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Heart of the Riviera Maya
Playa del Carmen — The Riviera Maya´s Crown Jewel
Playa del Carmen (or simply ‘Playa’ as we call it) is not your typical resort community or tourist destination. Playa is vibrant, funky, and fun. Due to its regional importance and international recognition, it offers a wide variety of cultural activities. Moreover, Playa is the heart of the Riviera Maya - a small sophisticated bohemian city.
If that is not enough, Playa was voted the cleanest municipality in Mexico and it is pedestrian and cyclist-friendly. Whether your visit to Playa is short, long, or in between, there is no shortage of activities to enjoy, ranging from the simple sedentary pleasure of reading a book on a powdery beach to letting your hair down on the dance floor or taking a jungle safari. For all these reasons, once you’ve visited it’s hard to leave.
It was only twenty years ago that Playa del Carmen was a sleepy fishing village visited only by adventurous tourists from Cancun who stopped briefly for the passenger ferry service to Cozumel. Now, it boasts a population of more than 175,000 permanent residents and receives an estimated 1,745,535 visitors per year. Playa is home to more than 500 restaurants (some of which are internationally renowned), world-class boutique hotels and five-star resorts, sheik spas, galleries, bookshops, and swanky clubs. All of which is a testament to the special allure of the Mexican Riviera. In short, Playa has it all (but without the gaudy hotel towers sandwiched together above beaches littered with the detritus of tourists).
Location and getting around
Centrally located almost an equal distance between Cancun and Tulum, Playa sits at the very heart of the Riviera Maya, making it a good ‘base camp’ for exploring the many different areas and activities along the coast. (Of course, even if you never leave Playa, you’ll still never run out of activities).
Getting around Playa is relatively cheap and efficient, with taxis seldom costing more than $8 USD, and shared taxis (colectivos) costing just pennies. If you are downtown everything is within walking or biking distance. It can be fun to rent a bicycle or scooter for a day or two and take an occasional taxi.
Be advised that when driving a scooter wearing a helmet is mandatory, and a recently enacted law requires you to also wear safety glasses (any regular clear glasses or sunglasses are fine during the day). As a side note, rest assured that — unlike other parts of the country — the police are here to protect and assist visitors. In fact, for minor violations, you will probably only be given a ‘courtesy’ multa (ticket or citation) which doesn’t require the payment of a fine or court appearance — in effect a written warning. For us locals, the same isn’t true, and we have to be extra careful. Needless to say, major violations, accidents, or criminal behavior are not dealt with so easily.
If you are traveling with your family or a large group, or plan on taking a road trip to different points along the Riviera you might want to consider renting a car. Remember buses and colectivos will also take you anywhere along the coast and there is always the option of an organized tour. Check our transportation page to learn more on how to get around.
Quinta Avenida and nightlife
If Playa is the very heart of the Riviera Maya, then Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue, which we residents more often refer to as simply ‘La Quinta’) is the very heart of Playa. The exciting positive vibe of this pedestrian street is palpable in every corner. Running North-South with the beach parallel on the eastern side, the street is filled with sounds, you will feel inside the legendary Tower of Babel: people speaking English, Spanish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Portuguese, and of course the universal sounds of laughter, music, and Mariachis!
It is here on La Quinta (or close by) where you will find the bulk of eating, drinking, shopping, and entertainment activities. In the mornings, La Quinta is quiet and perfect for a morning stroll (or a jog) and a good breakfast. In the evening the street is filled with people walking.
Restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops become alive; and at night it fills with both dinner and party-goers. If you like a good party, you don’t want to miss the nightlife on Calle Doce (12th Street).
‘People watching’ from a comfortable outdoor café facing the street has become a favorite pastime of visitors and locals alike. Keep your camera handy, as the snapshots of Mariachis, street performers, mimes, and celebrities are a good souvenir (spotting celebrities is becoming more common as Playa continues to evolve into a hot spot destination).
In La Quinta, you will find jewelry stores, souvenir shops, clothing outlets, cigar stores, and many attractions that fit all styles and budgets. Thursday evenings, local artists display their work in the street from Avenida Constituyentes to Calle 32. This part of La Quinta is transformed into an open art gallery called Caminarte, a good opportunity to browse and perhaps even pick up an original work.
The food scene
Except for Mexico City, there is no other place in the country that enjoys the wide variety of international restaurants available. Mexican and foreign chefs bring both creativity and authenticity to their menus. Whether it’s Mexican, Italian, French, Cantonese, Thai, Mediterranean, African or Arab, there is never a shortage of choices, and in all price ranges to boot. Additionally, Playa hosts several food and wine festivals each year, bringing internationally recognized chefs and wine experts — in addition to a bevy of international media. Please check our events section to find out what´s going in the entire Riviera Maya.
If you are looking for an authentic representation of good Mexican food, you’ll find a wide variety of Mexican restaurants with various regional specialties, including traditional Yucatecan dishes, fresh seafood, and Alta Cocina Mexicana (high Mexican cuisine). But whatever your culinary preferences are, it would be a shame to miss out on traditional Mexican street food; indeed, this is where the bold flavors and colors of Mexico really live. From traditional tacos al pastor to succulent cochinita pibil, if you’re hungry and stumble upon a busy taqueria full of locals, you surely won’t be disappointed in your meal. And don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path— both Avenida Treinta (30th Avenue) and Avenida Constituyentes have many traditional restaurants with cheap prices; if you have any doubts, ask any Playense or your taxi driver for a recommendation.
No matter where you’re staying, no matter what your interests’ are, and no matter what your budget is, in Playa, you can fill your days with as little or as much activity as you’d like. Every type of water sport is available, such as jet skiing, kayaking, and kite surfing, just to name a few. In Mexico all beaches are public and many beach clubs have swimming pools and restaurants, so if your idea of a busy day is lounging, eating, drinking, and reading a book, this is the place for you too.
Need more options? You can take an organized tour, visit cenotes and underground rivers, ride a horse on the beach, explore ancient Mayan ruins and archeological sights, sail, dive, or ride an ATV in the jungle.
There are places to stay to meet any budget in and nearby Playa. These options include luxury all-inclusive resorts, traditional hotels, boutique hotels, motels, hostels, apartments, condominiums, villas, and vacation homes for rent. If you’re not sure about the best lodging option for you, click here to read about the pros and cons of each option and some of our recommendations, which will help you make a more informed decision.
Traditional arts and crafts
There are lots of tourist shops where you can pick up souvenirs, ranging from the cheesy coffee mug or t-shirt to truly unique works of art. If you’re looking for authentic Mexican folk art and crafts, there is no shortage of artisans in Playa and surrounding areas, producing original and unusual works in different mediums.
The ancient Mayans were skilled artisans, carving in both wood and stone. And while much of Mayan history has been lost to time, this artisanship still survives in the forms of carvings of Mayan gods, traditional dresses, hats, masks, and the famous Mayan calendars.
Every third Saturday of the month, Parque La Ceiba hosts a tianguis (flea market) where, among many other cultural offerings and organic products, local artisans sell their works. If you’re looking for something unique and not available in a typical souvenir shop, this is the place to browse. Also, the park is children-friendly, hosts shows and workshops, food and soft drinks are sold and there’s no admission fee. Check our section on Events and Festivals for more information.
In a nutshell
Even though Playa is growing, it is in no danger of becoming a mass-market glass-towered tourist Mecca like Cancun. It has a charm and a certain magnetism that pulls people in and makes them smile for no particular reason.
50 Avenida Sur , Ejidal , Quintana Roo, 77712View Larger Map
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