Playa del Carmen prides itself on being the anti-Cancún destination, and it’s true that the Riviera Maya beach town exudes a hipper, more laid-back vibe than gringo-friendly Cancún to the north. But make no mistake: Playa, as locals call it, is big-time touristy all the same.
Having said that, the local experience is there for the taking for anyone who’s willing to veer off the beaten path and embrace the Mexican way of life. How do you accomplish that in a city where tourist traps are lurking around every other corner? Here are some tips.
Biking shall set you free
Gone are the days when Playa, once a small fishing village, could easily be covered on foot. At last count the population had surpassed 150,000 inhabitants, making it the Riviera Maya’s largest and fastest-growing city. As a result of the population boom, city limits are constantly expanding and more folks are turning to bicycles as a mode of transport.
Bike rental shops are everywhere in town and most charge about US$10 a day, including lock and helmet. To get a look at everyday life in Playa’s residential neighborhoods, simply pedal west beyond Highway 307 or head north of Avenida Constituyentes. If you need a quick snack break you’ll find plenty of enticing ice cream shops around town, or drop by local fave La Floresta (at Highway 307 and Calle 14 Norte), a lunch-only roadside eatery specializing in fish and shrimp tacos.
For a longer ride, follow Highway 307 about 25km south to cenotes (limestone sinkholes) Cristalino and El Jardin del Eden. Get there early, around 8am or so, and you’ll probably have these sublime swimming spots all to yourself.
A shorter trip, about halfway between Playa del Carmen and Cristalino, leads to wildlife-rich Punta Venado Caribbean Eco-Park (http://www.puntavenado.com). Sitting pretty on nearly 8 sq km of mostly virgin jungle terrain, the park does guided horse rides combined with other outdoor activities such as snorkeling, kayaking or swimming in a cenote. The first of three daily tours departs at 9am, and much like visiting the cenotes, an early start-time allows for minimal contact with other tourists, plus you can bike back to Playa at a reasonable hour. The park is 2km east of the Highway 307 Punta Venado turnoff.
Eat and drink like a local
Leaving behind Playa del Carmen’s tourist trail pays especially big rewards when it comes to food and drink. Sure, you may not get a picture-perfect ocean view or the people-watching experience of a sidewalk café on Quinta Avenida, the city’s buzzing pedestrian corridor, but instead you get delightful local flavor and truly memorable experiences – and you avoid paying inflated tourist prices.
Fresh seafood is king in the Riviera Maya and few do it better than Los Aguachiles (www.losaguachiles.mx), an open-air, cantina-style eatery that has become a huge hit with Playa residents. Menu items such as tuna tostadas and shrimp tacos are prepared with a gourmet touch and the food is served in a totally unpretentious dining area. For good measure, wet your whistle with a refreshing michelada (beer, salt, lime and Clamato juice). Los Aguachiles is at Calle 34 and Avenida 25, a short cab ride from Playa’s main square
About 2km north of the city center lies one of Playa’s premier breakfast spots: La Cueva del Chango (www.lacuevadelchango.com). Most regulars go for the chilaquiles (lightly fried tortilla strips bathed in salsa and topped with egg or chicken). Word has spread quickly about “the Monkey’s Cave” and it now draws a mix of locals and tourists, but unlike many successful restaurants in town, it has remained affordable, making it an equally excellent lunch or dinner option as well. After your meal, sample a mescal, the smoky alcoholic agave beverage that packs a punch.
For more agave spirits, hit the boisterous Cantina Don PP and knock back some tequila. It’s one of the few authentic cantinas in Playa and draws a mostly Mexican clientele. You’ll find it on the corner of Highway 307 and Calle 14 Bis. Note that Don PP keeps traditional cantina hours, meaning it usually closes around 10pm, so if you want to keep the fiesta rolling, head to Fusion, (www.fusionhotelmexico.com), where you can catch bands performing Spanish-language rock tunes. Yes, it’s smack in the middle of the tourist zone and the prices reflect that, but the local groups appeal to a young Mexican crowd, making it a good place to mingle with townies.
Experience Playa from the inside
Consider a homestay program if you’d like to get to know the local community. Language schools Playalingue del Caribe (www.playalingua.com) and International House (www.ihmexico.com) offer short-term and intensive language courses with the option of staying with a Mexican host family, usually in homes far removed from the tourist center.
Immersion is the operative word at these places. Rather than whiling away the time with other foreigners in hostels or hotels, you’ll be learning Spanish and practicing the language at the dinner table with your hosts, or even, with the help of some liquid encouragement, in a neighborhood bar.
What’s more, host familias are great sources of information for traditional places to eat, activities and lesser-known sights in the area. Want to delve deeper into the culture? The language schools often provide extra courses ranging from Mexican cooking and Latin dancing to Maya art and history. And trust us when we say that a little culture and some basic language skills make all the difference in a town where tourist traps abound.
John Hecht is a Mexico-based travel writer. He covered Playa del Carmen while co-authoring the latest editions of Lonely Planet’s “Cancún, Cozumel & the Yucatán” and “Central America on a Shoestring.”