Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen or just "Playa", as it is also commonly referred to by locals, is a resort town on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. It's approximately 45 minutes south of Cancun on the Mayan Riviera, and offers a more relaxed atmosphere engineered for lounging and beach frolic.
Buses can be taken directly from Cancun airport, for around US$8. To get to the bus terminal, go right after exiting the main terminal and walk about 200 yards. Purchase a ticket (buying it in Pesos will save you a few dollars) right before exiting the terminal. Rental cars and one-way transfer services are also available.
Playa is pedestrian friendly town and you can basically walk to everything. The main thoroughfare, 5th Ave, does not allow cars except in the early morning hours for deliveries. A bike is a fun alternative to walking, there are a number of bike rental shops at the north end of 5th Ave.
Car rentals are readily available at a number of locations at the north end of 5th Ave. Large companies, National, Hertz, etc. are convenient, as well as local agencies, which are generally less expensive. Scooters are a bit dangerous, but offer an alternative to cars.
5th Ave. ('Quinta Avenida' or '5ta Av.') is a pedestrianized street and taxis are available at various intersections along its length. A taxi taken from a 'sitio' (place where taxis park) will cost a few dollars more than a taxi hailed on the street. It costs US$5 to get to Playacar, and about US$1.50 to get around the rest of Playa.
Scheduled bus service to destinations in the region (e.g. Xcaret, Xel-ha, Tulum, Cancun airport, Cancun, etc.) and beyond depart from bus station at southern end of Fifth Avenue near Playacar and Ferry terminal to Cozumel.
First class ADO bus departs hourly or so for tourist destination of Xcaret, Xel-ha and Tulum - fares are in US$4 range. The ADO Bus goes directly to the entrances of Xcaret and Xel-ha. ADO also runs direct service to Cancun airport from Playa Del Carmen for approximately US$8 (80 pesos).
Second class local Mayab buses also leave from Fifth Avenue station. Mayab buses stop more frequently enroute and drop off alongside the highway to Tulum, requiring walking from the highway to the entrances of Xcaret or Xel-ha.
An alternative to the buses is to catch a "collectivo" van. These leave/return to a separate location in Playa Del Carmen than the bus stop. Collectivos are cheap government regulated air-conditioned vans which transport people on Hwy. 307, which runs north/south along the coast. Pick-up times for these collectivos vary, roughly every 10 minutes and pick-up is simply along the freeway, but one can get you a ride to any destination between Tulum and Cancun for as little as US$6.
Organized bus tours are also available from a variety of companies, including Tours Aldebaran , that cross the Riviera Maya & Yucatan (Tulum, Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Mahahual, Ek Balam, Celestun, Rio Lagartos, Merida, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Coba, Sian Ka'an, Xcaret, Xelha, etc.).
Quinta Avenida, also referred to in English as 5th Avenue, is the main tourist thoroughfare in Playa. It is a pedestrian only, cobblestone lined street which spans approximately 20 blocks. Along 5th Ave. you will find a variety of restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping opportunities and various services. In Playa, nearly everything starts from this street.
The best beach is Playa Tukan at the north end of town off of Calle 26. It is best to arrive early. Rent a canopy bed on the beach. Draw the canopy back and catch the rays, then pull it back again for an afternoon nap. Mamitas Beach Club has plenty of beds and great music playing during the day. Be aware that some women do go topless but this is not widely accepted by locals.
Nightlife is definitely happening in Playa del Carmen, but is not as wild as its neighbor to the north, Cancun. Typically, Playa's shops and restaurants close around 10pm, but nearly all of the clubs stay open through most of the night. A number of the best nightclubs are located on the beach. If you are interested in nightlife (dancing, drinks late until the evening/morning), then be sure to visit Blue Parrot, El Pirata, Santenera, and Hotel Deseo. The Blue Parrot had until recently a fun fire show around 9 PM some nights, but still offers beach dancing, swings at the bar, and plenty of dancing. Santenera has a beautiful roofdeck bar. Deseo also has a roofdeck bar, but it comes with beds. Very relaxing and beautiful.
Scuba diving and snorkeling is plentiful around Playa, though the reefs are off the shore require a boat to get to. The offshore reef is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef system in the world. All hotels have a dive shop, though many can be found on 5th Ave. Better open-water scuba diving can generally be found in Cozumel so if this is the focus of your trip it is best to stay there. Excellent snorkeling is located at Puerto Morelos, located roughly halfway between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, and in the lagoon at Akumal, on the way to Tulum. Several dive shops in Playa del Carmen do offer cenote diving south of town.
There are many internet cafes in Playa del Carmen, most of which also offer international phone service. Prices start at around US$1 an hour.
Cenotes are cavernous freshwater sinkholes which are found all over the Yucatan peninsula. Many of them are open to the public for swimming, diving, and exploration. Many are open, however some of them are partially underground and the caves associated with these cenotes can run for miles underground. Cenotes also vary in size with openings as little as a foot wide to as large as a small lake. The water clarity in these cenotes is often unsurpassed, often exceeding 200 feet, and makes for exceptionally good swimming. Some of the bigger cenotes are available as tourist destinations, many are locally owned, and many more still are either undiscovered or undeveloped. Entrance to the commercial cenotes is correlated to the amount of development (i.e. if there are washrooms, restaurants, showers, etc.) with fees ranging from US$1-20. One of the most popular cenote tour companies is Hidden Worlds.
Tulum is approximately an hour south of Playa and most famous for its beautiful Mayan archaeological site which sits on a low cliff overlooking a beautiful beach and the turquoise Caribbean sea.
Cozumel, the large island off the coast of Playa is famous for snorkeling and scuba near the Great Maya Reef, the large coral system. Note that Cozumel is also a main port for Cruise ships, so can be quite busy sometimes!
Spanish language classes are available by the week at International House Maya Riviera, located on calle 14 off Quinta Avenida, and at Playa Lingua, located on calle 20 between Quinta Avenida and Avenida 10.
The touristy part of the city is laden with shops selling 'artesanias'. These basically sell the same products - shirts, bracelets, and souvenirs, but for varying prices depending on the mood of the shopkeeper and your haggling/seduction skills. Haggling is accepted in the less formal shops in Playa, as is the rest of the Yucatan, though it is worth remembering that if you are able to afford an international vacation your income is many times higher than the storekeeper's (most of whom struggle just to pay the very high rents). It is possible to buy both Mexican and Cuban cigars here, but Cuban cigar prices are not particularly cheap. Counterfeits are commonplace in Mexico, so due diligence in the selection of cigars is advisable. If you are young or have long hair, many shop keepers are likely to also offer you marijuana. Marijuana is illegal in Mexico, though its use is widespread amongst tourists.
There are three large supermarkets in Playa del Carmen: Wal-Mart (30 Ave with calle 8), Comercial Mexicana MEGA (30 Ave. with Constituyentes), Chedraui (Highway between Playa del Carmen and Playacar). There is also a Sam's Club (Highway in front of Playacar).
There are two large shopping centers on the outskirts of town: Centro Maya (on the right of the highway heading towards Tulum - opposite Playacar) and Plaza Las Americas (entrance is on the righthand side of the highway as you head to Cancún, by the large traffic circle with statue at the entrance of Playa del Carmen). Both shopping centers have multiscreen cinemas and large supermarkets (Soriana and Chedraui, respectively).
There are nearly 75 restaurants in Playa, with foods of every type and price range.
Octopus Tacos at the PlayaMaya hotel on the beach. Wonderful.
Perros Calientes (hot dogs) If you wanna eat a great(great is big) hot dog, you have to walk two streets from the Fifth avenue and you will enjoy so good hot dogs.
There are also various pizza stands with prices ranging from 10 pesos to 20 pesos, most of them remain open up to 6AM when bars begin to close.
Travellers will have no problem finding nice bars on the beach, alternatively if you are on a very tight budget many shops outside the main tourist area will sell drinks in bottles and cans that you can take onto the beach, though that is technically illegal, many in the policia do not stop it. Prices at the bars in Playa are consistent with any major tourist area, but a US$1 beer is not uncommon.
Liquor can be bought from any number of tourist shops, which typically sell Kahlua and a variety of tequilas at a price which is generally the same. If you are requiring a more diverse liquor supply, there are places in and about Playa that can accommodate. The most prominent is Covi Liquors, located Hwy. 307 in Playa, which offer a wide variety of liquors at prices that are generally cheaper than those shops which cater to tourists on 5th Ave.
Playa by Night
The Fifth avenue is packed with restaurants and bars but most close before midnight. There are two main streets to find clubs and bars that close after midnight: The 8th street between 5th and 10th Ave is frequently visited by locals, bars like Red offer cheap beer, 2 x 1 Drinks and great music (closes at 2am). The 12st offers more tourist places like Blue Parrot, Coco Maya and Om(http://www.omplaya.com) in the beach area and Bali Club and Santanera near the 10th Ave.(After Party).
Playa del Carmen has a variety of accommodations available. Unlike other beach destinations, all the "best" hotels are not on the beach. A few face the ocean but the majority are set back a block or two near 5th Ave.
There are some inexpensive backpacker style hostels in Playa del Carmen if you are on a budget and don't mind sharing a dorm room with other travellers this is a good option.
You may also choose to stay at a condominium/apartment which are reasonably priced and available in the heart of the town and near the beaches.
There are a few all inclusive resorts in Playa, but the rest are south of town in Playacar. The resorts are generally secluded, and prevent one from experiencing the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city, and to some extent Mexican culture as well, since you will be surrounded by Western tourists and amenities. That said, these hotels typically offer nice accommodations that are well served.
There are two competing companies that will ship you across to Cozumel for around US$10. The dock is on the south end of the city, just south of the plaza. Boats leave roughly every hour, from 8Am to 8PM, and the ride itself is 30 minutes.
The central bus station, right next to the taxi street, sells rides to the entirety of the Yucatan peninsula. Bus travel is relatively inexpensive, you can either travel second class, or first class, which is sometimes also called 'Express' although it is not notably any faster at all. First class buses cost around 40% more and will have toilets and TVs on them, but both classes have air conditioning. A second class ticket to Chetumal on the Belizean border costs MXN$116 Mexican Pesos (US$11) and takes around 4 1/2 hours .