The small city of Playa del Carmen on Mexico's Yucatan coast is the geographic and cultural center of the Riviera Maya, one of Mexico's fastest-growing destinations. It is enjoyable for what it is, but perhaps more for what it's not.
It's not Cancun, the major resort area that's about an hour's drive north. For those who find Cancun too large and glossy and lacking in local character, bustling Playa del Carmen is the cure: cozy, funky and quite international, though still with a Mexican flair.
But the once small town has been changing quickly: Large numbers of luxury and all-inclusive hotels, boutiques and restaurants are the norm, and the lovely Playa del Carmen beach is becoming sandwiched between large-scale developments. The Playacar complex just south of downtown Playa del Carmen includes more than a dozen resorts, with further development spread all along the Riviera Maya.
Playa del Carmen's main pedestrian walkways are often jammed with tourists and aggressive salespeople trying to lure them into stores and restaurants. Some claim this is the fastest-growing city in Mexico, but lovers of the relaxed vibe shouldn't give up on Playa just yet.
Despite the town's growing popularity, the pace remains delightfully slow much of the time. And the core of this pleasant town is young, vibrant, and joyous. During the day, the downtown beaches always have a lively crowd of locals and tourists enjoying the azure waters of the Caribbean, and the downtown shops and restaurants are alive with customers. In the evenings, Playa takes on a more festive air, with groups of friends, families and strolling musicians filling the street as the local restaurants, bars and discos compete for their attention.
Playa is laid out in a grid pattern, so it's easy to navigate on foot. The main street between the highway and the beach runs west to east and is called Avenida Juarez. Banks, pharmacies and stores frequented by the locals line this street.
The main tourist area is spread out along Avenida 5 (locally called "La Quinta") and has hotels, restaurants, bars, dive shops, car rental offices, travel agencies and a slew of boutiques. It runs parallel to and just a block or two away from the beach and stretches for more than 20 blocks, beginning at Calle 1, near the ferry dock. All of the street is pedestrian-only until Calle 42. The road is being extended farther and farther north as more new buildings are constructed, but it gets much less crowded after crossing Calle 38 heading north.
Avenida 10, which is parallel to Avenida 5 and two blocks inland (the avenue numbers increase in fives), is also becoming a busy street as more businesses find their way there.
For all its growth, the town is still quite walkable. In fact, the streets are so narrow and parking spaces so scarce that you're better off not driving while in town.
The story of Playa mirrors the story of the northern Yucatan. For a very long time, very little happened. Fishing was the business, and few people made their way to the area. Things began to change in the mid-1970s, after the resorts of Cancun opened. More travelers began passing through Playa as they made their way down the Akumal Coast to dive, traveled to Tulum to see the ruins, or caught the ferry to the island of Cozumel.
Those who settled in for a longer stay tended to be beach bums or backpacker-style vacationers seeking a beach and inexpensive lodging. Some of them decided to take up residence and opened small inns and cafes on streets that, at the time, were merely dirt roads. But tourism along the Riviera Maya has kicked into a higher gear, and Playa has been one of the biggest areas of growth—especially since the appearance of more cruise ships at nearby Cozumel.
Playa retains its relaxed feel in part because there aren't a lot of attractions within the town itself; visiting the beach is still the primary daytime activity.
That changes if you venture down Highway 307, however. Xcaret, an ecologically oriented theme park built around a lagoon, is just a short drive away, and it has enough activities (and people) to exhaust even the most energetic traveler.
Farther down the road is Xel-Ha. Like Xcaret, it has a brilliant lagoon for snorkeling and offers dolphin swims and other diversions.
Most of the nightlife in Playa del Carmen centers on the small bars and cantinas on Avenida 5 and the larger, trendier spots along calles 10 and 12. In fact, this part of town has been dubbed the Club Zone. There are also several fun places right on the beach, where you can while away the hours after sundown swilling cool drinks and enjoying the town's relaxing atmosphere.
The Blue Parrot Beach Club is one of the favorites there. If you want to catch a game on TV, there are a number of sports bars along Avenida 5 that show ESPN and other sports programming, mostly from the U.S. Newer bars go beyond a standard drinks menu, instead offering mixology libations.
For the late-night scene, some Cancun-style nightclubs can be found along Calle 12, for the two blocks stretching from the beach to Avenida 10. The party starts heating up between 10 and 11 pm, and winds down at 4 am or later in some clubs.
Seafood and Yucatecan dishes are specialties in Playa del Carmen, but you can find most other cuisines as well. Prices are on par with those in Cancun, at least on the main tourist drag.
Most restaurants in Playa have sidewalk or balcony seating, so diners can catch the fresh sea breeze. Newer restaurants keep expanding farther north along Avenida 5, adding to the variety of cuisines.
Casual attire is the rule, though some restaurants aim for a trendier, resort-casual vibe.
Most diners opt to take a stroll along Avenida 5 and take a look at multiple locations before selecting their choice for the evening. It's a good way to see the town when it's at its finest, with twinkling lights, wafting smells of grilled meats and eager hostesses beckoning diners inside.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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