I touched down on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in June during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in most places around the world. I’d flown from Brazil to Florida in March in response to my mother’s panicked frenzy and wound up quarantined in my parents’ home for way longer than a thirty-one-year-old should be. By June, I desperately needed to get back to some semblance of normal life.
COVID-19 in Mexico vs. the United States
From the time I stepped off the plane in the Cancun Airport, I was pleasantly shocked at how much more seriously the virus was being taken in Mexico. Florida beaches were packed with mask-less sunbathers. In Playa del Carmen, beaches were essentially closed, I couldn’t find anyone walking down the street without a mask on and social distancing was well respected. I couldn’t enter a building without my temperature being taken and hand sanitizer pumped onto my palms. In addition, and much to my confusion, going inside also involved stepping in a tray of sanitizing liquid (like a wet rug) to sanitize the bottoms of shoes.
At the time, there were no quarantine restrictions on travelers arriving from the United States, but I didn’t feel comfortable running around willy-nilly after a flight from Miami—during which many passengers spoke non-subtly about how useless masks are.
Pro Tip 1: Quarantining outside of your home country will feel similar to experiences with other cultural differences. Go with the flow (yes, step on that wet sanitizing rug!) as a way to respect both their culture and your health.
Eating and Managing Health While Abroad During a Pandemic
Quarantining turned out better than expected. For two weeks, I completed a very sufficient sampling of all the restaurants in my new city (thank the taco gods for food delivery apps). I joined Facebook groups for expats in Playa del Carmen and used my time to get a feel for the lifestyle here. I researched used bikes to purchase before deciding to sign up for an annual membership to the citywide bike share.
Pro Tip 2: Even if you’re stuck in a hotel, you can use your time to plan the rest of your trip—research ideal hiking routes, day trips to nearby beaches and the best socially-distanced activities to participate in. Don’t forget to brush up on the local language and customs in order to make the most of your experience.
My strategically-booked apartment rental had a rooftop pool that turned out to be a haven for the decompression that accompanied my first true alone time in months. The past six months had put balance into perspective for me. During the pandemic, alone time versus quality time with loved ones has turned into a battle between total isolation and more-than-enough of time with family. While I was thankful for the extended visitation with my parents, the alone time I gained in Mexico was vital.
My poolside relaxation was accompanied by Frida Kahlo’s diary, while I spent nights in my living room with Casa de Papel (Money Heist) on Netflix.
Pro Tip 3: If you’ll be out of the country for an extended time during the pandemic, plan for how you’ll take care of essentials like food, exercise and mental health before you go. This could include mapping out restaurants, choosing a hotel with the amenities you’ll need and finding restaurants that deliver and apps to help you order.
Take Advantage of the Downtime
By the time two weeks had passed, I’d brushed up on my basic Spanish skills, saved a bunch of cute Airbnbs to check out on the nearby islands, made a list of coffee shops I wanted to try and narrowed down which beach bars would be best to get my work done with an ocean view. I also developed a friendly working relationship with my landlord who delivered me massive, refillable, cooler-sized jugs (garrafóns) of fresh drinking water.
My first stop post-quarantine was a socially-distanced trivia night that I discovered during my Facebook investigations into life in Playa del Carmen. Margarita in hand, I joined a team of fellow transplants from around the world where we discussed, to my absolute pleasure, everything except the state of the world and COVID-19.
Pro Tip 4: Pandemic life abroad is significantly different than regular travel, and requires a mindset shift. You may not be able to hit all of the tourist spots and nightclubs you want to, but what you find instead may be just as enjoyable, or even moreso.
Enjoy Your Time Abroad!
Traveling during the pandemic may not result in your ideal vacation, but you can still enjoy your time quarantined abroad with just a few adjustments. Use your free time to relax, learn a new skill, read a book or try some new cuisine and you’ll be through your quarantine period in no time. It’s important to remember that even once your quarantine is over, you should continue to practice social distancing, handwashing and mask-wearing whenever possible.