Go back 20 years or so, and Playa del Carmen was little more than a fishing village on one of the most beautiful stretches of beach along this coast. Playa then grew into a haunt of backpackers, scuba divers and privacy-seeking Europeans put off by Cancun's high-rise resorts. And, although it does still attract those visitors, it has now blossomed into a full-fledged tourist destination complete with its own luxury resorts, dozens of restaurants and enough clubs and music venues to keep night owls occupied for weeks.
However, its central position between the tourist hotspots of Tulum to the south and Cancun to the north has led to rapid, unchecked development. Where once the village was contained, stretching just a few blocks from the main ferry terminal and the beach, today there are hotels and resorts completely surrounding the town for miles in both directions.
Despite its sudden popularity, though, Playa del Carmen clings firmly to a laid-back atmosphere that's missing from Cancun. 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 a rustic yet exotic charm. 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 brightly colored houses with wrought-iron doors, immaculate gardens and multicolored 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 important historical and ecological landmarks, including several stunning collections of Mayan ruins, two eco-archaeological 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.
The small port at Calica, roughly 6 miles south of Playa del Carmen, is no longer used by cruise lines. Instead, you'll arrive by ferry from the busy port in Cozumel, just 12 miles across the water. Three different companies -- Barcos Caribe, Mexico Waterjets and Ultramar -- all offer ferry service for as little as $8 round trip. The crossing normally takes between 30 and 45 minutes, depending on the weather and the boat you take. (Catamarans are the fastest choice.)
Strolling along Fifth Avenue can be exhausting -- the amount of times you'll be asked if you want a massage, or marijuana, to come into a restaurant, to change money or buy generic drugs -- is tiring. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is walk along the beach instead.
On Foot: The ferry terminal is at the far south end of Playa del Carmen. Walk across the town square and you'll find yourself at the beginning of Avenida Quinta, the main thoroughfare.
By Taxi/Colectivo: You'll find taxis lined up beside the main bus station. An alternative and cheaper option is to jump in a colectivo, which is basically a shared taxi van. The driver waits until the van fills up, and then drops each passenger off at his or her desired stop.
By Bus: The main bus terminal is a two-minute walk diagonally across the town square from the ferry terminal. Here, you'll find buses to Tulum, Chichen Itza and further afield.
The Mexican peso is the official currency. However, most taxis and vendors will accept U.S. dollars, and guides are happy to be tipped that way. That said, your change will be given in pesos regardless. Credit cards are not generally accepted in small family restaurants or tiny shops, so ask if you're not carrying cash before you sit down or start browsing.
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. to 5 p.m., but 24-hour ATMs 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. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
Spanish is the official language in Mexico, though English is widely spoken in shops, hotels and restaurants.
Despite the fact that it is a touristy destination, Playa offers plenty of high-quality food. There is some great local seafood to be had, as well as fine cuts of meat. There's definitely no shortage of places to eat either -- a whopping 1,101 choices, according to TripAdvisor. 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 designed for tourists. As you walk north along the pedestrian-only street, or off it toward the main highway, the crowds seem to melt away and you'll find unique little places with a wider variety of cuisine, including fusion restaurants that combine local Mexican fare with Italian, Asian or Mediterranean influences.
Madre Tierra: This restaurant has some of the best steaks and seafood in Playa del Carmen. Its set up a flight of stairs so it overlooks the main avenue, allowing you to enjoy the endless flow of people -- but not be bothered by them. Madre Tierra specializes in cuts of steak at reasonable prices (starting at 330 pesos for a flank steak); the filet mignon comes on a sizzling plate and the New York Strip is tender and tasty. The grilled chicken and fresh, locally caught fish are also delicious. There is a good selection of local starters, including freshly prepared guacamole and squid rings (135 pesos) and delicious desserts -- try the homemade cake, which changes every day (115 pesos). The restaurant also has an impressive wine list, which starts at around 400 pesos for a decent bottle of Malbec. (Calle 14 Nte, Gonzalo Guerrero, Quintana Roo, Mexico; Lunch: served starting at noon)
Karen's: This gaudy restaurant on the main strip is a Playa institution that dates back to 1992. You can't miss it, on account of the bright blue, pink, green and yellow tables that spill onto Fifth Avenue. It's packed and noisy all day long, with a roaming band and a magician/comedian who performs tricks tableside. Karen's is best known for its parilladas - mixed grills -- which are piled high with various local meats, including sausages and steaks. The quality is not the highest, but prices are low and portions are big. To start, make sure you ask for the guacamole, which will be made fresh at your table. The calamares (fried squid) are also excellent. (Calle Quinta Avenida, Centro, 77710 Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984-147-7640; open daily noon to midnight)
Las Brisas: This restaurant may be less than a hundred yards off the main drag, but it feels like a million miles away. Las Brisas is friendly and welcoming, though a little rough around the edges. It serves fresh local fare at reasonable prices. (Avenida Coin, 4 corner of Avenue 10, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984- 206-3000; open for lunch and dinner until 10 p.m.)
Carboncitos: Carboncitos is located in Hotel Cielo and is regarded as one of the best Mexican restaurants in Playa, with consistently high scores on TripAdvisor. Expect classic Mexican fare -- such as tacos, salads, nachos and fajitas -- with the occasional fusion dish added to the mix. For heartier appetites, there are also steak and seafood dishes on the menu. Carboncitos has a relaxed, casual atmosphere and is reasonably priced. If your ship is leaving late, be sure to take advantage of the daily happy hour. It's worth noting that this restaurant is cash only. (Calle 4 between La Quinta and the 10th, Quintana Roo, Mexico; +52-984-873-1382; open daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
It's a tough choice between a classic margarita or a straight shot of tequila. Whichever you go for, you'll find a multitude of establishments serving them along Avenida Quinta.
All the main shops are along La Quinta. Be warned: There is an awful lot of knickknacks on sale here in cavernous stores, including novelty beach towels, tequila shot glasses and Mexican hats. You'll find the quality goods in the smaller shops, including handmade arts and crafts such as hammocks, jade jewelry, ponchos, carvings and leather goods. Tequila and mezcal are everywhere and, with competition fierce, you'll be able to get reasonable prices.
You'll also find coral, starfish, packs of shells and endangered fish such as puffer fish for sale: Don't buy any of this. Though there are dealers wielding government-issued permits to sell the stuff, coral jewelry is listed on the U.S. Department of State's list of "wildlife and wildlife products" to avoid. Buyers risk confiscation and fines, quite apart from the environmental considerations.