Playa del Carmel

Playa del Carmel

The small town of Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan coast is the geographic and cultural center of the Riviera Maya, one of Mexico’s fastest-growing destinations. It is enjoyable for what it is, but perhaps more for what it’s not.

It’s not Cancun, the major resort area that’s about an hour’s drive north. For those who find Cancun too large and glossy and too lacking in local character, Playa del Carmen is the cure: cozy, funky and quite international, though still with a Mexican flair.

But, until the global recession, the area was changing quickly and even today, its future remains uncertain: Large numbers of new luxury and all-inclusive hotels, boutiques and restaurants opened over the last decade (continuing even after the economic collapse), and the lovely Playa del Carmen beach is becoming sandwiched between large-scale developments that weren’t part of the town’s original vision. The Playacar complex just south of the Playa del Carmen town center now includes more than a dozen resorts, including the popular Playacar Palace, with further development continuing all along the Mayan Riviera.

After several hurricanes in the mid-2000s, beach erosion became a semi-recurring problem. Although the popular beaches are usually healthy, their width and quality can fluctuate dramatically based on the season and tidal movements. Guests selecting a hotel based on their memories of the adjacent beach may want to confirm ahead of time that the beach is as they remember it, particularly in the stretch along downtown Playa del Carmen.

These days, Playa del Carmen’s main pedestrian walkways are often jammed with tourists and aggressive salespeople trying to lure them into stores and restaurants. Some claim this is the fastest-growing city in Mexico, but lovers of the relaxed vibe shouldn’t give up on Playa just yet.

Despite the town’s growing popularity, the pace remains delightfully slow much of the time. And the core of this pleasant town is still decidedly homegrown: During the day, the central plaza is full of local youngsters playing games, and in the evenings it takes on a festive air, as seemingly everyone in town gathers for a stroll.

Geography

Playa is laid out in a grid pattern, so it’s easy to navigate on foot. The main street between the highway and the beach runs west to east and is called Avenida Juarez. Banks, pharmacies and stores frequented by the locals line this street.

The main tourist area is spread out along Avenida 5 (locally called “Quinta”) and has hotels, restaurants, bars, dive shops, car rental offices, travel agencies and a slew of boutiques. It runs parallel to and just a block away from the beach and stretches for about 40 blocks, beginning at Calle 1, near the ferry dock. Almost all of the street is pedestrian-only. The road is being extended farther and farther north as more new buildings are constructed, but it gets much less crowded after crossing Constituyentes heading north.

Avenida 10, which is parallel to Avenida 5 and one block inland (the avenue numbers increase in fives), is also becoming a busy street as more businesses find their way there.

For all its growth, the town is still quite walkable. In fact, the streets are so narrow and parking spaces so scarce that you’re better off not driving while in town.