Playa del Carmen, Mexico - Why is my partner driving the wrong way down a one-way street? Sometimes I wonder about his logic.
A clearly perturbed policeman gesticulates frantically, speaking a tongue I barely comprehend. My partner's only Spanish word is "hola" (hello).
We're attempting to return our rental vehicle and are in the wrong place. I smile and adopt a confused- tourist look, hoping it will help get us out of the situation.
Today's our lucky day. After futile attempts at explaining our faux pas, the agitated policeman waves us away impatiently. As a curious audience looks on, we back up and drive off in the right direction. Whew!
Playa del Carmen on the Mexican Caribbean, a former sleepy fishing village turned vacation hot spot, is an ideal place to acclimatize and plan our well-deserved holiday. Our small hotel just off the famous pedestrian-only Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue) turns out to be just our bohemian style. Our funky penthouse on the fourth floor has a private terrace.
And we mean funky. We have no hot water for a few days; then the toilet needs replacing. The operators are apologetic and do their best to address the inconvenience. They promptly offer keys to another room where we can take showers and use the facilities.
Despite these glitches, we decide to stay. We like the unique charm and location of this older establishment; we get a good room rate; we have a refrigerator and a terrace/balcony (both of which my partner deems indispensible); the staff are extremely friendly and helpful; and we're guaranteed an authentic experience of Mexico.
Over double-sized margaritas and vodka pina coladas, scrumptious burritos, tacos, quesadillas and fajitas, I pour through a mountain of brochures, maps and my treasured Frommer's Travel Guide. Initially, everything seems a must-see or a must-do: diving in the cenotes (underground caves), a day trip to the snorkel haven of Cozumel, fishing tours, adventure tours.
After walking up and down the avenida, where vendors solicit us relentlessly, we're ready for our journey to Tulum. An aggressive minibus driver hurls us south along the fevered two-lane Highway 307, the main artery of this part of the Mayan Riviera. I bravely sit back and entrust my life to this manic man who seems to be at one with the road.
The beautiful Tulum coast is cared for with an eye to ecological balance. On mile upon mile of sandy beach sit cabanas that range from Hemingwayesque rustic to eco-chic, with alluring names like Piedra Escondida Los Lirios or Amansala. There's no electricity after 11 pm at many of the establishments, making romantic candlelight a necessity.
Potholes demand skilful manoeuvres on the lone coastal roadway, so late-night auto traffic is minimal. The result? Peace and tranquility. There are no streetlights or nightclubs, only the sound of the ocean waves.
We spend idyllic days sunning, cycling, sleeping, exploring the small town of Tulum and conversing with locals in our newly created lingua franca of disjointed English, bits and pieces of French and Italian that sound like they might pass for Spanish, plus whatever I can recall of my high school Spanish.
As the northern cold retires from our bodies, a delightful Mexi-Carib warmth seeps into our bones. Sipping ice-cold beer and tequila, we give thanks for this heavenly oasis. We don't even go to see the famous Tulum ruins or to Cobá to see the pyramid. Instead, we swing in our hammock built for two and enjoy the ocean view.