Playa del Carmen, Maya Riviera Princess
If Cancun is King and Cozumel is the Queen of the Sea (or maybe Isla Mujeres wants to be the Queen...?), then Playa del Carmen is the Princess of the Mayan Riviera.
Everyone knows about the King, with its behemoth all-inclusive hotels on beaches (better than ever after Wilma) boasting the softest, whitest and coolest sand in this hemisphere. And of course the Queen, the biggest island off the coast of the Mayan Riviera, is a divers' and snorklers' paradise.
But Playa (as it is known to all those who are too lazy to say "Playa del Carmen"), ahhhh, Playa! Playa is both charming and annoying, like all princesses. Beautiful, sweet, hip and sassy... a modern-day Mexican beach princess whose passport has stamps of many countries. She has a cell phone in one hand, a shopping bag in the other, and sand between her painted toes.
A sleepy baby of a town with unpaved streets less than ten years ago, Playa del Carmen is all grown up now and has been discovered by travelers from all over the world. Playa was a much more intimate place when we started going there, just five short years ago. We've heard that Playa del Carmen is the fastest growing city in the Americas. With its limitations on building heights and zoning laws (unusual in Mexico), it seems at least to be growing with some intelligence, but it is definitely more crowded and less relaxed than it used to be. Still, Playa del Carmen offers up peaceful beaches and clear Caribbean waters without the cost or crowds or complications of Cancun. Oh, you can spend as much money here as you would in Cancun. But you can also enjoy proximity to the water, world-class shopping and entertainment, and delicious dining for a lot less.
The common thread through the entire tourist area is Fifth Avenue, the main walking and shopping street that runs parallel to the beach. The south end of Fifth Avenue is the beginning of PlayaCar, a large small city of a development with resort-style hotels, condominiums and single-family houses for rent or for sale and at least one 18-hole golf course. It is also marked by the pier that accommodates the ferry to Cozumel and the cruise ship day-trippers. The north end of the tourist area used to be the Hotel Gran Porto Real, then it was the twin beach clubs of Mamitas and Playa Toucan. But the north end is where the most growth seems to be, so who can say where "the end" is today. Certainly nowhere currently in sight.
The biggest hotels in Playa del Carmen are tiny compared to Cancun, and there are many small boutique hotels here. There's a hotel to fit every taste and budget. Most hotels are less than three blocks from the beach, though not very many are actually ON the beach. Somehow, in Playa, that's okay. And for our money, a hotel on or near Fifth Avenue is the best bet. Everything... the beach, the restaurants, the shopping, the dive shops, the ATMs... it's all just a hop, skip and a jump from your bed and your shower.
And there is so much to choose from in just a few blocks! You can choose from a hip luxury hotel located in the thick of the nightly scene like Mosquito Blue or Deseo (we love Deseo's 2nd-story pool and bar), a mid-priced centrally-located hotel like Jungla Caribe (one of the oldest hotels in Playa with a great people-watching restaurant), upscale and luxurious condo rental like Villas Sacbe (hidden away on 1st Ave), one of our favorites La Tortuga with its cool lagoon-like pool in the center, a traditional beach resort hotel like Las Palapas, or the ultra-moderns: the new Mosquito Beach hotel that is, yes, on the beach or the decidedly hip Basico, which is not. There is also of course, the Blue Parrot, which has been slowly taking over various hotel spaces on the beach and has become a complex of hotel buildings, as well as a perennially popular (though loud for our taste) beach bar and restaurant (at the end of 12th St. on the beach). It's a nice place to visit for the beach proximity and for sitting on the swings at the bar, but there are better places to eat. The Gran Porto Real (the biggest hotel in central Playa) has recently expanded to be even grander and has a lot of rooms, all of which seem to have a view of the water. If you are on a budget, places like the Luna Blue Hotel (formerly the Hotel Zanzibar) or La Rana Cansada provide more basic rooms for usually less than $100 a night.
If you drive to Playa, expect to park your car on the street, which is easy to do except on the busiest weekends, and leave it there. Most of what Playa del Carmen has to offer is within walking distance. Walking up and down Fifth Avenue is a favorite pastime after a day at the beach. Some people seem to just skip the beach and spend all day shopping. Not our cup of tea, but there's plenty of shopping to satisfy even the most dedicated.
The restaurants in Playa are legion, and there are constantly new ones being opened. As residents of Yucatan, we come to Playa for great Italian food, great wine and great seafood. Italians have settled in Playa in great numbers, so the Italian food, from cappucinos to carpaccio, is fabulous. Five years ago, you couldn't find more than two brands of Cabernet, but wine lists have been growing and deepending in Playa, and now the choices are much better. If you are a wine lover, try the Glass Bar on the corner of 5th Avenue and 12th St. or Sur Pizzaria Grill, Wine Bar & Restaurant on Calle Corazon just two blocks north. Both restaurants have both outstanding food and some of the most comprehensive wine lists in the Yucatan (and we know about these things!). Most restaurants provide outdoor seating under the trees and stars, with views onto Fifth Avenue or the beach. Far fewer provide air conditioning... in fact, we cannot think of any. Dining in Playa del Carmen is very much an outdoor experience.
Did we mention shopping? A serious shopper can walk the length of Fifth Avenue in the cool of the evening, choosing from street vendors from Chiapas or designer clothes in the stores, Mexican pottery, silver jewelry, handcrafts, Mayan art and everything in between. Most stores in Playa are not chain stores and a dedicated shopper will find more variety here than in the malls of Cancun, often at better prices. But if you just spilled suntan oil on your favorite pair of Diesel jeans, you can probably find those on Fifth Avenue too.
Playa del Carmen also has a good assortment of internet cafes, so you never have to be out of touch with the folks back home, unless of course you want to be. Our favorite is at the Zoo Café, on Fifth Avenue half a block north of Calle Corazon. The computers are clustered around a central island in the middle of a restaurant, and you can have a cool drink, a cappuccino or a sandwich while you are checking your email. It's a little pricier than most, but the connections are fast and reliable. And the sandwiches (our favorites are the tomato and mozzarella on french bread) are good and cheap.
Our daughter and friends love the nightlife in Playa. Our favorite place is the quiet bar and restaurant on the beach at Fusions. But we're old. We can see (and hear!) various night clubs and bars in town providing music, drinks and sometimes excellent live music. Unlike in Cancun, you can walk from one to the next without having to get in a car or bus, and then walk back to your hotel when the night is over. Much safer for you and the other people on the highway.
For your first night in Playa, we suggest going to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, which is the unofficial center of Fifth Avenue. You can have dinner at anyplace you can see and it will be good. Head down to the beach, and you'll find more places to drink and eat. You might be able to walk in and have a drink at the Blue Parrot beach bar, or they might be charging a cover that night (this is a new development). One way or another, get down to the beach. Then just keep walking south to the pier. If you are so inclined, have a drink at Señor Frogs (or not.... we don't) or walk to the end of the pier and look at the lights of Cozumel across the way (we do like to do that). Walk back on Fifth Avenue where you'll find more places to drink and mingle, too numerous to mention. Back at 12th St., if you turn left away from the beach, there are two nightclubs on that block, as well as a popular late-night pizza place and our favorite Banamex ATM. Or just continue north on Fifth Avenue for more shopping, dining and partying options. There are new places springing up all the time, we can't keep on top of them all and it's pointless to try. Have fun and discover your own special place.
If you haven't done too much partying the night before, you can have breakfast at one of our favorites, the Cafe Tropical right on Fifth Avenue or the peaceful garden restaurant called Cueva del Chango's off of Fifth Avenue in the North. Or just pick up a bagel and cappucino at Java Joe's on 10th Street just inland from 5th Avenue. After breakfast you'll find that Playa del Carmen is a great base from which to scuba dive, snorkel, or take day trips to cenotes, visit the water and wildlife parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret, Tulum or the many other attractions of the Mayan Riviera. Playa is central to all of it, which probably accounts for some of its growing popularity.
Taxis can always be found at the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street. The bus station is located at the south end of Fifth Avenue one block from the pier (and across the street from a McDonalds and an ATM). Playa del Carmen is located 42 miles (68 km) south of Cancun and can be reached by bus from Merida or Cancun.
So now you know some of the details. But nothing we can write can communicate the gestalt of Playa del Carmen. You have to go there. Experience the heady combination of style and sand that is friendly, beautiful, there to serve your every desire and just a tad unnerving. That continually crashing sound you hear as you walk down Fifth Avenue? That's the sound of international investment dollars pouring into the terra firma of Playa del Carmen, guaranteed to grow into montones (mounds, mountains) of money. We prefer the quiet tranquilidad of Merida for a place to live, but Playa is always a fun place to visit.
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