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Playa del Carmen (Calica) (Photo:posztos/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Adam Coulter
Cruise Critic UK Managing Editor

Port of Playa del Carmen (Calica)

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.

About Playa del Carmen (Calica)


Pro

Still retains a laidback, village-y feel, if you know where to find it

Con

Can feel like a bit of a tourist trap

Bottom Line

Beautiful beaches stretch along this coast but unchecked development is eroding its charm


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Good to Know

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.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

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.

Language

Spanish is the official language in Mexico, though English is widely spoken in shops, hotels and restaurants.

Shopping

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.