PUERTO MORELOS,“The Jewel of The Caribbean”
I am in love, Yes, I know you cannot wait to know who the object of my affection is — wait no longer. It is not a person, it is a town called Puerto Morelos on the Riviera Maya. A short twenty-minute drive heading south from Cancun Airport, this little fishing village appears to have been in a time capsule from a previous era before the Riviera Maya was swept up in a whoosh of tourism.
It is an authentic Mexican village with an ancient working port, laid back and unrushed with no crowds of tourists, and no glitz and glamor. Only the simple life where the pace is a crawl rather than a sprint.
Remarkably, Puerto Morelos has managed to stay under the radar of its universally-known neighbors of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, both tourist magnets, that have undergone enormous change and development. It survives — intentionally? — as an authentic, working Mexican fishing village and port, where the fishermen go out every morning in their traditional pangas and return with a fresh catch from the Caribbean Sea.
It is not that there are no tourists here. There are, but it is not overrun. Canadians, escaping the harsh winter in North America, began coming to Puerto Morelos several years ago and have found a place where they can holiday quietly in a traditional Mexican town. Present too is a small permanent community of poets, writers, artists and creative people who have blended into the local community, making the effort to speak basic Spanish that has endeared them to the locals and helped erase the divide between “locals” and “newcomers. With its tranquil vibe, it has also attracted meditation and yoga groups.
Between January and April, the number of residents grows with the arrival of these Canadian Snowbirds, a flock now augmented by some Americans – yes, with the help of the internet and social media, word got out that this is a charming place where one can escape the freezing temperatures of North America and the tourism-centric mentality, all with endless sunshine. In fact, the local artisans, trinket sellers, restaurants and B&B’s are very grateful for the way these visitors have improved the local economy and they are made to feel welcome.
The heart of the town is the central square, with low-rise, whitewashed buildings that have characteristic thatched roofs. This is a traditional design based on the Palapa style, an open building with a thatched roof made from palm fronds — seen all over ‘old’ Mexico.
The buildings are kept in pristine condition, freshly painted and housing lively restaurants, coffee shops, artisan markets, food stalls — and more recently even a mobile phone accessory store. You can’t stop progress too much.
There are strict building codes and bylaws that control development, though, and make sure all the buildings are low rise and traditional in design.
The entire town is four blocks wide and about fifteen blocks long with two main streets — easily walkable. How different from many other towns in Mexico, especially those that are hilly with uneven cobblestone streets.
The town is reached via Federal Highway 307, which is the main freeway coming from Cancun airport. A small road connects Highway 307 to the ocean at Puerto Morelos. To reach the town and the ocean, one drives through a mangrove grove with alligators hiding in the murky waters. The area is preserved and legally may not be desecrated (unlike other parts of Mexico where the mangrove trees were removed). These environmental rules are practical, too: they serve to purify the ocean water in the bay and act as a nursery for the fish.
There is a welcoming square in the center of town that faces the ocean. with tall swaying palm trees and an uninterrupted view of the turquoise ocean with beach chairs, umbrellas, and kayaks and it is relaxing to settle into a chair and “imbibe” the atmosphere. The view of the ocean is mesmerizing and calming and it changes with the time of day. It is always a beautiful striped aquamarine, the striped shading caused by the barrier reef, the tides and the reflection of the sun. Each morning, before or with the sun, the square is swept and made pristine for the people who will gather here throughout the day. Just a few steps away are the restaurants and coffee shops where one can find sustenance in between bouts of relaxation.
There is no shortage of restaurants, most of them serving authentic Mexican food. Seafood is abundant and fresh and comes in different forms, including raw, grilled, or molé. There is a concentration of restaurants around the central square, some with views as far as the eye can see overlooking the ocean and its pristine waters. Others are tucked into the residential area and could be a simple wooden hut serving food cooked on an open flame — or more sophisticated food prepared by a foreign chef who has found the perfect balance of work and play living in this idyllic little town. English is spoken in most restaurants and ordering is easy.
The winds of change have begun to blow through this laid back little town, though. The word is out that plans have been approved for condominiums and hotel projects nearby. This will increase the population and change its character — perhaps for the worse. With its convenient proximity to Cancun Airport, the Mayan Ruins, Cenotes, and other tourist attractions, it is perfect for the developers — just as it is for the people who love Puerto Morelos the way it is.
One of the clear signs of change is the new Chedrui supermarket that had opened a couple of months before I arrived. It is housed in the center of town in a new building that was built in the traditional Palapa style, with a palm frond roof and blends with the rest of the architecture. Chedrui is a chain of Mexican supermarkets that I would describe as adequate — but not very interesting. This one is designated “Super” Chedrui to indicate it is top of the line. I am assuming Chedrui did a study of the demographics and with the anticipated development put in a spectacular supermarket, to cope with the more fastidious and sophisticated customers that are now living in the area — while expecting more to move in with the new developments. Even nearby, bustling Tulum does not have a supermarket of this standard. It is modern and well-stocked with whatever imported items one can possibly need to stock up the neediest chefs’ pantry. Rows of imported olive oils, a selection of exotic vinegar, European cheeses, imported canned foods are all beautifully displayed. It has an in-house bakery with a wonderful assortment of homemade artisan bread, intricately designed celebration mousse cakes, danish pastries, and every type of local cookie. And there is an extensive beer section with beer tastings and a well-stocked wine department with imported wines. A sushi bar and a ceviche bar both have rotating tracks displaying the well-presented fish dishes made from the fresh catch of the day.
Chedrui’s patrons live in the residential neighborhood away from the central square in houses that are timeless. Many have been there “forever” and even those that are newer are built-in tasteful style. The larger homes are walled and gated to protect their privacy.
Inside these, you will see landscaped gardens with tropical vegetation. Some of the homes belong to people from Mexico City — and now the ‘Anglos’ from Canada and a few from the US are joining the existing ex-pat population. The ‘March of Progress’ has slowly arrived in Puerto Morelos and prices have moved up accordingly. No more $75,000 cottages.
The price of the largest homes is now in the one million US dollar stratosphere — and all prices are quoted in US and Canadian Dollars. Still, the town remains friendly and one can stop and chat with people in the street. In this part of town, though, the streets are quiet with almost no traffic as it is away from the central square. I loved the different greens of the tropical plants and the vibrant color of the flowers and rampant climbers, with tall palm trees laden with coconuts, silhouetted against the blue sky.
There are also a couple of “dumpy” shacks in amongst the better homes and one wonders how this one survived the changes happening here. Are they holding out for a better price that may yield legacy wealth to a local family ?!!
One of Puerto Morelos’ most famous attractions, it’s snorkeling and diving opportunities and there are signs all over town where to find this activity. The first reef is about 99 feet from the shoreline and one can wade out to it walking along the sandy ocean bed. It is clearly visible from the shore because this is where the waves break and are edged in tiny white bubbles.
Beyond this is the main reef, part of the Mesoamerican Reef that runs parallel to the shoreline in Mexico. It begins at the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula and runs for 700 miles through Mexico into Belize, Honduras and then Guatemala’s coastlines.
The reef bordering Puerto Morelos is the widest section and is in better condition, cleaner and freer of debris than any other part of the Mesoamerican Reef because it has been declared a marine reservation protected with local regulations. Much has been written about the destruction of these reefs due to plastic and other toxic materials that have collected within their waters killing corals and sea life, destroying sustainability. The people of Puerto Morelos took responsibility to protect the Reef by passing laws to create a Marine Reserve resulting in excellent diving and snorkeling conditions. Here, one is almost able to forget the tragedy of our oceans and the destruction that has taken place in the last fifty years, worldwide.
The ocean at Puerto Morelos has colorful corals swaying gently in the currents, several varieties of stingray, barracuda, gastropods, elkhorn coral reefs, butterflyfish, parrotfish, green sea turtles. Guides accompany the divers and snorkelers to be sure no harm comes to the natural ocean habitat of corals, fish, and other organisms living in these waters.
I began this blog expressing my love for Puerto Morelos — if only this authentic little Mexican town could endure in its time capsule. That does not seem to be the case, though — and as this is something I have seen occur too often, I need to remove the rose-tinted glasses and face the reality represented not by coral reefs but by Chedrui the supermarket. This place, as much as I like it, best embodies the methodical, inevitable development brought on by the March of Progress.
Regrettably, the precious little town known as”the Jewel of the Caribbean” is in the beginning ‘convulsions’ of change.