Playa Del Carmen History

…at least you will feel like you know a little something…

I am an American expatriate – born and raised in the USA, but now living in a foreign country.

The funny thing is that it doesn’t feel “foreign” or anything like that – it feels like home.

My current home, and the place where I plan to live out the next several years on this earth, is a sweet little stretch of beach just south of Cancun, called Playa Del Carmen.

I have been here for quite some time now, and it has been the best time of my life so far (other than college, of course).

I feel so fortunate to have discovered this piece of paradise while I am still reasonably young and able to enjoy life in a beautiful and pristine environment that I want to tell you, the reader, all about. Specifically, I want to tell you about Playa Del Carmen’s history.

I have always been attracted to this part of the world. Mostly the Caribbean beaches and tropical weather. The people here can be quite annoying, but the food is absolutely delicious!

Ever since I was just a kid I dreamed of living in a tropical climate.

I remember the first time I saw pictures of the ancient, crumbling Mayan pyramids. And I saw what the Mayans who built them might have looked like – I was fascinated!

As I grew up I kept learning all that I could about the Yucatan Peninsula, and gradually I realized that there was much more to my attraction than the civilization of the Mayans.

The land itself and its place in the world, on the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico, seemed to me to be heavenly.

It was a place where endless white beaches have been eternally lapped by warm, clear waters, and cooling breezes have constantly wafted throughout the area.

Finally, when I got out of high school, I decided to take my first trip solo to the land known in Mexico as the state of Quintana Roo.

At that time, the area around Cancun was just entering the second phase of a major development, and similar events were happening on the Island of Cozumel, although it had a few years head start.

The ruins of Tulum were being developed and were becoming well known. They were quickly becoming a tourist destination. However, Playa Del Carmen was still just a place to catch the ferry to Cozumel. It was not much more than a primitive wooden dock, a few thatched huts, some lazy street vendors, and not much more.

To me it was the way I had imagined it to be, a paradise of crystal clear Gulf waters where I snorkeled and practiced my scuba diving skills.  It also offered some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, laid back, friendly locals, and surrounding excursions that promised endless novelty.

I swore to myself to come back, and in the meantime to learn everything I could about the place. It was at that time I knew this place would be my home someday.

But prior to this being a tourist hotspot, there were several major things that happened:

  • The Big Splash – a massive asteroid hit this area, resulting in a mass extinction of all Earth’s dinosaurs
  • A Historical Period: Olmecs and Mayans – two native tribes founded and controlled vast civilizations in the area
  • The Spaniards Are Coming – conquistadors from Spain arrived to sack, pillage, and convert the indigenous people to Christianity (and find gold, too)
  • Mayans Become Mexicans – in the mid-nineteenth century and early part of the 20th century, the state of Mexico was abandoned by the Spanish and become independent, which made all those inside the territory “Mexican”
  • Progress and Change – Cozumel’s great reef is discovered and becomes a diving haven, Cancun is scheduled for development by government tourism board, and Playa Del Carmen is still nothing more than a waypoint for ferries traveling between Cozumel and the shore (eventually going on to Cancun)
  • Playa Del Carmen – Today and Tomorrow – Playa Del Carmen is (finally) recognized for it’s inherent beauty, growth in the city begins and continues through today

Beginnings: The Big Splash

The Yucatan Peninsula juts up into the Gulf of Mexico like a gigantic thumb, somehow attached (but separate at the same time) from the larger continental mass.

Although scientists didn’t know it until the late 70’s, some 66 million years ago something big from outer space hit this thumb, and the world has never been the same since that fateful day.

The Chicxulub crater, whose center is just north of the northern shore of the Yucatan, was formed by the impact of an asteroid over 6 miles in diameter that hurtled into the ocean from outside the earth’s atmosphere.

When it struck, it raised havoc and changed the world’s climate almost overnight, making the earth’s environment a different thing entirely.

The only inhabitants of the planet at that time were insects, dinosaurs and tiny mammals.

The dinosaurs died off, the insects survived (including cockroaches), and the mammals thrived, got bigger and smarter, and evolved into our ancestors, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The crater’s rim, at least about half of it, lies on the north end of the peninsula, where it has lain under the thin layer of soil and jungle for millions of years.

Since that time, the region has been quiet and stable (geologically speaking), and the limestone that comprises the structure has become more sponge-like, allowing caves and cenotes (Mayan holy wells) to form and become exposed.

The first humans to explore those caves and holes in the earth are unknown, but there have been inhabitants for thousands of years.

The Historical Period: Olmecs and Mayans

For those who study the history of the area, it all begins with the Mayans, but even before the well-known temple and pyramid builders were there, the Olmecs were present.

While their 4,000 year-old civilization originated and was centered to the west of the peninsula, there is little doubt that these mysterious people traveled across the Yucatan and explored the entire coastline from Cancun down to the Playa Del Carmen.

They probably visited the perfect beaches and enjoyed the pristine water hundreds of centuries ago, before their culture came crashing down.

The end of the Olmecs foreshadowed the demise of the Mayans many centuries later, but the interesting thing is that the Mayans never really disappeared, as popularized notions would have it.

They simply abandoned the great cities (e.g. Chichen Itza, etc…) and populated areas and scattered into the jungle, where they and their progeny still live.

The earliest known upwelling of the Mayan world is known as the early classic period, starting about 2,600 years ago.

There is evidence that the Mayans visited and used the Playa Del Carmen area as a rest stop on long journeys from the north, where they had originated, to the southern end of the new empire, and especially to the island of Cozumel which was a sacred site and the destination for pilgrimages from the north.

The basic elements of the civilization created by the Mayans are fairly well-known thanks to the mass media, but it is good to remember that we are still learning about their history, and we have only been aware of their existence for a little over a hundred years.

Over a vast area of Central America they built huge cities with open plazas, towering pyramids, astronomical observatories, and sacred ball courts.

During their peak, the time known as the classical, and even through the post-classical up until about 500 years ago, the Mayans were a thriving civilization, and the population along the coast from the northern tip of the Yucatan down to what is now Central America, was huge and scattered over a large area.

But the spot where the curve of coastline southward shelters the beach and the canoes were launched to reach the sacred island was a special place, a place of rest and relaxation, of gathering strength and meditation for the pilgrimage.

Then, of course, the events of history overtook the Mayans.

The Spaniards Are Coming

The name of the previously nameless little village along the coast came from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, an Italian saint who also happens to be Cancun’s patron.

How did a place so far away from Italy get a saint’s name?

In the year 1518, a Spanish explorer on his way to Cuba sailed through the area, noting the beauty and possible treasure awaiting future explorers.

Cortez was eager to find the rumored gold and arrived at Cozumel in 1519.

The coming of the Spanish was of course the death knell for the Mayans, who were already in decline.

On the island, imported smallpox decimated the small population, and Cortez and his soldiers laid waste to a once proud civilization.

All over the peninsula and to the south, places were renamed with appellations familiar to the Spaniards in an attempt to wipe out the heathen culture they had found.

On the beach (菟laya in Spanish) across from Cozumel and just south of the present-day city, the Spanish established a colony.

During the next 200 years, the coastline was followed by the invaders and these outposts were used as starting points for their destructive expeditions into the interior.

As the age of exploration and conquest ended, pirates discovered that the island and areas around the peninsula were good hideouts, and beautiful places to enjoy their plunder.

Trade with newly formed countries to the south increased, and the old Spanish outpost became a village with its own history and name – Playa Del Carmen.

Mayans Become Mexicans

In 1821, the war of independence from Spain was won by Mexico, which then became a sovereign nation.

Out on the fringes, however, it took some time for things to change.

In 1842 a scientific expedition headed by Frederick Catherwood found the Mayan ruins and brought the attention of the world to the hidden paradise of what would eventually be called the Mexican Riviera, and today, the Riviera Maya.

By the mid 1800s, new populations began to move into the area and previous Spanish outposts became population centers.

The city of San Miguel de Cozumel was established in 1840 and the island became an early tourist destination.

The village across the strait had already acquired its name, but was merely a place for boats to begin the journey to Cozumel. Because of the dense jungle and the distances from central Mexico to the eastern coast, growth was very slow until the turn of the century.

In 1902, the Yucatan region became an official territory of the country of Mexico, with the official name given as Quintana Roo, after a famous Mexican general.

With this step the ancient Mayans and the Spanish settlers became Mexicans, and the way to the future was set in place.

Progress and Change

During the middle of the 20th century, another important discovery was made that boosted the potential of the Mexican Riviera to become a popular tourist destination.

In World War II the US Navy established a base on the island of Cozumel, and it was during their stay that the great coral reef that runs between the mainland and the island was discovered. (Yes, of course the Americans discovered it. Mexico has yet to put a person in space yet!)

This natural feature, second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, extends for hundreds of miles along the coast.

It was brought to the mass media and popularized by Jaques Cousteau and his crew on television in the early 1960s, and Cozumel and the waters around it became known as one of the world’s top scuba and snorkeling destinations.

But until 1967, the intrepid traveler would have had a long, hard trip to the region.

That was the year that economic development money came to the rescue from the Bank of Mexico, as the Cancun area was designated one of the top priorities of a government commission for development as a tourist site.

By the early 1970s, several hotels were in place, and in 1974 the international airport opened up the Mexican Riviera to tourists from around the world. Another important event of 1974 was the attainment of statehood by Quintana Roo, which allowed further infrastructure dollars to flow in.

Another decade passed and by the mid-1980s Cancun and Cozumel were known all over the globe as places to go if you loved white sand, warm water, the best in snorkeling and scuba diving, and amenities galore.

Playa Del Carmen remained a small village and a wooden dock where the ferries departed for Cozumel for many years, but in the late 1980s it began to grow slowly. As each new street, restaurant, and small inexpensive hotel was added it became more of an individual town with its own character and reputation, and the stage was set for future growth.

Playa Del Carmen – Today and Tomorrow

Despite periodic destructive hurricanes and a slower pace of development, Playa Del Carmen is a different place today than it has ever been. If the pirates who passed through the area a couple of hundred years ago could see it now, they would no doubt be astounded.

For several years it has been a major stop for cruise lines who carry passengers across the Gulf. As well as a place that various booze cruise boats have passed for years.

In addition to recreational water sports and professional scuba diving, there are now world class hotels and all-inclusive resorts such as the development just south of the original city called Playacar.

The downtown area of Playa Del Carmen has successfully kept its small town and eclectic appeal while new attractions are planned for the surrounding area. Playa Del Carmen has been recognized by the Mexican government as one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and the projects in the works will certainly continue to attract more people who want to live and work here.

Within the next few years, I will be able go to the House of Blues or the Hard Rock Cafe (already here) to see major musical acts, shop at an Snapple store for the latest gadgets, wander through a shopping center anchored by major department stores, and enjoy dining at a variety of eating establishments – in addition to 4-star restaurants, Chipotle is coming, and yes, we already have a McDonald’s (nothing to brag about, I guess. In fact, there are several of these in town).

The point is this: you are not going to feel like you are vacationing in the middle of the jungle if you come to Playa Del Carmen!

My life here as a part of the a large expat community gives me the feeling of living in a European or South American community, and the exciting growth of the city around me inspires and fulfills my ambitions to make the most of this almost perfect place.

Like I was told by the first person I ever conversed with from the city – This is not a Mexican city.Ironically, A Mexican friend of mine was visiting here recently and said the same thing after hearing so many languages spoken here!

Thank god!!! If it was, I would not want to live here.

I lived in a Mexican city for five years, and it was not pretty. Anyone who tells you about how great Mexican cities are is simply trying to be politically correct, and thus, dishonest. (Think: garbage, government corruption, horrific schools, etc…)

So again, this is NOT a Mexican city!

If you haven’t heard of this little piece of paradise before, I am happy to have been your guide to its history.

But nothing compares to actually being here and having the Playa Experience for yourself, so put it on your to-do list today!

Lots of love,

Rufus

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