Ernesto and I have been to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico seven times. Playa del Carmen, or just “Playa” as the locals refer to it, is a coastal resort town in Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. Playa is located 70 km south of Cancún and 20 km west of the island Cozumel.
Avenida Quinta, a.k.a. 5th Avenue
We have certainly seen Playa grow into a more commercial resort city, but I think it has its charm intact. There are more convenience stores that sell cheap trinkets and t-shirts, but there are still quaint restaurants and artisanal stores that dominate the avenue. I did notice that some of the local vendors have become more aggressive in trying to draw tourists in to their stores. One particular vendor prodded a tourist by saying, “Hey, where are you from? I have something to show you. Stop! Hey, I said Stop!”
There are two new “malls”, including Quinta Allegria and Liverpool, which house Victoria’s Secret, Forever 21 and Starbucks, as well as high end, stand alone stores like Diamonds International and UltraFemme that have a prominent presence of security guards guarding them with machine guns. Some of my favorite stores are less commercial, including:
- Caravan, 5th Avenue and 32nd Street — Okay, it’s not a Mayan or Mexican store by any means, but this Thai transplant has some really well made beaded jewelry and textiles. It has become a chain, so there may be some cheap stuff mixed in, but it’s worth the hunt. They also have some really nice silk scarves with small prints.
- Squalo – 5th Avenue and 10th Street – This is a Mexican store that has high quality beachwear. I like the beach shorts that are made from a very sturdy, but soft material.
We’ve stayed at Mahékal, formerly the Shangri-La Caríbe, five times. They recently renovated the entire hotel, a mere 10 million dollars worth of upgrades. There are two new pools, one of them an infinity pool, and the other includes bar seating in the pool. The rooms have much better lighting, upgraded tiles in the shower, new flooring with palm tree graphics that look like shadows, very comfortable beds and colorful pillows. There’s a lot more concrete paths, compared to when they only had sand, but I can understand that this is easier to maintain. Most of the staff is still here, with an addition of multiple gardeners and maintenance staff. Breakfast and lunch or dinner is included, so we don’t feel like we’re stuck at the hotel much like an all-inclusive.
Restaurants worth mentioning
Playa is, by far, the most relaxing place to visit. To me, this is a real vacation. As far as I’m concerned, a vacation means getting away from technology, since that’s what I do all day, and not having to make any major decisions. But, by the time the sun starts to set after a lovely day on the beach, the only real decision we need to make is where to go for dinner! Here are some of my latest recommendations:
- El Muelle, 5th ave and 32nd Street — This small French restaurant has been in Playa for only a year. The mediterranean-style décor, including white-washed walls with weathered green and blue wooden window shutters on the ceiling and walls was very welcoming. A small refrigerator with a glass door displays the latest catch of the day. Our server was very efficient, acting not only as server, but also host to onlookers , general manager, and busser. We each ordered a full-bodied glass of red wine, accompanied by a complimentary white bean and red pepper antipasto salad. Next came the savory seafood soup, a delicious octopus chalupa and we shared the baked Provençal-style whole red snapper.
- Cenacolo, 5th Avenue and 28th Street — We passed this restaurant several times over the years, but this time we thought we’d try it. We were drawn to the chef with a tall hat who was rolling fresh spinach pasta dough. The handsome Italian maître d’ waltzed up to us, welcoming us with his Italian accent in Spanish and English. He held out his hand to me, in the event that I couldn’t make the step up to the platform where our table was waiting. At this somewhat casual Italian restaurant, they follow the rules as far as formal restaurant etiquette and, well, serving wine the proper way. We ordered a simple bottle of red which was tested first by our maître d’ in the third, bulbous glass and then by me. We were dazzled by the very thinly-sliced octopus carpaccio, with a delicate arugula and fruity olive oil. The spinach salad came next. I was amazed by the beautiful white flower with brown trim on top which turned out to be a thinly-sliced portabella mushroom. We both ordered the seafood pasta which was very good. The server assistant stopped by with a giant pepper grinder to ask if we’d like some. It was pretty comical, given the former formalities!
- Casa Mediterraneo, 5th Avenue, between 6th and 8th Street — I’m so glad that we saved this for the last night in Playa. We’ve been here many times and it’s always very good. The couple who own it are Italian and well into their seventies. The restaurant is located within a small shopping mall with mosaic tiles and they’ve allowed the jungle to spill into distinct areas along the mall. The food is very authentic Italian, which you probably wouldn’t know at first glance at the small section of tables. They have made a point to decorate with local Mayan artifacts, including the tableware and jellyfish-style hanging lamps. The owner was our server who recommended a good bottle of red wine. We started with the roasted vegetables and tomato and garlic bruschetta. Ernesto had homemade ravioli with fresh crab and I had the fresh fettucini with octopus, shrimp and lobster. We finished with a strong espresso and shared the tiramisu. We made a point to thank our gracious hosts and, much to our surprise, we were embraced by both with kisses on both cheeks!
- Babe’s Noodles and Bar — This funky, casual restaurant is owned by a Swedish couple. It’s been here at least since the 80’s. Inspired by kitchy 50’s pin-ups, this Thai restaurant is a fun alternative to the more common Italian restaurants found on La Quinta. My usual is the red curry with mashed potatoes. It kind of reminds me of a coral reef with the solid bed of potatoes and savory red curry sauce, broccoli, cauliflower and red bell peppers. They sometimes add a slice of French bread.
- Ula Gula, 5th Avenue and 10th Street — I love this bar because they always have a great DJ spinning loud club music. It’s also located on a very busy intersection so it’s good for people-watching. Aren’t the gay bars always more fun? I think so. One year, we were in Playa over New Years’ Eve. We were dancing in the streets with Cuban cigars next to Ula Gula and the bartenders took time to toast each other with tequila shots!
- La Rana Cansada — In English, it’s the “Tired Frog”. This small, boutique hotel and bar is owned by Swedish ex-patriots. And there are a lot of ex-patriot customers as well! Belly up to the small bar for a drink before and/or after dinner.
- La Bodeguita del Medio, 5th and 34th Street — This bar and restaurant has “live” Cuban music every night! I always see people dancing in there and having a good time. I haven’t tried the food, but I had a very good Cuban rum the last time I was there.
- Tequila Barrel, 5th Av. between 10th and 12th — I’m not a big sports fan, but this is a fun bar to have a beer and watch people walking by on 5th avenue. They have those comfortable, traditional Mexican leather bar chairs and tables.
Pyramids, Cenotes and Snorkeling
There’s a lot of ancient history in Mexico, and a lot of it is just a few hours away from Playa Del Carmen. There are four important archeological sites close to Playa, including Chichen Itza, Coba, Tulum and Uxmal.
Chichen Itza is the most impressive site I’ve seen. Chichen Itza was a major focal point in the Northern Maya Lowlands from the Terminal Classic period (c. AD 800–900) and into the early portion of the Postclassic period (c. AD 900–1200). The site has a multitude of architectural styles reminiscent of styles seen in central Mexico and of the Puuc and Chenes styles of the Northern Maya lowlands.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Maya cities and it was likely to have been one of the mythical great cities referred to in later Mesoamerican literature. The ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property, and the site is maintained by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. Chichen Itza is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico; an estimated 1.2 million tourists visit the ruins every year. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to climb to the top of the pyramid since tourists have painted graffiti on this beautiful monument, but at least we know it won’t happen again. Enjoy it from a distance.
Cobá is located about 90 kilometres (56 mi) east of Chichen Itza, surrounded by two lagoons. A series of elevated stone and plaster roads radiate from the central site to various smaller sites near and far. These sites are known by the Maya term sacbe. Some of these causeways go east, and the longest runs over 100 kilometres (62 mi) westwards to the site of Yaxuna. The site contains several large temple pyramids, the tallest, in what is known as the Nohoch Mul group of structures, being some 42 metres (138 ft) in height. It seems to take about five minutes to climb up, but about fifteen minutes to climb down. One false step and you’ll be tumbling down the steep grade!
Tulum is the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city serving as a major port for Cobá. The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayas; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have been the cause of its demise. Tulum is one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites in Mexico.
Uxmal is located in the Puuc region and is considered one of the Maya cities most representative of the region’s dominant architectural style. The buildings are typical of the Riley Kand Puuc style, with smooth low walls that open on ornate friezes based on representations of typical Maya huts. Entwined snakes and, in many cases two-headed snakes are used for masks of the rain god, Chaac; its big noses represent the rays of the storms. Feathered serpents with open fangs are shown leaving from the same human beings. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where you can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial center looked in ancient times.
What is a cenote, you say? Cenotes are natural pits, or sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. I’ve only been to one, but there are quite a few very close to Playa.
Cenote Cristalino and Cenote Azul
Cenote Cristalino and Cenote Azul are located on Highway 307 directly across from the Barceló Maya Resort, about 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. Both have small signs near dirt roads that lead back to the cenotes. Both cenotes are very large and can be quite deep. As the water is crystal clear, the snorkeling is very good. However, the sea life is very limited. Cristalino has a rock overhang from which you can jump into the waters below. Both places have a beautiful tropical jungle setting.
In the same general location you will also find three other cenotes: Chikin Ha (Meaning “Water from the West” in Mayan), which is a group of three cenotes; Kantun Chi (Meaning “Snake over There” in Mayan) and Eden.
Akumal is a small town between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Akumal, in the Mayan language, means “land of turtles” and it is still one of the favorite places for these marine animals to spawn. Akumal is known for its spectacular bay with clear waters and cenotes which makes it perfect for snorkeling.
I can’t wait to go back to Playa del Carmen. I guess I’ll have to wait until next year!