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Playa del Carmen sits on the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It is located in the centre of a stretch of Caribbean beach known as the Mayan Riviera, which runs from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south. Playa, as it is known locally, has height restrictions on buildings, so there are no large hotels like you find in bustling Cancun. It’s a quieter place with a more international flavour, attracting many European, South American, and Latin American tourists as well as Americans.
Once a small fishing village known mostly to tourists as the location of the ferry dock for travelling between the mainland and the island of Cozumel, the town has boomed in the last decade. This rapid growth converted Playa from a place backpackers went for a great beach with cheap food and simple lodging to a major Mexican resort destination. While Playa del Carmen still serves as a transportation hub with the ferry and cruise ships dropping off passengers who then take busses to other coastal towns and archaeological sites farther inland such as Chichen-Itza, there is much you can do without leaving town.
Things To Do In Playa Del Carmen
Here’s a Top 10 list of things to do right in Playa del Carmen. Keep in mind that there are bigger crowds everywhere when a cruise ship is in port.
Enjoy the beach
Playa is Spanish for beach and this town’s name highlights one of its best features. The entire beach is open to the public. The main beach begins at the ferry dock and runs north. If tidy sand and people watching appeal to you, stay closer to the dock. If you want solitude and a natural beach complete with seaweed and whatever else the tide brought in, walk north. Once you get past the tourist zone, the jungle edges the beach. In town, you’re never more than a short walk away from a beachfront bar, restaurant, or dive shop.
The clean white sand and turquoise water make for picture-postcard views and photos. Swim in warm, clear water that’s usually calm. Sit in the shade of a palm frond-roofed palapa with a cold drink or work on your tan. Relax in a hammock. Join an afternoon game of beach volleyball.
Go diving or snorkelling
Reef diving, cavern diving, wreck diving, and snorkelling can all be done out of Playa. You’ll see mostly sand if you try snorkelling right off the beach, so arrange for a boat to take you out to a coral reef or go inland to one of the cenotes.
Playa del Carmen sits on a porous slab of limestone containing underground caves and caverns connected by a freshwater river system. The caves and rivers are accessible from cenotes, large sinkholes filled with clear water and often ringed by lush jungle.
The Great Maya Reef, a string of coral reefs, walls and plateaus that creates a fringe barrier along the YucatĂˇn peninsula, provides spectacular diving and snorkelling opportunities. Hundreds of varieties of fish and several species of sea turtle live there. Two big plusses of diving here: water clarity with visibility from 50-80 feet at most dive sites and thirteen marked dive sites only a short distance off the Playa shore.
As always when diving, choose your guide with care. Diving instruction for beginners, refresher courses for the already certified, and specialized cave diving instruction are available.
A portion of Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), the major shopping street in Playa, allows foot traffic only. Charming shops along the bricked pedestrian walkway offer a wide range of goods. As you might expect, you can buy handcrafted Mexican goods like embroidered blouses, silver jewellery, and pottery along with popular regional items like Panama style hats, colourful hammocks, and guayabera shirts. What might surprise you is the international aspect of shopping here, with sellers of Indonesian sarongs, Cuban cigars, and Guatemalan textiles competing for your pesos.
On la Quinta, street performers entertain shoppers; Mexican glassblowers let you watch them work at this traditional craft.
Eat and drink
Restaurants reflect the international mix of tourists, so your choices include Argentine, German, Italian, French, American, and Asian food. Many restaurants are run by one-time tourists who decided to relocate to Playa. Quinta Avenida and the beachfront restaurants offer a wide range of ambience and prices. While you can find Mexican food and more kinds of tequila than you imagine possible in the tourist zone, venture west away from the hotels to find cash-only Mexican restaurants serving fare that hasn’t been internationalized.
There’s an active option for everyone from the beginner to experienced sailor. You can rent a paddleboat, kayak, canoe, or sailboat and get lessons. Some of the all-inclusive resorts offer free instruction. If you’d rather just ride, there are glass-bottom boat tours of the reefs and catamarans you can charter.
The deep channel between the Mexican coast and Cozumel acts as a gamefish pipeline connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, making it a great place to catch prized sailfish and marlin. Other large fish you can pull out of the deep are wahoo, tuna, barracuda, and dorado (mahi-mahi or dolphin fish). Catch your own dinner on the reefs that are home to snapper, grouper, sea bass, and others.
Small open boats with sunshades called pangas to leave from the beach in Playa del Carmen. Some of the dive shops offer casual fishing with combination fish-and-snorkel trips. More charter operations and bigger boats are available in Puerto Aventuras, a 20-minute ride from Playa.
Go horseback riding
Meander over jungle trails and ride on the beach. Let the rhythm of the ride, the sound of the waves, and the beauty of the Caribbean soothe mind and soul. Trail horses in resort areas tend to be docile and slow, so these rides suit first-timers. Operators give instruction to the inexperienced.
Pronounce it shka-ret. Once the site of a Mayan city and the place where Mayans underwent ritual purification before going over the water to Cozumel to worship a fertility goddess, Xcaret has become a natural theme park. Plan a whole day and arrive early. The park appeals to children of all ages.
Xcaret’s exhibits emphasize ecology and archaeology. To learn about the Maya, you can explore actual ruins at an archaeological site as well as visit a recreation of a Mayan village. You can also watch a re-enactment of a Mayan no-hands ball game played on an unusual court. View Caribbean coral reef life at the aquarium, see animals of the area at a small zoo, and know delight in the butterfly pavilion. End your day with a Mexican folklore show.
The rides at Xcaret are natural. You can float with the current down an underground river, snorkel, ride horses, or swim with dolphins.
Take a yoga class
When you’ve had a strong dose of passive relaxation on the beach and your mind is already on its way to being quiet, head for the yoga studio. You can take a single class or design a vacation around yoga. You can be casual and select a spa-type class where you can follow the yoga with a massage. You can be focused and take a lesson designed especially for divers. You can be serious and study to get certified as a yoga teacher.
Enjoy the nightlife
Dance. Listen to music. Choose live bands with light shows, jazz or the blues, traditional mariachi or marimba music, reggae or rock, salsa or hip hop. Alternatively, go to a movie. Most films here are heard in English with Spanish subtitles, but sometimes they’re dubbed so check first.