Playa Del Carmen, MexicoAuthor: qqchuck
Date of Trip: May 2006
The things about Playa Del Carmen (aka "Playa" or "PDC") that I really like are: 90% of what you want to do is within ~4 blocks of your hotel; lots and LOTS of choices for beach clubs, restaurants, stores, spas, etc; the white sand beaches and clear turquoise water; the prices are pretty reasonable (at least by American Standards); parts of the town (mostly north) are trendy and a little upscale (but still reasonably priced) -- sort of a "3rd world Chic" atmosphere -- it's a cute little town.
This is my 2nd stay in Playa. I was there for a week 2 years ago. I've also been there 2-3 times on day trips from cruises or nearby resorts. I went this time with a couple of guys I work with (one of whom is an Aggie and friend of mine from TAMU).
If you stay downtown, 90% of what you want to do is within 4 blocks of your hotel. The other 5% is within 10 blocks (ferry to Cozumel), and the other 5% is easily handled by renting a car for the day (about $45) or taking a cab. Because of the proximity of so many cool things to do, it allows groups of travelers to split up and do whatever the heck they want that day!
With so many bars, restaurants and a couple of night clubs, it tends to cater to the younger single crowd, though many couples are also there. There are just a few honeymooners, but I don't see this as a very honeymoon-type destination (I say go to Hawaii instead!). The bars and night clubs give lots of nightlife options for the younger active type. When we went in May, I would say the crowd at the bars and nightclubs was about 60% American, 30% Mexican, and about 10% other, mostly Europeans, who love PDC (primarily because they don't like Cancun -- too darn American/loud/partying!).
Within 4 blocks of our hotel we could roughly find 30 restaurants/bars, 25 Mexican souvenir/artifact shops, 3-4 beach clubs (3 block walk to the beach), 10 hotels, 10-20 other kinds of shops, 2-3 night clubs, 2-3 internet cafes, 5-10 tour/car rental places and 2 taxi stands.
We rented mopeds one day and drove all up and down the town, experiencing Playacar (residential resort community just south of town) and a couple of the all-inclusive resorts (who let us tour the place), and the north beaches (nicer, plus more topless and more upscale beach chairs/beds, etc.).
We went to several beach clubs. Basically, a beach club is a restaurant/bar that serves you food/drinks/alcohol AT your beach chair. Further, you can take any drink (in a cup) in the ocean with you. One of my favorite things to do is have a few cocktails with friends while basking in the sun AND cool turquoise waters all at the same time. Don't forget the sunscreen!
The beach clubs are differentiated by the niceness of the beach and the quality of food/drink and lounge chairs the place provides. There's usually plenty of water sports and massage therapists handy for massages on the beach. The beaches in downtown PDC tend to be limited access as several small boats are docked at the beach. They have swimming areas cordoned off too. Just a few rocks/coral, but nothing to worry about.
One of the things I enjoy doing when I get some free time is just strolling down 5th Avenue, the "main drag" in PDC. 5th Avenue is about 2 blocks in from the beach, and is where virtually all of the bars, restaurants, and stores are. The street is closed to vehicle traffic and is brick lined, giving it a feel of an outdoor mall-type friendly place. The people that work at these places do try to get you to come into their joint, whatever it may be, but they tend to be both polite and comical about it, unlike some other places in Mexico I've been. After a while it kind of makes you feel important... like these people "want" you (in addition to your $$)! Ha ha! Plus some of them are just super hotties! (Mostly restaurant hostesses).
Another way to experience 5th Avenue is by simply sitting on one of the patios that just about every restaurant has, and watching the different people go by. People watching is good here because of the varied clientele...American, Mexican, Euro, singles, couples, families....it's all there. Lots to look at. You also get to see the roving performers that will play a song for you for a few bucks tip. They range from the one guy with a guitar, to the trio, to the full 8-piece mariachi bands with horns dressed in white uniforms (those mostly on weekend nights). In addition, many of the restaurants/bars have live music outdoors, so you get to hear some of that too. The Tequila Barrel was a favorite of ours, having many tables on 5th Avenue itself. They also have an indoor area with live music and a dance floor. Check it out.
We managed to hit 2 of the coolest night spots while in town. One is The Blue Parrot which is a beach club/restaurant/hotel by day, and a nightclub with an awesome dance party on the beach at night. They built a dance floor right on the beach, and they party there until 2-3am every night, and it seems to be very busy almost every night. The other place, Santini's, is an after-hours bar with a very well decorated rooftop patio that is both tropical and trendy. We found out about the place from a waiter at a restaurant. Folks start showing up there around 1am... and it's packed shortly thereafter. My friend Mark and I met two single Colorado girls (believe it or not!) on the way to Santini's and they joined us (they had come into town because their all inclusive was a bit lame on the night life). Besides our group of 4, the rest of the crowd was 98% younger and trendier Mexicans. It was a good time. Also, if you're the late night eater type after a long hard day of drinking, check out Pizza Banana for a cheap slice of pizza late at night (they're open til 5am).
Another beauty of staying in PDC is the 10 minute walk and then the 30 minute ferry ride (about $11 each way) that lands you in downtown Cozumel. Thus, with 40 minutes of commute time each way, you can do anything on Cozumel that you could normally do there -- scuba, snorkeling, great party-style beach clubs (especially popular in October/November when the midwesterners visit in DROVES on about 8 cruise ships that dock there EACH DAY!). There's also lots of shopping, and the usual assortment of water sports.
Photo credit: Image of Playa del Carmen at night appears courtesy of the Riviera Maya Tourist Board.
Other Activities and Day Trips
I've visited both Xel-ha and X-Caret before, and both were pretty cool. Both parks are sort of natural water parks with big lagoons with snorkeling and beaches, and each has a lazy river ride (tubes or you can snorkel down them). Some of the lagoons have fish food you can use to attract fish. They're quite pricey, but they're also very unique experiences. I tended to like Xel-ha more for the outdoor river (X-Caret has sort of river in a tunnel thing -- which I didn't think was any big deal) and better snorkeling. X-Caret would probably be better for families as it has more protected lagoons, more aquariums, and protected beach space, as I recall anyway. Both are within about a 40 minute drive, and both are close to Tulum, so you can do a day trip to hit both pretty easily. I recommend Tulum in the EARLY am, then hit one of the "ecological water parks" as they are official described. Both also have "swim with the" dolphins programs.
Speaking of Tulum, if you have time for a day trip or two on your trip, I highly recommend it. Tulum is a Mayan ruin that is both beautiful and interesting. Try to get a guided tour or do what I do sometimes by following a tour and listening to their guide. Note that etiquette, as best I can tell, is to ask the guide if it's ok if you tag along (like when he's not talking, between stops)...and then a small tip ($5-10) is also appropriate to give in a discrete manner (also when he's walking or between stops). Tagging along without asking is often seen as being very rude.
Another Mayan ruin that is interesting is Coba, about a 90 minute drive from PDC (Tulum and the water parks are on the route, so easy to combine). This one has a tall pyramid that you're allowed to climb too (nice view up there). I only recommend this trip if you want to do a hike (we rode bikes to the ruins from the entrance instead), AND you're really interested in this type of stuff (and maybe you've already done Tulum on a prior trip). You also get to see some desolate parts of Mexico, which is mildly interesting. Otherwise, see Tulum and be done with it!
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