The Heart of Darkness: A Critical Look at Tourism in Playa del Carmen | Day 295 of my 2023 Journal

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The heart … of darkness?

The first thing that comes to mind when I want to share our day trip to the statue Portal Maya, which is obligatory to photograph as a tourist in Playa, is the movie Apocalypse Now, based on the novel “The Heart of Darkness”.

If you do a quick Google search, you will learn that the point shared by the book and the movie is that "The imperialist mindset continues to significantly affect international interactions even in modern times.”

It is, admittedly, a brutal view on a walk along the beach in a touristy town in Mexico. But let’s just start here. With the Hell of it. For the Hell of it. In the name of the Hell of it.

Though first: A bit of context. I am grateful Kenia and her daughter came to hang out with us. She is purely wonderful! This kind of woman will make me feel almost normal, will make me feel female, will get me and inspire me and challenge me and teach me new stuff every day and be fun and easygoing and helpful and true, simply MY kind of person. It was her day off, and she had been coming here for 20 years frequently without ever going to the dead center to take the picture.

So, as we were too jet-lagged for real old stone from Mayan culture (and all-day day trips), we decided to make the quintessential tourist pilgrimage to the statue. Just to have any goal. Any goal, as my brother stated on our epic Road Trip back in 2012, is better than the sofa.

So, here we are.

Dipping in the Caribbean blue amazing water, walking 5th Avenue when the beach is un-walkable, walking the beach when we can (or when we are at a near-vomit point at 5th Avenue), moving forward into a clearly more and more dense crowd. Several times, we stopped to reflect: Can we do it? A group of seven with two dogs in the heat, walking directly into the heart of the darkness of Playa de Tourism, can we do it?

Deciding we are not quitters, we completed the task. As we got closer and closer, Smells like teen spirit, started to play itself inside myself: The desperate: “Here we are now, entertain us!” In a loop, driving me crazy but matching my surroundings.

There is no way to ignore it; the ocean is beautiful, the sun wonderful, the black Magnificent Frigatebird exotic (to us), and the colors vibrant. Equally, it is impossible to ignore the density of the tourists, the economic gap between the locals and the visitors; the desperate reaching out to get the customers, and the same customers desperately reaching for pleasure, for fun, for relief?

I see how this can happen, the almost natural progression from a few to a lot of people, from a sleepy place with its beauty to a playground for the crowd.
The deeper we walked into this darkness, the clearer it became what it was.

It is not just new imperialism, but it is also just new imperialism, a modern version of an old story. But it is also human nature on the wrong side; it is pleasure hunting and escapism gone wrong.

The beachfront is so thick with bars and sun beds that it is hard to walk it. Low-quality live music playing everywhere, first shot for free tequila equally everywhere, recruiters for day trips and massage and hair extensions and restaurants, and tourists in the hundreds. Everywhere. Plus, the women and children and young men are doing their best effort to sell you stuff you don’t need.

Realizing we are part of it, we are not as such judging anyone, though we did spend some time talking about how interesting it is to see the pleasure-seeking behavior. As if the sky, the trees, the sun, the ocean, the holy trinity of lime, cilantro, and chili could not be enough, as if nothing will ever be enough. More food, more clothes, more stimulation, more music, more alcohol, more pleasure, more bare skin, more more more. MORE!

Music, wild animals, all sorts of foods, clothes to dress all of Mexico twice, swimwear, eyewear, shoes, body products, alcohol, amusement parks, day trips, wax museum, wild animals (clearly illegal), cinemas, more shops, souvenirs, desserts, coffee, chocolate. Everywhere. As in all over.

We all have an obligation to think about what our lifestyle represents and how it affects the places we are and the people we touch in our lives.

I refuse to feel guilty about what former generations did. I do not feel, I need to personally pay for what happened in the generations before me, and neither do I feel guilty about what all the other tourists are doing. What I do feel is I need to pay close attention to what I find true and right and how I handle my own presence - maybe even more so in places like this.

It was clearly a once-in-a-lifetime thing. None of us would ever want to go back. But as we walked all the way together - growing a bank of shared memories, laughing at the same things, and discussing these emotions and reflections on the situation, it was okay.

The statue itself, btw, is pretty. And when you look closely, it is very strange. Not in a way that will make me think of it as great art and teach me something about the big picture. Just strange.

So, we took the picture and added the one by the Playa del Carmen sign before we realized we had walked into a trap! Trying to get out of the place, we found ourselves in a shopping mall with only one well-hidden exit. As a coping mechanism, we took stupid pictures.

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It felt a bit like walking through an airport, zigzagging around all the shiny shops, before we were finally released into the streets of Playa behind the craziness. We needed to get as far away from it as possible as quickly as possible and did very much enjoy the walk back in the relative peace and quiet of a normal street of commute and commerce.

I am so happy to have my family and our friends to share this craziness with and a sofa in which we could debrief and deconstruct our experiences of the day.

This is the Hell of it: The desperation on both sides, the exaggeration for completely opposite reasons.

The darkness is the darkness of not even knowing.

Not knowing who you are and what makes you happy is contrasted by the darkness of not knowing how to get out of relative poverty, being stuck in a job or a shop, or not even that.

The two kinds of Hell enlarging each other, the two kinds of darkness casting shadows on the other.

With love

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Cecilie Conrad

Thank you for reading
I would love to hear from you. Listen to your thoughts and reflections - or praise :) It is often emotional to share our lives like this, and we get very happy when we get your feedback. So feel free to share a comment below 😋 

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When Friends Arrive: A Day of Discoveries in Playa del Carmen | Day 294 of my 2023 Journal
Exploring Street Art and Cultural Symbols in a Subtropical Setting | Day 296 of my 2023 Journal

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