This story was originally published on StandupJournal.com
Photos: Ilse Mitford Taylor/Aloha Paddle Club
“Mira!” my tour guide, Ilse, called out to me from a distance, a Spanish accent distinct in the tone of her voice. I didn’t have to look to know what she had gotten excited about. I felt it on my face and bare skin as I lay in Shavasana on the sturdy, super-rad Starboard 11’2” Avanti lent to me for the standup paddleboarding tour. I was happily floating along with the gentle rolling swells of the Caribbean Sea.
Lost in thought, I reflected on the memories that play in my mind whenever I find myself on a paddleboard. I almost forgot where I was and I almost didn’t hear Ilse call out to me. They were memories that had put my paddling adventure into motion, kicked off by a set of events that had placed me on the board that day. I already believed that the universe had a plan for all of it, that it all served a greater purpose. At that moment, I was trying to grasp what that was, although unsuccessfully.
When I finally opened my eyes, there was, as I had predicted, the sun peeking through the stratocumulus rain clouds that had been dampening my weekend escape to Quintana Roo. The morning sun transformed the tropical colors of the Riviera Maya into even more vibrant shades, adding finishing touches to the picturesque landscape of the palm tree-lined white beaches most people only get to see on their computer screens.
Playa del Carmen. Or Playa, as locals call it, is as vibrant as its colors under sunlit skies. Located on the northeastern coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, midpoint of Cancun and Tulum, Playa is known as a beach destination for travelers looking for the “local” experience without completely giving up the “tourist-y” perks. You won’t have a problem becoming immersed in traditional Mayan culture and catching up on Instagram at a Starbucks all in the same town.
And just like its geographic location, Playa’s energy level falls between Cancun’s and Tulum’s, appealing to both the lively and laid back. Its streets, in particular Calle Quinta Avenida parallel to the beach, are lined with trendy hotels, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and of course, souvenir shops, that keep this popular resort town flourishing, but not so much that it interrupts rest and relaxation time on the beach.
With so many activity options, not many travelers come to Playa to solely paddle, although most of them end up on a paddleboard because the blue-green water of the Caribbean Sea is so inviting. Aloha Paddle Club, Playa’s premier Sup tour company located in Inti Beach Club (Calle 4 Norte, Centro), makes it possible to accept the invitation, even offering packages that make for a perfect half-to-full day Playa experience for health and fitness enthusiasts looking to indulge. Because if there is one place in the Riviera Maya to pick up paddleboarding, Playa del Carmen is the spot and Aloha is the company to guide you.
“So here we are, at the Hyatt, Mamitas, and the Caribbean Sea,” Ilse pointed out, breaking the stillness to continue the tour and bringing me back to present time.
It was also a signal that it was time to go back. We had been floating for over a half hour and it would take us at least 45-minutes to paddle back to the beach, a shorter time than the paddle out as we would be riding the waves back. A typical Aloha Sup tour is 90-minutes long, and we were way beyond that time limit.
And just like any typical Aloha Sup tour, we launched from Inti Beach Club, swimming out past the crashing waves and paddling about a mile into the open sea. We paddled around the muelle (commercial dock), past a few powerboats and PWCs, and to the nearest buoy off the beach of the Grand Hyatt. It was approximately 2.5 miles in total, a cinch to do for more advanced paddlers, but a challenge for beginners such as myself.
While the water was mostly flat, there were many hidden dangers in this section of the Caribbean Sea. Although the crystal-clear water eases your mind as it allows you to see below, paddling on your own is unadvisable. Throughout the tour, Ilse emphasized the importance of safety while leading me through an invisible trail that only an experienced tour guide would know was free from heavy boat traffic, strong currents and potentially harmful wildlife. She warned, “Never underestimate the natural powers of the Caribbean Sea.”
It was evident from what we saw as we paddled along the shoreline that the day was just beginning. The only mobile life forms on the beach were workers setting up shop, and a few sun worshipers excited about the sun’s grand entrance. At ten o’clock in the morning in Playa, this wasn’t an unfamiliar sight.
We had paused our tour at the buoy to rehydrate and recoup while sharing stories about love and standup paddleboarding. That is the magic of paddling in the open sea of the Mexican Caribbean; it lures you to open up to strangers about topics of life you don’t freely discuss even with your closest friends back home.
“At the end of each tour,” Ilse stated, “Strangers come back to the beach as friends.”
Isle wasn’t shy about telling her story. She told of how she moved from Veracruz to Playa del Carmen to find a better life for herself. How it was because of a broken heart that encouraged her to turn to standup paddling as a way to cope. She told of how she met Sander, an expat from the Netherlands and the founder and principal instructor of Aloha, while training to become a Sup instructor and they fell in love in the process. And she told me that Mila, their newborn baby girl (“It’s from milagro, meaning ‘miracle’ in Spanish,” Ilse shared, “My doctor said I couldn’t have babies, and here she is.”), was the most important product of this love.
“You ready to go back?” She asked me with a smile, knowing the answer to her question was a no.
Her story prompted me to get lost in my own memories. How only two years ago while on a snorkeling excursion in the British Virgin Islands (to cope with my broken heart) I was introduced to the standup paddling world. How the love within the Sup community I observed during the Painkiller Cup made me become interested in the sport. How a few months after that I decided I would learn the basic principles of standup paddleboarding through Peter Pan Surfing and Sup Academy. And how only recently I purchased my very first board–a light but durable POP Paddleboard 10’6” Classico (in pink!)– and turned my miniature schnauzer into a Sup pup.
“I guess so,” I responded hesitantly, sad at the thought that our tour was coming to an end. As I stood on my paddleboard and dipped my paddle in the water, I took one last look at Playa and promised myself that I would be back again.
We returned following the same route we paddled out earlier, riding a few fun waves back onto the beach. A tall, blond man holding a cute, tiny tanned baby (donning a pair of sunglasses the color of the sunset) greeted our return. Isle ran into Sander’s arms and held onto Mila as if she hadn’t seen them for days. The love that I saw within this little Dutch-Mexican paddling family was so pure in this moment of reunion, it made me look forward to starting my own.
Although the tour was over, I stayed around for a bit to hang out with my newfound friends and watch little Mila take her first Sup ride. I reflected on what had brought little Mila into the world, and how the love for standup paddleboarding is passed on to her as she begins her own paddling journey. The thought completely eliminated any sadness I had felt earlier as the sight of Mila on a Sup brought a smile to my face because it reminded me that, while this particular adventure was over, just like hers, my journey into standup paddleboarding had just begun.