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.