Travel Destinations

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Mexico's East Coast

Elnicki Wade

Along the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula just south of Cancun lies Playa del Carmen, a gorgeous seaside town and relative newcomer to the Caribbean's coveted list of must-see destinations.

Playa del Carmen - destination - marinalife
Playa del Carmen, Mexico aerial | Wikimedia Commons

For years dating back to 1,000 A.D., Mayans used this spot to launch canoes for the 30-mile journey to Cozumel. Some went to the island to trade mainland commodities such as honey or produce. Women paddled there on religious pilgrimages to visit the temples of Ixchel, Mayan goddess of fertility. After the Spanish arrived in 1518 and decimated the indigenous population, Playa settled into a quiet fishing village surrounded by endless beaches and tropical foliage.

Life here began to change in the late 1950s when Jacques Cousteau visited and released a documentary about nearby Mesoamerican Reef the second largest reef in the world that stretches for almost 700 miles offshore of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Cousteau's film shined a light on the menagerie of aquatic life ranging from coral and turtles to hundreds of fish species, and soon divers from around the globe flocked to this underwater paradise.

playa del carmen - destination - marinalife
Downtown marketplace | Braden Collum on Unsplash

In 1967, the Mexican government started pouring millions of pesos into the Riviera Maya, a massive development plan to transform the Yucatan Peninsula's coastline into a world-class travel destination. Jungles were cut back, cement was laid for roads and airports, and hotels and restaurants appeared along the waterfront. In 1970, a wooden dock was built in Playa offering ferry service to Cozumel, and the village grew into a bustling resort town.

Even though Playa is one of Mexico's fastest growing cities, its streets and neighborhoods have retained their coastal charm. Strolling down the main drag, La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), presents a cornucopia of casual to gourmet eateries, gift shops and chic boutiques, nightclubs and beach bars, galleries, day spas, and more. Parque los Fundadores is a seaside park that's lively with local performers, sculptures and heavenly sunsets.

Playa's beaches are second to none, offering soft sand for sun worshipers and pristine waters for action seekers eager to go sport fishing, snorkeling, kite surfing or swimming with dolphins. Other must-do activities: Xcaret, an eco-friendly water park with 50+ natural and cultural attractions; Xplor jungle adventure park with zip lines, amphibious vehicles and underground rivers; and Xaman-Ha Aviary with colorful parrots, macaws, flamingos and other tropical birds.

Out of all the many local attractions, Mayan ruins offer a unique regional experience with day excursions to ancient structures in nearby Chichen Itza, Tulum and Coba. Along the way to these magnificent historic sites, you can cross off a bucket list wish by taking a dip in cenotes or limestone caves filled with cool water, cascading ivy and subterranean fish.

Where to Dock

Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort
Offering everything from a luxury pool and adult-only Jacuzzi to four restaurants and a Mayan-inspired spa, this all-inclusive resort is a premier destination. The full-service marina onsite provides slips accommodating boats ranging from 25 to 120 feet, as well as tours, sport fishing excursions and more.

Puerto Aventuras Beach Marina & Golf Resort
This full-service marina is located about 26 minutes outside of Playa del Carmen and is the perfect high-altitude destination for transient boaters. The area is a residential and hotel complex offering vacation rental packages and amenities such as golf and tennis. Slips can accommodate vessels up to 150 feet including catamarans and sailboats.

Where to Dine

Zenzi Beach Club & Restaurant
This upbeat beach bar offers an extensive array of Mexican and continental dishes from breakfast to late-night munchies under the shade of palm trees and an historic lighthouse.

playa del carmen - destination - marinalife
Portal Maya | Evaristo Villegas on Unsplash

Fuego Restaurante y Cantina
Located at the Mahekal Resort, this beautiful oceanfront restaurant wins awards for its ever-changing menu of Mexican and Latin American delicacies prepared in a Tulum-inspired, wood-burning oven.

The Traveler's Table
In a unique communal dining experience, share a sunset toast at the beach; learn about regional wine, mezcal and tequila; savor traditional Mexican cuisine; and end the feast with chocolate served five ways.

La Cueva del Chango
Step inside the lush garden courtyard to watch fresh local fruit, vegetables, meat and seafood transform into classic Mexican dishes. Come for breakfast and lunch to escape the midday heat or enjoy a romantic evening meal.

Alux Restaurant
Named after mystical elves from Mayan lore, this upscale restaurant takes you down into a 10,000-year-old cave to dine on fine Mexican cuisine with pre-Hispanic and international touches, along with craft cocktails and spectacular scenery.

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