Playa del Carmen is a fantastic beach town and extremely popular tourist destination nestled in the southern corner of the Yucatan peninsula. This fast-growing town has the perfect mix of traditional Mayan culture and exuberant modern flare. Many people see Playa del Carmen as a lazy beach destination, or as a party town hidden in the shadow of Cancun, but it´s so much more.
The exquisite mix of races and cultures in this small town have given way to an exciting and wonderful array of activities, restaurants, tour opportunities and arts. No matter where you come from in the world, there will be someone in Playa del Carmen that not only speaks your language, but that knows about the town you grew up in. However, throughout all of this change and cultural bombardment, Playa del Carmen has managed to keep its Mayan roots and small fishing village charm.
Lined with white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and glistening turquoise waters, Playa del Carmen has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but that´s not all it´s famous for. The surrounding tropical jungle, manglar forests, easy access to the second largest barrier reef in the world and magical cenotes give Playa del Carmen a charm you won´t find anywhere else.
Taking a step back from all the glorious nature, you´ll find some of the best shopping, food and nightlife in Mexico. Playa del Carmen´s famous 5th Avenue, numerous shopping malls and local artisanal markets can give even Cancun a run for its money. While the world-class clubs, national and international DJs, live bands and amazing mixologists will give you a few nights you´ll never forget.
History of Playa del Carmen, Mexico
In its very first years, Playa del Carmen was originally inhabited by the Mayans. Even today you can see their influence in the amazing ruins scattered throughout the landscape, in the delicious food, the vibrant culture and the artisanal techniques used by the locals. During this period, Playa del Carmen was an important trade hub. Its location between the two major ports of Honduras and Veracruz made it ideal for not only local but international trading.
In the early 1900´s Playa del Carmen became official Mexican territory and was announced to be part of the state of Quintana Roo. By the 1970s Cancun and Playa del Carmen´s neighbour Cozumel were starting to build up their tourism, and so Playa del Carmen was becoming more accessible to tourists. However, this little fishing village still remained largely ignored.
By 1990, Playa del Carmen had gone from fishermen huts, two man boats and one beach shack serving beer on the beach to huge all-inclusive resorts, restaurants, hotels and a cruise ship dock. In 1995 the population of this wonderful beach town was 20,000, today this number has grown to a jaw-dropping 220,000*.
This strange history has made Playa del Carmen not only the fastest growing town in Mexico but also one of the fastest growing in the world! In 2006, Playa del Carmen was announced as one of the top international holiday destinations and has been growing and developing ever since.
Playa del Carmen´s Highlights
Playa del Carmen has everything you need to make a trip of a lifetime. Whether you´re an outdoor buff and love to stay active, a beach dweller who wants to soak up the rays while sipping on a fresh cocktail, a foodie in search of new techniques and flavours, a night owl who loves to party or a shop till you drop bargain hunter, you´ll find your place in Playa del Carmen.
Cenotes are a natural phenomenon you can only find in the Yucatan peninsula, and Playa del Carmen is slap bang in the middle of them all. Although there are a few to choose from, Cenote Eden is by far the local favourite. Eden is only located 15 minutes from the centre of Playa del Carmen and is easily accessible by public transport or car. Cliff jump into the crystal clear freshwater, grill up a storm on the free BBQs available, explore the fascinating underwater rock formations, or sit back in the sun surrounded by the relaxing sounds of the Mayan jungle.
If you’re looking for a day of adventure then you should definitely plan a visit to Xcaret. This huge Eco Park is located just 10 minutes from Playa del Carmen, and is the biggest in the area. Here you can swim with dolphins, snorkel in the naturally formed coves, Zipline through the trees, float down a manglar river and enjoy the spectacular nighttime show. Xcaret is great for both families and couples alike, as it absolutely has something for everyone.
5th avenue is the world-famous street that runs from one side of Playa del Carmen to the other. This vibrant street is lined with amazing restaurants, shops and bars. A walk down this famous street is never the same. You´ll see street artists creating masterpieces in front of your very eyes, local vendors rubbing shoulders with the designer brands, live musicians playing some of your favourite tunes, and street dancers grooving up a storm. 5th Avenue is a must see when in Playa del Carmen, and it´s the perfect place to organise any tours or activities you want to take part in during your stay.
Being a beach town, it comes as no surprise that Playa del Carmen has some of the best beach clubs around. No matter what your style or budget, there will be a beach club for you. Looking to party in luxury, then visit the crazy Coralina beach club. Looking for a tropical vibe, great seafood and a good DJ, then visit Canibal Royal. If you´re on a bit of a tight budget, then pay a visit to Lido, La Tarraya or Yan and Ten’s, where you’ll still get amazing service, just for a fraction of the price. If expat life is more of your style, then head on over to Wah Wah´s where they have live bands, a weekly cookout and free sun loungers every day.
Aloha Paddle Board Club
Seen all these amazing pictures in the travel magazines and always wanted to try paddle boarding? Or, are you a total pro looking for a great community to join? The clear, calm waters and amazing staff at Aloha paddle boarding club make Playa del Carmen the perfect place for everyone to enjoy this exciting sport. They offer beginner classes, SUP yoga groups, sunrise and sunset tours and even basic gear rental. Jumping into the Caribbean lifestyle and trying a sport the locals love is something you have to do while visiting Playa del Carmen.
For such a small town, Playa del Carmen sure knows how to party! The vibe along the main club strip is always electric, with people often dancing and singing in the streets. Plus, with famous clubs such as Coco Bongo, Mandala, La Vaquita and Palazzo there´s a raging party ever night of the week.
If you prefer a more relaxed evening out, then Playa del Carmen still has you covered. Many of the bars and restaurants feature world-class DJs and bands, so you can sit back, have a few drinks and listen to some of the best musical talent in Mexico.
While in Playa del Carmen you have to try the most famous of all Mexican food… the taco. However, not all tacos are made the same. The locals in Playa del Carmen know which street cart vendors or corner store restaurants are safe, and which aren’t. But for a tourist visiting for the first time, it can be difficult to know what´s best. Well, with El Fogon you can never go wrong.
This seemingly plain and simple restaurant is actually pretty famous. People travel from all over Mexico to come and eat here, and there´s often a huge line outside with people eagerly awaiting their delicious tacos. The world famous Canadian DJ Richie Hawtin loves the food in El Fogon so much, he even comes once a year to do a free set inside the restaurant.
Getting around Playa del Carmen
Although this wonderful beach town is growing at an outstanding rate, Playa del Carmen is still fairly small. You can walk from one end of 5th Avenue to the other in around an hour, depending if you´re making shopping, ice cream and cocktail breaks. However, there are also a few quicker ways to get around.
Taxis are available all over the town, and you can simply flag them down from the curb. All taxis in Playa del Carmen belong to a syndicate, so they all have a uniform white paint job, with a light blue stripe and the syndicate´s logo on the side. Over the last year, taxi owners have been creating taxi stands around the most popular areas in Playa del Carmen. These ´in-situ´ taxis should only charge an extra $5 pesos on top of the usual fee, but be aware that many take advantage of this and charge much more. I advise always walking an extra block and hailing one from the street.
There are also local buses and Colectivo vans that will zip you anywhere in the city for $6 pesos or less. These are recommended if you are wanting to visit the cinema in Plaza las Americas, if you are needing to go to SAMS club or Centro America shopping Mall, or if you want to get from one end of Playa del Carmen to the other cheaply.
Colectivo vans also run from Playa del Carmen to the centre of Cancun and to Tulum, making stops at all the main towns and attractions along the way.
Best time to visit
Mid-September through to the end of November is rainy season, and Playa del Carmen can receive a lot of bad weather from nearby hurricanes and cyclones that form over the sea during this time of year. Being a beach town, rain means that a lot of restaurants and stores may close, so there isn’t too much to keep you busy during the day.
From June through until the end of August is the hottest time of year. It´s not surprising for temperatures to reach a sweltering 40°C and humidity levels soar to well over 95%. Although July through August is classed as one of Playa del Carmen´s high seasons, I advise not to come during this time of year, as the heat and humidity can be extremely tiring and oppressive.
The second high season for Playa del Carmen comes from December through to the beginning of February. You still have a fairly high chance of rain, but the temperatures are perfect, and the sea is calm. However, the prices during this time of year are the highest. Resorts, restaurants and even stores have been known to jack up their prices during this time of year.
The absolute best time of year to visit Playa del Carmen is from March to mid-May. During this time there are fewer tourists, the prices of hotels and tours drop dramatically, there are more sun loungers available at the beach clubs, and temperatures rest around a comfortable 26°C.
Best way to visit
No matter where you fly from, you will land in Cancun´s international airport when travelling to Playa del Carmen. Cancun´s airport is located just 45 minutes away from the town of Playa del Carmen and is easily reachable by taxi, hiring a car, or taking the local ADO.
There are no direct flights from any of the major airports in Australia to Playa del Carmen. That being said, Melbourne and Sydney airports do offer flights to Cancun with one quick stop in LAX through most major airlines.
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Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”