Hello sweethearts! I was fortunate enough to take a trip to Playa del Carmen, Mexico a couple of times. I figured since I have so many tips to share on this destination, I’ll make a travel guide out of it!
Over the last 12 years I’ve visited this beautiful place 5 times. The number says it all, I keep coming back. To me, Playa del Carmen is a very laid back beach town with lots of modern restaurants, facilities and shops. The first time I visited this village on Yucatan was probably around 2003, but it has changed a lot since then! This holiday destination is getting more popular by the day and the tourist part of the town keeps expanding! Even though you can see a lot of American influences by the type of shops and food and beverage facilities (Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, Lacoste, MAC etc.), there are still so much non-commercial, authentic places you can go to. You just need to look past 5th Avenue (the main street). The last time I visited was in 2012 and most of my tips will be based on that visit, but keep in mind that things may have changed! I am going to warn you, this post is incredibly loooong. I just kept typing and typing, I got so excited when looking back on these amazing vacations…
1. Location, location.
Playa del Carmen isn’t a big town, but you can divide it into four different area’s. The first area is between Avenida Juarez and El Zocalo, looking South, and Avenida Constituyentes when looking north. This is the most touristy part of Playa del Carmen, where most of the hotels, restaurants, bars and shops are located. The center of this area is 5th Avenue, the main street.
South of La Quinta is an area known as Playacar. In this residential area you can find major all inclusive resorts of international chains lined up next to a beautiful wide spread beach. Playacar is a gated community built in a jungle setting with the golf course crossing the road several times.
North of 28th Street the resorts thin out and the beaches become less crowded. The farther north you go, the less crowded the beaches will be. This is also where you will find the whitest, sandiest, best beaches and a little solitude.
West of downtown is a residential area where most of the native residents live. It does not cater to tourists, but is where you will find more authentic, traditional Mexican cuisine. The local food options of Avenida 30, between Calle 2 and Avenida Constituyentes, and all the restaurants and bars between the 5th and the 30th along Calle 4, are appreciated among locals & tourists.
Now that the areas are defined, I would recommend you to find a hotel located around 5th Avenue. It’s so easy to step outside your hotel and explore the streets of Playa del Carmen. When located in Playacar, you need to take a shuttle bus first to go downtown. This is very personal, but I am not a big fan of islolated all inclusive resorts. Especially when there’s so much to do and see outside that resort!
Like I said above, the farther north you go, the less crowded the beaches will be. But also the beaches southern of PDC are like paradise! Tulum has an enormous white sand beach, Playa Paraiso, which isn’t crowded at all and has an excellent beach bar! Its one of the most prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen. Akumal Beach is probably my favorite pick. But this beach is something special, you can snorkel here and swim with turtles, sting rays, barracuda’s and baby sharks. Skip the fuss at the entrance of the beach, there’s no need to take a tour. If you can, bring your own snorkel set so you don’t have to rent.
If you want to go to a beach in Playa del Carmen, I personally like the beach at Mamita’s Beach Club (Calle 28 Norte). I won’t say that you literally have to stay at Mamita’s Beach Club itself — it can get a bit expensive after a couple of days because the food is great — but I just like that beach better than the one down south at PDC (near the boat to Cozumel). There are often festivals near Mamita’s Beach Club, DJs and promotions which can be fun now and then. But I’d also like to gaze at all the different the people from a distant! 😉
You can find a lot of restaurants among 5th Avenue, some of them with familiar names and gringo menus, though the offerings will often be over-priced and not of a high standard. One of my favorite restaurants in Playa del Carmen were, Il Baretto, an Italian restaurant which has been there from the first time I visited PDC. Their pasta’s are really good! If you’re looking for an authentic Parisian Pâtisserie to have your breakfast, Chez Céline is your pick! Having dinner on the beach was just magical at Zenzi Beach Bar, most of the nights there was live music so we’d also had some entertaining. Unfortunately, we discovered Babe’s Noodles and Bar on our last evening! I’d love to eat there again! I must admit that on some nights we just craved hot pizza and ice cold drinks, so we grabbed a slice at Renzo’s Pizza. I think the whole place isn’t bigger than 3 square meters, but here we scored the best pizza’s ever for a couple of bucks (make sure to sprinkle some crushed red peppers on it!). If you want to eat authentic Mexican food, I suggest you look a little further than 5th Ave. You’ll be rewarded for your taste of adventure!
4. Chichén Itzá
During one of my trips to Mexico I visited the ruins of Chichén Itzá. This is the 2nd most visited archeological site of Mexico. Chichén Itzá was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities. In 2007 it was also named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I managed to climb on top of ‘El Castillo’, but since 2006 it is no longer allowed due to safety problems. The trip took a whole day, but it was AMAZING! We booked this excursion through a travel agent at the hotel to see this one. I believe it was about a three-hour drive to Chichén Itzá, but I didn’t mind it at all. I just kept looking outside my window and looked at the beautiful country of Mexico. We also stopped at a city called Valladolid and we had the chance to swim in a cenote (which is a natural pit, resulting from the collapse of the ceiling that exposes groundwater underneath)!
You can choose to rent a car if you’re visiting PDC. But if this will be your first visit, I don’t think it’s necessary. We once rented a car for the last couple of days to visit the most divine beaches ever, but you can also get there without your own car. During our last visit a local told us that there was a taxi stand on Calle 2 South between 10 and 15th Avenues. These kind of taxi’s are called Collectivos, they run up and down the main highway in the area. You either choose to go South – Tulum or North – Cancun. You can just tell the driver when you want to hop off. When you want to hop back on, you have to stand next to the highway and wave whenever a Collectivo drives by. The rides are very, very cheap. We used these taxi’s to get to Tulum, Akumal and other beaches. Honestly, it wasn’t as dangerous as it may sound.
During my visits to PDC I stopped by Cancun twice. Cancun is basically one giant hotel strip with enormous nightclubs. I wouldn’t recommend a visit unless you want to go shopping at one of its shopping malls. La Isla Shopping Village is a very beautiful (mostly open) mall with a lot of prestigious boutiques.
There a many theme parks around Playa del Carmen, but we keep coming back to Xel-Há. Xel-Há is a true paradise for nature lovers and an amazing natural aquarium. This tropical Park is a place of unparalleled beauty; you can swim and snorkel among hundreds of multicolored fish that have made the river and the lagoon their home. Discover this beautiful paradise walking or by bicycle, admiring different species of flora and fauna in their natural habitat. Xel-Há doesn’t come cheap, but it is an all inclusive park with good food and facilities. A trip to this paradise will probably take up all day, but trust me, you won’t get bored! Make sure to put a great amount of sun screen on your back while you snorkel among its reefs. 😉
Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. The ruins are situated on 12-meter tall cliffs, they are one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites. We visited Tulum during our last visit and I’d wish I had done it before. The views are breathtaking and the beaches next to it are simply paradise (like I described under ‘Beaches’). I can advise you to take enough water with you when you visit the ruins of Tulum. We expected to be able to buy some at the ruins, but we couldn’t. It was a really hot day so we left the ruins a bit soon to quench our thirst. I suggest you visit the ruins in the morning so you can visit the beautiful beaches afterwards.
One of the things I always do 1 or 2 days before leaving PDC, is taking a trip to the Walmart. I am a sucker for candies, chocolates and other foods we can’t buy in Holland. But I also snoop in de beauty department (duhhh) for brands we can’t buy here! I usually bring home some Lady Speed Stick deodorant (the best!), several whitening toothpastes, CoverGirl mascara (their Lashblast is so good), Sally Hansen Diamond Shine nail polish and whatever more I can find!
A cenote is a natural pit, or a sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. They were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings. Nowadays they offer a great place to swim or dive. The water is often very clear, as the water comes from rain water filtering slowly through the ground, and therefore contains very little suspended particulate matter. The area around Playa del Carmen is filled with these cenotes. There are some big ones that are exposed for commercial use. We located a smaller cenote on a map and we decided to take the Collectivo to it. At these smaller, non commercial, cenotes there is just a small entrance fee ($5 dollars) and that’s it. We brought our own snorkel gear and had a wonderful afternoon! It wasn’t crowded at all, the waters were so clear and we could just relax in the middle of the jungle.
Lastly, I received the question if I felt safe on the streets, because you know, it is Mexico after all. Yes, I did felt safe. I cannot speak for anyone else, nor do I want to tell you to walk alone on the streets at night because nothing can happen, something can always happen. But I really felt comfortable walking around in Playa del Carmen, even by myself. We also celebrated New Year’s Eve a couple of times there and when I wanted to go home earlier, I walked to the hotel alone at night. BUT, I hadn’t been drinking, I was fully conscious of where I was and where I was going. Besides, our hotel was located on 5th Avenue, the main street. Overall, I did have a great experience with the people in Mexico. None, really none of whom I’ve met has been unfriendly towards me.
This year’s vacation will go to Mallorca, Spain. But after listing all these tips, I think that Playa del Carmen deserves another visit. I still haven’t seen it all!
Have you ever visited one of the places I mentioned above? Would you pick Playa del Carmen as a possible holiday destination?