Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. The Epicenter of the Riviera Maya.
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
Used to be you flew into Cancun, hopped the shuttle to your favorite all-inclusive, had a few too many fruity drinks, bathed in suntan lotion and for the length of your vacation vacillated between eating, drinking (drunkendness?) and sunning. Wash, rinse, repeat everyday until they announced that your departing flight was boarding for your return trip home, to where ever you belong. The new and ever rising star on the Riviera Maya is Playa Del Carmen. You've heard the same refrain all up and down the Riviera, "it started as a sleepy little fishing village" turned much coveted destination. Oh yes, you can all-inclusive close to PDC, but you would be missing the point. Playa Del Carmen has transported its self into its own morphing, rapidly growing thing, seemingly without end. From restaurants, to shopping, to nightlife to parking yourself like a beached whale on its sand, Playa wants to be everything to everyone. What once was small, is growing by leaps and bounds, like an ever expanding commercial waistband of a buffet serial eater. Of course with that comes all the things that make it great and in contrast, not so great (petty theft, cab rides from hell, overt commercialism, drug culture). For those that need their destination to be "just like back home", you'll find most of the needlessly expensive or branded multinational retailers available. 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) has newly constructed malls (yup right on the Avenue), with all the shops you'd recognize at the mall. If your sense of belonging and semi-normalcy is dictated by the familiar, ah my friend look no further you've been rewarded.
Given all the change, if you visit "desperately seeking Mexico" it is here, you just have to peel the onion back a little to see it. The food revolution and cultural history is alive and well and by me, certainly welcomed. There has been an explosion of restaurants started by entrepreneurs taking Mexican cuisine into the future. You just might have to get off the "Avenida" to find them, but they are here. If you are on 5th Avenue, besides the "normalized" food offerings there are many unique regional dishes available from Central and South America. Be picky because here's your chance to try something really good. Want to see the city? Start on Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). From the bottom of 5th Avenue, typically you start here if might have arrived by cruise ship (ferry over from Cozumel) or if you're residing south of the city. South 5th Avenue feels a little bit older, though it is changing rapidly. There are shops for souvenirs, authentic and faux authentic dining (both of Mexican and non-Mexican variety) and the street vendors of every type. Like every crowded destination, be aware of your surroundings (petty crime does exist) and don't fall fall prey to the many offers of drugs, cigars and silver from the "one too many" street carnival barkers, just politely smile say "no bueno" and keep it moving. There is plenty to see and do. The sheer wonder of 5th Avenue as just a visual spectacle can be overwhelming. As you wander "up" 5th by the time you reach 12th Street (if it's at night), an uptick can be heard in the volume of music. 12th Street is the party zone with clubs neatly packed in a row on both sides. If BDM is your thing (the music of choice for the clubs on 12th, though not the only choice available), you've found your spot. It is circus maximus and on a crowded night, that is not an understatement. Feels part carnival, part club, part New Year's Eve, part good time. It's like surfing a lava flow of energy, it hits you from every direction. It can be sweat soaked, drink infused, altered reality. Find your spot to partake, find your spot on the dance floor, find your spot to let go.
Popular clubs as of October 2018 (Don't view this as the "ultimate list" just popular)
If nightclub life is not your thing, venture on as there is much more to see. Further up you'll begin to see the shopping malls as previously mentioned and condo developments, but you'll also see dining start to become a bit more varied and expensive. As you walk further north on 5th, you see restaurants from around the globe; Italy, Argentina, Brazil and America. Some of it is quite good and some, is just what you would expect from a tourist laden area. There are also several bars playing live music of all types and languages, but primarily English and Spanish. In your travels you'll undoubtedly come across the rogue Mariachi band or two or three. If you like, listen and then tip appropriately, but if not reach into your bag of "no buenos" to keep them moving along. Once into the 30's and 40's (streets), 5th Avenue becomes a little quieter, a little more residential but no less electric, it's just that the pace is a little slower. By the time you read this 5th Avenue will have expanded will into the 50's if not 60's in terms of development by streets. 5th Avenue used to end (commercially that is) at Avenue CTM (about 40 blocks from where you started at the bottom). If you traveled this far on 5th Avenue you will have seen just about everything (on the Avenue), but as far as Playa Del Carmen is concerned you've only licked the tip of an iceberg. Playa Del Carmen is pushing its way from the beach quickly, block by block, condo by condo, restaurant by restaurant. In the not too distant future it will make its way all the way out to highway 307. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be seen, but Playa del Carmen has a lot to offer, but where does it end? No one quite knows.
Just like club life on 12th Street, there is also beach club life. Public spaces (free) are available, but if you need that semi-celebrity, beach bed, table service experience, there are plenty of beach club choices starting from about 12th on up. Park your booty in the sand and take in the Caribbean. Listed below are some popular options, most require you spend a minimum amount for occupying the sandy real estate and it can be a little pricey depending on where you are, but it will be a party without a doubt.
Popular Playa Beach Clubs as of October 2018
Mamita's Beach Club
Kool Beach Club
Indigo Beach Club
Caroline Daylight Club
Cocoa Beach Club
INTI Beach Club
Encanto Beach Club
Hotel Tukan and Beach Club
Paraiso Beach Club
Grand Coral Beach Club
Villa Sacbe Beach Club
Lido Bar and Restaurant
Diabilito Cha Cha Cha
So there's the beach, the beach clubs, the clubs, the restaurants and the shopping. Still hunger for a little more excitement from your visit? There is a reason I called Playa Del Carmen the epicenter of the Riviera Maya. You can ferry to Cozumel (from Playa Del Carmen) or Isla Mujeres (via Cancun), to get off the "mainland" and sightsee on these two exciting islands. From diving & snorkeling to everything in between, each island has its own Mexican twist on the Caribbean and it's just waiting for you to explore them. Best options for ferry service would be Ultramar. Ultramar offers the best schedules and nicest fleet of ferries for both islands with half -hourly departures.
Need to entertain the entire family? You can always check out the nearby adventure parks and there are several of them worthy of consideration. Xplor, Xcaret, Xel Ha Park, Extreme Adventure Cancun, Dolphin Discovery Cove and Croco Cun Zoo. Again, there are many more offerings and this is just a partial listing. There are also "cenotes" to explore; underground natural bodies of cool, clear water in limestone caves that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. There is no better way to cool off from the Mayan sun, than by dipping your hot sweaty soul in the shaded crystal clear waters of a cenote.
Historical ruins are never far away on the Riviera Maya, the most famous and closest to Playa del Carmen are the Tulum ruins. Beautiful and haunting, it is civilization well before western civilization and its remnants are dramatically laid out before you. Other nearby large and popular ruins are Coba & Chichen Itza, both with a deep and resounding sense of cultural history that you soon won't forget.
Looking to stay in Playa Del Carmen? Choose from hundreds of hotels and condos. Online services like Airbnb, VRBO and the like are there for the choosing with hundreds options for your budget. Do your research, pick a place and go. So there you have it, Playa Del Carmen, just remember there is always more to see.