Playa del Carmen: Time to chill in paradise

Graffiti wall in Playa del Carmen

The sea is the bluest of blue water I have ever seen, the beaches are sandy white (maybe with a touch of seaweed in places) and the walls around the town are painted with all kinds of vibrant colours and the most creative graffiti art. Playa del Carmen is Cancun’s lesser known sister. It may at one time have been less commercial then the resort popular with most Brits,  but with the amount of American tourists here it is not far from catching up.

gateway to the beach at Playa del Carmen

Having avoided Cancun to go somewhere quieter /less touristy, this was commercial enough for me and while I usually try and avoid the regular ‘strip’ (5th avenue/Quinta Avenida) of restaurants and bars, we often found ourselves wandering up and down these parts. The choice was endless including vegan and organic restaurants, which we hadn’t seen in Mexico City. These were clearly here to cater for the ethical or diet conscious tourists, although the they often got vegetarian confused with vegan. Two diets that are alien to local Mexicans.

It was certainly more expensive eating and drinking here too than in the capital, but with plenty of good food, good beer, cocktail deals to entice us and endless heat and sunshine – we weren’t complaining.

Opting to stay away from the big hotel resorts we booked into a boutique hotel – Be Playa on 10th Avenue. Small and trendy with a balcony and hot tub in our rooms, it offered everything we needed. A rooftop pool and bar blaring daytime chilled music offered a nice relief from the buzz of the beach and busy streets down below, and it was even a great backdrop to a sunset yoga session.

Oh and the breakfasts were amazing too. Some of the best hotel breakfasts I have ever had in fact – each with a Mexican twist.

While off the main strip, the hotel was only five minutes walk from Quinta Avenida and the beach, but far away enough to not be disturbed by the loud music and drunken tourists as they poured out of the bars in the early hours.

If sitting on a beach, soaking up the sun with a beer in hand is what you want, then this is the perfect place to be, but if you want sightseeing or adventure and energetic activities, there’s plenty of options for that too.

Day out at Chichen Itza

With Chichen Itza  – one of the New Wonders of the World –  just over two hours away, it was without a doubt at the top of my holiday itinerary.

Setting the alarm clock for 04:30 when on holiday seemed like an outrageous idea, and it was painful at the time, but as our tour arrived just as the doors opened around 08:00 and we practically had the entire place to ourselves, we were pretty smug.

Having learned a lot about the Mayans in Mexico City it was great to see and hear more. To hear how they had built Chichen Itza was fascinating and every coroner had a new and exciting story.

The site was much smaller than I had imagined it to be and with all the tourists arriving by the coach-load I could imagine it to get very crowded by the afternoon.

And indeed by midday, as masses of tourist coaches parked up, and the sun got higher and we all got hotter and stickier, it was time for us to head home, thankful we’d taken the advice to go early and we had the afternoon to nap.


Boat on sand at Tulum beach

I’d heard a lot about this little bohemian town and had considered staying here over Play but we opted to visit for a day trip instead.

The beach we visited near the ruins was much quieter than the beaches in Playa del Carmen and there was still plenty of tourists but it was less crowded. And they generally seemed happier with more space, more eco-friendly hotels over the big resorts, there was no day time dance music on the beach and there was generally a hippier vibe as we call it.

We found a cute little bar on the beach with swings for a few refreshing gin cocktails and beers before we ventured back into the town for lunch.

The contrast between the towns was obvious but I also felt the contrast between the tourist areas and where the locals live was also the most obvious in Tulum.

Wanting to do as the locals do, we took a Collectivo from Playa del Carmen, a shared minibus the equivalent of a bus service which cost a third of the price of a private taxi. We got on at the pick up point in Playa, shouted to the driver where we wanted to go, then paid as we got off. It amazed me how the driver remembered where all his passengers (about 14/15 of us in total) wanted to stop.

Catching the Collectivo back wasn’t as easy as we didn’t know where they stopped in Tulum, but we managed to eventually flag one down on the main road.  The whole experience was bizarre but this was clearly how everyone got about round here, so we felt we had to try it out at least once.

You won’t get bored here

For our final full day the boyfriend got to pick our activity and he opted for a jungle buggy driving experience with a cenote swim. It sounded fun and it would be nice to visit the jungle, but I was apprehensive. The videos looked ridiculously dangerous and I wasn’t sure I would return in one piece if I got behind the wheel myself.

So I decided it was best if I didn’t drive as I would certainly be tootling along at 20mph taking in the views, rather than speeding along on a dirt track in the jungle. Opting to stay as a passenger the ride was fast, bumpy and very dusty. And even if I held onto the bar in front of me for dear life, it was still exhilarating.

All ready in the jungle buggy

It’s amazing to think there is miles of unspoilt scenery like this designed for thrill seeking tourists to get their kicks.  My highlight was the pitstop and a chance to swim in a beautifully clear cenote and a visit into a small cave where some Mayans would have once lived. It was fascinating.

Other things to do:

  • XplorPark – an adventure park with more jungle buggy driving, zip lines, caves and cenotes
  • Xcaret Park – an eco-archaeological park by Xplorer that offers a chance to swim through underground rivers and discover the Mayan jungle and culture
  • Day trip to Cozumel Island – an unspoilt island you can reach by ferry from Playa for scuba diving and snorkelling
  • Take a boat trip to the Isla Mujeres for beautiful coral reefs, scuba diving, the remains of a Mayan temple and sea turtles
  • Coba ruins – another archaeological site in the Riviera Maya

How to get there:

From Cancun Airport we caught the ADO bus into Playa Del Carmen costing $175 MXN one way per person. It took about an hour and went straight to the bus station in Playa on Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue). You can check the timetable online and pre-book tickets but we found it easy enough to buy them at a desk at the bus station or airport.

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