“I didn’t like Playa Del Carmen,” a friend just back from a holiday to Mexico told me recently. “Aside from the beach, it was just a strip of tacky shops and restaurants.”
I rolled my eyes and let out an exasperated sigh before dropping the truth bomb.
“You just didn’t know where to go!”
Playa Del Carmen on Mexico’s Caribbean coast is often overlooked for flashy Cancun to the north or eco-chic Tulum to the south. But many visitors to the area don’t realise there’s more to Playa than its main street, Fifth Avenue/Calle Quinta Avenida, an overpriced shopping strip like you’ll find in any tourist destination.
But any traveller worth their passport stamps knows the best places to eat and drink are never found on the main drag. Here’s your insider’s guide to Playa Del Carmen.
Beach where the locals do
The best part of Playa Del Carmen’s turquoise beach is the southern end, down past the UltraMar ferry and close to the Playacar Palace hotel. With less people to share the white sand with, it has more of that relaxing Corona commercial vibe.
Remember to bring a beach umbrella (or wear a sombrero!) and lather on that SPF 30 +, because there’s only a few palm trees and the Caribbean sun is skin frying-ly strong.
Taste the best margaritas and guacamole on the beach
Zensi is a low-key beach club with sun lounges and daybeds just steps from the water, where you’ll find a mix of tourists and cool, glamorous locals. Waiters will bring you food and drinks all day as you relax to the sounds of Latino and chilled house music (there’s a DJ or other live music from 5pm most days).
Order a generous serving of guacamole, sip expertly made margaritas and mojitos, and try the fish tacos, tuna tostadas and aguachile (similar to ceviche) – all delicious.
Take a day trip to Cozumel
Playa Del Carmen locals will often spend their day off on Cozumel, an island about 45 minutes by ferry from the UltraMar ferry terminal. Cozumel is one of Mexico’s best scuba diving spots, but if underwater exploration isn’t your style there’s still plenty to do.
When you get off the ferry at Cozumel, rent a car or buggy so you can explore the island at your own pace. Head out of town toward Cozumel’s east coast along Transversal de Cozumel for about 15 minutes, then when you hit the coast make a right onto the main road.
Along this strip you’ll find restaurants and bars to stop at, including The Coconut Cabana (also known as The Liquor Box and 25-hr bar), a shack on the beach with hammocks and the best mojitos you’ll ever have (there’s also fresh coconuts for the designated driver). Continue along, stopping at hidden beaches where there’s often only a handful of people, if any. Follow the highway along the coast until you start coming back up the west coast, which has calmer waters and is better for snorkelling, and you’ll soon be back where you started.
Ferries run between Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel from early until late.
Eat the best tacos in town
The first thing I ask Playa Del Carmen locals is ‘Where are the best tacos?’ The answer is inevitably Taqueria El Fogon
Four blocks back from Fifth Avenue (on the corner of Avenue Constituyentes and 30 Avenida Norte), this open-air, no fuss restaurant serves up fresh tortillas with mouth-watering fillings. Order the al pastor (pork and pineapple), chorizo, or chicken, ideally topped with Oaxacan cheese. A few tacos and a couple of ice-cold Coronas won’t set you back more than $10.
Try modern and traditional Mexican cuisine
Four blocks north of Taqueria El Fogon on 30 Avenida Norte is Los Hijos del Mar, a local favourite with a young, hip crowd serving up modern seafood dishes and boutique beers in a bright space.
Los Hijos del Mar is famous for its tostadas piled high with fresh ingredients (order the carnitas, which is tuna with a crispy skin similar to fried chicken – trust me!) and aguachile, a raw fish dish similar to ceviche.
For a traditional meal, head La Bamba Jarocha another five blocks north on 30 Avenida Norte. As you tuck into hearty, flavourful meals in a homely setting, you’ll feel like a local family invited you to come over for dinner. That’s not to say it’s simple cuisine though.
Cazuela de mariscos is an aromatic seafood stew packed with flavour, and you must order a whole baked fish cooked to perfection (just look out for bones!).
Where to stay
The most affordable accommodation in Playa Del Carmen is probably Airbnb, where you can find a modern, secure one-bedroom apartment for $100 a night or less.
But if you’re after a luxury resort experience, there are some world-class hotels to choose from.
Playacar Palace has one of the best locations, perched on the south end of the beach and close to the action of downtown.
Or if you feel like leaving the world behind for a few days, there are some incredible resorts a short drive from town. Banyan Tree Mayakoba offers private pool villas and its own stretch of beach.
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