Problemos en la Riviera Maya

The Mexican Riviera or the Riviera Maya, as it is known in Mexico, is full of great beaches and Mayan ruins. In July 2003, my friend Jake and I were spending a week in Playa Del Carmen, which is about an hour south of Cancun and where you catch the ferry to Cozumel. In my opinion, it is the best resort town on the Riviera and light years ahead of Cancun.

Playa, as it is affectionately known, is a small town with smaller, more intimate hotels and resorts than its tacky, overblown rival to the north. Playa has a beautiful white sand beach with crystal clear water and plenty of beach bars to satisfy your every desire. The main drag in Playa is a long walking street that goes the length of the town and has shops galore, which the cruise ship people love on their stops.

Playa is also about an hour or so north of Tulum, which is the site of the best coastal Mayan ruins and one of the most famous archaeological sites in Mexico. We wanted to go and visit the ruins but not on a guided tour because then you get stuck doing all the extra crap that you have no interest in, such as stopping in never ending gift shops. So we decided to rent a car.

We went to a few rental agencies in town but there were not too many cars available for decent prices. We finally found an agency that had a car for US$20 for the afternoon. We were pretty excited except for one thing; the car was a manual shift. Neither of us knew how to drive a manual so we were very wary of renting the car. However, there were no automatics in all of Playa. The lovely Mexican man at the agency assured us that it was easy and we would get the hang of it shortly.

I had driven a manual once before when I was living in Venezuela five years earlier and I busted the transmission. The car was no longer usable because to get it fixed was more than the car was worth. That was the last time I had driven a manual car. But I was determined that we would be fine and decided that it was worth the risk to see these ruins on our terms. Of course we had to leave a credit card deposit and neither of us wanted to do that in case we crashed the car. Finally, it was decided that since I was driving I should leave the deposit in the hands of our trusty Mexican rental agent. We took care of all the paperwork and he brought us around the corner to give us a quick lesson in our rental car. The car was fabulous, a beautiful vette, no not a corvette, a chevette, which looked like it was probably made in the 80s, the 1880s. Nevertheless, we decided to get in and give it our best shot.

To put it kindly, it was an awful display of driving getting the car out of Playa where there were plenty of lights and traffic. I stalled at least 3 times and disrupted traffic countless other times because I didn’t know where I was going. However, once we got out to the highway it was a lot easier just keeping it in one gear and cruising down toward Tulum. We followed the signs to the parking lot for Tulum and parked the car frontward to the curb, knowing I would need to reverse it to get out later.

We made our way down the long street to the entrance of the site. As we made our way in toward the beach, I got that anxious funny feeling that you get when you know you are about to see something cool. Tulum didn’t disappoint. Located right on a cliff on top of the beach, the ruins at Tulum whet your appetite for tropical bliss. It combines the history of the Mayas with the beauty of the crystal clear Caribbean Gulf. You could actually go down to the beach and swim in the shadow of a centuries-old site.
After checking everything out and getting our pictures of the ruins with the beach in the background, we were tired and looking forward to going home to take a nap before a big night out in Playa. We arrived at the car and got in. I thought I would have no trouble getting it into reverse. I was wrong.

For whatever reason, probably that I didn’t know how to drive a manual, I couldn’t get it to go in reverse. We couldn’t go forward because of the curb and we looked like idiots in front of all the other tourists and Mexicans. Finally, I got frustrated and told Jake to go out and push it while it was in neutral. He couldn’t do it alone so I got out and helped him. We managed to budge the car enough that I should be able to maneuver the car out of there. We got out of the lot just as it started to pour.

I was thrilled to be driving in a torrential downpour in a car that I didn’t really know how to drive. I was going so slow that every single car was passing us on the highway and honking in pity…or maybe it was spite. However, we puttered along the road for two hours in the rain until we arrived at the filling station before the Playa exit to fill up so we got our whole deposit back. We filled up and eventually made it back to our rental agency to claim our $20 deposit and my credit card imprint.

When we got inside to tell the guy about our exciting day at Tulum and to get our deposit back, his face went sour when we asked him for our money. He said that we had agreed to pay $20 each for the car and we knew he had said $20 in total. This guy was so persistent about it that he started getting mean and being confrontational. That of course set me off and we started shouting at each other. All this arguing was over $20, but it was the principal that mattered here. He also wouldn’t give me back my credit card imprint and there was no way I wanted this guy to have my credit card information, if he hadn’t already stolen the number of course.

After another few minutes of arguing, I finally said that we were going to go to the cops to get our money back for us. He started laughing and handed us the phone and dialed the number and said to ask for his brother. Playa being a small town, apparently everyone knows everyone and the one common thing that we distinguished is that they target tourists and seem to want to rip you off whenever possible.

We never did get on the phone with his brother and it wasn’t worth trying to pursue this any longer. We finally agreed to let him keep the other $20 as long as he gave me back my credit card imprint. He agreed and handed it to me. As Jake reminded me, it’s not worth spending a night in a Mexican jail to have your way with a guy like this, even though he really deserved it and was lying through his teeth.

I don’t mind paying a little extra money to people in poorer countries if they do a good service or something nice for you. But I do not like being ripped off right to my face when we both clearly heard that it would only be $20 for the car. I always hear stories of people being taken advantage of in poor countries and in Mexico especially but this was the first encounter that I had ever had with anybody while traveling.

It was strange because although it was my credit card that had been on file with this agency. Jake’s credit card was the one that was eventually charged for things he didn’t buy. He had used his card to pay for a small dinner a few nights before and that was the only time he used it in Mexico. His card was charged for nearly $5000 worth of goods in Mexico a week after we had returned to the US. His credit card company was very understanding and they cancelled all charges but the hassle was something everyone would like to avoid.

I am not trying to bash Mexico or Playa because I love Mexico and have been there several times, but it’s hard to accept being scammed and then having things charged to your credit card. The Riviera Maya is beautiful and Tulum and Playa Del Carmen are wonderful places to visit but just be careful whom you are dealing with. Remember that when you use a credit card, your whole number is printed on the receipts they give you and their copy contains the number as well. So my advice is to bring a lot of cash, sunscreen and patience and if you are going to rent a manual car – make sure you know how to drive it or at least bring a strong sense of adventure and collision insurance.

Sharing is caring!


  1. Hi Lee, I love that you blog about beach towns a lot and give me ideas about where to journey to next. Also, for your European islands list, what about the Scottish Highlands-they are brilliant even though I may be a bit biased 😉

  2. I had my credit card number stolen in Playa too. I’m not exactly sure where it was stolen because we used our credit cards all over town. You are right that they always print the full number on all receipts so people should watch out for that and plan to use cash instead. I will never go back to mexico because of it but when traveling in the future I will always pay with cash.

  3. Americans should learn to drive standard cars and start driving on the correct side of the road

  4. I also hated Cancun but loved Playa del Carmen. Credit cards can be stolen anywhere, even in the US or Europe. Don’t hold it against the Mexicans.

  5. Tulum is really nice, much better than other Mexican ruins I’ve seen like Chichen Itza.

Speak Your Mind