The Underbelly of a Tourism Hotspot

Akash Ghai
4 min readDec 11, 2020

Discovering Mexico during a Global Pandemic

The east-coast winter got deep under my skin, even before its onset in Washington DC in December. Rents were high, days were grey and tensions were increasing at home.

Work from home wasn’t cutting it, so I decided to work from Mexico.

Flying into Cancun, Mexico

Cancun had never been on my wishlist; it had a sorry reputation for being a spring break destination and it seemed more American than some parts of America. Burger King, Hooters, Walmart, Home Depot and Mcdonalds; they all had planted their feet in Cancun, a city set in the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.

Private Taxis at Cancun Airport, Mexico

I was in and out of the city on my way to Playa Del Carmen, another tourist hotspot in the Mexican Caribbean. This was one of the first trips where I travelled without a camera, embracing my career as a product designer.

There wasn’t much to photograph on this side of Mexico, I convinced myself. With commercialized traces of a Mayan past, and the entire economy geared towards tourism, I felt that a phone would do just fine for my photography needs.

Approaching Thunderstorm, Playa Del Carmen

Testing out life as a ‘digital nomad’, I found myself looking for co-working spaces instead of communal neighborhoods. I made no effort to integrate, and easily got by with English. Whatever information I was missing, I was able to find through countless vlogs on YouTube.

Why am I here, anyway?

While in DC, I worked out a contract to do design work for an IT client’s enterprise software. Money was decent, and there was no restriction on where I could work from as long as I stayed near Eastern Time Zone.

My plan was to stay here for a month and see how things proceeded. By no surprise, Spirit airlines changed my return flight and gave me the option to cancel for travel credit. I welcomed the opportunity, since I was on a 6 month tourist visa and here I am, on an open ticket in Mexico.

First Impressions

There wasn’t a day spent in Playa, as locals call it, without seeing convoys of Armed Police. Every time I saw them, I felt a strange sense of unease; I wasn’t sure if they were here to protect people or extort money from them. On my second day on the beach, I got frisked twice for drugs. The cop was curious about me being from India, but tried his best to be a tough cookie.

Night ride on Playa streets

I didn’t want any trouble, and let him check my belongings without protest. It left me with an unsettling feeling, something that stayed with me every-time I saw a police convoy with flashing lights. That was until I saw a military convoy in a Humvee, on the main street. Such an overkill, I thought.

Mexico has a terrible reputation for being a Narco state, being a hotbed for drug and human trafficking in North America. It is run by the government and cartels; it’s sometimes hard to distinguish who the police works for.

What about the Pandemic?

It is very much on, but the warm weather and ocean breeze make it palatable. The streets are emptier, the restaurants less crowded, masks are up and the holiday tourism is picking up. Most cases in the country are concentrated in Mexico City, where hospitals are reaching capacity. In Quintana Roo, however, the pandemic has lost its seriousness.

Peak Evening Traffic, Playa Del Carmen

When I arrived at my Airbnb, the caretaker Gerardo looked at my private taxi in disbelief. “Why didn’t you take the bus, amigo?”

I probably should have.

I’ve only been here a week, there’s more to come as I make my way to Puerto Aventuras to live in a traditional yurt in the middle of a Mayan jungle.