Attractions include warm Caribbean Sea, endless beaches and brilliant sun
There is no secret why crowds swarm along Quinta Avenida on a tropical evening in Playa del Carmen. They’re out for a good time in this energetic Mexican city that has become one of the premier destinations in the world for tourism.
Playa, which is what you call it after a couple of days of succumbing to its charms, is hot. It has brilliant sun, endless beaches washed by the warm and buoyant waters of the Caribbean Sea and is metres away from the world’s second largest reef, a magnet for scuba divers and even those of us who just like to paddle around with basic snorkeling gear.
The cuisine in the wide range of restaurants is scrumptious, with just about everything from basic tacos dished out from small carts and tiny cantinas to linen-cloth restaurants specializing in charcoal-grilled filet mignon or fish with grouper and tuna taking starring roles.
The assets of the city on the Riviera Maya make Playa as well endowed as any city in Mexico with qualities that attract hordes of tourists looking for respite from the brutal cold of North America and the soggy cities of northern Europe.
Situated about an hour by road south of Cancun Airport in the state of Quintana Roo on the east side of the Yucatan, the city with an estimated population of 100,000 to 150,000, is much more than sun, beach and margaritas, although that’s a pretty good start.
Have I mentioned the culture yet? Playa is within a two-hour drive of major Mayan ruins at Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza, sites to dazzle the inner archeologist, architect, astronomer and history nerd.
At the height of the tourist season over Christmas and New Year’s, Chichen Itza attracts 8,000 people a day, at least that’s what our bus guide Hugo told us on the way there.
Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) in Playa also draws thousands of people out for a stroll every night and it is a bit unusual in Mexico.
Where seaside towns usually have a malecon, a breakwater running alongside the sea with a road and sidewalk, for people taking an evening walk, Quinta Avenida is a block away from the beach. The pedestrian-only street stretches for a few kilometres through the city lined on each side by bars, restaurants, hotels and stores with hawkers selling everything from belts to mobiles, fine jewelry and casual haute couture.
We bought a belt and a mobile with me haggling in what my wife described as pidgin Spanish for the belt and paying the first price for the mobile, a moon and sun which will hang over the patio in our backyard if this winter ever ends. It’s minus-22 degrees Celsius in Montreal as I write this in the middle of February and everyone feels locked down by the deep freeze.
One of the big attractions in the Yucatan is the lack, or low level, of violence. The atmosphere is serene and laid back with the police presence usually minimal along Quinta Avenida. Uniformed officers were out in force on New Year’s Eve to handle a heavy volume of traffic at the intersections of 10 Avenida (Tenth Avenue), a block west of Quinta Avenida.
10 Avenida is also unique as it has a protected bike path.
Playa welcomes all sorts of tourists and travelers, from backpackers to high flyers and from most continents, Europe, North America, Asia (China) and South America.
Riviera Maya is well known for its all-inclusive resorts, but there is a huge number of small hotels in Playa, many located near the bus station at the south end of Quinta Avenida.
We stayed at one, El Acuario, for $104 U.S. a night during the high season and it suited all our needs. The hotel has 13 rooms and looks out on to a lovely courtyard with a small pool (perfect for a cooling dip) shaded by mature palms. It also contained an enclosure for nine turtles and there was an aquarium in the front office.
The courtyard offers privacy and acts as a sound barrier to the street traffic.
We chatted with a couple from France, the Montreal suburb of Candiac, guests from the U.S. (the guy in the unit below us had been living at the hotel for more than two years), Italy and the U.K. (or possibly Australia).
We slipped into several other hotels in the neighborhood and they also had pools in their shaded courtyards.
Our routine started with me running off to the Tiramisu espresso bar on Fourth Street to bring back morning coffee. A little later we had breakfast at Hotel Toucan built by a German expat and which acted as a community centre for other expats from Germany. There was also a busy beer garden up the street serving the same purpose.
We later walked on the beach for an hour south one day and an hour north the next day past acres of chaises longues, never coming to the end of coral sand, which is always cool on the feet.
We ended with a dip in the water and then hungry and thirsty we stopped for a lunch of fresh guacamole and cold beers at Las Brisas, a fish restaurant on Fourth Street.
For dinner, we chose from the array of restaurants on Quinta Avenida or nearby such as Carboncitos on Fourth Street near Las Brisas.
Carboncitos grills steaks and it does the job very well. I had filet mignon on two occasions and it was done juicy and tender.
We returned to the restaurant on New Year’s Eve but the Maitre d’ refused to seat us despite the fact there were a couple of empty tables.
“The kitchen is swamped with orders and I don’t want to compromise the quality,” he said. “Please come back another evening – early.” And we did.
We also had dinner at the Mexican Restaurant Tropical on Quinta Avenida with the tuna – two large steaks – filling me up. I asked for it to be cooked through and that’s the way it was served, but it was moist and tender.
Dinner with wine at Carboncito’s and Tropical costs a little north of $60 for two people, eminently reasonable, compared to Montreal prices.
Good to Go
Be prepared to pay a lot more for airfares and hotels during high season. The demand is very high because many families with school-age children cannot go at any other time.
I left the search for a hotel and flight much too late one year and was unable to find suitable accommodation in Playa del Carmen. We chose another option and booked into the excellent Flamingo Hotel in Cozumel, the island opposite Playa del Carmen.
On this trip I booked the hotel and flight in late September and early October. It’s a good practice.
You can find a wide range of small hotels here http://www.rivieramaya.com/en/being-there/small-hotels?site=1.
Snorkeling: We booked a day trip to swim in a cenote and snorkel in Akumal through our hotel. Visitors can take a collectivo (shuttle bus) to Akumal and swim without a guide at a fraction of the cost. Just follow the crowds. We saw a sea turtle and a barracuda.
Ruins: You can take a tour to Tulum and Coba, which has the highest pyramid in the Yucatan, or you can take ADO buses which leave from the bus terminal on Quinta Avenida. Hire a guide when you get to the ruins, especially Coba, which is a sprawling site. The guide will take you around on a cargo bike.
You can also go to Chichen Itza by ADO bus and hire a guide at the site.