32km (20 miles) S of Puerto Morelos; 70km (43 miles) S of Cancún; 10km (6 1/4 miles) N of Xcaret; 13km (8 miles) N of Puerto Calica
Young adventuresome travelers have long been attracted to the eclectic Playa del Carmen beach scene, but it’s no longer a budget haven with seaside campgrounds and inexpensive eateries. In fact, Playa del Carmen is one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities, with sprawling neighborhoods on both sides of the highway and nearly every big-box store you can imagine. Fortunately, Playa still retains a beach vibe, which combines with a cosmopolitan ethos to create a distinctly European feel. Many of the earliest hotel and restaurants owners moved to Playa from Italy, so there’s no shortage of great pasta and vino. These days, restaurants serve everything from sushi to foie gras, and shops carry Balinese figurines and Brazilian bikinis. Playa’s La Quinta (Fifth Avenue) is the coast’s social magnet, with browse-worthy shops and plenty of bars and restaurants studding the pedestrian promenade.
Things to Do
This bustling town is fronted with several beaches popular with families, scenesters, and fishermen alike. Bury your toes in white sand and sip an umbrella drink, stopping occasionally to frolic in Playa's turquoise water. You can dive or snorkel through the cenotes (underwater caves) at Hidden World Cenotes, spend an afternoon fishing or boating at the Puerto Aventuras marina, or arrange for a horseback ride on the beach through Rancho Punta Venado.
Playa makes a great base for exploring the Riviera Maya's central coast. Delve into Maya culture with a drive south to the limestone ruins of the ancient cities of Tulum and Cobá. A short ferry ride to the nearby island of Cozumel puts you in putting distance of the 18-hole Cozumel Country Club golf course -- just watch out for the blue crabs and crocodiles that also make it their home. Take a day trip to nature park Xel-Ha and swim with dolphins.
Eating & Drinking
Make the most of Playa's international mix and feast on Argentinean steak one day and noodles the next. For a taste of old Playa, try Yucatecan Tikinxic fish with achiote and bitter-orange sauce cooked in a banana leaf, in a casual setting right on the beach. Maya cuisine gets an innovative twist in such dishes as cream of chaya soup with the local version of spinach and white wine.
Playa's La Quinta (Quinta Avenida) is the city's social magnet, with browse-worthy shops and plenty of bars and restaurants studding the pedestrian promenade. Sample the best of Mexico's national spirit -- tequila, naturally -- or call into Blue Parrot, a local institution known for its live rock acts and diverse crowd, with a beachside location for good measure. If you brought your dancing shoes, Playa's most popular dance clubs are clustered around the intersection of La Quinta and Calle 12.