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Playa del Carmen (Calica) Overview
Just 10 years ago Playa del Carmen was referred to as a sleepy little village, but these days the town looks wide awake and ready to stay up all night long. The former haunt of backpackers, nature lovers and privacy-seeking Europeans has now blossomed into a full-fledged tourist destination complete with luxury resorts, dozens of fantastic restaurants, and enough clubs and live music venues to keep night owls occupied for weeks.
Despite its sudden popularity, though, Playa del Carmen clings firmly to a laid-back, pastoral atmosphere that's missing from Cancun, its glamorous neighbor up the coast. You won't find any glass and concrete behemoths here; three-story buildings are the tallest the law allows, and many structures are still made of stucco or rough wood, some sporting a thatched roof and others sheltered beneath layers of red clay tiles. Local Mayan culture and history are prevalent here as well, infusing some parts of town with the rustic yet exotic charm found in cities like New Orleans and Miami. Beach bars and T-shirt shops might dominate portions of the landscape, but walk a mere five minutes away from the main tourist area and you'll find yourself in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by bright pastel houses with wrought-iron doors, immaculate gardens and explosions of multi-colored flowers cascading down from their balconies.
Venture a little further outside the city limits and you'll see that Playa del Carmen's modern amenities are really just a garnish. The main dish is the town's proximity to so many important historical and ecological landmarks, including several stunning collections of Mayan ruins, two eco-archeological parks and thousands of cenotes, the systems of hidden caves and natural springs which ancient Mayans regarded as doorways to the spiritual world. After spending an afternoon in the area, many visitors find it easy to believe that the entrance to heaven does indeed lie right here in Playa del Carmen.
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Other Western Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Belize City • Costa Maya • Cozumel • Falmouth • Galveston • Grand Cayman • Havana • Houston • Montego Bay • New Orleans • Ocho Rios • Playa del Carmen (Calica) • Progreso • Roatan • Santiago de Cuba • Tampa
Spanish, although basic English is widely spoken in shops, hotels and restaurants.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Mexican peso is the official currency, but U.S. dollars are accepted almost everywhere. Your change will be given in pesos no matter which currency you pay with.
Several large banks are located on Juarez Avenue, just a few yards away from the ferry dock. Hours of operation are typically 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., but 24-hour ATM machines are common. You'll also find plenty of currency exchange booths in the area, some of which stay open as late as 10 p.m.
If you love silver jewelry, you'll swoon when you see the selection available in Playa del Carmen. Be prepared to haggle, though, and never pay more than half the vendor's opening price. If you just can't come to terms after a healthy round of bartering, simply walk a few steps to the next shop and start all over again.
Where You're Docked
The small port at Calica, roughly five miles south of Playa del Carmen, is basically nothing more than a pier with a few forgettable souvenir stands nearby. Most passengers will be arriving by ferry from the busy port in Cozumel, just 12 miles across the water. Two different companies, Barcos Mexico and Ultramar, both offer ferry service for roughly $15 roundtrip. The crossing normally takes between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the weather.
The ferry dock sits next door to the town's main square, a small open area lined with stalls selling cold drinks and slices of fresh tropical fruit. An enormous outdoor strip center with dozens of shops and restaurants is only a few yards away, although these are mostly popular American chains and old tourist standbys such as Carlos'n Charlie's and Senor Frog's.
On Foot: If you're only exploring the beaches and the main streets of town, walking is the best method. Streets are laid out in an easy-to-follow grid and the downtown area is wonderfully compact. Stepping off the ferry dock, you'll find yourself at the south end of 5th Avenue, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare which is home to many of the town's shops and restaurants. Walking the length of 5th Avenue at a casual pace only takes about 20 minutes, but set aside an hour if you enjoy window-shopping along the way.
By Taxi: Taxis are both common and inexpensive in Playa del Carmen, with a ride from the ferry pier to the outskirts of town costing no more than $3 or $4. Tipping is neither necessary nor expected unless you're taking a much longer trip.
By Collectivo: A collectivo is a passenger van which acts as a communal taxi carrying anywhere from eight to 12 people. These travel up and down Highway 307, the Yucatan Peninsula's main artery, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. Many of these vans are new and air-conditioned, and the fares are incredibly reasonable; you can cruise all the way to Cancun for less than $4 and, depending on how many stops the driver makes, the trip normally takes no more than an hour. To catch a ride, either flag down one of the vans as it approaches you on the road or walk to the stand at 2nd Street between Avenues 15 and 20.
By Rental Car: There are plenty of rental car outlets along 5th Avenue including well-known American chains like Hertz, Budget and Thrifty. Expect to pay around $25 per day for an economy car with air-conditioning.
5th Avenue: This pedestrian-only street is an attraction unto itself, jam-packed with jewelry stores, craft shops, cantinas, upscale restaurants and more; you can easily spend several hours delving through its assorted treasures. Since the avenue runs parallel to the beach, a fresh view of those beautiful turquoise waters awaits you with each block you travel.
Xcaret Eco Theme Park: Imagine a Disney property dedicated to animals, nature and the ancient Maya culture and you've got Xcaret, a sprawling 200-acre park filled with numerous attractions. Guests can float down an underground river; visit a butterfly pavilion, a bee farm and a manatee lagoon; stroll through a simulated Mayan village; and even swim with dolphins (for an extra fee). The park is only five miles south of Playa del Carmen, about 10 minutes away by car or taxi. Adult admission is $59 and the park is open from 8:30 a.m. - 10 p.m. in the summer and 8:30 a.m. - 9 p.m. in wintertime.
Tulum: The remains of a walled Mayan city over 800 years old, Tulum is the only collection of ruins anywhere on the Yucatan to actually overlook the Caribbean. With those shimmering blue waters as a background, the various temples and towers make quite an impressive picture. There are also several beaches near the ruins for those who want to swim and sunbathe in a completely natural setting with no resorts, snack bars or souvenir shops in sight. There's a charge of roughly $3.50 to enter the ruin complex, and the area is open from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily. Tulum is 45 minutes from Playa del Carmen by car or taxi, with a cab costing about $36.
Been There, Done That
Xaman Ha Aviary: Located in the swanky resort section of town known as Playacar, the aviary is home to nearly 60 species of tropical birds collected from the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. Instead of being confined to cages, the parrots, toucans and other species have free reign over the open-air sanctuary. The aviary is 15 minutes on foot from the ferry pier and less than five minutes away by taxi. If walking, simply turn left on 5th Avenue after leaving the pier and look for the large Playacar entrance sign.
Crococun: This combination crocodile farm and regional zoo gives visitors a chance to see, and even touch, some of the more exotic species found in the area. Led by a guide, visitors venture down a twisting jungle path where they encounter over 300 crocodiles in addition to monkeys, snakes, exotic birds, and even the unusual hairless Mayan dog. Crococun is located just outside of Puerto Morelos, about 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen by car. Open 8:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. every day.
You'll be within a few yards of the beach from the moment you step off the ferry pier. To the south are the sections commandeered by the big all-inclusive resorts while the public beaches run northward. The sand is sparkling white but different from the powder-soft variety found up in Cancun; here it's more like fine grains of salt, but it slopes down into an exquisitely beautiful slice of the Caribbean Sea -- so hanging out on Playa del Carmen's beaches is still a dreamy experience.
The section of beach near the ferry pier is both the widest and the most crowded. Walking north, you'll eventually reach Coco Beach -- a narrow but calmer patch of sand where crowds are sparse and you can relax to the sounds of the surf without all that peripheral noise. The snorkeling at Coco Beach is the best in the area as well, although true fans of snorkeling and diving should check out Paamul, a secluded spot 15 miles south of town with wonderful dive sites and a dive shop called Scubamex, which can handle all your rental equipment needs.
There's definitely no shortage of places to eat in Playa del Carmen. Most of the town's restaurants are located on or near bustling 5th Avenue, and as a general rule the places closest to the ferry dock are noisier, more crowded and geared towards tourists. As you walk north along the pedestrian-only street, however, the crowds seem to melt away and you'll find more unique little places with a wider variety of cuisine including fusion restaurants combining local Mexican fare with Italian, Asian or Mediterranean influences.
Best for Local Eats: Don Emilione (5th Avenue, one block north of the Main Square, lunch from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.) specializes in seafood and Mexican cuisine. Start out with the lime soup, and then move on to lobster tacos or pozole, a pork stew recipe dating back over 500 years.
Best for an Upscale Treat: Yaxche (8th Street, between 5th and 10th Avenues, lunch from 11 a.m.) offers one of the most unique and authentic dining experiences in the entire Yucatan Peninsula. The beautiful decor seems lifted straight from an ancient temple and the food can only be described as upscale Mayan fusion. Try the grilled chicken marinated in tangerine and chipotle pepper sauce or prawns drizzled with lemon and served over pureed garlic.
Best for Families: Ajua! Maya (4th Street between 5th and 10th Avenues, lunch from 11 a.m. on) is another restaurant offering delicious examples of traditional Mayan cuisine, but the real emphasis here is on fun. Live music, dancing waiters and extravagant cocktails keep the party going nonstop while dishes like fresh fish steamed in banana leaves and roasted chicken smothered in cocoa and chili sauce ensure that patrons spend at least part of their visit focused on their plates.
Best for a Romantic Lunch: Media Luna (5th Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets, lunch from 12 p.m. - 6 p.m.), a trendy little bistro down at the quiet north end of 5th Avenue, is one of Playa del Carmen's best and funkiest restaurants. The building is open and breezy, the decor colorful and the food marvelously eclectic. For a little taste of heaven, sample the black pepper crusted fish with mango salsa.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are scattered all over town, so finding one is no problem. Two of the closest ones to the ferry pier are Atomic Internet Cafe on 8th Street between 5th and 10th Avenues and Cyberia on 4th Street at 15th Avenue.
Best for First-Timers: The Caverns by Jeep & Beach Combo gives newcomers a taste of some of the area's best features. Begin with a guided tour through the tropical jungles and ancient caverns the ancient Maya used to call home; then leave the wilderness behind and travel to lovely Xpu-Ha Beach for lunch and a relaxing dose of sun, sand and sea.
Best for Families: Swim with dolphins, and then explore beautiful Discovery Beach at Puerto Aventuras, a glamorous resort community just 18 miles south of Playa del Carmen. Children must be at least 8 years old to interact with the dolphins.
Best for Active Travelers: ATV Explorer Jungle Tours offers two-hour excursions which give participants the chance to take a wild ride through the jungle, swim and snorkel in a freshwater cenote, explore mysterious caves, and climb ancient Mayan ruins. Tours are offered four times a day every day, rain or shine.
For More Information
Contact the Riviera Maya Tourism Board at 1-877-7GO-MAYA
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Playa del Carmen/Calica
The Independent Traveler: Mexico Bargains and Features
--By Ty Treadwell, Cruise Critic contributor
Photo of Playa del Carmen at night appears courtesy of the Riviera Maya Tourism Board.