Playa Del Carmen was a backpacker, expatriate haven ten or fifteen years ago. Before the main highway was completed, you could walk down 5th Avenue and expect to mainly see locals, longhaired backpackers from Norway, and Vietnam vets from the States. Today, Playa Del Carmen is on pace to eclipse Cancun as the place to go for vacation in the Riviera Maya.
Playa is still true to its bohemian roots. Most hotels have under 30 units and the majority of its shops and restaurants are locally owned and operated. Playa is popular with European tourists and has a European feel to it, as is evident by the many topless sunbathers and German run hotels.
There are three main streets in Playa. Fifth Avenue (Avenida Quinta) is the main street and it runs north-south parallel to the beach. It is mostly closed to traffic but open to all forms of tourist driven commerce. Although the calls of “Hey Mr. Big Spender” from t-shirt and trinket store owners will eventually drive even the most hardened traveler crazy, it’s a great place to people watch. Calle Juárez and Calle Constituyentes intersect Fifth Avenue and run east-west from the beach to the Highway. Most hotels, restaurants and bars are centered around 5th Avenue. The farther away from Fifth Avenue the less expensive and more authentically Mexican the experience will be.
Playa Del Carmen Accommodations
Playa del Carmen is filled with hundreds of small hotels. In the low season, it’s worth walking around and checking out rooms and prices if there is nothing special about where you are currently staying or plan to stay. Prices will be significantly higher during the busy season. Here are a few places that we recommend:
- Hostel Palomar (984 80 3 26 06) is located on Fifth Avenue directly across from the bus station. Don’t be put off by its busy location and noisy entrance. This hostel is well kept, clean, and has great views of the ocean. Private rooms come a large bed, ceiling fan, and hammock on a small private balcony. The bathroom is down the hall but does not get busy. There are also, of course, dorm beds available. A hostel style breakfast is included and there is a great place to hang out on the roof. For around $25 USD a night for a private room, this is one of the best bargains in town.
- The Luna Blue (formally Hotel Zanzibar / 984 87 30 990) is located at the far end of Fifth Avenue in the newer part of town. It’s laidback and quiet, and its unique buildings are centered around a nice garden courtyard. Rooms include balconies, hammocks, patios, air conditioning, and use of beach chairs/loungers at a nearby beach club. There is a community kitchen for guest use also.
Playa Del Carmen Restaurants
Unlike many other towns in Mexico, there are more diverse and ethnic restaurants in Playa than dogs running around on the streets. This is due to the high influx of tourists and a stray dog euthanasia program. Restaurants on or around 5th Avenue will be more expensive but are usually in unique spaces, open aired, and romantic. Restaurants farther away from Fifth Avenue will have more authentically Mexican and spicy food. Here are a few places that we enjoyed:
- El Serape (Juárez at Calle 20) on any given night will be filled with half locals and half tourists who have discovered the excellent Mexican food served here. It can often be loud and hot, but the tacos and fajitas are worth it. Be sure to try the fajitas al pastor for a great Mexican flavor. The lime soup, a local dish, is unique and delicious also.
- Casa Tucan (Calle 4 at 10th Avenue) is an excellent little restaurant run by some expatriot Germans that serves French and European food. This is the only place to find tofu fajitas in town.
- Pollo Caribe (Just off Calle 10) belongs to the roasted chicken category of Mexican food. You get a whole or half chicken, some tortillas, coleslaw, and hot sauce. Wash it down with a cold beer and it might just be the perfect meal. If you don’t eat at one of the chicken places, you miss a true Mexican dining experience.
- Media Luna (Fifth Avenue at Calle 10) is a romantic and popular restaurant with a funky atmosphere that serves Italian, Mexican, and vegetarian food.
- 100% Natural (Fifth Ave near Calle 10) is a good choice for vegetarian options. It serves tasty salads, pasta, hummus, and all sorts of fresh vegetables and fruits in a pleasant garden setting. They have also opened in new location in Tulum.
- Babes Noodles and Bar serves, well, thai style noodles in a trendy atmosphere that is popular with the international crowd. It now had two locations - the old location is at calle 10 between 5th and 10th, and the new location is at 5th Ave. between calle 26 and 28.
- La Vagabunda (Fiftth Avenue at Calle 24) is our favorite place to go for breakfast. Hearty and cheap, most breakfasts come with coffee, fresh fruit, juice, and bread.
Playa Del Carmen Bars and Clubs
Playa is filled with tequila bars, martini bars, beach bars, bars for people watching, and bars for shaking it up. The bars are pretty mellow during the day and evening, then reflecting the European nature of the town, they get hopping late at night. Here are our favorites:
- Deseo - The first impression upon walking up the stairs to Deseo (on Fifth Avenue at Calle 12) is that you might have just stumbled into the coolest bar on the planet. A modern concept bar, Deseo has a hip, international sophistication. Located outside and on top of a building, Deseo overlooks the main street in town. Instead of tables, there are mattresses with white billowy sheets that float gently in the breezes above them. Black and white movies are projected on the side of the building next door and there is a softly glowing pool with the phrase “Away From You” painted on its bottom. The drinks tend to be expensive but it’s worth going for the atmosphere and cool trance music.
- Alux - If it’s a rare experience these days to hang out in a cave, it’s even more exotic to drink beer and go dancing in one. However, Alux (Avenida Juárez, Manzana 12) is a cool bar/restaurant located about 50 feet underground in a dry cenote cavern on the far side of the highway. Dinners can be expensive but order a beer at the bar and you can wander around and explore the back tunnels of the cave. There are cool little niches with tables and couches hidden amongst the stalactites and stalagmites and the whole place is lit up with colored lights. Alux is popular with locals and there’s a large dance floor. To get there, take a cab from Fifth Avenue or walk up Juárez for three or four blocks beyond the highway.
- Capitan Tutix (Calle 4 at the beach) is a pirate themed beach dance club. The bar is shaped like a large pirate ship and when the party gets hopping there, the dj may sport an eye patch. Early in the evening, this bar will often have live acoustic music. Around 11pm, it switches over to international and Latin techno and dance grooves and gets packed with European and Latin American hipsters.
- The Blue Parrot (Calle 12 at the beach) was once rated one of the ten top bars in the world by Newsweek magazine. It is the original beach bar in town and continues to be a great place to hang out. Instead of seats, swings hang down on ropes from the thatched palapa roof. There is often live music in the afternoons and dancing and fire juggling in the evenings.
Playa Del Carmen Scuba Diving
Tank Ha Diving Center (5th Avenue between Calles 8 & 10 / 984 879 3427) is the place to go for scuba or snorkeling trips. Their competent, friendly staff offers the full range of trips from two tank ocean dives to cavern diving in the local cenotes.
Playa Del Carmen Snorkeling
For snorkeling in Playa del Carmen, walk north along the beach for several kilometers until you come to Coco beach where the reef is closest to the shore. There are several bars and hotels at this point and you’ll see boats sheltered in calm water behind the reef. It’s possible to swim out to the reef and although it’s in bad shape, there is still a lot of cool stuff to see. Be careful on the swim out as boats are often moving in and out of the protected area. Tank-Ha arranges off-shore snorkel trips.