Colectivo in Mayan RivieraIf you get bored of the all-inclusive resort life on the Mayan Riviera, a trip into Playa del Carmen is easy and cheap. Originally a small fishing village and artists’ colony, it’s increasingly catering to the tourists that flock there for scuba diving and shopping.

You could take a cab into Playa. The 25-minute trip from our resort into town, for example, would be about $25 CAN. If you do take a taxi, negotiate the flat rate first.

But taking a colectivo is safe, way cheaper and more fun. They’re basically mini-vans that travel up and down the highway between Tulum and Cancun. Both tourists and locals use it, so beware that it will get busy during peak hours (ie, shift changes, after work). For $3 US one-way, it’s a great deal.

The mini-vans are all air-conditioned and usually have a photo of the Virgin Mary on the dash or tucked in the visor. They also have varying degrees of entertainment. A few have TV-screens and play movies (Avatar seemed to be quite popular) or Spanish music videos, while others simply blast ’90s dance hits on the stereo.

Here’s a good primer on how the colectivo system works.

La Taquileria, Playa del Carmen
La Taquileria, Playa del CarmenOnce you get to Playa, everyone heads to Fifth Avenue where the shops and restaurants are. There are lots of knick-knack stores where you can get your fill of maracas, sombreros and cheesy magnets.

I was interested in this little tequila store because there were hundreds of brands of tequila we don’t normally see in Canada. It was fun to spend time in the (air-conditioned) store browsing all the bottles; then again, it would have been nice to have someone helping us figure out the difference between them all.

In the end, we went with the tried and true way of picking alcohol: cool labels and avoiding the cheapest brand. Shrug.

On tourist strips like these, I tend to turn a blind eye to big restaurants with big English menus and blaring English rock music. Hey, I can get that at home. Instead, I’m instinctively drawn to the little places and the street vendors.

Tamales, Playa del Carmen

Just outside the church on Fifth Avenue was a cart with two big, covered metal pots that emitted steam the lids were lifted. We watched the lady serve a few people until we figured out she was selling tamales.

We got a pollo one, and a sweet one; they cost 15 pesos ($1.50 CAN) each.

We grabbed a shady bench in a playground by the beach and unwrapped the plantain leaves. Chunks of chicken were nestled in the larger, savoury one. A red sauce made it quite spicy, which you kind of need since the masa corn dough can be so plain.

Jason loved the sweet tamale de dulce, made with cinnamon, raisins and sugar. We definitely can’t get anything like that in Calgary.

(Here’s a pic of him feeding some of the chicken tamale to the pigeons. Isn’t he the cutest?)

Feeding pigeons in Playa del Carmen