Playa del Carmen Mexico Travel Guide
We decided to skip Cancún and head straight to Playa del Carmen. There are some minor tourist safety concerns in Cancún as of late (2017) and we really weren’t looking to share our vacation with thousands of other tourists, we wanted to be a little more low-key. Playa seemed like the perfect option. After renting our car it was very easy to drive to Playa, and only took about an hour. We needed to purchase a SIM card for our phones so we could locate our Air BnB on google maps, so we stopped at the Plaza Las Americanas just inside Playa del Carmen, easily accessible from the main highway. We also needed to exchange money. The airport was only offering $14 pesos per USD, when in fact the exchange rate was $18 pesos per USD. Tip: Don’t exchange at the airport! Wait until you can find a bank or currency exchange. Luckily there was one located right at the entrance to the plaza, and we were happy with the $17.7 pesos per dollar exchange. Not a lot of English is spoken at the plaza, but we were successfully able to purchase a SIM card from AT&T for $80 ($4.50 USD) pesos each, and then walk across the street to the Oxxo’s gas station and purchase our minutes and 2.5 GB data for $500 pesos ($25 USD).
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
This really depends on the type of experience you’re looking for. You can stay at one of the luxury resorts that line the beach and are next door to 5th Avenue, or find a boutique hostel or guesthouse nearby, but as a traveler on a budget these places are still not too affordable in Mexico. I recommend finding an AirBnB. Many cost as little as $20 USD per night so are totally within budget, and offer you an opportunity to get to know the locals and stay within the neighborhoods. Our Air BnB was in a quite neighborhood, located between 25th and 30th Avenue, which was only a 15 minute walk to the tourist strip and beach. This area gives you the best of both worlds.
Where to Eat in Playa del Carmen
There are hundreds of restaurants in Playa, many located along 5th avenue where you can find anything from Starbucks to Guy Fieri’s Restaurant. This is going to be the most expensive area for eating out, and you’re least likely to find true authentic Mexican food. Move upwards from 5th avenue, to 10th avenue and beyond, and you’re more likely to find the good stuff.
El Fugon – This local restaurant has two locations, one on 30th avenue and one on Avenida Constituyentes, which runs perpendicular with 30th ave. Authentic, reasonably priced Mexican food (no English menu) is found here, but they specialize in ‘El Pastor’, or shawarma spit-grilled meat, similar to Middle-Eastern ‘doner’, since it was brought by Lebanese immigrants. Here they have a full menu, with vegetarian options, including Quesadilla Rajas, or roasted poblano peppers. Every meal comes with a plate of radish’s, limes, and roasted poblano peppers in addition to a salsa roja (red sauce), salsa verde (spicy green sauce), and pico de gallo. The margaritas are large and strong, and will cost more than your meal but definitely worth it.
Nativo – Another authentic Mexican restaurant located on 30th Avenue, offering a large menu (English menu available) of not only typical Mexican food, but Mexican-style pastas as well. A large menu of fresh juices and smoothies are available as well. Perfect for breakfast through dinner. Every meal comes with a basket of homemade tortilla chips with salsa roja (red mild sauce) and salsa verde (green spicy sauce). Highlights here include the enchiladas and the tostadas.
Kaxapa Factory – If you need a break from Mexican but still want to try authentic South American food, head to Kaxapa Factory for their authentic Venezuelan food. Located on Calle 10, this small restaurant has only 9 tables. They serve a variety of Venezuelan food, including Empanadas, Arepas, and Kaxapas (Cachapas) among others. The portions are large, we each ordered an empanada and an arepas, and were so full we couldn’t finish. Each table is served 4 samples of Venezuelan beverages, ours was passion fruit juice, rice milk with cinnamon, and lemonade.
What to Do in Playa del Carmen
Eat, Eat, Eat – Look above for restaurant recommendations
5th Avenue – For bars, Western food, and shopping (both Mexican handicrafts and designer stores).
Akumal Beach – The beach in Playa del Carmen is very crowded, with little sand left that doesn’t have a beach chair on it from the resort above. A short drive (25-30 minutes) brings you do Akumal Beach, a much quieter, more picturesque beach. The crowds of tourists arrive around 11:00am, because everyone wants a chance to swim with sea turtles. Arrive early, around 8:00am to beat the crowds and swim with the turtles alone or with a handful of other tourists.
Tips: When arriving into Akumal you will see 3 parking lots, 2 on the right and 1 on the left. Take the one on the left for the best chance at parking with shade. All the parking lots are the same price (50 pesos). There are a variety of local restaurants and shops on your way walking to the beach, I recommend Imelda’s La Ecocina for cheap and delicious food. As you walk onto the beach you will be bombarded with locals insisting on snorkeling tours which cost $40 USD per person. You are allowed to snorkel without a tour however, and just as likely to see the turtles, so if you’re on a budget just say no thank you, and head up the beach. You’re allowed to lay your towels in front of any of the resorts (the beach is public), and I recommend laying in front of the life guard tower so no one bothers you. Rent a snorkel set from the dive shop ($200 pesos or $10 USD) and get out into the water. If you don’t have a GoPro you can rent one from the Dive ship for $30 USD, which gives you 2 hours of snorkeling and all the photos and videos you take they will photo shop for you and send to your email.
Cenotes – (As seen in featured image) Nearby cenotes to Playa del Carmen include Cenote Azul and Cenote Jardin del Eden (both were recommended by our Air BnB host). They are next to each other so time allowing you can visit both. We visited only Jardin del Eden, which costs $100 pesos per person. You can drive all the way down and park next to the cenote, but first you have to stop at the metal gate to pay and get your ticket. Bring some water, a towel, a camera, and wear your bathing suit. People talk of the cenotes having cold water, but we visited in October and the water was beautiful. Make sure to pay attention to your surroundings to see the gorgeous Black Spiny-Tailed Iguanas that run around the cenote.
Tip: Again, as with Akumal beach, arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds of people. We arrived around 9:30am and there were only a handful of people there. By 11:30am there were hundreds of people walking towards the entrance.