Playa Del Carmen in Mexico

Once a soporific fishing village where travellers camped out en route to Cozumel, Playa del Carmen (often called simply Playa) has mushroomed in recent years to become a trendy place touted as the next Miami Beach – and, from a local’s perspective, a goldmine of employment in construction. Not only do Mexico City’s elite pop in, but so do day-trippers from Cancún and passengers from cruise ships. As a result, the town’s main centre of activity, Avenida 5 (also called La Quinta), a long, pedestrianized strip one block back from the sea, is often packed to capacity with tourists rapidly emptying their wallets in pavement cafés, souvenir outlets and designer-clothes shops.

playa del carmen
Nonetheless, the low-rise development and numerous European-owned businesses make it, compared with Cancún, seem positively cosmopolitan and calm. The nightlife in particular has a hip edge, and you will also find sophisticated cuisine, hotels for most budgets and diverse shops. Everywhere visitors will want to go is compact and pedestrianfriendly – even a walk to the Playa Norte, the better beach on the north side of town, is an easy one.
Playa, as the locals call it, is a beach-side city located on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. You generally fly into Cancun airport then transfer to Playa, which is an hour’s drive.

Playa del Carmen stretches from the beach west to highway 307 and beyond, however the tourist zone is the area along the coast. Most tourist buses pull into Playa turning off the highway at Benito Juarez Avenue and drive to the downtown bus station which is located right on 5th Avenue. The ferry docks to Cozumel are located close to the bus station as well. This is the busiest spot in all of Playa.

5th Avenue [Quinto Avenida] is the main street that runs parallel to the ocean. It’s around 500 meters from the water. In between the water and 5th are hotels, Bed & Breakfasts, Inns, Rentals, Timeshares, and restaurants. It is commonly referred to as, “Playa del Carmen’s Pedestrian Walkway”.
Along 5th Avenue you will find numerous stores selling interesting items as well as restaurants and hotels. There are clothing stores selling the latest trends from Europe as well as Cuban Cigar and Rum stores. It is a vibrant atmosphere reminiscent of a carnival. We have seen live lions, fire breathers, giant boa constrictors and a cavalcade of characters parading down 5th.
There are also lots of bars along 5th making it a good place to party. The after hour clubs swing into action after 12:00. These clubs are located on the beach away from the majority of hotels and resorts because of the noise level.
Intersecting with 5th are streets that all lead to the beach. Along many of these streets are dive-shops, convenience stores, hotels, tour operators, Internet cafes, currency exchanges, and restaurants. All the beaches in Playa are open to the public.
Playa’s beaches are nice. Along 5th, in the tourist zone the beaches are all clean white sand, not white powder. There is some coral but not much. The seaweed and other garbage is cleaned up every day. Within a short walk to almost any point on the Playa main beach is a bar/restaurant. There are also a number of snorkeling, dive and fishing boats ready to take you out.
The beaches closest to the ferry docks are the busiest and you have to walk either north or south to find seclusion. Outside the tourist zone the beaches are lined with jungle.
The restaurants along 5th are mostly Italian but there are American restaurants and Mexican restaurants that cook American style food with some Mexican dishes. Off 5th on any of the intersecting streets that head away from the beach you will start to find Mexican restaurants as well as numerous Italian cafes.
The farther away from 5th Avenue you go the cheaper things get. You also will find the best Mexican restaurants not far from 5th on 30th, which puts you in Mexican territory, out of the tourista zona. In fact, in-between 5th and 30th are all kinds of interesting stores selling everything you can think of, from live chickens to computers.
If you’re there during the summer and have kids then this is the perfect place to get your school clothing. You will find all the latest trends here. The Mexicans are right on top of fashion.
There are lots of Europeans in Playa, mostly from Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Americans have always been going to Playa. More Canadians would go but for the outrageous airfares.
At night 5th Avenue comes alive. Couples, all dressed up, head out for dinner. The young girls are decked out in their new acquisitions, hair braided. International bohemians walk the strip, many know each other, and it’s a friendly place.
Many Mexicans visit Playa for their vacations as well. Don’t be surprised if the family across the hall are Mexicans. Just say Hola and you will have new friends.
There are banks, money exchanges, pharmacies all over the place. Playa is not that big and everything the vacationer might need is within the tourist zone. You can walk up 5th Avenue in about 45 minutes but the main strip is only around a kilometer long. After the main strip there are still hotels and stores but they are not as plentiful, however the area north of Constytiones is under development.
Accommodation

Hotels are being built all the time in Playa, so you will have no difficulty finding a room. Competition keeps prices relatively low, but it’s still virtually impossible to get a room for less than M$400 in high season – which here includes the European vacation months of July and August, as well as mid-December to April. In general, the further from the water, the cheaper the accommodation; the central beach is somewhat eroded, so seafront hotels are generally not good value. Hotels on Avenida 5 can be noisy due to the bars.

Merida in Mexico

Even if practically every road didn’t lead to Mérida, it would still be an inevitable stop. Nicknamed “La Ciudad Blanca” after its white limestone buildings (now covered in peeling layers of gem-coloured paint), the capital of Yucatán state is in every sense the leading city of the peninsula, with a population of some 1.6 million. But within its historic core, there’s a sense of small-town graciousness coupled with an extremely lively and sometimes avant-garde cultural scene.
Also known as “White City” because of the large use of white limestone and white paint this traditional city depicts much of the splendor of Colonial Mexico. This is by no means to say that Merida still exists in a time warp and the contrary could be said. There is old and new exhibited in everything from fashion to architecture.
The Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Montejo founded present day Merida in 1542. An insight into the horrendous pain and suffering of the people who were brutalized by the conquering conquistadors exists in magnificent paintings that are on display in the Governor’s Palace located in downtown Merida. Left in seclusion for many years because of the difficulty of traveling to Merida the people of this region have cultivated a distinct contemporary society that is unique in Mexico.
Merida is a safe place to visit and the people are warm and friendly. Being such a close-knit society I took it to mean that violent acts of crime are simply not committed here that often because they are more or less one big family. It draws thousands of visitors, both Mexican and foreign, and has seen a rash of expat investment in the last decade. But even as the buzz increases, the city retains its grace and manners: every street in the centre boasts a well-maintained colonial church or museum, and locals still ride in little horse-drawn taxis, which gather by the plaza in the evenings. Not only can you live well here, but you can also find good beaches nearby, and it’s a great base for excursions to the Maya sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá.
There is lots of traffic in Merida, especially downtown. Taking the local bus can be tricky if you do not speak Spanish. The majority of streets are one-way and the bus routes wind all over the place and if you are not on top of things you can end walking more than you expected. If you are in relatively good shape and don’t mind the heat (it’s hot in the summer) then you can walk to almost every attraction if you stay near the downtown main plaza. This is a great way to get to know the city and once you figure out the street numbering system, getting lost is unlikely.
The biggest problem you will encounter in Merida is finding a hotel with a swimming pool that fits into your budget. You may want to inquire if the pool is indeed in operation before you make your booking if you feel you need to have the use of a pool, especially in the summer months.
Merida is nothing like Cancun or Playa del Carmen and if you want to experience Mexican culture while staying relatively close to the Caribbean Sea then Merida is a great place to go. There are lots of interesting shops to browse in, if you seek some familiarity, the Merida WalMart is well stocked and also has a food-court.
Outstanding regional dishes and traditional music and dances local to this region can be found in restaurants, theatres and shops housed both near the main plaza and in palatial mansions along Paseo de Montejo – a boulevard fashioned after Paris’ Champs Elysée. Progreso, Merida’s port city, is 30 kilometers north and is an interesting area to visit to see the salt-flats and flamingos.
Being centrally located, Merida is a practical hub to explore numerous ruin sites and ecological wonders. Many charters fly into Merida or you can take a four-hour bus ride from Cancun. There are also two highways connecting Cancun and Merida plus many roads winding their way through the jungle from Tulum.
Eating and drinking

Good restaurants are plentiful in the centre of Mérida, though the best (and some of the least expensive) are open only for lunch. At dinner, many restaurants are a bit overpriced and cater largely to foreigners; locals tend to frequent the snack stalls on Plaza Santa Ana (Calle 60 at Calle 47) and Parque de Santiago (Calle 59 between calles 70 and 72) for panuchos, salbutes and sopa de lima.
There are also sidewalk cafés on the Parque Hidalgo, along Calle 60 between calles 61 and 59. Juice bars – notably Jugos California, on the southwest corner of the plaza – serve all the regular juices, as well as home-made root beer, and La Parroquia (Calle 62 between calles 65 and 67) is a lechería, serving cinnamon-laced chocolate milk, fruit plates and yogurt. The bakery Pan Montejo, at the corner of calles 62 and 63, also makes a good breakfast.
Accommodation

Although Mérida can get crowded at peak times, you should always be able to find a good, reasonably priced hotel room. Unless you have a very early bus to catch, there’s not much point in staying in the grimier area near the main bus stations, nor in the generic upmarket hotels along Paseo de Montejo; the far more desirable options are all within a few blocks of the central plaza – which is still just a long walk or a short cab ride from the furthest transport and sights. In addition to the usual hotels, Mérida has excellent B&Bs, smaller inns and even hostels, all housed in converted old homes complete with vintage tile floors and lofty ceilings.

Yucatan

The three states that comprise the Yucatán Peninsula – Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo – are among the hottest and most tropical parts of Mexico, though they lie further north than you might imagine: the capital of Yucatán state, Mérida, is actually at a higher latitude than Mexico City.

Until the 1960s, when proper road and rail links were finally completed, the Yucatán lived out of step with the rest of the country and had almost as much contact with Europe, Cuba and the US as with central Mexico, resulting in a very distinct culture. Tourism has since made major inroads, especially in the north around the great Maya sites, such as Chichén Itzá, and on the Quintana Roo coast, where development has centred on the “superresort” of Cancún and the islands of Mujeres and Cozumel, but is now shifting to the so-called Riviera Maya, the stretch of beachfront that includes Playa del Carmen and Tulum. But away from the big centres, especially in the south, where towns are sparsely scattered in thick jungle, there’s still a distinct pioneering feel. In northern Yucatán state, the landscape is relatively spare: shallow, rocky earth gives rise to stunted trees, and underground springs known as cenotes are the only source of water. Campeche state, by contrast, boasts a huge area of tropical forest, the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve – though the trees are being thinned in places for cattle ranching and timber.
The entire peninsular coastline is great for spotting wildlife – notably turtles at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo and flocks of flamingoes at Celestún and Río Lagartos in Yucatán – but the most spectacular, white-sand beaches line the Caribbean coast, where magnificent offshore coral reefs form part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world.

Yucatan beaches

The Yucatan is full of beaches.

Caught between the relentless beat of progress and the echoing shouts of tradition, the Yucatán Peninsula stands at a crossroads. On one side you have the brawny mega-resorts like Cancún and Playa del Carmen with their oft-preposterous pomp and circumstance.
On the other are the proud, steadfast traditions of the Maya, the mystery of the ceremonial centers created by their ancestors, and the Old World allure of colonial masterpieces such as Mérida and Campeche. And in between, on every peroxide­-blonde beach and every patch of jungle still echoing with the roars of howler monkeys, beats the heart of Ixchel, the earth goddess, marveling at her remarkable creation.
Despite overzealous development, the natural beauty of the Yucatán abides, and with it, the reverberations of civilizations past. Set in a vast, jungle-swathed natural reserve, the pyramids of Calakmul are a prime example of nature and ancient history in perfect harmony.
Far more famous and crowded – but absolutely unmissable nonetheless – are the ruins of wondrous Chichén Itzá, seventh modern wonder of the world. There’s a Maya ruin near Xcalak, too, although that’s probably not the reason you’d be visiting – this tiny beach town in the middle of nowhere has another attraction: its absolute isolation from the tourist trail…