There’s a highway that divides the popular tourist city of Playa del Carmen in Mexico. It’s about a kilometre back from the beach and it’s more than just a physical divide – it’s a cultural one too.
Between the highway and the sand are the hotels, restaurants, and bars – and the millions of tourists who come every year.
On the other side of the highway is where the locals live. It’s a different world, and a different way of life.
Cross the highway from the tourist zone and things change almost immediately. There are no colourful luxury hotels, bright loud bars, and modern stylish shopping malls.
Things are by no means terrible here, but you’ll notice that buildings are more rundown and there’s less focus on appearances.
Until you get to the blocks around El Hongo, that is. Suddenly the colours of murals jump from the walls, there are bright smiles on painted faces, and a mixture of creative styles fill the streets.
This neighbourhood at the southern end of Playa del Carmen is where local resident Goyo has established his community program called El Hongo (The Mushroom, in English).
It is designed to help the local children of Playa del Carmen – but maybe not in the way you might initially assume.
When I visit as part of a G Adventures tour, Goyo gives us a tour of the artwork that has been painted in the surrounding streets by the locals – many of whom have come through his program.
He then sits down with us to talk about El Hongo and his philosophy.
He’s at pains to stress that Mexico is not how it’s often portrayed. The kids here don’t need his help because of crime or drugs. They don’t need his help because of poverty.
Goyo believes the biggest problem for the kids is a lack of imagination. He thinks there aren’t enough creative outlets. That’s why he’s giving them the opportunity to make art.
“This city is a tourist place,” he tells me.
“People are working at the beach or the club street. But they don’t take care of the kids – and they need something to grow their mind. Because otherwise they’ll follow the same thing. They’re going to work for a hotel.”
“But maybe, for example, they could be a better musician and they could get a better life.”
With the large number of tourists who come to Playa del Carmen, there is plenty of employment here. But the average Mexican wage is low. It means locals still need to work hard to earn a decent income.
So while mum and dad cross the highway to go to work at hotels and restaurants for long hours, kids are left to their own devices… sometimes literally.
“I saw the kids around here…,” Goyo starts to explain.
“They would play but they would also waste their energy when there would be one kid with his phone and 50 just around watching him. And I thought ‘no, we have so many interesting things to teach to the kids’.”
So here at El Hongo, about 30 kids come for a group workshop once a week where they are taught these interesting things.
It could be a yoga lesson, or they might do some meditation. They learn about Mayan history, practice with musical instruments, or do some handicrafts.
They’re getting to focus on the creative endeavours that they enjoy but are also exposed to new ones they can try out.
Goyo believes this approach works – because it’s what he has experienced personally.
“I didn’t have this conscience 25 years ago,” he explains.
“My conscience grew with with my mind and my spirit as I got educated and got opportunities in life.”
“Now I’ve got a chance to show this way to more persons. And the kids to me are the most important because they can change, they can be a different person.”
“With adults it’s not possible. With kids there are more possibilities because their minds are clear.”
He’s seen a lot of the children from the neighbourhood flourish as part of the El Hongo program.
For some, it’s just about having a community to support them. For others, they’ve grown their self-confidence by finding a hobby they enjoy. Some have even gone on to be professional artists and help support their family.
In the streets around El Hongo, you only have to look at the incredible artworks to see the kind of talent that exists here. Talent that maybe wouldn’t have been discovered if Goyo hadn’t established an encouraging environment.
“With music and art you can use another side of the brain and the person can grow their mind to make them a better human,” he says.
“That why I try to make the connection with the art. Because when I got the opportunity when I was a kid to get these feelings and they made me more connected, I think.”
After spending a lot of this Mayan Discovery tour with G Adventures seeing the history of the region, it’s nice for us to feel a bit more connected with the local community as well.
One of the reasons I am proud to be a ‘Wanderer’ with G Adventures is because the company really does make an effort to support the locals where they take tours.
It’s not just about hiring locals and choosing to work with businesses where the money stays in the community. G Adventures also uses its charitable organisation, Planeterra, to give funding support to social enterprises like El Hongo.
It’s not simply a handout, though. It’s about bringing tourists like us to the organisation where we have paid for dinner as part of our tour and also have the chance to buy handicrafts made by the children. The profits from this then go to help fund the community project.
Before I leave, I buy a bit of craft that one of the children here has made. It’s small enough that I can take it with me, put it somewhere that I might call home.
Goyo tells me that half the money from the sale of the craft stays with the organisation for group activities and the other half goes directly to the child. There’s a label attached to what I’ve just bought with a message from the kid, including his name and age.
Goyo was right earlier when he said that art could make people more connected. I thought he had meant to the community or something a bit more ethereal. I didn’t realise he also meant to a stranger from the other side of the world.
I travelled on this tour with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Mexico and Central America.