Adios, paradise …

Scott Condon

It took a trip to Mexico to make me realize what’s happening with the redevelopment of Aspen.

My family headed to Playa del Carmen as soon as our daughter finished seventh grade at Basalt Middle School in early June. We divided time between a small, unassuming hotel located close to the pier for ferries heading to Cozumel, and a nicer property farther to the north.To our horror, we discovered that the second hotel, Las Palapas, isn’t long for this world. It will be demolished next winter to make way for another of the hulking condo projects that are popping up as frequently as timeshare salesmen in Playa del Carmen.Las Palapas is exactly what my family desires in Mexico. One hundred and some small bungalows with thatched roofs are spread out on a thickly vegetated grounds. Immaculate gardens are filled with plants and flowers that are, for us, quite exotic. Strange birds are always singing out, adding to the intrigue.The property was developed in the early 1980s in ingenious fashion. The bungalows are situated to provide privacy, although some are four-plexes. They are angled so you cannot see your neighbors, even if they are hanging on their patio.

In this latest trip, we were lucky enough to score a single bungalow just a beer bottle’s throw from the beach. We could hear the waves crashing at night, as long as we turned the air conditioner off. The interior was functional but not fancy. What family spends time indoors on a beach trip?Las Palapas has two open-air restaurants located in grand palapas where huge wood beams soar to support massive thatched roofs. In one, an amazing breakfast is served as part of the lodging package. It’s so good, we plotted to eat late and stretch breakfast until dinner.The juice is so fresh you can imagine a worker milking the oranges and pineapples a short time before. There is an abundance of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola for the days you feel like being good; there are frijoles, potato dishes similar to hash browns and pastries for the days you want to pig out. The chef lets you pick from the offerings of ham, cheese, mushrooms, peppers and other vegetables to create the omelet he cooks while you watch, mouth watering.Los Palapas is far enough north of the pier to avoid the throngs of people beachcombing while on leave from their cruise ships. There is enough foot traffic to make for good people-watching, not so much to make it a nuisance.Fifth Avenue, the pedestrian mall packed with restaurants and shops, is a pleasant walk away. It’s mellow on the south end of the avenue, where our favorite hotel is located, and more raucous and crowded as you drift north.

The beach at Las Palapas is, in a word, ideal. The sand gleams white. The Caribbean waters shine what seems to be an impossible array of blue and turquoise. The hotel’s section of beach is sprinkled with small palapas to protect sunbathers from frying. A beach bar is close by to supply the cerveza that tastes so damned good in the heat and humidity.Americans are the minority at the hotel. You hear a lot of German spoken and Spanish from South American guests. There are a lot of smokers and the rudest among them leave their butts in the sand. On the other hand, some of the worldwise clientele aren’t shy about going topless, often adding to the scenic delights.But Las Palapas is a paradise lost. The owners sold out to the type of investors who are scouring every resort to find any nook and cranny where they can erect a condo or timeshare project. The life expectancy of the hotel was difficult to ascertain, in part because of the language barrier. But the workers, from the waiters to the front-desk clerks, also seemed hesitant to talk about it. At different times, different people said the property would close in October, December and March.One worker told me, with an absence of malice, that Americans were to blame for the alteration of the property. “More Americans are coming,” he said, “and they want something different.”

What is clear is condos are consuming Playa. The booming resort has kept a three-story height limit intact. That’s just promoting sprawl. Numerous sprawling, all-inclusive resorts are under construction outside of town, carved into the beachside jungle. It seems the entire 30-mile stretch between Playa del Carmenand Cancun will soon be filled in. The development creeps south toward Tulum with equal vigor.In Playa del Carmen proper, vacant land has been grabbed for condo development. Several smaller properties like Las Palapas have been snatched for redevelopment. Imagine the construction activity in Aspen’s core and multiple it by about 10 for an idea of what’s happening in Playa.We got an insider’s view of Playa’s explosive growth from Manny, our snorkeling guide on a trip to a fresh-water cavern called a cenote. Manny grew up in Mexico City, apparently in a well-to-do family. He studied engineering and business at a university, but traveled the world instead of becoming a captain of commerce. Manny was a former bartender in London, so his English was well past conversational.He saw the growth as a double-edged sword. Construction and service workers are pouring into the area, adding to the explosive growth. Playa del Carmen is the fastest-growing city in Latin America, he noted, and it’s basically been created over the last two decades, so it had no employee base. Workers are being imported from other parts of Mexico and quality housing is difficult to find (sound familiar?).

On the other hand, Manny was eager to expand his business as a dive and snorkel guide. He moved to Playa a couple of years ago with his girlfriend, an Australian who teaches English at a private school. He is slowly developing his business; more tourists will certainly boost his share in the highly competitive market.Ready or not, Playa’s going to get more tourists. The growth boom shows no signs of abating. Character is the casualty of that growth.New condos are being built on three sides of Las Palapas’ property. Soon, this little piece of paradise will also be under siege.While lamenting on the beach with a Corona in hand, my mind drifted back to Aspen. The developers have done the same thing to our quaint little town. No matter how nice they make their big new projects, they are sacrificing the character of our town for quick-buck condos.

Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon regrets that he and his family “discovered” Playa del Carmen several years too late.