Monday, October 25, 2010

A Different Kind of Beachfront Town - My Visit to Progreso

One of Progreso's Markets, where I talked to Bill
Being more used to Playa del Carmen and the nearby areas, visiting the town of Progreso was interesting in the sense of seeing a beachfront community that was very different from the upscale, luxury, beachfront "paradise" idea that people prefer over here. Progreso is located on the north shore of the Yucatan Peninsula near Merida.

My impression of the town was defined by two people. One was Bill. Bill is Canadian, about 50 years old, originally from an English speaking town in Quebec, who has been living in Progreso for 15 years. I was crossing a road and noticed a tall, thin man, about 50 years old, clean shaven and dressed in comfortable clothes (neither expensive brand names, nor badly worn or old), and a somewhat broad rimmed cloth hat; when he lifted the hat to wipe the sweat from his brow (which he did often), I saw he had short, light-red hair which matched his light-skinned, freckled complexion. In a town where 99 percent of the people I had seen were Mexican, he stood out, as I'm sure I did, and making eye contact he immediately said hello. He seemed ready to talk, as though we new each other.

Progreso is a still a small Mexican town, and the people – Mexicans and foreigners alike – are welcoming and friendly. Making eye contact with someone on the road is enough to prompt a friendly discussion. It is very relaxed, and everyone seems to have time.

First we talked about where we are from – typical of most Canadians from other parts of the country, when I told him I was from Southern Ontario, he answered with a polite, "Oh yeah," (which really means, "that's too bad.")

Since moving to Progreso, he had been buying old homes and fixing them up to resell. When I asked him what he did for fun, he said that he plays basketball, holding up the jersey he was carrying on his shoulder. Thinking of the Playa del Carmen crowd which tends to hang out according to nationality, I asked if he played with other Canadians or Americans. He said that he plays with a Mexican team. A friendly handshake and a warm smile ended the conversation, and he was off to his basketball game. Absolutely no rush.

While I do like Playa del Carmen, the feelings of the laid-back beachfront community or the procrastinating Mexican town no longer exist. This is both a bad thing and good thing – a bad thing when you want to enjoy that cafe-free lifestyle where nothing really matters, a good thing when you want to get something done, like having your home built, or, in the case of Bill, renovated.

The other person that helped define my the impression of the town was a cafe owner. Just off the town square, there is a cafe which proudly boasts that it was founded in 1895. I knew of places in Toronto that had been founded in the 40s, but had passed through the hands of various owners. This was not the case here. Sitting down with a cup of coffee, I began chatting with the waiter, who, seeing that I was interested in learning something more about this cafe's history, went for the owner, who explained that the cafe has been in her family since its founding.

The Beach Downtown
She then gave me a tour of a series of old paintings and photos depicting the town's history. For each one, she clearly explained where the image was, and how it had changed since then. For someone who loves all kinds of history, this was a real treat. The explanations were also short and concise, but very informative.

"If I weren't working today," she concluded, "I'd take you on a tour of these places myself." And I believe she would have. The Mexicans in this town are very welcoming of foreigners. This lady proved that it's not just money; I had only bought a coffee.

Most business owners, like this lady, were very relaxed, and took time to talk to visitors. Down on the beachfront there was a restaurant/bar where many retired Americans and Canadians hung out. These people were a slightly different style from Bill; they liked to spend their time in the bar, chatting with their old friends rather than play basketball. They were the only people I met who seemed worried that too many "gringos" were showing up to spoil the small Mexican town they had discovered and made their home for the past 20 years. When I sat down for breakfast there, the owner recognized me from the night before (I had had dinner there) and sat down to have a coffee, read a newspaper and chat. He didn't ask if it was OK, or if I minded; for me, it was great, and I assume in that town, it's just how you do things.

One of the old Homes, Ready to Be Renovated!
The town is old and there are a lot of classic stone homes, some falling apart with only a sad facade left half standing as a memory of something that was once beautiful, others fully restored by people like Bill with beautiful woodwork. Most of the town is defined by those typical Mexican one-storey homes with a little wooden door in the middle and large window to one side, colourfully painted, but with the paint peeling off because of humidity. This isn't necessarily a sign of neglect; the humid climate on the Yucatan Peninsula requires re-painting every year, although in some cases, neglect and the epidemic of procrastination are certainly a factor.

There are also some new condos and, along the beachfront outside of town, luxury homes with ultra-modern designs. There's no point in describing these, since they're the same in every beachfront tourist town from the U.S. to Brazil, and don't really define anything distinct about the town. (No complaints about them, I just didn't see anything that stood out as different.)

Both Bill, the lady who owned the cafe, and the restaurant owner all said that starting in November a lot more retirees show up from Canada mostly, and some from the States who live there for only 6-8 months ("snowbirds"). It would be interested in talking to some of these to see people to see what inspired them to choose Progreso as their winter home, and if, like Bill, they hang out with the locals.

The Boardwalk Bench - The Lights of The Town's Long Pier are Vaguely Visible
The town's beach wasn't as soft as the beaches in Playa del Carmen, since it was covered by shells, but I prefer the design of the beachfront area; directly on the beach, there were little thatched roof shades with chairs and tables under them. Next there is a long walkway (a boardwalk or promenade) which had a concrete bench running the entire length of the walkway, about 1 km, perfect for sitting down and relaxing. Then there is a road, and, on the other side of the road, restaurants, stores, hotels, parks, etc; the beach is open and has easy access for everyone. The townspeople as much as the tourists can enjoy it fully. Surprisingly, it was also very clean; some beaches with eating and sitting areas on them end up with a lot of garbage, but not this one.

The people I talked to told me that about twice a week a cruise ship shows up, and the town is full of American and Canadian tourists, apparently so much that you can't even walk down the beach.

Overall, people say there's not much to do in Progreso. Personally, I enjoyed it, though. I love the fact that the people are so welcoming, and will always take time to talk to you. I'm someone who can be entertained by a good conversation much more than by expensive entertainment. The history which is visible throughout the town is also appealing for me. While it obviously can't compare to a place like Mexico City, it has a few more layers than the resort towns over by Cancun.


  1. Well, I like southern Ontario! I have fooooond memories of playing Bingo in Amherstberg. Where in Canada was Bill from? As for so many of the other american and canadian snowbirds, it´s funny how people ¨discover¨ a place and then complain when too many other people start to ¨discover¨ the same place.

  2. I also like Southern Ontario - but I'm a little biased since it's home. Most Canadians from the east or west have a stereotypical dislike for Ontario, since it has a lot of people and a lot of business - one of those political/news based impressions. This guy wasn't impolite at all, but saying you're from Ontario, it's unlikely you'll get a very excited response from fellow Canadians, unless they've actually lived there or visited.

    I agree about the second idea. Usually what begins to draw the crowds is the same thing that originally drew the first arrivals. When you discover something original, you have to count on the possibility that a bunch of other people are discovering the same thing for the same reasons you are.

    It's like when parents choose a name that they think is unique, only to realize that half the kids that age were given that name; whatever caused you to think it was unique and original, also caused a bunch of other people to do so at the same time.

  3. I love Playa del Carmen, one of the great places to visit in Mexico. There are lots of foreigners living there, mostly cool. Cancun is more touristic with fancy hotels, you can enjoy good life in there if you are looking for luxury paid with money.. Playa del Carmen is more find better vibes and nicer people to hang out, drink beer, listen music in small bars, eat delicious food...etc. You should visit Tulum and Laguna de Bacalar, those are really amazing places too, specially if you are looking a place to spend a second honey moon!! ;oD

  4. Soy estudiante mexicano y actualmente pienso irme a vivir durante mis cacaciones de verano a cancun, pienso qyue va a ser una gran experiencia porque aprnedere lo que es vivir completamente solo en una ciudad diferente y creo que practicare el ingles y despues de cancun al siguiente verano me voy a los cabos.