Playa del Carmen succeeds in trapping the willing tourist
I'd read the travel brochures: It's the kinder, gentler Cancun. A beachside paradise without the resort infestation, a haven for those seeking a more tranquil experience by the turquoise waters of Mexico's Caribbean coast.
I'm not convinced. Playa del Carmen is still a tourist trap disguised as a town, though for the tourist who wants to be trapped into tequila-drenched dancing by the beach, lazing on white sands, and access to snorkling, diving and Mayan ruins, Playa is perfect.
The first sign that this former fishing village is no untouched Shangri-la is the Avenida Quinta pedestrian corridor, where most of the souvenir stores, restaurants, dive shops, and tour agencies are located and where vendors cajole passers-by to purchase their overpriced wares.
Even at night, this is where the action is, along with the string of bars along the beach.
Options include people-watching along the avenue, a quiet cerveza under a palapa, or gyrating to a variety of tunes under the stars. The Blue Parrot Inn's Dragon Bar, with its bar-side swings and uninspired dance music, was named one of the world's top 10 bars in 1996 by Newsweek magazine. Things change in six years, but the Dragon is still one of the liveliest places around to strut your stuff.
When the sun rises, the beaches offer access to sunbathing, swimming, windsurfing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. The shore is remarkably unmarred by highrise hotels, and relative tranquility can be found here.
Though far from cheap, Playa houses decent, affordable hotels which are a good base for exploring this area at the heart of the Mayan Riviera.
In reach of a day trip are the magnificent ruins at Chichen Itza, the manufactured entertainment at Xcaret, and underwater oases such as Xel-Ha, along with Tulum and Cozumel.
A 45-minute ferry ride carts tourists tourists to the island of Cozumel, where Spanish is rarely heard and exorbitant prices are generally listed in US dollars.
After the Spanish Conquest, Cozumel's population was decimated by smallpox and remained largely uninhabited until becoming a refuge for pirates in the late 17th century. Today, it is home to more than 75,000 people. It is also a destination for hordes of tourists bound for the beauties of the Palancar coral reef, made famous by Jacques Cousteau in the 1950s.
Taxis, bikes or mopeds can take divers, snorkelers, and sun worshippers from the town of San Miguel de Cozumel, where the ferry docks, to the beaches at Playa La Ceib, Chankanaab National Park, or, a little further south, Playa Francisco and Playa Palanca.
Another easy hour-long journey from Playa del Carmen is the archaeological site of Tulum, spectacular not for the crumbling buildings, which betray the Toltec influence on a declining Mayan civilization, but for their setting on the cliffs above the sea. While you can't climb the temples and pyramids, you can stand on the rocks above for a breathtaking view of the tiny beach nestled between ancient ruins.
For a more private experience, but without the mystique of swimming next to a piece of Mayan heritage, are the beaches south of the ruins. Lined with cabanas where backpackers string their hammocks, giving it more of a hippy atmosphere, these shores are perfect for even a mid-day skinny dip for those so inclined. Boat rentals at the nearby dive shops can take slightly more clothed people out to the nearby reef, and snorkeling equipment can be rented.
Though Tulum's cabanas have their own charm and Cozumel's hotels can offer grand luxury, for those who want some pampering and a great location without the mammoth resorts, Playa del Carmen offers a world of Mayan heritage, beachside escapism, and underwater adventure in one pretty package.