Playa del Carmen: Our Toughest Digital Nomad Landing

playa del carmen beach

I’m not sure why we thought landing in Mexico would be easy. Perhaps because Playa Del Carmen has a large expat community and a tourist industry kitted out to accommodate travelers. Perhaps because we assumed (incorrectly) that at least as many people would speak English in Playa Del Carmen as do in Thailand, or Croatia.

Unfortunately, the tourist industry here makes it harder to find reasonably priced accommodations, food, and transportation, and my rusty Spanish hasn’t been quite adequate. Although we love Playa del Carmen and are looking forward to the rest of our three month stay, I wanted to share with you the worst case scenario for a hard landing: what it’s like when you follow your landing routine exactly, and everything is still difficult.

Day 1: Playa del Carmen Accommodations

Per usual, we made a week long reservation for an Airbnb apartment, planning to find a more permanent home after we landed. Usually, this works out fine. This time, several things went wrong.

  1. The GPS coordinates for the Airbnb were wrong. Usually we use airbnb’s map feature, but this time the directions landed us at a convenience store with no apartment in sight, after a fourteen hour journey from Croatia. We should have requested exact driving directions from the host ahead of time, instead of assuming that airbnb would have us covered.
  2. We didn’t have a way to contact our hosts. We usually buy a sim card and activate it as soon as we land, but because my Spanish is poor and I didn’t understand the activation instructions, it took us two hours to find a place to buy a sim, add money to our account, and activate it. We eventually contacted our host, who sent someone to guide us to the apartment, which, as it turns out, does not have an address. We’d booked an apartment in a large low income housing complex, where none of the individual units have posted addresses. This made it extremely hard to travel in a taxi to and from the place throughout our stay.
  3. Heat. We thought we could stand to live without air-conditioning for a few days. We were so wrong. Spencer broke out in a rash almost instantly. There was only a few degrees difference between Playa del Carmen and the hottest, most humid days we spent in Thailand. Hence, a rush to find a new place to live, asap. Next time we’ll spend the extra money to book a place with AC.

Day 2: Playa del Carmen Accommodations and Transportation

In the past, our destinations have had accessible public transportation. Croatia and Budapest both had cheap, easy tram systems. In Chiang Mai we stayed near a busy street crammed with song thaew taxi trucks. Koh Phangan didn’t have easy public transportation, but our rental host helped us to arrange a scooter rental for a fair price as soon as we arrived. We’re now understanding just how easy we’ve had it.

In Playa del Carmen, it’s hard to get around without a car. Some people do drive motorcycles and scooters, but we’d read on forums that scooters were unsafe to drive here, where cars don’t pay attention. So we made an online car reservation through Expedia for a decent price. Unfortunately the scam between Expedia and major car rental companies is that even if you purchase insurance through Expedia in advance, the rental car vendor will tell you that your insurance is insufficient. He wants you to buy additional insurance that brings your total cost up by anywhere from five to ten times what you were expecting to pay. It’s basically impossible to rent a car through Expedia and know what you’re going to pay. This happened to us twice–first when we picked up a car at the airport and were told that next time we should reserve insurance through Expedia, and then when we *did* reserve insurance through Expedia, and were still asked to buy additional insurance at the car rental in town.

Europcar ScamWe refused to play into the scam, which would have had us pay as much for our car rental as for a month in a nice apartment. We were stranded. We’ve been taking taxis for the last few days, but only half of the drivers give you the local price. The other half ask you to pay gringo rates. Every ride is a chance of being ripped off. Some of our apartment neighbors make do by asking the lady who does their laundry at the corner Lavanderia to speak to the cabbie first to negotiate the price.

After talking to several locals who drive scooters without problems, we decided to buy a scooter and resell it when we leave. As usual, westerner fear-mongering seems to be at play in the travel forums.

Meanwhile, we used Facebook groups to arrange viewings of four separate apartments. Because childcare will be much cheaper here than in Croatia, we were able to afford a nice modern apartment in a decent neighborhood with air-conditioning throughout. We’re paying $700 a month for a brand new two bedroom apartment. If our budget had been tighter, we could easily have found a nice apartment in a less central neighborhood for $340 per month. Many of the apartments here don’t have washing machines, but you can find a Lavanderia easily, and pay $2.25 for a medium sized load to be washed, ironed and folded.

Day 4: Childcare in Playa del Carmen

While it would be cheapest to hire a nanny or babysitter, Spencer has recently turned three and it’s important to us that he have daily interaction with other children. As our only child, he often went weeks in Croatia without seeing another child. Luckily, there are plenty of preschools in Playa del Carmen.

daycare in playa del carmen

Our work in the past few days has been to contact them (in Spanish), research their costs, find recommendations from other expats, and find the ones closest to where we live. We’ve been taking him to a very nice daycare for the last two days, but it’s in a neighborhood of vacation homes twenty minutes’ ride away from our house. Taxi rides into this neighborhood are automatically triple what you’d pay going anywhere else.

Today we spoke with a daycare five minutes from our house, with great recommendations. The total cost for seven hours a day, five days a week, including meals and materials, will be about $150 per month. We plan to take him tomorrow, and enroll him for the next three months. (If you’re looking for a daycare in Playa del Carmen, let us know–we can refer to you the places we’ve researched so far)

Day 5: Workspace and Finalizing Transportation in Playa del Carmen

Every day I’ve been learning more Spanish and learning more about Playa del Carmen. We’ve seen almost every neighborhood, discovered a few good places to eat where we can pay Mexican prices (instead of English menu prices) for amazing food, and every day we meet friendly people. We love that in Playa del Carmen it’s easy (and necessary) to live like a local. To survive, you must learn Spanish, and you must get out and become friendly with the people around you. You’re forced to start integrating yourself into the city’s rhythm from the get-go.

On day 5, we are now about to arrange a time to buy our scooter. This afternoon we withdraw the maximum daily amount (5,000 pesos per ATM) to pay for it.

Tomorrow morning we’ll try out the new daycare and look for a coffee shop close to home, rather than the expensive coffeeshop near the first daycare we’ve been using in the meantime.

Day 6: New Daycare and New Scooter in Playa del Carmen!

Glory be, we are so close to having a routine again! We purchased the scooter last night. The only problem is that as foreign nationals, we’re technically not allowed to own vehicles in Mexico. In the meantime, we have all of the scooter’s registration papers, and have left the Buyer information blank. Once we have a trustworthy local friend, we may insert this person’s information so that the scooter is in their name. Or, we can wait until we resell the scooter in December, and fill out the information with the Mexican buyer’s name at that time.

digital nomad scooterWe found helmets (including one for Spencer) and rain ponchos, and the required protective driver’s glasses at two local stores.

We started our new daycare today. We were amazed to hear that Spencer didn’t cry once. The ladies here run a very tight ship–we watched about fifteen parents drop off their children like clockwork: a quick kiss and Te amo, and then it was upstairs with the babies and downstairs with the preschoolers. I gave the manager copies of Spencer’s vaccination record, birth certificate, and David and my passports, and she took me through a full questionnaire (in Spanish) about what he eats, whether or not he makes friends easily, whether or not he can go to the bathroom on his own, etc. All of the children who arrived were happy to see her and the other women, and none of them cried, a great recommendation in itself.

Day 7: Heaven in Playa del Carmen

I’m finishing this post from a coffee shop about ten minutes’ away from our apartment. We dropped off a happy Spencer to his daycare this morning, and headed over here for great cup of coffee and fast wifi.

digital nomads in playa del carmenAt seven days, this has been our longest settling-in. The difference is that although we settled in more quickly in other countries, we lived isolated lives there: from home to coffee shop to grocery store to home, and maybe a trip to the park on the weekend. We didn’t take the time to involve ourselves in the community, because we were busy putting in working hours. Here, we’ve been forced to integrate and learn a lot more about the city (where do you get laundry done? which store sells helmets? where are the best tacos?). This start-up investment of time will lead to a greater reward–being involved in our surroundings and learning more Spanish and meeting more people everyday. We’d love to take advantage of what we learned by thinking about making Playa del Carmen a home base in the future.

If you’re new to Playa del Carmen, or thinking about moving here, drop us a line–we’d be happy to share everything we’ve learned so far.

4 Comments

  • We have had the first three things happen quite a few times with various Airbnbs! Looks like it should be a nice experience there as time goes on, though!

    • David K says:

      Hey guys! Airbnbs have been smooth sailing at every place until now; well I suppose we’ve had a few hiccups. What made this one particularly bad was that we arrived late in the evening, it wasn’t a great neighborhood, and literally nobody spoke English to help us with the SIM that would get us connected with the host. Things are much better now though, really just a few rough days and learnings. Happy Travels! 🙂

  • Jennifer says:

    Hello,
    We will be staying in Playa for a month in a couple weeks and was wondering if u could recommend a preschool for my kids to attend without long term commitment. Their ages are 3 and 4. Thank you!

    • Sarah B says:

      Hi Jennifer, I hope you enjoy Playa! First, I’d ask to join the Mommy Mafia Facebook group for Playa del Carmen. The ladies there can provide specific recommendations for your neighborhood, since there are many to choose from. We were recommended to try Kangoo, which we did for our 3 month stay and had a very good experience with. Also note that if you go with one in an expensive neighborhood like Playacar, you’ll be paying a lot more. We had a scooter, so it took us about ten minutes to drive from our apt near 5th ave to Kangoo. They have a Facebook page, they mostly speak only Spanish–we managed with a combo of Google translate and my so so comprehension skills. Lovely ladies.

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