Travel | 8 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
We were in Playa del Carmen from Dec 10 – Dec 20, 2004
My wife and I just came back from our vacation in Playa del Carmen. We spent 10 days on the Mayan Riviera. We stayed at the small hotel called “Colibri” in the core of Playa, near the “Blue Parrot” hotel on the main beach. Playa is growing fast. I wonder if it will retain its small town charm.
In ten days we had only one bad experience: watered coffee at Siesta-Fiesta bar on 5th Avenue. This place is laid back yet very close to some wonderful side trip destinations. The Bottom Line is Playa del Carmen has all you need or may want and more…
Now please read on about my first impressions on our first trip there.
Playa del Carmen was THE destination I was looking for when I went on a family Mexican vacation. We did not want to stay in one of the all-inclusive resorts in Cancun (or anywhere else) and we did not book any hotel in advance. Rather we decided to get to Playa first and than look around and get a room in one of the small hotels near the shore. That’s exactly what we did. We rented a car at the airport in Cancun and made it to Playa del Carmen in less than an hour without any troubles.
We found a wonderful little town that I hope to return to. I have been told that the town has doubled in size in the last ten years. I don’t know what it was like then but it definitely still has a small town feel. The fact is, it really isn’t that large and, you can walk end to end in just ten minutes or so.
At first we got a room at the “Eclipse” hotel on 1st Avenue and 14th calle. Not exactly in the front row of hotels, but only one block from the beach. Very romantic place and very affordable at $40/night. Sergio who works at the front desk was more than friendly and willing to provide few hints to the “gringos” like us, and point us to the grocery stores and good restaurants. Since we had our own (rented) car, he also suggested which sites are worthy our visiting. My wife and I decided to do a bit more site seeing than that but his directions were good.
Couple of days latter we moved to a different hotel “Colibri”, just down the same road. New place was right on the beach and had “real” rooms, where our first place was more a “cabana” type of a room. Thus this place was more expensive at $50/night.
The next time I come to Playa del Carmen I would again stay right in town. There are many places. The fact is even the ones a block away from the beach are closer to the sand and water than those places at the all inclusive. You also get a taste of the local color, and its fun! Also, you can eat at different place every night and taste different food all the time.
The beaches are pure white send that never heats up and the crystal clear waters are a gorgeous turquoise color. Though there are many hotels along the beach it is open to the public. All beaches there are. You will even find that all places will allow you to use beach chairs and umbrellas if you will buy their drink or a meal that will be served to you right there on the beach (at very affordable prices). At the place we were staying they had noon special drink offer where you could get 2 for 1 deal (2 beers for 20 pesos).
The beaches are narrow in some areas and wider in others. Palm trees are scattered along the beach. The beach has a comfortable laid-back feel. There is also a reason for this. Zoning laws prohibit any buildings over three stories high so Play del Carmen, hopefully, will never become a Cancun or Cozumel with huge high rise hotels.
Unlike Cancun, that has mostly Americans, Playa is much more international. We met people from England, Germany, Holland and I have seen some Ukraininians (or Russians, not sure). Of course you also have many more Mexicans. I liked the international feel.
DRINKS in PLAYA
We had to have a drink at The Blue Parrot Inn. It’s a popular Playa destination. The bar, under a huge palapa, has swings as seats. You had better not have too many drinks while sitting on them! The open-air feeling and friendly bar tender kept us very happy and very relaxed. This is also a popular place to stay at. I would definitely consider it. The place looks great and it’s right in town.
There are many places on the beach to have drinks. At night there is a real party atmosphere on 5th AVE. This is just one very short block away running parallel to the beach. The real name is Quinta Avenida.
This is the main street of Playa del Carman. It starts at the southern dock area and continues north. Day or night, this is where things happen. If you walk up and down the street a bit you will find wonderful places to eat. Some of the balcony restaurants are very cool looking. They are like no other places I have ever seen.
The area near the ferry docks is where the banks are. ATMs are easily found. There is even Scotia bank close to the ferry docks. That is how I did most of my money exchanging. Right at the bottom of 5TH Ave is a taxi stand. Cabs were always there and there is always a guy trying to keep order of the line.
Little shops all along 5TH Ave have wares hanging from portable displays outside their doors. The shopkeepers try to get you to bargain with them. They are not bothersome or “in your face”, like you might find in other towns or countries. They are fun to deal with. My wife enjoyed herself while trying to chip away at the prices the shopkeepers first gave (she wasn’t good at it). This is the way you do business in Playa. You keep going back and forth in price and then, like I did, might even try to get other items included. I got some great deals; at least that’s what I think. The fact is the prices we paid in Mexico were much less than we would have paid for similar goods at home and we had fun doing it. As a joke, one of them called me Croatian bandito! I took it as a compliment! The Mexican people are delightful to deal with.
CLOSE the STREET
Every evening, I don’t recall the time; 5TH Ave is closed to vehicular traffic. That really made this place into a party atmosphere. Many places had live music. We walked from one place to another. We shopped a bit in between and then walked into a bar and would have a beer. I love listening to Mexican music. It is very festive! Very European! Everybody was having a great time. Some places had more contemporary cover bands.
Here at home (Edmonton) everybody is asking me if Mexico was safe. I felt very safe on the main strips and everywhere else we went. Like in any place you visit, use common sense as to where you are walking. Things can get mighty dark once away from the main drag. I do suggest however, trying some of the restaurants that are a few blocks inland if you want to get a better taste of the Mexican culture. You will also get some of the best bargains in a meal anywhere.
There are dozens and dozens of places to eat in Playa del Carmen, and you certainly will not go hungry. (A brochure I got said over 250 restaurants!) A fajita or salbute, a quick taco, pizza, or a full steak and lobster dinner with champagne, you can find it all in Playa del Carmen. From personnel experience we can recommend Restaurant da Bruno (Italian, expensive), Steak and Lobster house “Los Rancheros” (good ambient with live music and ocean view from third level), Yaxche Mexican restaurant, Café Tropical (picture bellow) where we had a breakfast and good coffee every morning.
I am always a little dismayed to see very commercial restaurants when I go out of the country. For example, TGI Fridays and Johnny Rockets. There were also lots of other popular places, like Senor Frogs, which is right on the water.
You will also find various food carts along the streets. We bought a large fruit cup for about $1, which was really tasty and had watermelon, jicama, coconut, and a little orange fruit (which I have no idea what it was, but it was awesome!) in it. You can buy other things like nuts or cotton candy for snacks. There are also plenty of little stores, sort of like newspaper or convenience stores, where you can buy candy, drinks, or other little necessities.
Many of the restaurants have someone standing outside trying to get customers. One night, we did eat at a place on 5th (near calle 10) called “100% Natural”, which is a natural foods restaurant with lots of vegetarian food! There are certainly a variety of restaurants with a choice of cuisines, and also small cafes. “100% Natural”, like many other restaurants, had a very neat design with an upper level where we ate in the treetops! The ever-present cats of Mexico, as usual, came to visit us while we ate.
PLACES to see…
If you were staying in Playa and wanted to do some side trips you are perfectly located. Playa is pretty much in the middle of what is Costa Maya, Riviera Maya, or also known as the Mexican Riviera. You are 40 miles south of Cancun, a little less than a one hour car ride. A boat ride on the new faster boats can get you to Cozumel in just 30 minutes.
If you wanted to check out a couple of wonderful Mayan sites you can go south to Tulum and another half hour to Coba. They are two fantastic places of ancient culture that should not be missed.
I also strongly recommend going to X-caret and a must see at least one of the “Cenotes”. The X-caret is actually compared to what might be a Disney type theme park that is dedicated to ecology and culture. It is another must see destination.
One of the days we took a ferry to Cozumel. There are two ferries, and they both have numerous ticket offices. The tickets all seemed to be around the same price, and the ferries leave just a few minutes apart, and take the same amount of time to get to Cozumel, so we just picked one of the quieter ticket offices (I believe on Ave. Juarez). We paid close to $18 USD per person for a round trip ticket to Cozumel. There are places to buy tickets down by the ferry and also up on 5th Ave and other streets. You can come back pretty late at night – 10 or 11pm I believe. It takes approximately 35 minutes to get to Cozumel.
The ferry we went on seemed pretty nice. It was clean and you could buy drinks, food, or souvenirs. Both of the ferries looked nice, so like I said it was a toss up as to which one we would go on. We had no problem recognizing which one we were on for the return trip (blue ferry, versus yellow ferry!).
Once on the island, we rented a scooter for $25US/day and off we went. The loop around the island is about 30 km long and the roads are very safe. We stopped at the beach called “Dzul Ha” for some snorkeling. It was beautiful.
Water was clear and worm. We’ve seen a lot of small and big fishes. Dzul Ha is a free road-side attraction that you park at and jump in the water.
Once we reached the Punta Morena point we had a lunch at this real Mexican looking restaurant (Freedom in Paradise), where they whistle and make other noises when new customers come for a meal. Very friendly place with good food and not overly expensive. At the end of a day our conclusion was through Cozumel is nice, we were happy to be staying in Playa and not in Cozumel.
Other Places & Useful Hints
There are tourist information places around Playa del Carmen. We were able to ask questions, get directions, and get some brochures on places that looked interesting to visit. The information booths, however, really seemed only to have Spanish-speaking workers, so there was a difficult language barrier, but I was able to get through what I needed through some pointing. I highly recommend knowing some basic Spanish for your trip in Mexico. On 5th Ave, you probably won’t have any problems with communication. Yet, I liked having a basic knowledge of terms because it was often useful, and I think Spanish speakers appreciated at least an attempt at speaking in Spanish. I picked up lots of words quickly, so even though I didn’t have a Spanish dictionary or phrasebook on me, I was able to ask where things were, etc.
As for money, we started with some USD and pesos that we brought from Edmonton. We had lots of $1′s, $5′s, and some $10′s on us (in anticipation of lots of tipping). After spending a little bit, we decided to use pesos whenever possible as it was easier for us.
We also needed a gas station on our way out to fill up the rented Wolkswagen Polo, and there were various places to choose from, including a Pemex and an OXXO. We had an interesting experience at Pemex as we drove to the station. The guys were standing at the pumps waving their arms over their heads trying to get our attention to make sure we came over. It was an odd experience as it was all full serve, and they take your keys. Finally, when we paid in pesos, they ripped us off when they gave us change so, know your pesos! It was late and we were in hurry and it wasn’t that much, so we chalked it up to part of the tourist experience!
As I mentioned, there are plenty of convenience stores and other stores where you can find necessities. There are plenty of places where you can buy swimwear, sandals, snorkeling gear and the like, which is great for emergencies!
There is a huge Wal-Mart type store called Chedraui right on the highway near the turn-off for downtown, which is a good resource as well. With the rented car, we went to Chedraui, and they have everything from a supermarket to general needs items, and you can walk to downtown from the store if need be. I bought a bottle of Tequila for much less than what they were selling it on 5th Avenue.
There are also a bunch of places in town that offer tours, and there are some dive shops. One guy who talked to us said he could beat the price that we are paying at our hotel (Colibri), which wouldn’t surprise me.
Although there are lots of places to shop out on the highway, and at the other tourist attractions we went to, we ended up getting just about all of our souvenirs/gifts in Playa del Carmen. There are just so many stores that make it convenient and good for bargaining, the prices are decent, and it’s sort of a one-stop-shop.
You can also stay at one of the many all-inclusive places just outside Playa. If you read my review so far, I believe I have given some reasons not to do that. Do not stay in an all-inclusive. There is so much to see outside of Playa del Carmen that isn’t all that far. Why pay for included time and meals that may be taken elsewhere? Now staying here will not give you the style of a Ritz however, Playa del Carmen is a great place to stay and is the perfect location from which to adventure.
Vera and I loved it!!
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