto Vallarta makes $5 a day (not an hour, but a day) to start and is lucky if he or she gets to work 6 days a week. The workers divide tips but they get more the longer they have been there even for doing the same job. If a “gringo” is hired to do the same job the pay to start is usually twice as much, especially in the teaching or serving industry.
The rate of pay in Playa Del Carmen seems to be a bit higher but it depends where they are working and how the economy is doing.
I’ve made a list of things you might want to bring with you to Mexico if you plan on staying in a rental unit or an apartment for awhile.
- Beach towel, Bath towel, facecloth, tea towel…supplied by rentals but not changed out often.
- Sunscreen! – Very expensive in Mexico
- Small umbrella to use on beach for face and shoulders protection
- Very airy sun hat
- Own snorkeling gear…expensive in Mexico
- Small soft-sided insulated bag or beach bag
- Insulated beer bottle holder…great for water bottles too because of the humidity.
- Salt and pepper shakers…only large bags are available to buy in many stores in Puerto Vallarta or Playa Del Carmen. Throw some rice in to keep from hardening.
- Zip Loc freezer baggies…medium and large
- Lysol Counter Wipes… to discourage ants and other bugs.
- Panty Liners …to save on laundry
- Any “must have” products like peanut butter, ground coffee, favorite bar soap.
- Coffee travel mug.
- Wooden Matches or barbeque striker for stove…matches also help for bathroom odors!
- Small clothesline and clothespegs.
- “Off” mosquito spray with Deet.
Pretty well everything else is available at the local stores in both Playa Del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta.
About the author:
Susan Gerle tries to experience as many new things as she can in her travels.