I get asked often where I go when I want to get away from paradise, and one of my favorite local destinations is Playa Del Carmen, or simply, Playa, as we call it. Frequently people will respond, “Oh, I”ve been there. I stayed at the Grand Whatever Hotel, and it was nice.” I then tell them, that is not the Playa Del Carmen I’m talking about. They are usually talking about some mega resort, on the outer edges of the city. There are many, and one can easily see that, with all the huge grand hotel entrances along the highway that goes through the Riviera Maya. Giant luxury hotels and all-inclusives are everywhere. Almost all are very nice, but again, not what I mean when I say I like Playa Del Carmen. I like the “real” Playa.
When I look at Playa, I see three different kinds of cities actually. One is a large urban Mexican city. There are shopping centers, subdivisions, schools, and all the usual businesses you find in typical cities. There are car dealerships, Sam’s Club, Home Depot and even a Wal-Mart. That sort of urban area takes up almost all the geographical area that is Playa Del Carmen. The hotel and resort areas on the city’s edge, line the oceanfront, and that is the second kind of city I see in Playa. The third type of area is the part of the city that I like though, and that is the smallest of the three. It is the oldest part of town, and that is also why it, unlike all the other areas, developed in a different fashion, and why I think it is one of the most interesting, cosmopolitan and eclectic areas in all of Mexico.
5th Ave 1987 Same Spot Today
Playa Del Carmen, like all the cities in Quintana Roo, is young, which means it experienced all their growth in the last 50 years. Playa, has done most of its growth in the last 25 years. Like most cities, it began as a small oceanfront area and grew from there. That oceanfront area was owned by local people who had small parcels of land, and as the area became less a fishing village, and more a tourist area in the 80’s, these small parcels became small businesses. As tourism began to grow, the small locally owned businesses, began to be bought out by small investor owners, many foreigners, who would convert them into small tourism businesses. Buyers from all over the world began to come in and buy small local businesses, like Juan’s Taco’s and Maria’s tienda, and combine the properties to make small hotels and restaurants.
Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, the main street that ran along the downtown ocean, 5th Avenue, began to grow in this manner north and small little entrepreneur businesses
continued to come in. While this growth began to slowly move inward, west toward 10th Avenue, the larger open areas on the city’s outer beach areas began to be developed by the large hotel companies, getting all the tourist attention in the process. There was many miles of beautiful shoreline to the north and south of the city, and they began to fill with some of Quintan Roo’s nicest hotels and resorts. Many forgot the older small downtown area, but it also continued to grow, slower and in a very different manner.
While the large hotel areas were being built by companies with millions to spend, the older downtown continued to be slowly developed by much smaller investors. These
investors came from all over the world, each bringing unique perspectives on tourism, as well as new and interesting cultural nuances that they incorporated into their buildings and businesses. Unlike the perfect cookie cutter resorts, these smaller businesses became more “boutiquish” in how they did their business, and the result was a more eclectic and even quirky ambiance. What was just a small fisherman’s shack and a taco stand, became places like an 8 room Italian owned hotel or a restaurant by Spanish owners, who have brought, not just their money, but the flavors and taste of their homeland as well.
Today, the old downtown tourist area continues to grow, now extending west to 30th Avenue, 6 blocks to the west of the ocean and forty blocks to the north. The growth has not
changed the manner and style of development though. There is a new high end mall and even some larger condo buildings here and there, but the overwhelming majority of the area is still small businesses with owners from around the world. Most are small, unique and very boutiquish in whatever they do, whether it is a hotel, a restaurant, gallery, club or any of the many businesses you find in the area.
The food is the most interesting part of the area, with owner run restaurants, each with their own unique touches to their food and ambiance. When I want to find some food that is not rolled in a tortilla, I head to Playa. I love Asian food and can have many to choose from within walking distance from whatever little hotel I happen to be staying. There is even a place, Mom’s Cafe, owned by German’s, that serves nothing but US American food. Only in Playa! All the local US ex-pats go there for pot roast, philly steak sandwiches and peach cobbler. And there are some of the most incredible food carts too, that grill meats that spread their incredible aromas for blocks. Sidewalk cafes are the norm and don’t be in a hurry, because nobody else is.
Hotel Posada Freud El Jardin Marieta
Hotels are everything from small little 4-6 room places, to some that have grown to cover what was several lots in its development and have 20 -30 rooms. Most have 10 -15 and keep with the spirit of unique boutique style. There are nice clean basic rooms in the area that start around $50 US and go up to luxury places for $300 a night. Most nice little places in the area are around $60-$75 US and often include breakfast. I always stay in places that have a pool, why would I go to the beach, and a small hotel with a nice pool is still under $90 US a night.
5th Avenue Bus Terminal
Playa is also one of the only two places, the other being downtown Cancun, that you can take a regular bus, to and from the Cancun airport. This makes it a great place for a stop-over as you are heading to Mahahual, or as a place for the night before, when you need to get to the airport for a morning flight out. ADO, the local 1st class tourist class bus service, leaves Playa for the airport about every hour starting about 8:00 AM. The bus terminal is located at what was the beginning of the old downtown, so it sits right on 5th Avenue and is basically the gateway to the old downtown area. You can walk to your choice of many hotels and a taxi to anywhere in the old downtown for under $5. All the regular car rental companies, as well as the local companies are there too, so many rent their cars in Playa and avoid the higher rates needed to cover the 36% airport tax.
New 10th Ave Sidewalks and Pedestrian Sidewalks
10th Avenue, the second street west of the oceanfront that runs parallel to 5th Avenue, is now fully developed as well, and has its own similar ambiance. Unlike 5th Avenue, which is pedestrian only, 10th mixes auto traffic with pedestrian and bicycle lanes, giving it a different, but unique ambiance itself. There are some larger hotels on 10th, as some later investor owners, brought in more investment money and built slightly larger places. Mixed in though, are lots of smaller and cheaper hotels and hostels, with small investors still wanting to get into the tourist area before the prices got prohibitive. Everything is cheaper on 10th too, compared to the 5th Avenue. Room rates are less and so is the price of food.
Calle 12 Between 5th and 10th Avenues
The streets in between that cross the Avenues, called “calles” or streets, are now all fully developed and home to some great places too. Hotels, restaurants and retail are the main businesses, with a few shops and galleries. Don’t overlook these areas because they have great spots.
So next time you come to Mahaual, plan to spend a little time in old Playa Del Carmen. Check our previous blog on the Fun Bus Trip with more info on how to incorporate that area into your bus ride to Mahahual. If you are thinking of going there for a destination trip, skip the big mega resorts and go to the old downtown if you want a real, unique and different vacation experience. From the exotic, to the rustic, to the cosmo chic, Playa’s old downtown has it all. Check it out and enjoy a side of Mexico many had no idea exists.