Once considered the little sister of Cancún’s Zona Hotelera, Playa del Carmen is a lively seaside resort destination in its own right now. There’s nightlife, fine dining and hotels aplenty stretched along the white sand coast, as well as a party vibe which is more uniquely Mexican than anything in Cancún.
Jump back 30 years and there was little more than a few hundred small fishing families making up the population of Playa del Carmen. At that time, curious travellers exploring further afield than their Cancún resort hotels (which themselves did not exist prior to 1970) would come upon Maya ruins and the small fishing establishment that today has become an unrecognisable sprawl, for better or worse, of resorts and life.
For those seeking to escape the more commercial side of tourism in the Yucatán, it is now necessary to head much further south along the coast. Playa is a new beast with a population beyond 150,000 people. It is one that entertains, that parties, and one that provides ready ferry access to the scuba diving paradise of Cozumel an hour away. Chichén Itzá and the ruins of Tulum are also an hour away, but that is just a part of what makes Playa such a desirable destination.
The city has expanded rapidly and it is not uncommon to see new buildings under construction on the edge of city. Many of these will become hotels to accommodate the rising demands of tourism. There are plenty of options at each level of the budgetary scale. One of the top being the five-star Iberostar Tucan (Ave. Xaman Ha, Lote Hotelero 2). This resort has plenty to keep guests on-site, including a prime spot beside a powder white sand beach, swimming pools and family activities like a kids’ club and tennis courts.
With bright, airy rooms by day and a cosy ambience after sunset, Casa Gem B&B (Calle Diagonal 80 Sur lote 17) is a great mid-range option that does not lose any of the elegance of the bigger resorts, but merely has less of the extra facilities. Nevertheless, there is a small pool, a spa and an on-site restaurant and coffee house. Bikes are available to use for free, which is a great way to explore beaches a little further from the centre. Most importantly, the service is personalized at Casa Gem so that the needs of each individual guest are best met, which includes everything from hypo-allergenic bedding to local tips on the best places to visit. This spot is located away from the shore but close to main transport links, so is ideal for those who plan to visit cenotes and ruins in the area as well as accessing remoter beaches.
The Carmen Hotel (Calle 8 Nte 876) has an adults only policy, making it a better choice for honeymooners and couples looking to relax. Right on the beach in the city centre, this modern five-star hotel has an infinity pool, some private beach space and is just minutes from the bus and ferry terminals. The best restaurants and bars are all around, although it also has its own restaurant, bar and nightclub for those who are happy partying until dawn, watching the sun rise over the Caribbean and then going straight to bed.
For those who expect to be spending their days exploring and would prefer a bunk to a room, Lobo de Mar Hostel (Calle 34 Nte, between 20 and 25 Norte) is a good solution. Dorms are air conditioned and kept to a respectable size, with between four and eight beds, each with their own lights. Prices include breakfast. The highlight of this lively spot though is the rooftop bar where live bands occasionally get the night going, and can lead to an end in the hostel’s own hot tub.
Playa’s international sensibilities fuse with the uniquely Yucatecan to provide a fantastic range of eating options. If you’re looking for a bite on the go or a gourmet sit down meal, there are plenty of options near the waterfront and along Quinta Avenida (5th Ave.) parallel to the shore.
For more of a ‘when in Mexico…’ approach to the gastronomic side of your trip, head to Carboncitos (Calle 4 Nte). There is an excellent range of pan-Mexican dishes on the menu, like tacos al pastor, quesadillas and mole, a sauce made with numerous spices and chocolate poured over chicken or turkey. But to really hone in on the local experience, try the Maya dishes unique to the Yucatán region like sopa de lima (chicken soup with lime juice), poc chuc (pork loin in a traditional sauce) and the excellent cochinita pibíl (slow cooked pork with bitter orange and achiote paste), which is a real delight here.
When you’ve spent an entire day lounging by the sea, it’s only natural that you’d want to eat something that once lived in it. Pez Vela (Calle Quinta, Avenida 2) is one of the longest running restaurants in city, with three decades of experience. Crab, shrimp and octopus are common menu items in various cooked guises, as well as grilled fish, along with classic Mexican sides like guacamole. They serve a mean margarita and the vibe is cosy and laid-back. Sit at a table or grab a drink and perch on one of the swing seats around the bar.
This being a city dedicated to beach loving tourists, it would be almost rude not to have dinner one evening on the beach. A good number of classy beach clubs has popped up over the last decade, and many offer excellent food. Open ‘til late, Zenzi (Calle 10 y la Playa), does a round-the-world in ten dishes type thing with their menu. Horseradish salmon, arrachera flank steak, chicken, either jerk or in curry, and Thai paw paw being some of the entrees. There are also lighter bites like nachos topped with a heap of beans, cheese and pico de gallo.
One of the unerring favourite restaurants in the city is Harry’s Steakhouse and Raw Bar (5th Ave, Lote 8B). The presentation, the attention to detail, the immaculate ingredients and the thoughtful service from staff would make Harry’s a top choice in any city. From premium steaks, like genuine Kobe beef, to a main plate with fresh ingredients from the seafood bar, like lobster tail risotto, there is more than enough value provided for the price here.
With a name like Diablito Cha Cha Cha (Calle Flamingo, Manzana 7) who knows what to expect? Formerly known as the equally odd Canibal Royal, this beach bar and restaurant is primarily favoured for the excellent seafood with a remarkable view. Shrimp tacos are a house specialty, but the ceviche tostadas are also worth a try, along with creative sushi rolls. The bar has a good drinks game too, particularly if cocktails are your tipple. This restaurant is best avoided when crowded however, because the beachfront seating is what makes the spot worthwhile.
When you’re feeling snacky, there are some decent holes in the wall selling pizza by the slice, particularly on 10 & 15 Avenidas Norte, a couple of blocks back from the waterfront. One of which is Pizza Maya (10th Ave Sur 20). They are no-frills joints where you can stop and scarf down a couple of slices on the go, or simply pick up a snack to eat before heading on to the next bar. Usually there’s a bottle of hot Habanero salsa handy too.
Drinking & Clubbing
Depending on what you want from your stay in Playa del Carmen, many nightlife needs are often satisfied in Playa. For example, Señor Frog’s (5th Avenue, beside the main ferry terminal) is that delightfully cliched Spring Break classic where you’re encouraged to drink hard and party in equal measure. It’s right by the beach, portions are shamelessly American (or shamefully depending on your perspective) in size, and there are lots of Mexican beers and fruity cocktails on offer. It can get rowdy here, especially during Spring Break.
For a large dose of hedonism mixed with the frenetic energy of a circus, Coco Bongo (Calle 12 Nte 10) have their very own Playa del Carmen franchise. Once through the doors, expect to see aerial acrobats at work (or play) overhead and a number of live musical stage shows including dancing, pyrotechnics, sound and lights, all designed to get you on your feet and dancing. Ticket prices might be a little hefty, but factor in the inclusion of an open bar on certain drinks, along with the various shows, and it’s suddenly looking like good value.
Like Coco Bongo, the Mandala group is a big deal on the Yucatán Peninsula club scene, and their finest Playa del Carmen offering is Palazzo Disco (Calle 12 Nte). It is only one of four clubs they have open in the city, but the elegant decoration blends decadence with an unlikely bedfellow: disco. Chandeliers and a giant cluster of disco balls hang from the ceiling casting light on the revellers below. The music is much more modern than that, however. Ticket prices seem steep, but as with their other clubs, the bar is an open one. Bottle service costs a lot more.
Cuba is just 125 miles (201km) across the Caribbean from this part of Mexico, so Cuban culture is readily found in most Mexican cities. Playa del Carmen is no different, and the classy La Bodeguita del Medio (5th Avenue, corner of Calle 34 Nte) offers the music, the blend of cultures and the food of the island to customers. The atmosphere is much more laid back here, but there is still room and encouragement for those with the impetus to dance.
Most visitors will find that their shopping needs are satisfied along the pedestrianised section of 5th Avenue. Failing that a more upscale selection of internationally recognisable shops like Zara, Tommy Hilfiger and Pull & Bear can be found in the Paseo del Carmen shopping centre. There is also a flurry of rather generic souvenir shops all along 5th Ave. that don’t need mentioning but are all places where you can find decent gifts and it’s normally accepted to haggle over the prices.
If you’ve forgotten your sunglasses or want to add something stylish to your wardrobe, Biuriful (5th Ave between Calles 30 and 32) stocks an excellent range of swimwear, sunhats and sunglasses in various colours and creative frame shapes. There are plenty of options for men and women from a range of independent brands.
Maya – Xel (5th Ave corner of Calle 30 Nte) takes large shells from the Caribbean and repurposes them into creative souvenirs and homeware, like lamps. The warm yellow glow they give out is great for adding some marine mood lighting to the home. There are also pendants and baskets of colourful shells for sale too, which make for great small souvenirs. While this craft shop seems ethical, others in the region may not be. Please be aware that the sale and purchase of black coral is illegal. This is endangered coral and you don’t need to fuel its destruction for a trinket. Nobody does.
Cigar shops are another common sight along 5th Ave. and one of the best stocked of these is Casa Partagas (5th Ave Nte between Calles 2 and 4) which sells cigars by the case (some of which come in exquisite packaging) or individually. The Cuban cigars tend to be the most popular with American tourists who cannot easily buy them at home, but there are also plenty of quality options made locally and elsewhere in the Caribbean region.