Add This Tip to Your Travel Rulebook
I would now like to amend the official travel rulebook: When, in the course of seeking lunch, one comes upon an alfresco eatery in which two men are casually playing backgammon and the waiters aren’t batting an eye, stop and sit.
You have found a local diner. Life is about to get good.
I come to this amendment by way of El Pirata, The Pirate, a pescaderia and cokteleria—a server of fish and various seafood cocktails.
Pirata is located in Playa del Carmen, in Mexico’s Riviera Maya. The diner is what one might rightly call a “hole in the wall.”
It is only 20, maybe 30 seconds off Playa del Carmen’s main pedestrian drag, 5th Ave. It’s so close to that beehive of activity, in fact, that you can watch the tourists amble by in large numbers just up the street as you await your ceviche.
And yet, during the hour I spent here with my colleague, Ciaran, I counted just four or five tourists who passed in front of Pirata.
Not one cast a glance at the sky-blue fish shack.
This is one of the true joys of moving or retiring to a place like this…or embracing the new “Zoom Boom” standard of living in which those with post-pandemic job flexibility are digging up roots and relocating to places like the Riviera Maya.
On the way to breakfast a few days ago, I passed the local version of Starbucks called Ah Cacao. Four people outside on the patio were working away on laptops. I listened to a woman at one table turn to a man at another table and begin a conversation about visa extensions and maybe taking a bus to Guatemala to reset her Mexican visa.
Seems much of the world is becoming a Zoom Boom destination. That’s not a hyperbolic comment, actually. I did a bit of research recently for an upcoming International Living story on all the countries that now have some form of freelance/digital nomad visa. It’s well past 20 and growing.
Of course, there are many, many others where no such formal visa exists, but where you still find boatloads of people showing up to work locally, like here in Playa.
Mexico doesn’t have a formal freelance visa, but it’s very popular with Zoomers, who know they can live here for up to six months, then pop across the border, reset their visa, and return for another tour of duty in coffee shops and local diners like El Pirata.
Frankly, it’s those diners that add some of the spice to living and working in a place like the Riviera Maya.
I don’t remember when I hopped on my first airplane. My earliest memory of one is walking up the stairs of a Texas International DC9, traveling from Baton Rouge to Houston. I was 7, maybe 8.
Since then, I’ve accumulated passports stamps for 69 countries in five different passports. Visited every habitable continent.
In my travels, I’ve dined at Michelin-starred establishments and the world’s oldest restaurant (El Botin, in Madrid). I’ve eaten fried scorpion and grilled duck tongue in China (yes to scorpion, it tastes like paprika-covered popcorn. No to duck tongue…just no.). And some kind of bear meat at a Stockholm restaurant.
Here’s what I’ve learned…
Don’t miss the hole-in-the-wall food moments. Too many travelers get hung up in tourist restaurants. I understand why. Tourist restaurants are easy. They pull you in. They’re bright. Easily found. Not off on side-streets. Their menus appeal to non-local taste buds: pasta, burgers, steaks.
Not really for me.
I’ve found over the decades that the best food always come from the local eateries. From the street vendors.
The reason is pure logic: When you cater to tourists, do you really care that much about quality? You’re not likely to see 95% of your clientele ever again.
But when you’re the local pescaderia, or the local noodle vendor on the street corner, your clientele is the people living in the neighborhood. You care greatly about quality. You want all of these people coming back to support you.
Simple math, really.
So, I guess I wrote all those words to tell you this: If you find yourself hungry in Playa del Carmen, look for a sky-blue stucco building half a block off 5th Ave. You might see some guys playing backgammon and waiters not batting an eye. Stop there. Sit. And order the ceviche.
Thank me later…