Watching Havana in Habana Part 2 by Nathaniel Kostar

The Mall of the World



One block behind sea and sand is La Avenida Quinta, a pedestrian street closed to traffic. The road is smooth brick cut and fit in octagonal patterns and worn reddish gray by the infinite stampede of sandals, shoes and sandy bare feet throughout the years. Playa del Carmen bursts with activity on a summer night, and La Avenida Quinta is the center of it all. This is where the people go to dance, drink, and acquire new things. And it is where I go to people watch. There are a million things to see here if you have any eyes, and nearly all of them are for sale if you have any money.

At night, watch the beautiful people on La Quinta—men and women, brunette and blonde, pale and tan, old and young, well-off and far better off and even filthy rich, all of them bouncing past like pin balls of varying speeds, the unabashed still in their bathing suites, the long time vacationers led by fluff-balls on leashes, and everywhere skin, seductive flashes of skin and teeth.

But if you’re not careful you’ll surely be flattened by tourists too drunk on shopping and/or tequila to realize you’re standing in front of them. Some of them strut in groups of four and five and feel inclined to walk shoulder to shoulder, usually the more heavyset arrangements. They stretch nearly the length of the street like offensive lines persistently pushing forward for touchdowns of cheeseburgers, tacos and beer. And their quarterbacks never fail at being some unbelievably pale and thin eight year old with sun tan lotion smeared all over his freckles until he appears like the tiny ghost of a cheetah—the kind of kid who only exists in the first world where He is the Shah of the suburban household. And although He (or She) hasn’t been outside since the first trip home from the hospital, upon release into the world of vacation—unlimited excess! beauty! indulgence!—He finds great authority in his core and with mucho gusto shouts one word observations and demands at his offensive line:

Hungry!…Monkey!… Silver!… Now!

Fortunately, there are couples on La Quinta who’ve sunken so deep into the euphoria of paradisiacal romance they’d rather decapitate our beloved Shah with their forearms then unlock their petaled fingers from their lover’s grip. With my strange pace, which fluctuates between Northeastern/NYC run-walk and New Orleans summertime languor (sleepwalk?), I watch groups tangle and collide like a redneck watching a NASCAR pileup—

Ya’ll see that lil squirt go down! Boy!


There are three Starbucks on La Quinta, and they’re packed with the same yoga pants, i-pod touting urbanites who adorn the Starbucks in your hometown. I made this discovery my first evening in Playa when I planned to meet a friend from New Orleans at “the Starbucks on La Avenida Quinta.”After waiting for half an hour at the first one I came across I asked the waiter if there was another in town.

“Si, hay mucho!” 

I didn’t find my friend that night, but if Playa has three or four Starbucks now, they’ll have six or seven by the time you read this. Free wifi and no one fucks with you—say what you like, but that’s a great business model. Local baristas and businessmen, get hip to it. Or at least used to it. Starbucks ain’t goin’ nowhere.


Canadian sports bars display hockey on large flat screens while customers in tank tops and sandals conjure images of snow and ice. American sports bars with college and NBA basketball and even Mexican sports bars, believe it or not, with soccer. Sedentary Mexicans with Dos Equis bellies (three Dos Equis makes a six pack si tu hablas espanol) and black and gold Mayan headdresses and regalia shout—Hey amigo!  Delicious tacos!  Pizza!  Pasta! Burger! Cervezas! Whatever!—to stroller-bys who tend further and further toward the middle of the street to avoid being constantly accosted with poorly pronounced declarations of fact and nouns thrown like spears by mouths that have been moved and manipulated into voice-signs.

There are pizzerias with checkered tablecloths straight from Brooklyn and Sicily, cafés with lovely leather awnings and stone courtyards, $4 lattes and $5 mochas and a myriad of bicycles and scooters parked in the street. There are shiny SUV’s from Mexico City with pretty Latinas stepping down in heels from the passenger side. There are sombreros of all colors and decorative skulls and keepsake tequila bottles and stupid T-shirts that say things like—“Don’t give my husband beer,” “I think he’s gayà”  “Drunk 1” “Drunk 2.” There are art galleries tucked away in alleys bursting with vibrant Caribbean colors, bars with signs that say “Free shots of tequila for girls that dance on the bar,” “Bet the game here!”, “Girls buy one get one free all night!” There are dark-skinned Mexicans with California accents and Iguanas crawling on their heads trying to lure you in for a photo, and British gap years rejoicing over beer and tequila at outdoor round-table bars:

“Oh! thank the Queen!”  they must be saying. “It’s not raining and our money is gold!” 

There are American frat boys sprouting virgin hairs on their chin as they wait in line for Coco Bongo. Yes! and there’s even Coco Bongo! Can’t forget Coco Bongo, where just off La Quinta a hundred-foot tall billboard of the self-declared “modern-day feminist” Beyonce looms sexily over the Mexican street. Remember guys, “if you like it then you better put a ring on it.”And guys—the first it means your girlfriend (or her finger, or her…nevermind). But the point is, it wants it.


There’s a Sunglass Hut, McDonald’s, Burger King, a look-alike Footlocker, a Ben & Jerrys, and a swank Italian place where a pudgy man with a mustache is forever rolling pizza dough in front of gawking crowds like he’s a street musician. There’s an upscale Argentinean Parilla Grill with $30 steaks, a Japanese sushi restaurant, and a store that sells artisan crafted  metro-sexual cowboy boots that no real cowboy would want or could possibly afford—well, maybe George W. and the boys.

There are T-shirts for sale, glass skulls and guns filled with tequila, silver jewelry laid out on street-side tables shining brilliantly under the moon. There are wind charms, night-lights made from conch shell, sandals, sundials, sunglasses, sunscreen—all things sun related, make-up stores, pharmacies—pharmacies where you can get almost any first-world candy without prescription (go Xanex!), Cuban cigars, Mayan masks, hand-woven blankets—

The street is the mall of the world.

And if physics allowed it, we, the tourists, would walk on our hands to assist and simplify the process of having our pockets emptied. Why go through all the hoopla and awkward human interactions when you can cut straight to the chase? The purchase, that is.

And this is all okay, right? It’s okay? 

Yes… I suppose…

Well, actually, I look at it like this:

You cannot see the ocean from most places on La Quinta, but you wouldn’t want to. Or rather, they wouldn’t want you to. It would be a distraction. That eye-consuming body of beauty that cannot be consumed—surely its visceral magnetism would diminish sales. More than once a sweet sea breeze curling up an alley has derailed me from La Quinta and landed my ass on some soft patch of sand to water-worship. Sometimes I think if it weren’t for the sublimity of the translucent emerald water that daily massages the Yucatan’s shores and can enliven even the dullest of souls, (or the splashing diarrhea known as the taco-tax), most of us in Playa del Carmen wouldn’t even know we left home. Anything can be acquired here if you speak the language of coin, so you need not be uncomfortable in the least. Demand what you want in Spanish, English, Italian, Korean—pay for it in pesos or dollars, and voila! It’s yours.

Scratch all that—It’s 80 degrees and breezy in March and the guy at the bar ordering Patron shots for him and his wife lives in Akron, Ohio. I bummed a cigarette off him yesterday. Nice guy. He knows he left home.

About Nathaniel Kostar