It’s been exactly one month since I left the U.S. for the sunny beaches of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Despite the looming threat of COVID-19, I decided that the beginning of October was the best time for me to take the leap and start a life as a digital nomad. You can read more about my decision to become a digital nomad during a pandemic here.
One month in Playa Del Carmen is a great milestone for another blog post. Madison (my girlfriend) and I have had many exciting experiences here already, from hurricanes to a weekend stay in Bacalar. Here’s a recap of events so far, as well as my thoughts on being a digital nomad in Playa Del Carmen.
Landing in a hurricane
Our first weekend in Playa Del Carmen couldn’t have been crazier. Trouble started as soon as we made our landing in Cancun. I remember the pilot mentioning that there’d be some turbulance while flying over the Gulf Coast, but he failed to mention that it was due to a tropical storm brewing further south.
At the Cancun International Airport we were subjected to mild rainfall and figured this was expected in the tropics during “wet season.” We had previously backpacked through Southeast Asia around the same time in 2018 and were used to random weather patterns switching between rain and sunshine in a matter of minutes. All the while it was still a nice 80 degrees.
After taking a shuttle bus one hour south to Playa del Carmen we checked into our Airbnb and made ourselves at home. It was pouring down rain by the time we got some dinner at a nearby restaurant. Still, we were undeterred by the heavy rainfall and were excited for brighter days to come.
Not until late that night did the howling wind begin. Every once in awhile a major gust would rattle our windows and the wind developed a deep whistle. We fell asleep, but by around 3 or 4am it became impossible to stay asleep. A few hours later we were fully awake and still subjected to crazy winds. Checking the weather report revealed that we were in fact in the midst of Tropical Storm Gamma.
That was quite the surprise. Neither of us had experienced a tropical storm before so it was exciting. During the late afternoon our Airbnb lost power and we laughed at the thought of this happening on our first full day in Playa Del Carmen. A couple of hours later power and internet were restored. Luckily this occurred over the weekend so it wasn’t a detriment to my remote work.
Fast-forward a couple of days later and we received urgent notifications from our Airbnb host that a major hurricane was developing in the Gulf Coast and that we should exercise extreme caution, effectively treating this as an emergency. Minor panic set in as we looked up news reports and weather forecasts explaining the nature of this hurricane. Hurricane Delta, as it was named, was leveling up to a category 3 hurricane with forecasts suggesting it becoming a category 4 or 5 by the time it made landfall. Best part was that it was headed straight for the Yucatan Peninsula, passing directly over Playa Del Carmen before traveling further north across the gulf to Louisiana in the U.S.
At this point, it became clear that this storm would be insanely disruptive. I was starting my first week of work as a digital nomad and didn’t want to prove that being a digital nomad in Playa Del Carmen was unsustainable. So I immediately began researching possible cities outside of the trajectory of Hurricane Delta, which would be making landfall the next day in the late evening.
What I found was that the city of Valladolid was a few hours further inland and might just be outside of the hurricane’s trajectory. I impulsively bought bus tickets and a hotel for me and Madison there. The bus would be leaving in the early morning and would get us there before I started work the next day.
Miraculously, we made it to Valladolid and checked in in time for me to work the whole day without interruption. Our hotel in Valladolid began boarding up their windows in preperation for the hurricane. This was a little unsettling but given the size and trajectory of Hurricane Delta we expected to at least receive some heavy winds akin to what we experienced with Tropical Storm Gamma.
Later that night we had a solemn dinner at the hotel’s restaurant after making a supply run in town. Our hostess supplied us with candles and a headlamp in case the electricity went out. After a tasty dinner we went to bed and braced ourselves for the ensuing event.
It turns out that our decision to escape to Valladolid paid off! The hurricane ended up banking northeast a bit and hardly affected the little town we were in. The most we got was heavy rainfall. I worked the next day in our hotel room with no problem and explored the charming city of Valladolid during my lunch break. Since we had reserved the hotel for three days — which was how long Playa Del Carmen was expected to be without electricity — we even had another full day over the weekend to explore the “Pueblo Magico” Valladolid. Couldn’t ask for a better outcome.
On the Saturday after the storm’s end, we bussed back to Playa Del Carmen and were welcomed to a sunny day and a lively city that had recovered from the hurricane since we’d been gone. What a crazy first week on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.
Unfortunately, after two weeks of blissful weather in Playa Del Carmen, another hurricane struck on October 24th. This time, Hurricane Zeta would cross right over Playa Del Carmen as a category 1 storm and would leave us without electricity, internet, or running water for two days.
By this time we decided to stay put in our Airbnb and weather the storm. We were mentally prepared this time and were actually relieved to learn it was a category 1 as opposed to a category 3. It’s definitely a testament to how quickly we’d become acclimated to life on the Caribbean coast.
The storm occurred late at night and we were able to sleep through it. On the day of the storm I took work off once our electricity went out indefinitely. Infrastructure in the whole city was pretty much out of commission for the day but we did find a couple of restaurants that somehow retained electricity and evidently had running water. Day two of the outage we found another internet cafe with working facilities and stayed there for the majority of the day while I worked.
The worst months to stay in Playa Del Carmen?
What we’ve learned during our first month in Playa Del Carmen is that September and October are probably the worst months to travel here. Hurricane season persists pretty much from August to October but gets worse towards the tail-end.
Climate change is making the hurricane season even worse all over the world as evidenced by the frequency and strength of these storms. Hurricane Delta broke several storm records, including being the most rapidly intensifying hurricane in the Atlantic basin since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
Still, we don’t regret kicking off our digital nomad lifestyle in Playa Del Carmen during the hurricane season. It has put a damper on things but these hurricanes have been exciting learning experiences. This blog post doesn’t even go into half of the details about everything that occurred during these times. But if you are worried about not having electricity for an extended period of time then hurricane season will not be ideal.
Playa Del Carmen as a digital nomad
Hurricanes aside, Playa Del Carmen still feels like a paradise for digital nomads. Who can resist white sandy beaches, warm sea water, and relatively cheaper costs of living?
Throughout this month I’ve had only one day of not being able to work because of the storms. However, this was somewhat due to my lack of preparation. Purchasing a personal hotspot for those days with no electricity would’ve been a lifesaver. The 4G network in Playa Del Carmen is strong and more than capable for basic work tasks.
Moreover, there are plenty of internet cafes, restaurants and bars that are resilient enough to function during the days after a major storm. Most Airbnbs will have decent wifi as well during the non-stormy days.
There are several expat groups that you can find online. I’m not really the social type but if you are looking for a community of travelers and digital nomads then Playa Del Carmen is the place to be.
I’ve quickly adapted to working remotely and in various locations. Everywhere from our Airbnb’s rooftop to a nearby restaurant are game for a nice little work session. Coworking spaces exist around the city too but with COVID-19 they may not be ideal at this time.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen
When not dealing with a hurricane, the majority of days in Playa Del Carmen are hot and sunny. By the time we arrived, most restaurants and beaches had opened since the start of the pandemic. Quinta Avenida (5th Ave) is full of tourists, shops, and restaurants. Wearing a mask is mandated and highly recommended as tourists are flocking the popular areas again.
There are several beaches to explore ranging from heavily populated resort-side beaches to more secluded beaches further north.
We’ve eaten everything from traditional Mexican food to Asian or Italian cuisine. Playa Del Carmen is also very vegan and vegetarian friendly. We use Trip Advisor to find the best spots.
COVID-19 and Playa Del Carmen
As mentioned before, most places are open to the public but masks are a must in most situations. Grocery stores and restaurants will often do a temperature check and squirt a glob of hand sanitizer on your palms upon walking in. Sometimes grocery stores won’t even let in more than one person in your group at a time.
We’ve had to take buses to and from Valladolid and also recently took a bus to Bacalar four hours south of Playa Del Carmen. Everyone on the bus wears a mask and they’re not usually packed with people.
Specifically, the Ado Bus company which we’ve used is pretty high quality and they have plastic dividers between each passenger. Taking public transportation (aside from airplanes) is not recommended unless done sparingly. We wouldn’t have taken the bus to Valladolid if it weren’t for the hurricane (and the bus was almost empty anyway), and our trip to Bacalar was just a risk we were willing to take.
When traveling anywhere during these times, it’s best to stay put in a single city for as long as possible and practice all of the CDC guidelines.
The COVID-19 situation in Mexico is pretty bad, probably due to the quality of healthcare facilities and large-scale poverty outside of big cities. But the little beach towns such as Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, and Bacalar seem to be doing pretty well, all things considered.
Spending just one month in Playa Del Carmen has been tons of fun and a tremendous learning experience. The beaches are gorgeous and the temperature never drops below the high 70’s.
Being a digital nomad in Playa Del Carmen is extremely easy, except for during hurricane season where you’ll most likely need a hotspot to fill in for electricity loss.
Locals will tend to prefer speaking in Spanish but as long as you know some basic words it’s easy to get by.
Probably due to COVID-19, we haven’t met many fellow travelers, and especially none from the U.S., but once hurricane season is over in mid-November I’m sure the tourists will flock here.
And the COVID-19 situation is about as dangerous as it is in most other cities across the world. People here do some things better than in other countries, and some things worse. Practice CDC guidelines and you’ll most likely be fine.
Currently, I’m writing this post from the balcony of our Airbnb in the beautiful town of Bacalar where we decided to take a weekend trip. I’m super excited to continue this lifestyle as a digital nomad and am looking forward to all future challenges that come my way. Stay tuned for more updates!