Jazzing It Up in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Playa Del Carmen Beach

Riviera Maya Jazz Festival

It begins to tell,

’round midnight, ’round midnight.

I do pretty well, till after sundown,

Suppertime I’m feelin’ sad.

But it really gets bad,

’round midnight. – Thelonius Monk

I find one of the biggest challenges when traveling on my own is figuring out what to do with myself in the evenings. During the day I can find plenty to do, whether taking a language class, going on excursions or just lolling in a cafe reading and eavesdropping.

But after dinner’s done, I often find myself asking “Now what?” Sometimes I’ll brave a bar on my own–especially if it has live music–but there’s nothing quite like hanging around a place where friends are together having a great time to make you feel like an outsider.

And there’s also the Lothario factor. You know the guy. He thinks any woman on her own is fair game and must be dying for whatever it is he’s offering and won’t leave you alone no matter how firmly you reject his advances. Awkward.

But I’ve discovered a nice alternative to sitting in my hotel room watching TV: the festival. In my case, jazz and dance festivals are what usually draw me, but I’d bet there are festivals for all types of music and arts all over the world.

 Riviera Maya Jazz Festival in Playa del Carmen

In particular, the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (RMJF) in Playa del Carmen, Mexico has been my choice for two years running. The combination of a beautiful and interesting destination, a range of accommodations (see “Check In” below) plus a really terrific line-up of performers for four nights, makes for a lively and satisfying vacation. (This year’s festival included such big name acts as Al Di Meola, George Duke, John McLaughlin and The Manhattan Transfer.)

The setting of the festival is the first thing that caught my attention. It’s held right on the beach in a stylish outdoor venue – Mamita’s Beach Club – and it’s big enough and has sufficient facilities to accommodate thousands of people a night. A giant stage with two huge video screens and a state-of-the-art sound system means even if you’re at the back of the crowd, you can still hear and see. (In fact, I found the sound a little muddy when I was right up front near the stage, so being further back is just fine.)

With over five hours of music on offer from 7 p.m. until midnight, there are a couple of ways you can approach the festival. Arrive early with your blanket and beverages (anything goes) and stake out your chunk of beach and settle in for the evening. Or–since there is no admission charge for the festival–you can come and go as you please. So if sitting on a beach for five hours is too much, you can swing by, see the first act, go have a bite to eat and come back later to check out more music.

You can also wander around the club checking out the scene. The people who come to the festival run the gamut from young locals (mostly) to whole families, to aging hipster tourists. Great people watching.

Check Out

Playa del Carmen is the hub of the Riviera Maya and a former fishing village that developed largely because the ferry to Cozumel docks there. Fifth Avenue is the main drag and a big strip of it is pedestrian-only and is packed with clothing and jewelery stores, restaurants and bars. Busy day and night, a woman on her own can feel completely comfortable walking at night. To escape the bustle, hang out near the north end which is more residential and upscale and has some very good cafes and restaurants, such as:

Chez Celine is an authentic French café with excellent pastries and coffee (and Paris prices).

In a world of its own on a side street off of Fifth Avenue, La Cueva del Chango has a funky back garden, open kitchen and resident gato who will patiently sit by your chair until you feed her your leftover shrimp tails. Specializing in natural, whole food, the menu is mostly Mexican and offers margaritas made with freshly squeezed fruit juices. Grapefruit ruled.

If snorkeling, sightseeing or cave diving are your scene, the Riviera Maya has much to offer. Unique to the region are cenotes (underwater caves) and you can take either a guided excursion or jump on a local bus and head to one of the sites such as Ecopark Kantun-Chi. Mayan culture and ruins abound in the area too, and the nearby village of Tulum is unique in that it has one of the only seaside ruins in Mexico.

Check In

The Riviera Maya has a range of accommodations from family-run B & Bs, to stylish boutique hotels to large, luxurious all-inclusives. Since the RMJF is in Playa del Carmen, it’s more convenient to stay nearby and walk to Mamita’s every night. But staying at one of the properties just outside of town is possible too, as long as you don’t mind taking taxis back and forth. Two places I stayed at recently are:

Mahekal Beach Resort

Mahekal Beach ResortMahekal Beach Resort is a mid-range, oceanfront property with a lovely laid-back vibe. A palapas style hotel with private casitas that come equipped with a hammock on the front porch. No TV, phone or Wi-Fi in the rooms mean a person can really unplug and relax here. A bar with pool tables, TV and ping pong, plus a lobby with computer, Wi-Fi and well-stocked library, provide plenty of diversion. A yoga studio is slated to open early in 2011, too. Upside: Mahekal offers single room rates, although not posted on its website; the resort is located in the quieter, more residential and upscale part of town. Downside: the food is just average, but the resort is within short walking distance of excellent cafes and restaurants.

Secrets Maroma Resort

The gorgeous Secrets Maroma is a large, all-inclusive property on Maroma Beach, north of Playa del Carmen on the way to Cancun. Tastefully decorated rooms, superior service and gourmet food are features of this luxury resort. Upside: private whirlpool on your balcony; premium alcohol brands. Downside: a 20-minute drive to Playa del Carmen makes taking in the jazz festival a bit of an excursion, but not insurmountable.

Reposted with permission from: www.cathyriches.wordpress.com

Cathy Riches has been writing about music – mostly jazz, “world” and vocal – for over 10 years for publications such as The WholeNote, the Women’s Post, JazzFM91 (blog), examiner.com, Toronto Downtown Jazz Newsletter. She also ventures into other writing realms such as travel and food and, whenever possible, music, travel AND food, since they go so well together. Cathy studied music at college and had a brief career as a performer and now only occasionally ventures onto a stage. She is also a student of Flamenco dance, Brazilian percussion, Spanish language and Texas hold ‘em.