When a friend of mine, who had moved to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, first invited me to come for a visit, I didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. I had never been to Mexico, and frankly, it wasn’t on the top of my "bucket list." In fact, it wasn’t anywhere on my list. My impression of Mexico wasn’t exactly positive at the time: a cheap sun vacation spot where everyone and their brother went; rampant drugs and violence.
Fast forward a year and my friend extended another invitation. This time, she had two weeks left on a condo rental so it was a “now or never” situation if I wanted free accommodation. I accepted. It was an ideal time for me to take a vacation— as a single mother of a young child, I hadn’t traveled alone in many years. With my girl now seven years old, I fought past the guilt of leaving and took the leap to set out on my own. And so my love affair with Mexico began.
I stayed ALONE, in a two-bedroom condo in Playa del Carmen, located a few blocks from the famous fifth avenue. My girlfriend was staying at another condo she had since moved into and was working during the day, so I had most days to explore the town on my own. I’m going to be honest here, I was nervous. I was in a strange country, didn’t speak the language, hadn’t traveled in years and the sliding door on my condo wouldn’t lock! Remember, this was not an all-inclusive resort with a concierge and security. I met a neighbour (a fellow Canadian) living the in the same condo complex and mentioned my sliding door problem. She didn’t seem concerned in the least and said that she had never heard of anything bad happening in the area. I wanted to say, “Excuse me, but are we not in Mexico?”
Instead, I trusted in her confidence that everything would be fine and took some comfort in the fact that the condo complex itself was locked from the outside. I put the door out of my mind and slept peacefully every night. I’m certainly not suggesting you rent a condo anywhere and leave the door unlocked— not even in “safe” Toronto, which is where I live. It’s always important to do your part in keeping safe, no matter where you are— at home or abroad, exercising the same precautions everywhere. My point is that I was discovering that my preset ideas about how dangerous and unsafe Mexico was, was a bit exaggerated.
Each day I discovered a little bit more of the little town I was staying in. I walked the few blocks to the beach, did grocery shopping down the street, got my money exchanged around the corner, used an ATM machine, shopped and dined in and around Playa. I made myself at home and never felt as though I was in danger. Nobody bothered nor harassed me. In fact, I found the Mexican people to be very kind and respectful— they mainly just kept to themselves as they went about their daily business.
I fell in love with Mexico – the people, culture, food and the beautiful surroundings of sun and beach. I felt something in the air that was unique and special and I loved being there, taking it all in.
I don’t deny there is more violence in Mexico than in Canada, but most of the problems are concentrated in the big cities and towns that border the U.S., such as Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo and centre around the illegal drug trade. You just have to look at a map of Mexico to see how far away those areas are from where I was in Playa del Carmen.
Something we must remember is that Mexico is not Canada. It has its own culture, language, history and government that have helped shape it into what it is today, and like any other country, it has its own unique challenges. If you want what you have at home, don’t leave home. But if you want to experience something different, rich and rewarding, travel the world and open yourself up to what is different from home. I’m not sure what the media’s motivation has been for blacklisting Mexico so unfairly over the past couple of years, but hopefully more people will see past the hype and go and experience the beauty and rich culture of Mexico.
The other day I mentioned to my mother that it had been one year since my first trip to Mexico. She responded, “It’s only been one year? It feels like you’ve been going for years now!” You see, I’ve been back three more times since that first trip in April 2009. My next trip is next month and on that trip I will take my eight year old daughter. We will stay in Peurto Aventuras, located just south of Playa del Carmen, and I imagine we will spend our days building sand castles on the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, swimming in the turquoise-coloured ocean, taking local taxis and buses here and there, eating chicken and fish tacos at some great little restaurants, visiting the ancient Mayan ruins, strolling up and down fifth avenue, catching up with friends and meeting new ones, and together experiencing the beauty of the Mexico I fell in love with during that very first trip a year ago.