I must qualify this post from the beginning by declaring that I’m absolutely no expert on conventional ‘resort holidays’. With over 40 years of travel behind me, I could probably count on one hand the number of traditional package tours I’ve experienced. I don’t tend to stay in one place very long and prefer moving around when on vacation.
But I do love downtime at the end of a trip – a few days of doing absolutely nothing but relaxing and reading – preferably in the sun!.
We’d one such trip in January, ending with 5 nights in the Mexican resort of Playa del Carmen before heading home.
It was not our first visit to the town. We spent a few days there in 2008 and used it as a touring base on that occasion. That meant we were under no pressure this time to head off and see what the region had to offer. So we glued ourselves to the sunbeds, read a book per day and ate and drank our body weight before flying home!
Where is it?:
Playa del Carmen is located on the Riviera Maya along the Caribbean coast. Its part of the Yucatán peninsula but actually in the state of Quinataa Roo.
Most visitors arrive into Cancun airport – 45 minutes away.
At the airport you have 4 options:
Taxi – the most expensive option – so plan ahead and try to avoid
Private transfer – arrange through your travel agent, hotel or online.
Bus – operated by the ADO company, the journey costs about €6 single and takes 60-75 minutes. The bus station is in the middle of town (and is the only stop in town). If you visit in high season then buy your ticket in advance to ensure you get the bus you need, especially for the return trip to airport.
Rent a car – Its an easy drive. There’s really only one main road you can take and I’ve honestly never seen so many road signs on a stretch of highway… you can’t possibly get lost. Once you arrive in Playa del Carmen, (let’s go native and just call it ‘Playa’ from now on) the town is mostly laid out in grid formation which helps with accommodation location.
Who should go there:
Its quick and relatively cheap to fly from the US so is obviously an attractive destination for all age groups. Its also popular with Mexican families so really you will meet everyone – college kids, families, middle aged couples (!)…..
As a European, I would never suggest traveling so far just for sun but the town makes for a great sight-seeing base and you would cover a great deal over a fortnight. I wouldn’t stay there for 14 nights myself but it could be perfectly combined with one or more places to make for a great multicentre holiday:
eg… Mexico city + Playa
Playa + Cozumel + Tulum
Playa + Road Trip + Playa
Medina + Playa… etc.
This small fishing village has mushroomed into a major tourist destination but, away from the main drag, it has managed to retain a bit of character. Its not huge and so is very walkable. If you stay in town, you won’t need a taxi or even a bike.
You’re not really coming here for the town’s ‘sights and attractions’ – there isn’t a whole lot of cultural appeal!
At the heart of the city is Parque los Fundadores (Founding Fathers’ Park), close to the bus station and Cozumel ferry. This is where you’ll find the band stand and the flying Papantla dancers – performing from the top of a 30m pole. The ‘Portal Maya‘ statue, erected in 2012, has become the iconic image of the city. The small white stucco ‘Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church‘ stands on one corner and is a popular wedding location.
5th avenue ‘La Quinta‘ is where most of the action happens – its at least 20 blocks long and continuously growing. It is, as you can imagine, full of shops, restaurants, tour agents and entertainment outlets. Everyone is trying to sell you stuff – tours, boat trips, taxi, currency….. Just keep saying ‘no gracias’ and move on!
There’s nothing quaint about the souvenir shops – they’re massive!
The big brands are here too..
…and the malls…
As darkness falls, you will find 5th avenue filled with people either looking for restaurants, after dinner ice-creams or mini sombreros for their dogs. Eventually the families head off and the area is left to the bar hoppers and clubbers.
But that’s 5th avenue – away from the main drag you will come across leafy avenues with little traffic and no touts!
Just a few minutes stroll from 5th Avenue brings you to the beach. Its not the best beach I’ve ever seen but you’ll still feel you’re somewhere exotic. All beaches in the area are public with plenty of public access points. The main drag is lined with the usual beach clubs but, the further you go from the centre, the better the beach – wider and quieter.
If you like action then you have all the usual activities at your disposal – wind surfing, jet skiing, kayaking, volleyball…..
Even if you are only in town for the beach and sun, you should try and avail of at least one tour while you’re there.
There is a constant stream of people, all day long, heading to and from the island of Cozumel. The regular ferry takes about 45 minutes but the fast ferry will get you there in 20 minutes for about €8. This is where you go to snorkel and dive.
Tulum is less than an hour from Playa and therefore one of the most popular day trips. This walled Mayan city overlooking the sea was once a major trading and religious centre.
Can you really come to this region and not visit one of the new 7 Wonders of the World?! It makes for a long day – about 2.5 hours from Playa – but you can rest up tomorrow!
I love Coba because you can still climb the pyramid. The site is extensive but you can rent bikes to get around.
Now instead of doing all those brilliant tours above, wouldn’t it be great to have a car for a few days and see even more amazing places. In just a few days, you could do all the above and add the following……
Swim in the Cenotes
There is an estimated 6000+ cenotes (underground swimming holes) in Yucatán alone. The Mayans thought them sacred and used them for ceremonial rituals. They are all unique so, with your own transport, you can enjoy as many as you wish.
Enjoy Yucatán’s colonial capital Merida.
If you are in need of galleries and museums then this is the place for you. If you hate galleries and museums then visit anyway – Once one of the wealthiest cities in the world (thanks to the local henequen plant which was used for rope making), local plantation owners built their mansions in town and the promenade was designed after the wide avenues of Europe. You can enjoy the beautiful plazas and visit the market. There are free walking tours which would be well worth checking out.
Climb the ruins at Uxmal
More ruins you say – but these are more intricate and better preserved that Chichen Itza – and away less crowded. You can wander through the buildings, climb the Great Pyramid and stray into the jungle.
Go yellow in Izamar
This is where the Mayans offered sacrifices to the sun god Kinich Kak Moo and there has always been a tradition of painting houses yellow in his honour. Then in 1993 a papal visit was announced and everything was spruced up and painted as a tribute to the Vatican Flag – which is…… yellow (and white)!
You can find any standard of accommodation in town. On our last visit in 2008 we stayed at a gorgeous place on the beach just north of the town. I couldn’t decide about rebooking as I really wanted an all-inclusive but the decision was made for me as the hotel no longer exists!
So we settled on Playacar Palace and were really pleased with our choice.
Good location – very close to town but still feels cut off.
No sunbed wars around pool (January)!
Great pool side service for drinks and snacks.
Selection of restaurants (Italian, Asian) as well as the main buffet.
Meats and fish cooked freshly at the buffet
Minibar replenished daily
On the day of departure, we had access to all facilities, including food and drinks, until we left for our late evening flight. We had to vacate our room in the morning but could shower in the spa.
The Niggly Bits:
There’s a bit of a hard sell to become Palace Resort members (which we didn’t).
Best sunbeds reserved for Palace Resort members!
The beach area is quite narrow.
View from the pier – the hotel is very close to town so you’ll never need a taxi.
Rooms are well stocked….
There is plenty of space in the pool area.
The beach is narrow but right beside the pool so you can come and go as you please…
Apart from the foods on display, chef will cook your piece of chicken, fish and meat to order.
The restaurants offer finer dining when you tire of the buffet..
Its always 5.00pm somewhere…..