A sprawling campsite consisting of beach huts, cabaňas, as far as the eye could see; palm trees; a bright turquoise ocean lapping; it was Playa del Carmen, Mexico, 1996.
I looked it up on Google, it’s nothing like that now. Though I don’t know why I expected that it would be.
I’d not long finished my degree and had my first proper paying job lined up, editing a London magazine; so the idea of a six-month backpacking South American adventure had to be cut down to three weeks in Mexico before starting the new job. While I was away in Mexico, I began to realise that the long-term relationship I’d been in was not going to last forever, though I let it limp on for another four years once I returned to the UK.
My friend from school, Becca, who now lived around the corner from me in London, had planned the trip with me. We bought a Lonely Planet guide because this was before everyone had access to the internet. Red crosses indicated places that Becca wanted to go to and a circle around that meant that I wanted to go there too.
I just spent about half an hour on the web looking for the place we stayed on the beach. I couldn’t find it. The five and four-star hotels dominate my search, and I can’t find any rough hewn, palm roofed huts, with space to hang my brand new (never used since) hammock, bought for $15 from a bare footed guy wandering the beach.
Tripadvisor reviews say it’s a horrible, crowded place now, that there are more exclusive, quiet places to go. But exclusive and quiet was how it felt, almost twenty-five years ago.
There is no evidence I was ever there.
Everything now is “bonita”, luxury kingsize beds looking out onto the idyllic sunsets, infinity pools and white sand.
One day when we were staying in our hut in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a wedding on the beach. We were slightly out of season, the weather had become more windy and wet as our three weeks on the traditional backpacking route, visiting pyramids and cities, played out. A bare-footed, dark haired Mexican couple were getting married on the beach with only a couple of other people. From that moment the romantic vision of getting married on a Mexican beach floated in my mind, though years later, an ill grandmother, meant that I ended up tying the knot in a Bath registry office.
Cabaňas don’t seem to exist now – except at inflated prices, with imitation bare bones facilities – the sand floors, shared showers, do it yourself toilets, and padlock to secure the door, all gone. Replaced with cutesy built on outdoor showers and proper beds for tourists no longer seeking the last dregs of the Hippy Trail. Years ago the open beach bars and beach camping, often run by Europeans who had moved to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, got tarted up, developed, gentrified, so the Ibiza-loving party-goers could dance and drink all night.
I remember sitting in an open bar, rattan blinds blowing in the breeze of the Caribbean, drinking a beer, as backpackers played acoustic guitars late into the night.
The Mexico of my memory from a quarter century ago no longer exists, but I keep the essence of it in my mind, in my heart.
There is a photo of me, standing amidst the clifftop ruin of Tulum; I don’t have the photo but I remember it as if I did, I’m wearing an ex-army jacket that I thought would be light weight and waterproof, and a long flowing skirt that I’d bought in a beachside store. I wore it on the plane home – and when I was on the tube on the last stage of my day long journey to Islington from Mexico City, via Paris because the route was £100 cheaper, a woman asked me where I’d got it, because she wanted to buy one.
Twenty-five years is a life ago. Mexico has changed, I have changed, but the image of the happy young bride wearing a short white dress is something burned into my memory.
Mexico wasn’t cool or a common destination when I went, there were no chefs in Mexico City with Michelin stars. There were backpackers and casualties still looking for the Hippy Trail of the 1960s. Maybe there was still something of that easy-going vibe in beachside bars with their two-for-one cocktails with no air-con, and $3 a night rooms in dodgy no-star hotels, where we pretended not to speak Spanish, so we could find out what people really thought of us.
I loved the heat, the wide avenues of Mexico City, though not its pollution. I didn’t have asthma then, and the yellow haze permanently above the sprawling city didn’t concern me much. It was, in a way, almost beautiful.
I was enthralled by the tradition of the flying men of Papantla – the danza de los voladores is a Unesco protected intangible cultural heritage asset. If you’ve never heard of it – look it up on Youtube. Stumbling upon the display in the park next to Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, it was a surreal experience, which more than two decades later I came back to in a short story.
Colour and joy; friendly people; absolute contrasts of poverty and riches; green Volkswagen Beetles swarming around the Zócalo main square, cross the road at your peril; chilli; churros; the noise from the jungle from the top of a pyramid; bright wooden carvings of el chupacabra – a mysterious, maybe supernatural monster; white beaches; Colonial cities; brightly coloured patterned cloth; men circling a pole, upside-down as haunting flute music plays… These images are never far from my memories.
Mexico did that. It impressed itself on my mind.