Playa del Carmen has earned the moniker “The heart of the Riviera Maya” and rightly so! For centuries, this area was simply a mid-point supply post for Mayan traders, who transported goods back and forth from ancient mainland cities to the island of Cozumel. Years later, only a few families remained and settled in the region.
In its early years, Playa del Carmen was a secluded, undeveloped fishing village, shrouded by dense jungle. It wasn’t until the early 1960’s that word began to spread about this virtually undiscovered paradise. Thanks to Jacques Cousteau’s documentary on the Great Mayan Reef, (the world’s second largest barrier reef) Cozumel became recognized as one of the top dive sites on the planet. Soon thereafter, cruiseship tourists and dive enthusiasts from quaint island began broadening their explorers’ radar out towards nearby Playa del Carmen. A few short years later, the sleepy, seaside village emerged as a globally recognized tropical playground.
Cozumel became a prominent Caribbean port-of-call for cruiseships and thousands of travelers each year sailed across the turquoise waters on day trips, to visit the pristine beaches of Playa del Carmen. In the past fifty years, the once sleepy fishing village has morphed into a bustling, multi-cultural city in the center of the magical Mayan Riviera.
The history and culture of Playa del Carmen derive mainly from the region’s deep-seated Maya heritage. Throughout the area, preserved remnants of magnificent stone structures in the forms of pyramids, stadiums and astrological observation towers still stand. Recipes passed down from Mayan ancestors are present day menu items woven into the city’s impressive gastronomy scene. Annual festivals are held to celebrate and sustain the sacred customs and traditions of this fascinating indigenous civilization.
Two of the most popular celebrations that take place each year near Playa del Carmen are the Sacred Mayan Journey and the Spring and Fall Equinox at Chichén Itza. The sacred journey begins on the shores of Xcaret park and continues seven hours, as rowers paddle Mayan canoes across the Caribbean Sea to the island of Cozumel. The reenactment of this arduous crossing happens each year in May. Participants honor those who made this momentous pilgrimage to convene with and give thanks to their gods, principally Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility.
The awe-inspiring, twice anual equinox spectacles at the ancient ruin site, Chichén Itza, draw spectators from around the world. In the late afternoon, as the sun descends, it casts a shadow on the side of the pyramid, El Castillo. It appears that a giant snake slithers down until it joins a massive, carved serpant’s head at the base of the notable structure. Witnesses of this phenomenon continue to be marveled year after year by the ingenious creation of these early expert mathmeticians and astrologists.
In the summer of 2015, El Teatro De La Cuidad, Playa del Carmen’s modern performing arts theatre, opened its doors to much fanfare. The community has since enjoyed riveting live performances including ballets, folkloric cultural dances, and plays. For a schedule of upcoming events, visit www.facebook.com/teatroplayadelcarmen.
Nearly one thousand restaurants line the effervescent streets of Playa del Carmen. The influence of a large expatriote community has produced hundreds of extraordianry eateries serving an abundance of options for international cuisine. Whatever you have a hankering for, Playa del Carmen is sure to rise to the challenge to satisfy your tastebuds. Whether it be an Argentinian sausage wrapped in fresh, warm bread, an Italian pizza with a robust tomato sauce, an Asian-inspired wok or sushi roll, a Greek souvlaki, a Pad Thai, an Indian curry, or a vegan dish, visitors will be impressed by the plethora of choices.
When in Rome… or Mexico rather, authentic dishes such as enchiladas, aracherra, pozole, tacos al pastor and chile rellenos are a must! Along the charming, cobblestone 5th Avenue, Yaxche (Mayan cuisine), La Parrilla (live mariachi performances), and Aldea Corozon offer some exquisite national favorites. Other options for delectable Mexican cuisine throughout the city include La Cueva del Chango, Nativo, El Fagon for tacos al pastor, and Doña Paula for pozole (look for the blue exterior on Calle 6 and 15th Avenue.)
Since the city sits on the breathtaking Caribbean shores, there is never a shortage of sumptuous ‘catches of the day.’ From casual to fine dining, Playa offers top-notch seafood selections prepared by nationally and world-renowned chefs. Foodies travel from far and wide to savor a taste of the gastronomy scene in Mexico’s youngest and fastest growing city. Allow your palate to explore the unique flavors and exotic essence of the rich regional fare, but proceed with caution when the server places a fresh batch of habanero salsa in front of you! This spicy Mexican sauce is not for amateurs! Buen provecho!
The most intiguing quality of the Mexican culture is the warmth of the country’s people. There is a deep appreciation for family, children and friends. If there is any occasion, big or small, from baptisms to quinzcenieras, (our version of a sweet 16, but in this case the child is 15) Mexicans never pass up an opportunity to affectionately join together with music and much laughter.
In addition to pleasant countrymen, Playa del Carmen has a diverse and very social expat community. Whether you are in town for a week, a month or a year, there are several manners by which to meet people and form budding friendships. From the multitude of gyms, yoga studios, classes, dive centers, paddle board and meetup groups, the young city’s hospitable nature encourages singles, couples and families alike to unite to enjoy the boundless treasures of this magical region.
Many of the friendly residents speak some English, but if all else fails, charades and a good translator app can come in handy! Strike up a conversation. Keep and open mind. Try learning a few key Spanish phrases. The more travelers are willing to delve into the culture, the more meaningful and memorable the experience will be.
Speaking of memorable experiences, this fascinating area provides limitless entertainmaint options. From unforgettable, natural beauty to mesmerizing cultural performances, a pulsating nightlife including world-renowned music festivals to exquisite gastronomy, Playa del Carmen is continuously transforming into a highly acclaimed vacation destination.
Head off the beaten path to discover scenic, cool oases, otherwise known as cenotes. Formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, thousands of these extraordinary freshwater swimming holes speckle the entire Yucatan Peninisula. Many of the private cenotes have snorkel and life jacket rentals included in an entrance fee, usually from $60-$100 Mxn Pesos. Larger cenotes parks such as Kantun chi and Rio Secreto charge a higher admittance fee, but visitors have the opportunity to explore the properties’ multiple cenotes and caves.
For over one hundred kilometers, the magnificent Mayan Riviera shores border breathtaking, translucent waters. The alabaster sand attracts millions of tourists each year, who come to wet their feet in the warm Caribbean waters and soak up the over three hundred days of sunshine.
Glass-like turquoise waters invite early morning paddle boarders to glide across the sea. Kite surfers, sail boat captains and catamaran excursionists take advantage of the sea breezes as they skim atop the rolling waves. Sport fishermen crews set out for their catches of the day. Twenty-somethings, honeymooners and retirees sip cocktails under thatched-roof palapas, while families frolic in the sand and surf from dawn to dusk.
Within forty five minutes of Playa del Carmen are several adventure parks which each offer unique ways to experience the sublime beauty of the region. Xcaret, located just five minutes South of Playa, is one of the largest eco-parks in the region. Visitors can float along an emerald river through caves, snorkel, observe hundreds of species of animals, marine life and butterflies, as well as witness one of Mexico’s most engaging cultural performances.
Xelha invites guests to take an exhilerating journey through lush jungle paths by bike, zip car or fastened to a rappel. Explore the warm tropical waters and colorful ocean creatures during a Snuba tour, cliff jump into the ‘Lazy River’ and create priceless moments at Children’s World with its Flinstone-like water slides, lily pads and elevated bridge obstacle course.
Another all-inclusive park which presents endless family fun is Xplor, the zipline park located just outside of Playa del Carmen. Xplor boasts fourteen of the highest zip lines in the Mayan Riviera which run over hundreds of feet of verdant jungle canopy. Adventurers can paddle on rafts over cool, crystalline waters and behind waterfalls, discover incredible rock formations, drive amphibious vehicles through caves and view stalactites and stalagmites that leave one in awe.
A guided tour through Go Natives Park takes ATV riding enthusiasts over the fascinating terrain of the Yucatan Peninsula. Discover Mayan ruins, caves, cenotes, and meet with a Mayan woman to learn of her heritage and deep-rooted customs.
For a taste of true Mexican nightlife in a unique setting, climb aboard the colorfully decorated, illuminated trajineras in Xoximilco. While floating along the area’s many canals in wide, flat canoes, guests will become absorbed by the classic Mariachi music, sample authentic regional dishes, and drink, well, tequila of course!
Several tour companies in the area offer package tours in which you can combine two or three excursions in one. Some also give the option of customizing a tour itinerary for their clients. To give you an idea of available tour choices and prices, you can visit Paradise Transfers and Tours, Xcaret Experiences, Alltournative, Playa del Carmen Tours, or Wow Excursions.
Sailing, fishing, yaghting,
The U.S. Passports and International Travel Department declares that there is no travel advisory in effect in the state of Quintana Roo. http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings/mexico-travel-warning.html
In a statistical comparison provided by numbeo.com, when comparing Playa del Carmen to other countries, people feel as safe or safer than in other cities such as Vancouver, Canada, Seattle, Washington or Houston, Texas in the United States.