Gringos, Euros and locals stroll Playa del Carmen’s main artery of Quinta (Fifth Avenue), a merry-go-round of boutiques, restaurants, and bars covered by thatched-roof palapas. A steady beat of electronica plays in the din, but the cultural preservation of Mayan tradition isn’t lost in translation. This is Playa del Carmen.
Just a backwater port a mere 20 years ago, Playa, as the locals say, is the bustling center of Mexico’s Riviera Maya — the 80-mile stretch of the Yucatán Peninsula that runs along the Caribbean coast, beginning just south of Cancun in sleepy Puerto Morelos and ending at the Sian Ka’an Bio-Reserve.
Having grown exponentially since Hurricane Wilma’s 2005 wrath, Playa counts itself among Latin America’s fastest growing communities, though it was once a place where locals farmed coconut trees and the only visitors were beach bums. Now, over 300 hotels — many of them new — line alabaster beaches that beckon vacationers with crystalline water.
Cancun was once the Mexican Caribbean’s pearl, but overrun by college-age revelers involved in wet T-shirt and tequila contests, its attraction has waned. While Playa del Carmen has its fair share of souvenir shops peddling home-grown tequila, multi-colored sombreros, and Mayan snow-globes, it lacks the commercial saturation of its northern neighbor. Here, the sea is more tranquil and less populated, the vibe is more laid-back, the people are more glamorous, and the region’s cultural ancestry isn’t lost on kitsch.
The beauty of Playa is in its accessibility. The center is an easy grid where everyone seems to know everyone else, making a stroll through its streets both pleasure and pastime. Small boutique, all-inclusive, and luxury chain hotels are plentiful, as are eateries ranging from taco stands to indulgent multi-course establishments.
After a week of exploration, I came to understand why Playa is an ideal Mexican vacation destination: Playa is both of-the-moment and welcoming.
Playa offers plenty of activity, the most obvious being the water-based kind. Second in size to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the 450-mile Atlantic coral reef that begins here is home to more than 500 species of wildlife, from colorful fish and sea turtles to gentle lemon sharks and dolphins. It’s shallow enough to don a snorkel, walk out from the shore, and explore all on your own.
Surfers bask in the beating sun; parasail silhouettes litter the horizon; jetskis skim the waves; and yachts undulate with the tide. Playa, Spanish for beach, equals relaxation in any language and boasting some of the best in the world, Playa’s beaches don’t disappoint.
For the more adventurous, the reef offers unforgettable excursions into the local cenotes. Derived from the Mayan word dzonots (meaning sacred water), cenotes are limestone sinkholes that connected ancient river systems, caverns and caves. The Mayans built their cities around these freshwater pools unmatched for diving, snorkeling, swimming, and even dining at the very swanky Alux Restaurant (www.aluxlounge.net). The brilliance of underwater stalagmites is breathtaking and PADI-affiliated Phantom Divers books time in both cenotes and the reef.
Boasting 39-foot cliffs that kiss sparkling blue Caribbean waters, salt-bleached Mayan ruins are perched atop Tulum. The grounds are pristine and impressive, and visitors are free to roam. On a warm day, the blistering sun can feel oppressive, so bring a towel to dip into the ocean, just steps down a wooden staircase.
Shopping took on a whole new meaning in Playa’s boutique heavy center. I found rustic braided leather jewelry at the funky Joe Natural (Calle Corazon between 12th and 14th), and exquisite silver pieces made from early 20th century buttons and the tagua nut (which looks similar to ivory) at Manik (Calle 10 between 5th and 10th avenues). Prices ran from $10 to $800,depending on the intricacy and materials of each piece. Rosalia (Quinta between 12th and 14th) sells handcrafted Mayan textiles like scarves, blankets, tunics, and skirts at wholesale prices.
It’s hard to resist the massive piles of merchandise as you pass her rainbow storefront. Kin Mayab (several stores, see www.kinmayab.com.mx) stocks adorable gauze dresses for girls and button-down shirts for boys ($12-$15) and carries a full line of men’s clothing.
People-watching in Playa is good diversion, and Mosquito Blue’s swanky street lounge offers an ideal vantage point (www.mosquitoblue.com). Afterwards, hit the legendary beach party at the Blue Parrot (www.blueparrot.com) or let the music that flows from Om (www.omplaya.com) carry you inside.
For live acts, Ajua (www.ajuamaya.com) strikes a more Latin chord with nightly bands and a tequila lounge, while La Santanera (www.lasantanera.com), meaning “Sexy Cantina,” is Playa’s club du jour.