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Playa del Carmen, the wild heart of the Riviera Maya, isn’t a port of call for large cruise ships, but it is a popular day-trip destination for ships docking at Cozumel, 12 miles offshore, and at Calica, a small port five miles south.
Baby boomers who visited in the 1970s or even 1980s will remember Playa as a laid-back, Jimmy Buffet-style destination with lots of palapa bars along the waterfront and a string of simple hotels catering to budget travelers from all over the world.
It’s a bustling city now, with traffic to match and a European-infused party scene as trendy (or shall we say wild?) as any in Mexico.
But serenity is to be found if you seek it, and along the waterfront, in the colorful neighborhoods, and in the bright bougainvillea that seems to drape every wall. Wherever you go, a crowd-pleasing tropical ambiance prevails.
Playa del Carmen has a shallow reef so nearly all ships dock at Cozumel and passengers ferry over. See the ships that call on Cozumel.
You’re “at the beach” the minute you step off the ferry. Public beaches run to the north, private resort beaches to the south.
Party types who like a heavy dose of house music with their sun and sand head for Kool Beach Club on Mamitas Beach. Nearby is the American owned Blue Parrot Hotel and Beach Club, synonymous with the Playa beach experience since 1984 and featuring live music many nights. Many other “beach clubs” are sprinkled along the city’s waterfront. Keep walking to find one that strikes your fancy, and be prepared to pay to rent a chair.
South of the ferry dock, in the Playacar golf-resort district, beach facilities are reserved for hotel and condo guests, and most restaurants are not open to the public. Your ship may offer an all-inclusive day pass; if this is your cup of tea, be sure to inquire.
Cruise passengers have only five or six hours to spend in Playa, so it’s essential to plan accordingly when it comes to excursions. Visits to Maya ruins are heavily marketed, but think twice. The seaside ruins at Tulum, for example, are about an hour away, but your visit will take place during the hottest part of the day. In summer, oppressive heat and humidity will compromise your fun.
Snorkel trips to the natural aquarium at Akumal, 30 minutes south of Playa, or to other nearby destinations, are a rewarding choice. Water clarity is best in winter, but any calm day will offer a great experience. Playa has many options for sailing trips and party cruises, too
At the new 3D Museum of Wonders, visitors can figuratively step into the interactive artwork created with 3D illusions as a museum employee guides you through each whimsical display. Snap photos at exactly the right angle to make it look as though you're tightrope-walking across a suspension bridge, descending into a London Underground station alongside Lewis Caroll’s beloved literary characters or playing a game of poker with a brood of smartly dressed pooches.
Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), also referred to simply as La Quinta, is Playa’s main shopping street, a see-and-be-seen pedestrian promenade where a dedicated shopaholic can spend an entire day cruising the stylish boutiques and jewelry stores and nipping into one trendy restaurant or bar after another. If your budget can stand the temptations, head to Playacar to browse still more up-market treasures.
Just about any option you choose in Playa del Carmen is family-friendly — except the bars and nightclubs, of course.
Sometimes simple pleasures are the most memorable. Find a beach bar where you can chill under a thatched roof and enjoy a simple meal while wiggling your toes in the sand. If it’s offered, try tikin xic, fish marinated in achiote paste and sour oranges, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in an earthen oven. If not, stick with widely available huachinango al mojo del ajo (red snapper grilled in garlic butter). A cold Corona garnished with lime will complete the idyllic picture.
If you’re an adventurous eater dying to try the best of local, Maya-inspired cuisine, head to Yaxche at Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) and 22nd Street North, an easy walk from the ferry dock. The cinematic exterior and faux temple décor are captivating if a bit over the top, but the food is the real deal. To sample a variety of dishes, order the xa’ak hanal sampler, perhaps with a bowl of dark chocolate soup on the side.
There are so many restaurants in Playa that it might be best to let serendipity be your guide. Mexican food is ubiquitous but not all that’s on tap; stroll up La Quinta (the farther you go from the ferry dock, the more the crowds thin out) and look for establishments serving French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Japanese and other ethic cuisines. If you need an infusion of espresso or locally made chocolate (to eat or buy as gifts), stop into Ah Cacao Chocolate Café, with several locations on 5th Avenue.
July and August, although very hot and humid, are peak months for family travel and also the time when South Americans come to escape the Southern Hemisphere winter. Mid-December to April is peak for other groups.
Playa does not have a deep-water port. Cruise ships dock at Calica, five miles from town, or at Cozumel, an offshore island 12 miles distant. Frequent ferries transport passengers from Cozumel to Playa, and some ships also employ their tenders (i.e., lifeboats) for the 20-minute passage. The ferry dock is conveniently located in the center of town, where passengers debark at the zócalo, or town square.
Taxis are quick, easy and relatively inexpensive.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport.
Language: Spanish, although English is spoken and understood in establishments catering to tourists.
Currency: The Mexican peso.
Safety: The U.S. Department of State issues travel warnings for many areas of Mexico, mostly where crime and violence related to drug cartels have increased. Playa del Carmen is not typically one of those places and, like most tourist areas in Mexico, is considered safe. That said, it's wise to leave jewelry, most cash and most credit cards on the ship, limiting what you take with you into port. Use ATMs only during the day and when friends or family are with you, if possible. In restaurants, remain aware of your belongings and don't hang purses over chairs. To learn more about safety in specific areas, log onto the State Department's web page on Mexico travel warnings.
How about you? Have you been to Playa del Carmen or are you planning to go? I'd love to hear about your experience or see your photos!
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“It seems as if every shop on La Quinta Avenida is hawking Cuban cigars at unbelievable prices, but that’s because they’re all fake. Skip the cruise-ship shops and street hawkers and head straight for La Casa del Habano, the only place where you’ll actually be able to find a real Montecristo No. 4 ($15 each).”
“Cancun is so 10 years ago; today’s savvy beachgoers choose the cosmopolitan Playa. ...The European and American-influenced nightlife here is one of the best scenes in Mexico.”
“Playa del Carmen, now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo, is the trendiest spot on all of the Yucatán Peninsula. Sitting coolly on the lee side of Cozumel, the town’s beaches are jammed with superfit Europeans.”