Wandering down 5th Avenue in Playa Del Carmen it is hard to believe that this was once a sleepy little village. Well, it has certainly woken up and has become a booming resort town with plenty to offer visitors at just about any hour of the day or night.
6 – Shopping – Speaking of 5th Avenue – or Quinta Avenida as it is known locally – this bustling thoroughfare is where the heart of the town beats, and it is truly a shopper’s paradise, featuring block upon block of quaint local shops with a wide variety of clothing, jewelry, arts, crafts and trinkets. Tiny corridors split off from the street, revealing flea markets where some of the best deals in the immediate vicinity can be found.
As with most tourist areas of Mexico the vendors are very active in trying to lure you into their shops, but they manage to walk a fine line, remaining charming and humorous without ever getting so pushy that it becomes annoying. They also enjoy a good haggle, so make sure you don’t accept the first price they set.
Though 5th Avenue is a very cool area if you want to find even better deals you have to venture out of the heart of the tourist zone. If you wend your way around the cross streets up to 30th Avenue you can find all sorts of interesting shops that cater to locals rather than the tourist crowds.
5 – Beaches – Of course with the word Playa in the name of the town you know there is going to be some sun, surf and sand to enjoy and Playa Del Carmen certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Just a few blocks downhill from 5th Avenue you’ll find yourself stepping onto the beautiful white sand beach which parallels the entire town. Though much of the waterfront is lined with resorts they are well back from the water and the beach in front of them isn’t private, so you can find plenty of real estate to set down your towel and bask even on the busiest days.
The water is that beautiful inviting turquoise that is synonymous with Caribbean destinations, and though not quite bathtub warm it certainly won’t shock you when you enter the water. The water can sometimes be a little rough when the wind really kicks up, but never so much that you need worry about being pulled under and dragged out to sea. Surfers will have to look elsewhere to catch a wave as the swells never reach a size that is rideable, and break too swiftly in any event, but kids can enjoy some fun on a boogie board while the adults sip a cerveza on the beach.
4 – Night Life – Though not a party town of the same legendary status that Cancun has, Playa Del Carmen has plenty of action for those who really get in gear after the sun sets. Most restaurants offer cheap drink deals that get your evening kick-started, and once you’ve got a bit of a glow on you can get down to 12th Street for some more drinking and dancing at one of the several open air nightclubs between 5th Avenue and the waterfront.
However, the best action can be found at Coco Bongo, at the corner of 10th Avenue and 12th Street. The famous Cancun nightclub has migrated to Playa, and is just as good as the experience in Cancun’s famous bar. More akin to a Vegas show than a regular nightclub you don’t even need to drink to stay entertained. Though you really should as the cost of your admission includes all you can drink until they shut the doors at 3:30 AM. Cost of a ticket (at the time of this writing) is $45 USD from Monday to Thursday and $50 USD on Friday and Saturday (closed Sunday). If you are staying a ways out of Playa there are also package deals which include transportation to and from the club. Even if you aren’t a nightclub sort of person, this place is definitely worth checking out.
3 – Visit Xcaret
This Eco-park is a must visit whether you are traveling solo, with your spouse and kids, or with a large group. There is tons to see and do at the park, including snorkeling down an underground river through caves, swimming with the dolphins, exploring ancient Mayan ruins, enjoying the beautiful beaches in the confines of the park, and watching the spectacular Mayan cultural show that takes place every night just before the park closes.
Wildlife abounds in the park and animal lovers can view jaguars, pumas, tapir, monkeys, scarlet macaws, dolphins, manatees and more close up. For those willing to spend a little more the swimming with the dolphins add-on package is a fun option. Not only do you get to swim with them and touch them, your experience is far more interactive, and you can experience the thrill of “dolphin-skiing” as a pair of dolphins come up under your feet and zoom you 100 feet across the surface of the water balanced on their noses.
The park is huge and exploring it all will definitely work up an appetite. There are several high quality buffet restaurants in the park, featuring plenty of shrimp, crab and other delicacies for the seafood lovers in the crowd. It is a little pricey at $29 USD a head, but if you have an early afternoon meal you can get your lunch and dinner in one shot and I promise you won’t be hungry by the time your head hits the pillow that night.
As great as all the other activities in the park are it is the final performance of the evening that is truly the best part of a visit to Xcaret. Just as darkness starts to settle over the park, visitors will file into the large stadium near the exit to enjoy a magical two hour journey through the history of the Mayan culture. Watch a reenactment of ancient Mayan warriors as they attempt to fend off Spanish Conquistadors. Sports fans will find themselves breathlessly watching the Mayan ball game in which competing teams wielding field-hockey-like sticks try to get a fiery ball into the goal of their opponents. This one is guaranteed to get the football (soccer) fanatics whipped up. The authentic music, costumes, and dancing will keep you entertained the entire time, and when the performance finally ends you’ll marvel at how fast the 2 hour show seemed to fly by.
Entrance to Xcaret is really quite reasonable, considering all there is to do and see there. $69 USD lets you enjoy all the major highlights of the park. However, if you are planning to hit the buffet then the $99 Xcaret Plus package is the way to go. This option includes your meal, along with a few extras not enjoyed by those paying the standard fare. Note that neither of these packages include your transportation. Shuttle transportation from your hotel is generally available for a small fee, or you can take a taxi or collectivo to get there.
2 – Visit the Mayan Ruins – If you are a history buff then you can’t miss the chance to see one or more of the major Mayan ruins in the area. Chichen Itza is the most famous of the Mayan ruins, but a trip to Koba or Tulum provide experiences completely different, and just as good. There are no shortage of tours to see these magnificent structures from ages past, and you can do a standalone trip, or combine them with a 4×4 adventure, diving in cenotes, or jungle exploration. Prices will vary depending on who you book with and what activities are included, so feel free to shop around. If you are looking for the simplest, stress-free way then booking through your hotel concierge is usually the best bet.
1 – Take a Ferry Trip to Cozumel
If you’ve run out of things to do on the mainland (yeah, right) then you’re in luck. The island of Cozumel is just a short 45 minute ferry ride from the docks of Playa Del Carmen. For about $10-12 USD (each way) you can hop the boat and make the trip across. Be warned, if you have an issue with seasickness, that the seas can sometimes be pretty rough on this crossing. Once there you are delivered into a shopper’s paradise (in case 5th Avenue wasn’t enough for you). There are blocks and blocks of shops with merchandise that is refreshingly different from that found in Playa Del Carmen.
If shopping doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry, there are plenty of other activities to partake in. Charter a fishing boat, or rent a scooter and tour the island. Divers and snorkelers will be in heaven here as Cozumel features one of the world’s largest reefs and the crystal clear water provide amazing visibility to enjoy the wide range of sea creatures that live in and around the reef. With few good snorkeling spots to be found on the mainland this is a must-do day trip if you are diehard diver.
At the end of the day enjoy a great meal at one of Cozumel’s many fantastic restaurants and then catch the late ferry back to Playa. Make sure to check the ferry schedule before you leave so you don’t miss the final ferry back to the mainland. There are two separate ferry companies and between them you can generally get a ferry back as late in the evening as 11:00 PM.
These are just a few of the things to do in Playa Del Carmen. This area of the Mayan Riviera abounds with great activities, and unless you have a lot more holiday time than I do you can’t see and do it all in a single trip. Nothing wrong with that though. It gives you a good excuse to go back.