It’s hard to believe that this enchanting, seaside city was cloaked in thick jungle brush only a few short decades ago. The shrouded inland, once a prominent port in the Mayan trade route centuries prior, was inhabited by just a handful of fishermen and their families.
In the 1970s, with the popularity of Cancun and Cozumel growing exponentially, visitors began to widen their scope of discovery. Travelers trickled further down the Mayan Riviera coastline. Ferry docks were constructed to accommodate the influx of visitors from the Cozumel cruise port. Construction began with a few small hotels and beach bars until the early 90s when the development and real estate sectors exploded.
Today, the few dirt roads from Playa’s past have been paved. Neighborhoods are speckled with schools, hospitals, shopping plazas, movie theaters, and museums. Hundreds of thousands of tourists come to the “Heart of the Riviera Maya” each year to spend a few days relaxing and soaking up the sun in this Mexican Caribbean paradise.
What is it about Playa del Carmen that continues to attract national and international travelers from around the globe?
Location Location Location
For starters, it’s only 45 minutes from the Cancun International Airport. Frequent and economical flights from all over North and South America means visitors can easily access exotic vacation bliss. Although Cancun is closer, it has also gained a reputation over the years for being a hub for wild, spring breakers.
While Playa receives its fair share of party people (especially during our epic music festival events), it has still managed to preserve its quaint fishing village vibe. The majority of the action that most tourists seek out happens in the vibrant neighborhoods located on the east side of the federal highway. You can easily get around on a bike, or access the white sands and lively dining, shopping and entertainment district by foot when staying in Playa’s east side.
Tip: 5th Avenue or La Quinta in Spanish, is Playa del Carmen’s famous pedestrian-only street. Choose to stay close to 5th for prime access to hundreds of restaurants, galleries, boutique and artisan shops, cafes and dive centers.
Just off the silky shores of Playa del Carmen is the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef system in the word. This means you can find excellent spots all along the Rivera Maya to witness spectacular marine life either through deep sea diving or snorkelingadventures. There are dozens of certified, professional diving and tour companies that are able to guide novice and seasoned divers on some of the most incredible diving expeditions one will ever encounter. Some recommended excursions include diving with Whale Sharks from June until September and Wreck Dives off the nearby coast of Cozumel.
Safe, International Community
With an average of over 300 days of sunshine per year, Playa del Carmen is an ideal retirement haven and snowbird destination. Even when it rains, it is fresh but still warm. Expats like me are drawn to the endless summer climate among other things like the safety and reasonable cost of living. Friendly residents from France, Italy, the United States and Canada make up the largest expat groups and it is very easy to create long-lasting friendships with people from all over the world.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to venture off the property you’ve chosen to stay at. Playa del Carmen and the entire Yucatan Peninsula is one of the safest areas in Mexico. Sample new cuisine, see amazing sights, chat with the locals, but use common sense and drink responsibly.
Impressive Gastronomy Scene
With a colorful international community comes an abundance of choices for dining. There is no shortage of exceptional international or traditional Mexican cuisine. Foodies will delight in eating their way through menus of savory casual and upscale fare. From Thai to Mexican, sushi to pasta, vegetarian to tacos, light and fresh seafood to rich French dishes, those who appreciate great food will delight in satisfying their taste buds in Playa del Carmen.
One of the amazing things about the soft, alabaster sand here is that it stays cool, even on the hottest of summer days in the Mayan Riviera. The beaches in Playa del Carmen are wide and run along the entire length of the city. It is difficult for beach bums to leave after a mesmerizing day of splashing in the surf. Since the shores of Playa border the Caribbean Sea, the water is almost always crystal clear and the color – the most striking shades of turquoise and aqua blue.
Mamita’s Beach Club
Whether you like to park yourself on the beach with a cocktail and a good book or you like to experience the views from a closer perspective, out on the water, there are so many entertaining options in either case. Chic beach clubs for the trendsetting traveler, watering holes for fun-loving snowbirds, and laid-back ocean side eateries the whole family will enjoy are stationed all along the palm-fringed coastline. Ocean enthusiasts can wet their feet in the blue-green waters via paddleboard, parasail, kite board, catamaran or even banana boat! Everyday is a memorable one when spent outdoors under the magnificent Mexican sun.
Playa del Carmen has an enigmatic air that tends to draw creative, enlightened spirits. If yoga is an essential part of your daily routine, you will be surprised at the seemingly limitless number of top-notch instructors in the area teaching every discipline of yoga. There is no better meditative environment than a break of dawn class on the sand, as the sun rises over the glistening Caribbean.
Fresh juice bars are as common a sight as Starbucks in the US and there are ample choices for vegan, vegetarian and lighter fare. Bio-Natural, Bio Organicos and The Pitted Date are healthy options.
Tip: If you’re staying in Playacar in Playa’s south end, there is a picturesque, 6km walking/biking/running path that circles through the gated community.
A Passion For The Arts
Writers, musicians, singers, painters and performance artists intertwine to form Playa del Carmen’s thriving artistic crowd. On any given night you can listen to phenomenal live music at various venues in the city. Playa’s new Teatro de la Ciudad is host to all sorts of performances including ballet, cultural dance, acrobatic, theatrical, and children’s entertainment events. Our local friend Natascha at Le Lotus Rouge created Art World, an inspiring concept in which she uses art in the form of painting classes, intimate concerts and writing workshops to unify the multi-cultural population and those visiting Playa del Carmen temporarily.
Cirque du Soleil now has a permanent show called JOYA located between Playa and Cancun.
Beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula flows the world’s longest underground river system. Due to its porous limestone composition, the river’s current has caused large sinkholes called cenotes (pronounced se-NO-tays). Entrenched in the peninsula are thousands of these natural swimming pools. There is no better way to cool off and explore the surreal beauty of the region than passing the day cliff jumping and wading in the refreshing waters of a cenote.
Tip: There are several cenotes 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen that you can get to via Colectivo – a van taxi that starts at Calle 2 and 20th Avenue and drops people off and picks passengers up along the 307 Highway for a mere $2USD. The entrance fees for cenotes range from $3-6USD but plan to pay in pesos. Recommended cenotes: Azul, Eden and Crystalino.
For the adventurous traveler, there are several opportunities to discover secluded treasures and have unforgettable cultural experiences. The well-maintained highways offer convenient access to dozens of small Mayan pueblitas (villages). In many cases, within the community, there is a modest store where people passing through can purchase handcrafted goods such as intricately woven hammocks, honey and other all-natural products made from honey. This is a good starting point for conversation and interaction with those who continue to hold sacred the beliefs and customs of their fascinating, ancient ancestors.
Tip: In the city, check out free Mayan cultural performances like the ‘Danza de los Voladores’ (Mayan Flying Men) or the Mayan Warriors Dance at Parque Fundadores on the south end of 5th Avenue near the chapel.
There are millions of acres of protected wildlife reserves in the Yucatan Peninsula. Near Playa del Carmen, two such awe-inspiring expanses that you can reach in just over an hour include the Sian Ka’an Biosphere south of Tulum’s hotel zone and the Yum-Balam Biosphere near the island of Holbox.
For a short, but memorable overnight road trip, the fishing town of Punta Allen is a magical place where you are forced to slow down, unplug and immerse yourself into sublime natural settings. There are just a few companies in the area that offer reasonably priced boat tours. For about $300-$400 pesos, boat captains take passengers on an exhilarating journey through Mayan-made canals, lagoons, and out to the open sea. You can observe the many creatures that call the tropical forests, mangroves and marine sections of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere home. Some of the remarkable fauna includes Howler monkeys, over 400 species of fish, the American crocodile, Spider monkeys, jaguars, 330 species of birds, the West Indian Manatee, dolphins, and sea turtles.
Tip: It’s best to rent a car if you plan to go to Punta Allen. The road seems long because it is bumpy, but you should arrive in less than 3 hours when driving from Playa.
Approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes north west of Playa del Carmen is the Chiquila ferry to Isla Holbox (pronounced Hole-bosh). To get around this heavenly, little jewel, golf cart taxi drivers are happy to give you a lift for under $3USD. One of the main attractions is a tour to swim with migrating Whale Sharks who visit the Yum-Balam Biosphere each year. On a previous trip to Holbox, we reserved a boat with a group of friends and set out to have one of the most memorable days of our lives. The captain promised that we would see whale sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, and flamingos. To see 2 out of the 4 would have been a thrill, but the captain stayed true to his word. Not only did we swim beside the gentle giants of the sea (whale sharks), we glided alongside a pod of dolphins, raced flying fish, watched hundreds of pink flamingos mingling on a sand bar, and ate ceviche (a fresh, raw fish dish cured in lime) on a secluded, private island.
Immaculate Golf Courses
Since Tiger Woods came along and made golf a cool sport, the immaculate courses of the Riviera Maya have become popular for golf vacations. Dozens of scenic, championship quality golf courses are surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, some holes even looking onto the blue-green Caribbean Sea (talk about a water hazard!)
Courses like Hard Rock Golf Club Riviera Maya in Playacar and Iberostar, just 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen are all-inclusive (green fees, golf cart, unlimited food and drinks included in the rate) while others like Grand Coral, located 5 minutes north of Playa, offer the all-inclusive option for an additional fee. Mayakoba is another superior course near Playa del Carmen where the PGA tournament, the OHL Golf Classic, is held annually. The yearlong summer climate means you never have to wait until the snow melts to hit the links, making Playa del Carmen a golfer’s paradise.
Tip: During low season (May to December) golf clubs like Hard Rock in Playa del Carmen, Grand Coral and Mayakoba periodically offer a 2 for 1 rate.
If the game of golf is too slow for you, you might consider picking up the pace and heading to Playa del Carmen’s buzzing nightclub zone on Calle 12. It’s hard to tell which day of the week it is because the dance clubs and bars come alive every night in Playa del Carmen. At Coco Bongo, Vegas style performers hit the stage, first-rate DJs spin all night and a charismatic staff creates such a fun atmosphere that you never want to leave. Mandala just down the street is a 3-level, open-air club with a chic roof terrace, walls of television screens and a resident DJ who plays until the sun comes up. For the best underground disco in town, Santanera is the place. La Santanera embodies the nightlife scene of Playa del Carmen with its sexy, tropical ambience.
FYI: You can dance all day in Playa at places like Martina and Mamitas Beach Clubs, Coralina day club, and from time to time Canibal Royal throws awesome private parties.
Music and dance enthusiasts also flock to this effervescent city for some of the country’s most famous festivals. Every January, the BPM attracts tens of thousands of EDM aficionados to Playa’s world-renowned beaches. Over 300 of the best DJs on the globe perform for fans at various breathtaking locales around town. Playa del Carmen has also been selected to host other prominent cultural events like the Riviera Maya Jazz and Film festivals.
For something in between golf and all-night dancing, there are plenty of family-friendly eco-parks like Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xenses, Xplor, Rio Secreto, Selvatica and Punta Venado just outside of Playa del Carmen. Xcaret offers a full range of adventure and cultural activities within the park including a nightly grand finale – a 2-hour live show depicting the history and many interesting facets of Mexico’s culture.
Each park presents the chance to make lasting memories with your loved ones through unique experiences like zip-lining over the jungle canopy, floating down lazy rivers, swimming behind waterfalls, touching star fish at interactive aquariums, horseback riding along the pristine shores, as well as cruising on an ATV over verdant forest trails.
Tip: If possible, book tickets for the parks online at least 21 days in advance for discounted prices.
If you have not yet had the chance to visit the ‘Heart of the Mayan Riviera’ it’s time to come and experience all of the beauty and magic for yourselves! There’s something for everyone in Playa del Carmen.
Soy una persona que le gusta viajar y compartir sus experiencias con el mundo, soy papá, Esposo, escribo tips, promociones y atractivos de Puerto Vallarta y sus alrededores. Amo a mi ciudad y a mi familia y me gusta sentir que ayudo a mi país compartiendo nuestros bellos atractivos turisticos.
Me gustaría algún día ser conocido como uno de los principales promotores de Puerto Vallarta... Twitter: @VallartaViejo