Date of Trip: May 2006
The things about Playa Del Carmen (aka “Playa” or “PDC”) that I really like are: 90% of what you want to do is within ~4 blocks of your hotel; lots and LOTS of choices for beach clubs, restaurants, stores, spas, etc; the white sand beaches and clear turquoise water; the prices are pretty reasonable (at least by American Standards); parts of the town (mostly north) are trendy and a little upscale (but still reasonably priced) — sort of a “3rd world Chic” atmosphere — it’s a cute little town.
This is my 2nd stay in Playa. I was there for a week 2 years ago. I’ve also been there 2-3 times on day trips from cruises or nearby resorts. I went this time with a couple of guys I work with (one of whom is an Aggie and friend of mine from TAMU).
If you stay downtown, 90% of what you want to do is within 4 blocks of your hotel. The other 5% is within 10 blocks (ferry to Cozumel), and the other 5% is easily handled by renting a car for the day (about $45) or taking a cab. Because of the proximity of so many cool things to do, it allows groups of travelers to split up and do whatever the heck they want that day!
With so many bars, restaurants and a couple of night clubs, it tends to cater to the younger single crowd, though many couples are also there. There are just a few honeymooners, but I don’t see this as a very honeymoon-type destination (I say go to Hawaii instead!). The bars and night clubs give lots of nightlife options for the younger active type. When we went in May, I would say the crowd at the bars and nightclubs was about 60% American, 30% Mexican, and about 10% other, mostly Europeans, who love PDC (primarily because they don’t like Cancun — too darn American/loud/partying!).
Within 4 blocks of our hotel we could roughly find 30 restaurants/bars, 25 Mexican souvenir/artifact shops, 3-4 beach clubs (3 block walk to the beach), 10 hotels, 10-20 other kinds of shops, 2-3 night clubs, 2-3 internet cafes, 5-10 tour/car rental places and 2 taxi stands.
We rented mopeds one day and drove all up and down the town, experiencing Playacar (residential resort community just south of town) and a couple of the all-inclusive resorts (who let us tour the place), and the north beaches (nicer, plus more topless and more upscale beach chairs/beds, etc.).
We went to several beach clubs. Basically, a beach club is a restaurant/bar that serves you food/drinks/alcohol AT your beach chair. Further, you can take any drink (in a cup) in the ocean with you. One of my favorite things to do is have a few cocktails with friends while basking in the sun AND cool turquoise waters all at the same time. Don’t forget the sunscreen!
The beach clubs are differentiated by the niceness of the beach and the quality of food/drink and lounge chairs the place provides. There’s usually plenty of water sports and massage therapists handy for massages on the beach. The beaches in downtown PDC tend to be limited access as several small boats are docked at the beach. They have swimming areas cordoned off too. Just a few rocks/coral, but nothing to worry about.
One of the things I enjoy doing when I get some free time is just strolling down 5th Avenue, the “main drag” in PDC. 5th Avenue is about 2 blocks in from the beach, and is where virtually all of the bars, restaurants, and stores are. The street is closed to vehicle traffic and is brick lined, giving it a feel of an outdoor mall-type friendly place. The people that work at these places do try to get you to come into their joint, whatever it may be, but they tend to be both polite and comical about it, unlike some other places in Mexico I’ve been. After a while it kind of makes you feel important… like these people “want” you (in addition to your $$)! Ha ha! Plus some of them are just super hotties! (Mostly restaurant hostesses).
Another way to experience 5th Avenue is by simply sitting on one of the patios that just about every restaurant has, and watching the different people go by. People watching is good here because of the varied clientele…American, Mexican, Euro, singles, couples, families….it’s all there. Lots to look at. You also get to see the roving performers that will play a song for you for a few bucks tip. They range from the one guy with a guitar, to the trio, to the full 8-piece mariachi bands with horns dressed in white uniforms (those mostly on weekend nights). In addition, many of the restaurants/bars have live music outdoors, so you get to hear some of that too. The Tequila Barrel was a favorite of ours, having many tables on 5th Avenue itself. They also have an indoor area with live music and a dance floor. Check it out.
We managed to hit 2 of the coolest night spots while in town. One is The Blue Parrot which is a beach club/restaurant/hotel by day, and a nightclub with an awesome dance party on the beach at night. They built a dance floor right on the beach, and they party there until 2-3am every night, and it seems to be very busy almost every night. The other place, Santini’s, is an after-hours bar with a very well decorated rooftop patio that is both tropical and trendy. We found out about the place from a waiter at a restaurant. Folks start showing up there around 1am… and it’s packed shortly thereafter. My friend Mark and I met two single Colorado girls (believe it or not!) on the way to Santini’s and they joined us (they had come into town because their all inclusive was a bit lame on the night life). Besides our group of 4, the rest of the crowd was 98% younger and trendier Mexicans. It was a good time. Also, if you’re the late night eater type after a long hard day of drinking, check out Pizza Banana for a cheap slice of pizza late at night (they’re open til 5am).
Another beauty of staying in PDC is the 10 minute walk and then the 30 minute ferry ride (about $11 each way) that lands you in downtown Cozumel. Thus, with 40 minutes of commute time each way, you can do anything on Cozumel that you could normally do there — scuba, snorkeling, great party-style beach clubs (especially popular in October/November when the midwesterners visit in DROVES on about 8 cruise ships that dock there EACH DAY!). There’s also lots of shopping, and the usual assortment of water sports.
Other Activities and Day Trips
I’ve visited both Xel-ha and X-Caret before, and both were pretty cool. Both parks are sort of natural water parks with big lagoons with snorkeling and beaches, and each has a lazy river ride (tubes or you can snorkel down them). Some of the lagoons have fish food you can use to attract fish. They’re quite pricey, but they’re also very unique experiences. I tended to like Xel-ha more for the outdoor river (X-Caret has sort of river in a tunnel thing — which I didn’t think was any big deal) and better snorkeling. X-Caret would probably be better for families as it has more protected lagoons, more aquariums, and protected beach space, as I recall anyway. Both are within about a 40 minute drive, and both are close to Tulum, so you can do a day trip to hit both pretty easily. I recommend Tulum in the EARLY am, then hit one of the “ecological water parks” as they are official described. Both also have “swim with the” dolphins programs.
Speaking of Tulum, if you have time for a day trip or two on your trip, I highly recommend it. Tulum is a Mayan ruin that is both beautiful and interesting. Try to get a guided tour or do what I do sometimes by following a tour and listening to their guide. Note that etiquette, as best I can tell, is to ask the guide if it’s ok if you tag along (like when he’s not talking, between stops)…and then a small tip ($5-10) is also appropriate to give in a discrete manner (also when he’s walking or between stops). Tagging along without asking is often seen as being very rude.
Another Mayan ruin that is interesting is Coba, about a 90 minute drive from PDC (Tulum and the water parks are on the route, so easy to combine). This one has a tall pyramid that you’re allowed to climb too (nice view up there). I only recommend this trip if you want to do a hike (we rode bikes to the ruins from the entrance instead), AND you’re really interested in this type of stuff (and maybe you’ve already done Tulum on a prior trip). You also get to see some desolate parts of Mexico, which is mildly interesting. Otherwise, see Tulum and be done with it!
One thing I haven’t done yet but sounds fun is a Cenote swim/snorkel. A cenote is a fresh water lake that is partially underground. There are lots ot choose from and any tour operator can sell you a trip, or you can find out where it is and drive there.
Here’s another place I’ve never been but it looks interesting: Discovery Jungle Park.
Of course, like every other beach destination in Mexico, you always have water sports…Jet Skiing, Parasailing, Sea Kayaking, Submarine, Glass bottom boat and Speed boating. I’ve never parasailed PDC, but I’ve always wanted to, and the place is so beautiful that I think it would be a great experience.
I’ve always found the food in PDC to be wonderful. For American style upscale dinners (including fish), John Gray’s Place and Chicago Don Jose’s are a MUST VISIT! John Gray is a former Ritz Carlton chef who has 2 restaurants in that region, and the menu changes every 2 weeks or so, as well as daily fish specials. Chicago Don Jose’s had an EXCELLENT cilantro/caramelized onion/garlic grouper that was to die for. If you ever go down there, refer to it as the “fish that’s not on the menu” and mention cilantro — they’ll know!
For Mexican and seafood, my friend and I like the Blue lobster. You can pick out a huge lobster tail (price based on size), and they’ll cook it up however you like. The authentic Mexican is decent, but I’m just not a big fan of authentic Mexican…I prefer Tex- Mex. We had the chix fajita nachos tex mex style at Senor Frogs by the Ferry terminal– and it was great! Another good place for Mexican is La Palapa Hemingway’s, which serves a great “made at your table” guacamole (many places do that), and a great lime soup (a regional dish). I’ve also had great ceviche and good lunches at the Blue Parrot. I should mention that the Blue Parrot is a little more expensive than the other beach clubs, but I’ve found the quality to be better there (though, as with most beach clubs, the service seemed to be lacking). Service at the regular restaurants was generally excellent.
We went to an Italian joint call Bruno D Italia, but we didn’t really like the restaurant or the service. I thought I smelled Pizza in there (good smell), but apparently it was on a whole different menu that they neglected to give us! Oh well. Maybe the pizza is good. There was another more upscale Italian joint on the opposite corner…you might give that a try. I will next time I’m there.
Another place I went to last time I was there was Yaxche. While the food is good and the atmosphere upscale, I felt it was a bit overpriced and trendy — but some folks like that…so there ya go.
For breakfast food, I recommend the Hot! Baking Company, which serves cinnamon rolls and American-styled omelettes. The seating is outdoor and thus can be quite warm, but they have umbrellas and the food and service are great. I highly recommend the Mexican omelette, which has tomatoes, cheese, green peppers, and onions in it. They also have muffins, bagels, even eggs benedict on the weekends.
Another breakfast favorite of mine is the La Tortuga Hotel restaurant. They serve a small menu of Mexican-styled breakfast dishes like huevos rancheros in a nice open air environment. The hotel itself is very nice (the pool is very cool!), with it’s only downfalls being that is a little more expensive and it’s right next to a VERY busy one way street — which is not a problem as long as your room is not right next to that street. I stayed there 2 years ago when I went, and I was much happier after moving from a street side room to one on the interior of the property. Also, check out the junior suites that have private jacuzzis.
Hotels vary from cheap to moderate to expensive (on the beach). I’ve never stayed at any of the really nice joints, as most of those appear to be All Inclusive (AI) resorts (some in town, and some just out of town) and/or expensive. Some joints charge extra (like $10/day) for A/C — and I HIGHLY recommend you pay for it if you have to! I did some research the day I left and there were several hotels right on or just off of 5th avenue for $50-90 night with 2 dbl beds or one king and A/C. Low season pricing, which varies by hotel, is ~mid April-mid July, and early Sept to mid November. I did tour some nicer places that were $90-$130/night, but those tended to be further north, and further from the “heart” of downtown. Still walkable, just like 5-7 blocks north of the central downtown area (which I define to be at about 10th Street and 5th Avenue).
Two things are worth mentioning with respect to hotels. Virtually all of the hotels have uncomfortable Mexican beds, which sometimes have no box spring, so they tend to be very firm and sometimes springy/lumpy. I never really notice that much as I’m always so darned tired after a day in paradise that I just don’t notice it that much, but it takes some adjusting to. I’ve always thought about bringing an air mattress, pad (like folks use for camping), or even one of those egg crate cushions with me, but I never have tried it.
The other issue is toilets. Many of the cheaper places actually discourage you from flushing toilet paper (as do some restaurants) down the toilet, and instead ask you to place it in trash bags next to the toilet. I talked to a guy who stayed at such a place (Maya Bric, in the heart of downtown for $50/night with A/C) and he said he kind of ignores that advice and just makes sure they use toilet paper sparingly and flush a lot. The places that I’ve stayed at don’t really have this problem, but many of the cheaper places do. I also read a review about the Maya Bric that the way the bathroom is designed, the floor of the shower is the same as the floor of the toilet (with no separator…), so some of this can be queasy for prissy types. All the places I’ve stayed have had very clean bathrooms, and like I said, didn’t give any toilet paper advice.
You fly into Cancun and then transfers are right around $15-30 per person one way for 2 or more people to get to PDC. A taxi back to the airport is ~$15-20 per person for 2 or more people. Make sure your taxi has A/C! You could also fly into Cozumel, take the ferry to Playa, then take a taxi to your hotel if you wanted to.
Note that Saturdays and Sundays are the absolute WORST days to come in and leave on, since many of the weekly rentals and all inclusive 7 day trips run Sun-Sat. or Sat-Sat. They’re pretty efficient with customs and immigration at Cancun airport, but the time difference can be big. Maybe 10 minutes total on Mon-Fri, vs. like 1 hour on the weekends! (Each way!)
This site has a WEALTH of information on the entire city: http://www.playa.info/index.html. The forums are HUGE and very well stocked with good info and knowledgeable posters who can answer questions. Be sure to search the archives first. This site also has a discount card that you can buy that works at many of the places you will frequent.
It seemed to me that you could only really get your money’s worth if you were there 5 days or longer. You also have to watch the bill and remind folks sometimes to give you the discount (some rare times they put up resistance, which is quelled when you ask for the manager — just be sure and tip on the total before discount).
Note that if you contact a hotel initially through their site, and then later book with that hotel for 4+ nights, you can get a free discount card. For details of the card, see: http://www.playa.info/playa-deals-menu.html and http://www.playa.info/playa-del-carmen-info-trip-planning-menu.html.
In addition to the Playa Info web site, I also highly recommend http://www.tripadvisor.com/Tourism-g150812-Playa_del_Carmen_Yucatan_Peninsula-Vacations.html. Trip advisor has tons of reviews on hotels –the good, AND the horrible! I found it to be especially useful in my research, so I would know what I was potentially getting into. Be sure and find the bad reviews of hotels and see if you can live with what they describe.
http://www.travelyucatan.com/mayan_riviera_map.php http://www.cancunsmart.com/destination-info-playa-del-carmen.htm http://www.mexicoholiday.com/maps/playa-map.html http://www.cancunmap.com/playa_del_carmen.html