Four Months in the Mexican Caribbean as a Digital Nomad

For my final post in the Mexico 2020 digital nomad series, I’ll be recounting my last two months in the Mexican Caribbean. It would’ve been nice to explore more of this massive country, but due to COVID-19 I really wanted to minimize my movement. Still, the Caribbean coast had a lot to offer, and I’m satisfied with my time there.

Family visits

In my last post, I had mentioned that some of my family members would be visiting. My mom and sister arrived just before Christmas and I was able to give them a pretty decent tour of my hometown as of the last couple of months. During their stay, we’d visit beach clubs, Cozumel, some of my favorite restaurants, and chill on the beach.

On their first night in Playa Del Carmen, I immediately took them to eat on Calle 38, right off of Quinta Avenida, where a small grouping of restaurants are tucked away in forestry leading down to a beach entrance. We ate at one of my favorite places called Chela de Playa.

Next morning we decided to do some exploring using the public bicycles situated all over the city. It’s a project called Biciplaya and you can rent bikes for a daily or monthly fee. I took them up and down Calle 10 and also to a pier off of Quinta Avenida.

biciplaya

Later we rode further north to a beach club I had been wanting to try out called Martina. It’s located in a quieter, less busy portion of the beach, which is great considering COVID, and also I think my family just prefers more relaxing environments. We stayed there until sunset drinking beers and eating french fries on the beach.

After that, we headed back toward the heart of Quinta Avenida to find some dinner. It was Christmas Eve, but we were hoping to find some good Mexican food since we were actually trying to escape this holiday. Unfortunately, it turned out that practically every restaurant in PDC was serving up special Christmas Eve menus that had American-style Christmas dinners. Pretty disappointing but not surprising considering the tourist rush during this time of year. Eventually, we did find a decent taco joint though.

On Christmas day we woke up early, got some breakfast at my favorite restaurant Pik Nik, and headed to Playa 88. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Playa 88 is a less busy beach that more locals visit, way further north up Quinta Avenida (to Calle 88), away from all the resorts.

Later that night, we caught sunset at my favorite beach restaurant known as Zenzi.

Zenzi playa del carmen

Cozumel

The day after Christmas is the day we went to the island Cozumel just off the coast of PDC. To get there we had to take a ferry 45 minutes across the sea. Two ferry companies operate in PDC: Winjet and Ultramar. They alternate their days of operation, and when we went it was through Ultramar. Tickets were about $25 per person and they can either be purchased at the ferry pier or online.

Playa Del Carmen ferry pier

Riding the ferry was a fun experience in itself. It can be a little sickening going up and down the wave swells, and one passenger close to us even had to get up and run to the bathroom to puke. But overall it’s pleasant if you’re not prone to seasickness.

Ultramar ferry

Arriving in Cozumel, we were bombarded by salespeople offering all sorts of fun adventures on the island. It’s possible to rent cars, buggies, or motorbikes to explore the 30-mile long island. We decided to keep it simple though. First, we found a delicious burrito joint (Crazy King Burrito) off the main road a bit. After that, we just hired a taxi to take us to the other side of the island where a few really nice beaches were. The taxi driver offered to stay with us the whole day so that he could bring us back to the pier when we were done.

Playa Chen Rio is the beach we ended up choosing based on recommendations. Indeed it was a super nice beach with tons of space to distance. There was a restaurant, bar, gift shop, and lounge chairs abound.

We stayed at Playa Chen Rio for a few hours before heading back to the pier via our hired taxi. On the way to the pier he was nice enough to stop at a fresh produce shop my sister wanted to buy from, and he even helped her pick out products and pay. By the time we got to the pier, the sun was already setting.

Playa Chen Rio

Overall Cozumel was a beautiful and relaxing day-trip, although it does seem worthwhile to stay there for a night or two and really take it in. Maybe another time.

For my mom and sister’s last day in PDC, we took it easy and had a spa day followed by dinner.

Dad visits

A couple weeks later, it was my dad’s turn to visit. He and his wife came for a week in the middle of January. It was another opportunity for me to play tour guide, which is something I really enjoy doing now. My dad mostly just wanted to relax, so the week he was here was more about eating out and chilling by the pool or on the beach rather than the fast pace lifestyle my mom and sister prefer.

My dad’s hotel rooftop.

Isla Mujeres

In between the visits with my mom and dad, I took a weekend trip alone to Isla Mujeres. A friend from home highly recommended it, so I gave it a try and was not disappointed.

isla mujeres

Isla Mujeres is another island located off the coast of Cancun, which is about an hour north of PDC. Similar to our trip to Cozumel, getting to Isla Mujeres requires taking a ferry (Ultramar or Winjet) a quick 25 minutes across the water. From PDC, I took an ADO bus to downtown Cancun, then took a taxi to Puerto Juarez. Tickets were about $15.

Much smaller than Cozumel, you can probably walk the length of Isla Mujeres in a couple of hours. However, I chose to stay in the Playa Norte area which can be walked without problem. My hotel was at the northern most end of Playa Norte right on the beach. But if you want a quieter experience, the rest of the island further south has plenty of great hotels too.

View from my hotel.

Playa Norte is a bustling little village-type area with an abundance of shops, restaurants, and beach clubs. Taking the ferry from Puerto Juarez drops you off right on the main street of Playa Norte.

After I got settled into my hotel, I immediately set out to explore this part of town. Veering off the main street a bit and heading eastward through the buildings reveals a much more quaint area of town with small village vibes. I was immediately reminded of Tulum as I walked narrow streets lined with tons of shops and restaurants. I ended up finding some food and enjoyed some live music until the sun went down.

isla mujeres

Later I decided to look for some dance music, and I didn’t have to look far. One bar I stumbled into was blaring EDM, yet no one was inside and it was already past 10 pm. Still, I liked the music so I hung out there a bit. The barkeep ended up striking a conversation with me and we became quick friends. He even let me choose the music for the rest of the night, so I played a Nora En Pure DJ set that he really liked. I’d end up visiting there again the next night, but it was far busier than before.

On my one full day in Isla Mujeres I really just did a bunch of walking around, eating, and laying on the beach. I caught an incredible sunset on the north side of the beach. And at night I met a friend and we went bar hopping again.

Isla Mujeres is a super chill place to get away from the more touristy, Americanized city of Cancun. They are polar opposites in many respects. There are some travelers that have been living on Isla Mujeres long-term, but for me, it’s best for just a weekend trip since the WiFi wasn’t that great.

Meeting new friends

For my last couple of weeks in Mexico, I decided to throw COVID caution to the wind and made an effort to meet new people. Restaurants, bars, nightclubs, are all mostly outdoor venues and the Mexican Caribbean just wasn’t as strict as the U.S., so it was easy for me to fulfill the need to make some friends.

I ended up meeting a couple of really great groups of people. One group in particular I pretty much hung out with every day of my last week there. It was so refreshing meeting people from all over the world. I don’t regret my decision at all to venture out of my comfort zone a bit and get a taste of the true travel experience, despite the pandemic.

On my last day in PDC, I woke up super early to catch the sunrise. I was already feeling more homesick leaving there than when I left Portland, OR.

Next stop — Medellin, Colombia

At the end of January, it was finally time to say goodbye to the Mexican Caribbean. Spending four months there was a great way to kick off a digital nomad journey. As I mentioned before, I wish I could’ve explored more of Mexico in those four months, but given COVID-19 I didn’t want to be too mobile. But I think I was able to really take in what the Caribbean coast has to offer. I got to see Bacalar, Valladolid, Tulum, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, and of course tons of Playa Del Carmen.

Now, I’m currently living in Medellin, Colombia, where I’ve been for the past month. Planning on staying here until the end of April. Can’t wait to write my first month’s update, so stay tuned!

medellin colombia

Two Months in Mexico (Bacalar, PDC, and Tulum 2020)

Previous: One Month in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico as a Digital Nomad

When I last posted, we were about to leave Bacalar, but I hadn’t yet described our time there. This post will cover our time in Bacalar as well as Tulum at the end of the month. In between it all we of course spent time exploring a little more of our home base city of Playa Del Carmen.

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What Digital Nomads and Blockchains Have in Common

When the Internet was created near the end of the 20th century it was hard to imagine what it would evolve into. Today we have a global high-speed communications platform that mega-industries have been built on top of.

Two revolutions happening on the Internet now are digital nomad lifestyles and blockchains. And these two have more in common than you’d think.

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One Month in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico as a Digital Nomad

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.

Valladolid
Valladolid, Mexico
Valladolid Mexico
Our hotel restaurant in Valladolid

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

Playa Del Carmen Mexico Sunset
Balcony view from our Airbnb

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.

Rooftop pool of Airbnb

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.

Mexico Beach Playa Del Carmen
Mexico Beach Playa Del Carmen
Playa Del Carmen Beach Mexico
Mexico Playa Del Carmen Beach

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.

Closing thoughts

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!

Bacalar Mexico
Bacalar, Mexico

Why I Decided to Become a Digital Nomad During a Pandemic

At the start of October I fulfilled my dreams of becoming a digital nomad. It was a long time coming, fueled by my experiences backpacking through southeast Asia in 2018, and enabled by a remote job I picked up at the beginning of 2020. I’m now in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico writing this blog post from my Airbnb.

Amid all of this is the elephant in the room: COVID-19. We’re about eight months into the pandemic of a lifetime, yet here I am with plans to sustain an indefinite travel experience. You’d be justified in thinking that I’m crazy, but let me explain.

But before I fight my case for becoming a digital nomad during a pandemic, here’s a brief description of what a digital nomad even is.

What is a digital nomad?

Digital nomads are people who’ve acquired the means to work and travel at the same time. They usually work remote or freelance jobs that aren’t tied to timezones or physical locations. By utilizing various types of visas, they are able to station themselves in faraway places for prolonged periods of time.

The lifestyle actually isn’t as glamorous as one may think. It’s not an endless vacation, although for some it definitely beats residing in a single location for decades getting caught up in the rat race of life.

In reality, digital nomads are still sitting in front of computers working several hours a day. And there are the stability issues that come from constantly uprooting or not having a full-time position at an established company.

Despite the drawbacks, if seeing the world and not being tied down to a single location is your thing, then definitely consider becoming a digital nomad.

Being a digital nomad during COVID-19

Of course, choosing to be a digital nomad right now is not the best idea for everyone. A huge reason why the current pandemic spread so quickly is because of the proliferation of fast, convenient travel over the past few decades. Plane tickets are relatively affordable and there are thousands of flights taking place at a given moment. World population is also growing exponentially and cities are becoming densely packed.

Now combine that with the allure of tourism and you have a constant stream of people entering and leaving various countries. There is no better time to travel, and no better time to be a virus adapted to humans.

All of this was on my mind as I weighed the possibility of becoming a digital nomad. To be fair, I conceived of my digital nomad dreams well before the pandemic hit. During the first three or four months of the pandemic, this idea had all but gone out the window.

But as time went by, I became curious as to what veteran digital nomads ended up doing during the pandemic. I learned that depending on the countries they were in, they either went home, stayed in the country they were already in or flew to other countries to hunker down. This got me wondering what countries were still open to travelers, which led me to discover a few cool tools that provide this information.

By the time July rolled around, I was convinced that it might actually be possible to get my feet wet in the digital nomad life, and a plan began to form.

First thing I realized was that Mexico was still open to travelers, so I started researching the best Mexican cities for digital nomads. Playa Del Carmen was consistently high on the list, so that’s where Madison (my girlfriend) and I decided we’d make our home base for as long as possible.

Before the pandemic hit I had wanted to embark in October of 2020. Mexico has a six-month tourist visa, so I figured that’s a good timeframe to stay in one place for awhile until things around the world got better around Spring of 2021.

Risk-to-Reward ratio

Everyone has their own internal measure of how much risk they are willing to take for a certain reward. For me, the payoff of becoming a digital nomad has always had a high reward. Weighed against the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19, I felt that it was a risk I’d be able to manage.

In order to manage the risk, staying put in Playa Del Carmen for six months and doing all the safe things, such as wearing a mask wherever I go, washing my hands frequently, not touching my face, social distancing, not eating at indoor restaurants, etc. were all things I could do in Mexico.

Furthermore, we won’t be partying, attending nightclubs, or hanging out with groups of people.

The way I saw it, I was either going to endure the pandemic in my hometown of Portland, Oregon — in America, which notoriously has the highest amount of covid cases and deaths — or I would do all these same things on the warm beaches of Playa Del Carmen.

Another thing to note is that airplanes are actually pretty safe in terms of COVID risk.

Sure, Mexico is pretty high on the list of COVID cases (top 10 in the world), but all things considered, I was willing to take the risk there rather than perpetuate my stagnant life in my hometown.

Following my dreams

Having been in Mexico for a couple of weeks now, I have zero regrets about my decision. People here are pretty good about following the same guidelines as they do in America; in some cases better, and in others worse.

In the end, this is about doing what makes me happy while minimizing my risk of harming myself and others. Becoming a digital nomad is something I’ve strived for for years, and it’s finally happening!

I’ve made it out of my comfort zone and will simply hunker down in Playa Del Carmen until things cool down and more countries open up in 2021. A vaccine is ever closer to being widely released which will make the world that much safer to travel in.

Even after that, I will still make informed decisions in regards to safe travels. Like they say, this is the new normal, and pandemics will increasingly be something humanity has to deal with.

With all that in mind, being a digital nomad doesn’t mean I’ll be galavanting across the world as if COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Instead, I will be a conscious traveler, not moving around too often, and respecting medical guidelines. For me, this is more of a lifestyle change rather than an extended vacation like my Southeast Asia trip was.

And since this will obviously be a huge theme of my travels, expect to see more posts specifically related to being a digital nomad during a pandemic.