Contending with such luxurious touristic hot spots as Cancun, Cozumel, and Tulum, Playa del Carmen is yet another magnificent tropical paradise on offer in the Riviera Maya. Located on the eastern side of Quintana Roo, Playa del Carmen is just a short ferry ride from Cozumel and promises similarly cerulean waters offset by glorious powdered sands lined with picturesque palms. Here the surf is teeming with vibrantly-hued marine life supported by a spectacular reef. Visitors can snorkel, scuba, or glass bottom kayak amongst the endless stream of sea turtles, rays, and moray eels that thrive in the waters off the Yucatan.
While Playa del Carmen may not be the first name associated with Caribbean dream vacations, this is only because of its relative youth as a Port-of-Call. As anyone who has visited can attest, “Carmen’s Beach” gets larger and more luxurious with each passing year.
Twenty years ago, this area was a simple fishing village that doubled as an embarkation point for Cozumel’s ferry. Unsurprisingly, many of those boarding the ferry noticed that Playa possessed a soul all its own; an exuberance simmering beneath the surface, waiting for the right moment to celebrate life. Now, the population has risen to over 180,000 from the under 20,000 of 1995, and tourists flock year round to bathe in the sparkling waters of this jewel in the Caribbean crown.The third-largest city in Quintana Roo, Playa del Carmen also ranks among the fastest-growing seaside cities in Mexico thanks to the many American, Canadian, and European expatriates who abandoned their former lives after vacationing here. Because of this, this Mexican city has a unique, cosmopolitan air that is neither one thing or another, yet somehow all things at once. The result, for the vacationer of means, is the sort of “culture buffet” known to have inspired Jimmy Buffett.
Grandeur, not MGM Grand
Still, this is not Daytona Beach. Playa can maintain the ambiance of a smaller village, in part, because of the strict city ordinances that keep the skyline unobscured by skyscraping condominiums. The atmosphere is decidedly more relaxed than ceaseless commercialism of Cancun; the downtown area is eminently more walkable, yet all the amenities one would expect from a Five-Star resort town are still in play. The result is a timeless, idyllic island vacation with a modern, cosmopolitan twist.
The Main Attractions
Swim. Sunbathe. Long walks along the beach at sunset. Playa del Carmen is home to three of the most beautiful beaches anywhere on the Riviera Maya, and it would be a shame for guests not to take advantage of these a couple of times.
Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue)
This cobblestone, the seaside avenue is strewn with street performers and is a great way to immerse oneself in the local culture. It is also one of the best ways of discovering upscale restaurants and distinct shopping experiences.
Something of a mid-point in this corner of the Caribbean, popular sites such as Cancun, Cozumel, Tulum, and Isla Mujeres, are only a day trip from Playa del Carmen. This fact alone makes it worth looking at for those adventurous souls wanting to explore the Yucatan on their vacation.
Diving and snorkeling
With perfect water conditions year round, gear shops like Mexico Blue Dream are ready to supply visitors with equipment, training, and excursions to such sites as reefs, wrecks, cenotes, and more. Also nearby, Xel-Ha National Park, is the perfect location to snorkel, swim with dolphins, and otherwise commune with nature.
Explore the unforgettable majesty of the Caribbean in the same way as Jean Lafitte and Edward Teach- on your boat. Fish the waters, swim with the dolphins, tour the ruins- whatever you are into, it can be accomplished via luxury yacht.
Touring Mayan ruins
Not only is the grand ruin at Chichen Itza within an hour’s drive but Tulum- the only seaside Mayan city- is closer still. Take advantage of Viator’s VIP Tour, or take the kids iguana spotting at Coba.
For the Eco-minded, the Riviera Maya abounds in Nature Themed Adventure parks. Xcaret is a natural water park offering attractions such as a Fiesta Charra, traditional Mayan Ball game, underground rivers, snorkeling tours, dolphin swims, and more. Rio Secreto is an underground river promising once-in-a-lifetime cave explorations, and Xplor is a zip liners paradise.
The Spa Life
Routinely rated as one of the top deep tissue massages anywhere in the world, those walking down Avenida Quinta should treat themselves (and their muscles) to the rejuvenating power of Sabai.
Shopping on Avenida Quinta
Before you set out for an unforgettable shopping experience in Playa del Carmen, be sure to put on sunscreen, don a shady hat, and wear light, breathable clothing. Convert your money to pesos for use in the small shops or use a credit card, and most credit cards are universally accepted here. ATMs and banks are concentrated on Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue), but you will need to stop by during banking hours if you wish to use the Casas de Cambios (foreign currency exchange).
The central shopping district is the place to encounter dozens of one-of-a-kind establishments peddling products authentic Mexican products. Some of the highlights encountered along the strip are:
San Jaguar Dorado
A specialty gift shop selling mugs, pillows, sculptures, and all manner of unique trinkets and treasures that are exquisite enough to be labeled art.
A “guayabera” is a traditional Mexican-style shirt, and this outlet offers some of the most stylish and comfortable guayaberas. They also have sophisticated jewelry and hand-made accessories to complement the attire.
An open-air mall with a Mexican colonial appearance. This is a good place to shop for clothing, jewelry, and handicrafts. It also offers specialty Mexican tequila and cigars.
Here is a cigar aficionado’s dream come true. Boxes of “Havana Cigars” and other nostalgic smoke products for connoisseurs of good tobacco fill shelf after shelf. Also, consider Morgan’s Tobacco Shop on the same street.
Giancarlo’s Best of Mexico Shop
A small shop with high-quality Mexican sombreros and blankets, Giancarlo’s is worth a quick stop when you just want to pick up a few souvenirs that will be both durable and authentic.
This little shop sells boutique-level pewter plates, tea sets ranging from the elegant to the extravagant, charming glass pitchers and cups, and all manner of other artistic Mexican handicrafts.
Paseo de Carmen
This is a plaza rather than a shop. It is located at the beginning of 5th Avenue and is a classic place to duck out of the heat and shop for souvenirs as well as high-fashion clothing items.
In addition to being the main shopping thoroughfare, Quinta Avenida is also the most convenient place to break for lunch or enjoy a premium dinner. Here the cosmopolitan flare truly manifests itself in the form of a smorgasbord of international cuisines including Mexican, Italian, Thai, Brazilian, and much more.
You will find everything from quaint little coffee shops to full-service luxury restaurants. Some of the best-loved restaurants and eateries in Playa del Carmen include:
La Piola, for some masterfully prepared Italian cuisine; especially raved about is their authentic Italian pizza pies.
RIO Brazilian Steak House, where Brazilian and other South American foods are served. (The steaks are widely praised.)
Chez Celine, the best French diner in town. It is noted especially for its delicate pastries, fresh French bread, and authentic omelets and crepes.
La Ceiba de la 30, which uses only high-quality ingredients brought in fresh from the DAC market, with which it has an exclusive relationship. The menu is authentic Mexican.
La Senda, because it is the only pure vegan restaurant in town. Bio Natural also has an extensive vegetarian health food menu (as well as savory portobello burgers).
Ah Cacao Chocolate Cafe, the best place to stop for desert is where chocolate flows like some river in Willy Wonka.
Those traveling with kids in tow will likely be looking for family-friendly activities. While most of those listed above could qualify, here are a list of exclusive activities designed for families:
Tres Rios eco-park.
Only ten minutes from town, this park has a river-traversed tropical jungle, ten cenotes (collapsed caves), dozens of local animal and plant species, and a coral reef for snorkelers to explore.
Tours last 45 minutes and expose you to 200 species of birds, butterflies, iguanas, and other native wildlife.
Galeria de Arte 5ta Avenida.
This is a small but colorful art gallery in Playa del Carmen that houses painted surfboards, locally created souvenirs, and surprises of all kinds.
Estadio Mario Villanueva Madrid
It is the home of the local futbol (soccer) club called Inter Playa del Carmen. It is a third-tier team in the Mexican futbol league, but its 10,000-capacity stadium is a great place to witness some authentic Mexican soccer in action.
If you are traveling without kids, or you were fortunate enough to have a sitter come along for the stay, you may find yourself with some free time to experience Playa del Carmen after sunset. Coco Bongo has shows such as Batman and The Mask, are mainstays, while comedic skits and Latin music help contribute to the festive atmosphere. The Blue Parrot and the Wah Wah Beach Bar are open late into the night, and as many come for the music as for the margaritas.
The La Bodegita del Medio is a great place to dance late to Cuban salsa music while enjoying authentic Cuban cuisine, and it’s right on 5th Avenue.
Getting to Playa Del Carmen
All U.S. citizens traveling from by air to and from Mexico must be ready to show their U.S. passport to customs officials. You will have to clear Immigration before claiming your luggage, and be ready for a possible inspection.Using a luxury vacation rental company, such as Time & Place, will give you valuable help with booking and with all other aspects of your trip, so that there will be no confusion upon arrival.
You may arrive in Playa del Carmen by cruise liner at the Calica docks about six miles south of the city, from which you would need to rent a car, take a taxi, or connect with pre-arranged private transportation.
Most tourists traveling from the U.S. to Playa del Carmen, however, arrive in Mexico first at Cancun International Airport. There, you can rent a car, take one of the half-hourly buses to Playa, or catch a no-reservation shuttle van. Many luxury vacation packages will include pickup at Cancun and private transfer to Playa del Carmen. In that case, look for a representative holding up a sign with the name of your travel company on it just outside the airport. It is about a 45- to 60-minute drive.
When to Go
Despite the hot and humid climate, peak tourist season runs from November through February. The rains come in May and last into October, and hurricane season covers August through October. Only March avoids both the crowds and the rainy season. Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s Day are very popular times for family vacations.
Where to Stay
Beach House Riv-Maya
This modernistic four-suite taste of luxury hugs the shore along one of the finest beaches in Playa del Carmen. You can bathe in the salty sea or a freshwater pool nearby, and the beach house comes with a gourmet-style kitchen and a host of other amenities. It is situated in the private, gated community of Playacar.
This fully stocked villa sits beside the sea with its own private beach and is within easy walking distance of Mayan ruins. Its six bedrooms, seven baths, and sprawling rooftop terrace make it perfect for large groups. It comes with all the amenities of Paraiso Beach Club.
This is an all-hardwood luxury beach house set on a 100-acre nature reserve only minutes from Playa del Carmen. It comes with three chef-prepared meals per day, kayaks and other sports equipment, and a panoramic view of the Caribbean.
Whether you like to retreat to nature or laze on a beach, Playa del Carmen beckons. From shopping to family adventures to the vast beauty of the Caribbean seas, Playa del Carmen offers luxury and unforgettable experiences at every turn. For a truly indulgent experience, book a luxury Playa Del Carmen villa with Time & Place, where each and every vacation comes with a luxury vacation concierge who will handle all the stressful details of your stay so that you can focus on what matters most: time to get back to yourself, and time for your loved ones.