Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen (or Playa for short) has long been a favorite among travelers looking for an alternative to Cancún, a place where boutique hotels and lounge bars outnumber glitzy high-rises and all-night clubs.
Playa’s tourist and residential areas are more intertwined than Cancún’s, and it’s easier to find “authentic” Mexican outlets, especially compared to the Cancún Zona Hotelera. And while Cancún is an American playground, Playa attracts mostly Europeans, especially Italians.
But Playa is no longer the quaint seaside village many remember. Its population has exploded in recent years (as much as 20 percent per year), making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. It wasn’t too long ago that Playa’s main tourist strip—Quinta Avenida, or 5th Avenue—was just a half dozen blocks long; now it stretches more than 20 blocks and grows longer every year.
Condos are popping up seemingly everywhere, and the southern end of Playa (the part nearest the bus terminal and ferry terminal) has been almost completely overtaken by kitschy stores and chain restaurants—and in that way is little different than the overcommercialized parts of Cancún.
Fortunately, Playa still has plenty of small hotels, funky charm, and offbeat shops, especially in the middle and northern sections of Quinta Avenida, to help it remain a true alternative to Cancún. It’s got some great beaches, and the atmosphere remains decidedly mellow, even with all the changes.
Playa’s central location also makes it a convenient base from which to explore the rest of the Riviera Maya and Yucatán Peninsula, whether snorkeling in cenotes, diving on Isla Cozumel, or visiting inland Maya ruins.
Getting to Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen has an airport a few blocks from the ferry pier, but it’s used for private and charter flights only, with just one runway and no official terminal. Commercial service is available at Cancún’s international airport, a short drive north of Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen has two bus stations: Terminal Turística (aka Terminal Riviera, 5 Av. and Av. Juárez) is in the center of town and has frequent second-class service to and from destinations along the coast, including Cancún, Tulum, and everything in between; and Terminal Alterna (Calle 20 btwn Calles 12 and 12-Bis) has first-class and deluxe service to and from interior destinations such as Mérida, Campeche, and beyond. There is some overlap, and you can buy tickets for any destination at either station, so always double-check from which station your bus departs.
Combis (shuttle vans, tel. 984/873-0032) are an easy way to get up and down the Riviera Maya. In Playa, northbound combis line up on Calle 2 near 20 Avenida, leaving every 15 minutes, from 3 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. The final destination is Cancún’s main bus terminal (US$3, 50 minutes), but you can be dropped off anywhere along the highway, including Puerto Morelos (US$2, 20 minutes). Combis do not enter Cancún’s Zona Hotelera, but you can catch a bus there from outside the terminal.
South from Playa del Carmen, combis leave from the same corner every 15 minutes, 5 a.m.–11 p.m. daily. They go as far as the Tulum bus station (US$3, 1 hour), passing the turnoffs for Puerto Aventuras (US$1.75, 10 minutes), Xpu-Há (US$2, 20 minutes), Akumal (US$2.50, 25 minutes), Hidden Worlds (US$2.75, 40 minutes), Tankah Tres (US$3, 45 minutes), and Tulum Ruins (US$3, 50 minutes). To return, flag down a combi anywhere along the highway.
If you are driving to Playa del Carmen, look for the two main access roads to the beach—Avenida Constituyentes on the north end of town and Avenida Benito Juárez on the south. Playacar has its own entrance from the highway but can also be reached by turning south on Calle 10 off Avenida Juárez.
Passenger ferries to Cozumel (US$11.75 each way, 30 minutes) leave from the pier at the end of Calle 1 Sur. UltraMar (www.granpuerto.com.mx) and Mexico Water Jets (www.mexicowaterjets.com.mx) alternate departures and charge the same amount, though UltraMar’s boats are newer. Their ticket booths are side by side at the foot of the pier, with the time of the next departure displayed prominently.
The ticket seller will probably try to sell you a round-trip ticket, but it makes more sense, and costs the same, to buy a sencilla (one-way ticket) and wait to see which ferry has the next departure when you’re ready to return. Between the two companies, there are ferries every 1–2 hours on the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Car ferries operated by Transcaribe (tel. 987/872-7688 in Cozumel) depart from the Calica/Punta Venado dock south of Playa at 8 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 6 p.m. Monday–Saturday and at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday. Returning from Cozumel, the ferry leaves from the international pier at 11 a.m., 4 p.m., and 10 p.m. Monday–Saturday and at 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Sunday. The trip takes about 90 minutes and costs US$32 for a car including driver, and US$5 for each additional passenger. Arrive at least an hour in advance to get a spot.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition