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On Mexico's coast, a place all about possibilities

Email|Print| Text size + By Mary Grauerholz
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2005

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico -- We might have been just lolling about in an outdoor restaurant here, sipping margaritas and dipping tortilla chips into a bowl of fiery salsa, but the late-afternoon street scene around us was vibrant.

Young Mexican men played soccer in a beachfront park. An elderly cowboy stood in the street, cracking a bullwhip in an impressive display of showmanship. Vendors sold silver jewelry from street-side markets. Members of a mariachi band, dressed in braid-trimmed boleros and sombreros, strolled by, doubtless on their way to a gig.

For us winter-weary travelers, it was a golden moment of color, culture, and the sensual feel of warm air on bare skin. Almost as pleasing was the knowledge that we had accomplished what we had thought was impossible: We had financed a stress-free, sunny winter vacation for five of us (including two grown sons and a family friend) on a relatively low budget.

We spent one glorious week in this town on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, in an exquisite house staffed with a housekeeper-cook. The total cost of five plane tickets, the house rental, and food for most of our meals (with a delicious choice of Mexican and American menus) was less than $3,200.

For the budget-conscious traveler, Mexico is ideal. Unlike the Caribbean, where the euro is trouncing the dollar, the exchange rate is favorable in our neighboring nation. (Late last week, the exchange rate was about 11 pesos to $1.) Even without that, Mexico is traditionally a bargain, with reasonably priced hotels and food. The Yucatan Peninsula, bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, is blessed with sun, surf, and daytime winter temperatures around 80 degrees. It is close, friendly, and economical. Choosing the area was a no-brainer.

Planning the details for our group -- two generations of travelers, including three twentysomething adults, each of whom had specific ideas about how to spend a vacation -- took more work. We targeted Playa del Carmen, about an hour's drive south of Cancun. It's a charming town with a bustling center and lovely, quiet residential neighborhoods. Though its population has boomed in recent years to about 30,000, it retains much of the ambience of the fishing village it once was.

We began planning last September with firm requirements: We wanted a vacation that was low cost; sunny and warm, with options for older and younger adults; and stress free, meaning no cooking or cleaning.

We searched for airline tickets on the Internet, comparing bargains on www.travelocity.com, www.orbitz.com, and www.travelzoo.com. We found a charter flight that allowed us to buy airline tickets only, with no hotel stay required. The round-trip cost of each ticket, from Bradley International Airport at Hartford direct to Cancun, was $293. For accommodations, we figured a house would be more affordable than three hotel rooms. We consulted websites that offer owner-rented properties. At www.vacationrentals.com, we found a beautiful, sun-washed, three-bedroom house with an ocean view in a lovely neighborhood just a 15-minute walk from town. It was $1,500 for the week.

The most intriguing part of the online listing was this sentence: ''Come to this lovely home and let Rosa spoil you." Rosa, we discovered, is the housekeeper and cook. Her work -- cleaning, doing laundry, and cooking as many meals as you like -- came with the house. We spent a wonderful morning shopping with Rosa, and for less than $200, we bought house basics (such as toilet paper and dishwashing liquid), food for most of our meals, and bar staples.

The house is in one of the town's resort areas, Playacar Phase One, an antiseptic name that does not do the neighborhood justice. The area looks and feels like an older, elegant Mexican neighborhood: Streets are hand-laid brick lined with towering palm trees, and tropical flowers are everywhere.

Most houses are stucco with roofs of clay tile. Each has distinguishing exterior stamps, such as alcoves and tiny arched nooks holding sculpture or pots of flowers, artful grillwork over windows, trim painted in beautiful Mexican colors, front doors splashed with gorgeous designs.

Thirty yards from our door was a lovely, quiet beach with sparkling white sand against the blue-green sea. Playa del Carmen has all manner of beaches, from small, quiet nooks that were perfect for reading and sunning (which all of us wanted at times) to beaches with lively bar scenes (where the young adults in the crowd frequently headed).

The town is also well situated for day trips and afternoon activities, with fishing, snorkeling, jungle tours, and ecotourism all nearby. Water sports, such as parasailing over the beach, are popular. The island of Cozumel is within sight of the beach, and a ferry runs regularly.

We took two day trips, to see the ruins at Tulum and to snorkel in the cenotes, spectacular underground caves filled with fresh water.

The Yucatan has hundreds of Mayan ruins, most very small. (Several were in our neighborhood.) The most famous is Tulum, known for its stunning spot on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The Mayans are known for their advances in art, culture, science, and math, and visiting one of their cultural monuments is mesmerizing. The entrance fee was $3.

Snorkeling in a cenote, an underground cave filled with fresh water, was a must. We chose Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park, a short ride from Playa del Carmen, which offers snorkeling and scuba diving. For about $40 each (including transportation and snorkel gear), a guide led us through two cenotes, where we snorkeled through passageways surrounded by colorful stalactites and stalagmites. In a world of often overused hyperboles, this was incredible.

Playa del Carmen is about possibilities. Vacations can be cheap or extravagant. Tourists can laze at the beach or partake in vigorous sports, delve into history or live in the moment, eat in a fine restaurant, and wander the markets. For our two generations of travelers, it was just the ticket.

Mary Grauerholz is a freelance writer on Cape Cod.

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