The scent of sea salt hung in the humidity, bolstered by every passing breeze. Powdery white sand wedged between my toes and provided a luxurious carpet stretching out to the main attraction: a glittering turquoise bay. Swimmers bobbed in the surf under blue skies.
I witnessed this idyllic scene on my third day in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a much-beloved winter escape on the Riviera Maya that travelers, this year, are thinking twice about visiting.
In July, stories of tainted alcohol served at resorts in Playa and nearby Cancun prompted the U.S. State Department to note the allegations in its Mexico information. Then in August, the department issued a new travel warning for Mexico. For the first time, it raised concern about an uptick in violence in Quintana Roo — the state that encompasses both tourist hot spots. The issues have ignited fresh fears about the popular vacation destination.
But on this steamy September afternoon, the only apparent threat I faced was wearing away my sunscreen in the resort’s sprawling pool.
And from the looks of it, the other tourists at Paradisus La Perla weren’t shaking in their swimsuits, either.
Well, at least not from fear. As poolside speakers pumped out upbeat Latino tunes, a group of swimmers gathered in a circle mimicking the water aerobics instructor, and chanting uno! dos! tres! cuatro! They were the happiest I’d ever seen people be while working out.
In quieter areas of the palm tree-lined pool, couples canoodled in thatch-roofed cabanas. Women in wide-brimmed hats and not much else reclined on bright purple towels and lawn chairs. Other groups crowded the swim-up bar, toasting with frothy concoctions, ordering snacks and launching into bouts of raucous laughter.
From afar, Playa del Carmen might have been slapped with the label of “dangerous,” but at the hub of this resort, the scene was conveying only charm.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” said Natalie, a tourist from Virginia, on her vacation with friends. “We read the reviews. We knew about the problems. But we’ve felt nothing but safe.”
A test run with alcohol
A few days earlier, my taxi from Cancun pulled up to La Perla and I was greeted by eager bellmen and a smiling woman who handed me a cold hand towel, which I would soon recognize as a true luxury in the 90-degree temperatures.
The hotel’s lush grounds — a tropical labyrinth of pools, swim-up bars, restaurants and the occasional iguana sighting — lured me into vacation mode instantly. The other resort guests and I had a long list of entertainment options from which to choose: snorkeling, tennis, wine tastings, tango classes, yoga and meditation.
It was hard to imagine a stressful moment in such an atmosphere.
But the area — and potentially even its hotels — represents some risks.
In July, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article outlining several highly concerning incidents that allegedly occurred as a result of substandard alcohol that tourists consumed at area resorts (Paradisus La Perla not among them). Several tourists, including a pair of teenage brothers from Minnesota, claimed they blacked out after only a few drinks. In the worst incident, a young woman from Wisconsin died after passing out in the pool and drowning.
Months later, those accounts did not stop some vacationers from traveling to Playa — and living it up once they arrived.
“My heart stopped when I read [those stories],” said Alexis, a visiting New Yorker, as she sipped a frozen cocktail near the swim-up bar. “But we’ve been here for seven days now and it’s been the best vacation ever. We haven’t had a sliver of an issue.”
Still, when I considered my first cocktail on the complex, I was unnerved. To reassure myself, I decided to do a test run: I dialed up room service and ordered a glass of mezcal to enjoy — I hoped — in the safety of my locked hotel room.
When it arrived, I examined it and stuck my nose in the glass. The liquid tasted cheap — not a big surprise at an all-inclusive resort.
But after I’d slurped it down, pacing around my room, I still felt fine. There was no dizziness. No headache. No impending doom.
Instead, a different feeling accompanied the booze. It was relaxation.
Beyond the resort
The street markets hummed with activity.
Pork fat and fresh masa sizzled on griddles set up under tents. Locals, sitting on tiny plastic stools, huddled over tables with cups of orange juice and plates of food. Vendors hawked ceramic dishes, secondhand clothes and gleaming produce: tomatillos, radishes, green papayas, tiny bags of habañero peppers.
It was a Sunday morning, and I was strolling through the heart of Playa’s weekend attraction with a new friend, Luis.
The previous evening, I’d met Luis, a bartender at Trujillos, at an outdoor cocktail bar near Playa’s touristy core.
Feeling secure at the hotel, I had decided to venture into downtown — the focus of the State Department’s warning regarding the area. For years, the U.S. government has cautioned Americans about high crime in certain Mexican states. This year, for the first time, that warning was extended to Quintana Roo after homicides more than doubled in Cancun since 2016. In January, five people were shot at an outdoor music festival in Playa del Carmen. Last November, three men were shot in the Cancun hotel zone.
But any evidence of such concerns was absent from Playa’s center.
Hoping to explore the colorful neighborhoods awash in street art, I had also rented a blue beach cruiser bike (about $8.50 a day) from a place in town.
Pedaling blocks at a time, I saw no signs of a city under lockdown — no armed police officers, no heavy security, no shady characters slinking through alleyways. Instead, I was greeted with ease, smiles and often a friendly “hola!” or “buenas tardes” as I rode past.
The touristy strip of Avenida Cinco — filled with restaurants, surprisingly sophisticated cocktail bars and stalls touting everything from beaded bowls to Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of sombreros — felt safe and upbeat, even long after dark.
After dining on fish with rice and beans, I bellied up to the hollow square bar at Trujillos — a lounge encircled by trees and twinkling string lights, lending a jungle feel — where I met Luis. After we chatted for a while, he agreed to show me around the street markets, or tianguis, as he told me they were called, the next day.
There, we savored massive cups of hibiscus aqua fresca. We indulged in carnitas tacos — then sopes and quesadillas straight from the griddle, the scents too alluring to pass up. With Luis’ assistance, I paid for a trained canary to select bits of paper that held my fortunes.
There was nothing to fear, I thought, except for possibly overstuffing my belly with mezcal and delicious tacos.
When I returned to La Perla late in the afternoon, I decided to soak up the last of my resort time before heading home the next day. I strolled around the complex, snapping photos. I ventured out to the silky beach and inhaled my last breaths of the salty air. Then I retreated poolside with a book, dipped my toes in the water, and almost reflexively gestured a server to order a drink.
After three days and a host of wonderful moments in the resort and on the town, I’d nearly forgotten about the warnings altogether.
So hey, why not?
When the attendant came back with my icy libation, I took a sip and splashed into the water below.