As a gentle introduction to a long trip, Playa del Carmen fits the bill nicely, though you could argue that we haven't actually started travelling yet. For the centre of Playa, much like its northern neighbour Cancún, is pretty un-Mexican, despite the unmistakable lilt of mariachi bands that floats through the thick, humid air.
It's obvious from the minute you arrive. After landing at Cancún airport, where I had my bags searched by a friendly customs official who seemed more interested in flicking through the books that I'd packed than rifling through the year's worth of malaria drugs I'd stashed in the side pockets, we hopped on the ADO bus to Playa. About a hour later we pulled into the bus terminal in the southern end of town, where we blinked our way through heavy 1am eyelids into the 7pm twilight of Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue), the pedestrianised road that runs parallel to the coast, forming the backbone of Playa's social scene. Tired but functioning, we decided to walk to our hotel, some 20 minutes along the road and past all the restaurants, nightclubs and shops that Playa has to offer.
Over the years Playa has ballooned from a small fishing town into an international tourist destination, and as you walk north along Avenida Quinta, it's like walking through a potted history of Playa's development into one of Mexico's hottest holiday spots. The town stretches out along a lovely north-south beach of golden sand and blue-green sea, and Avenida Quinta heads north, parallel to the beach, starting at the attractive and sparklingly white Nuestra Señora del Carmen Catholic Church, which was originally built in 1960 but was recently remodelled into a charming church that's all the stranger for being surrounded by such unholy racketeering. For crowding round the church are rows and rows of cramped shops selling tacky tourist wares and tickets to the ferry to the island of Cozumel, and just to make sure you know that they're there, each of them seems to have its own dedicated team of announcers.
'¡Hola amigo!' they shout. 'Best shop, I have the real silver, you can take it in the sea and everything. Come in, yes you, over here, I see you.'
At first you can't help reacting; despite the crowds, the touts have an unerring ability to project their voices straight at you, picking you out from the crowd, so that you just seem to know that they're talking directly to you. 'Hey, Mr Australian, over here!' they shouted at me, and even though I'm not Australian and wasn't wearing my bush hat, I knew they meant me. 'Hey, over here, I'm a nice guy,' they continued as I gently ignored them, but that didn't work. 'Hey, Mr Lennon, I see you, you want tours?' they blabbed, and once I'd made the mistake of acknowledging them, I just knew they'd shout out the same thing every time I walked past. So I am now Mr John Lennon of Australia, I apparently walk so fast that I'm going to get a speeding ticket, and no, I still don't want to buy a tour or any of the real silver that I can take in the sea and everything. Still, at least we've worked out our relationship; they hassle me and I ignore them, and to be honest the level of hassle is extremely polite and pretty tame compared to some parts of the world, so we're even.
After a few blocks, the shops start to feel less cramped and the side streets open up a bit, letting the breeze in and calming the touts down somewhat. After seven blocks, when Calle 14 crosses Avenue 5, there's a dip in the road and suddenly things smarten up, and the tacky trinket shops give way to jewellery shops, designer shopping malls and restaurants that aspire to fine dining. Here, when you peruse a menu, the touts will gently guide you through what's on offer without sounding forceful, and some will even pop out and offer you a bite of parmigiano and a sip of Mexican zinfandel while you look through the menus. It's a different level of salesmanship altogether, and as you continue north the restaurants get bigger, more relaxed and more sophisticated, before the strip finally peters out around Calle 40 into future developments and hotel foyers.
The tourists change as you mooch along the road, too. Down at Calle 2, bright young things sport tourniquet-tight denim hotpants that are so ergonomic you can tell whether or not the camel has cleaned under its toe nails, but further north it's more about flowing beach dresses and gentle promenading. The dividing line seems to be Calle 12, home to the town's legendary nightclub scene, though I can't speak from experience, as jet lag has been sending us into a coma well before that part of town starts jumping.
Down on the Beach
Talking of jet lag, Playa's beach is a perfect spot to unwind through the time zones. As with Avenue 5, the beach changes as you move north, morphing from a wide and more public beach down near the ferry terminal, into a more beach-club-based affair further north. You can tell how far north you are by the quality of the sun-loungers, which become less tatty as the prices rise and the bars become more sophisticated.
Another sure-fire way of telling where you are is in the price of the massages that get pushed at you from every corner, which seems to increase the further away you get from the ferry; the sales pitch is far less rabid than on the main street, but the patter is the same. It's certainly a pretty good spot for relaxation, with the waves lapping against the boats just off the beach, while pelicans and frigate birds hover overhead, so you can hardly blame then for trying.
Sure, the peace gets shattered every now and then by planes flying at low altitude along the beach, and some of the beach bars have a fairly liberal attitude to their volume settings, but Playa's beach clubs are perfect spots to kick back and drift off while the scorching tropical sun melts your bones into the sun loungers. There are far worse places to see in the start of a year on the road.