Playa del Carmen, situated on Mexico’s east coast in the Yucatan Peninsula, is warm and sunny, uber cool and home to thousands of expats and foreigners, all living the good life by the sea! It is super safe, small enough to walk all over yet large enough for diversity, awesome for party people but also perfect for families like ours that opted to skip the all inclusive vacation this year and try to live like the locals!
In the most eastern part of Playa, closest to the beach, is where the foreigners are and where we stayed. Luxury condos, beach clubs, interlocking stone streets bordered by palms, enticing Italian restaurants and the famed 5th Avenue reside here, which is why it’s often referred to as the ‘Europe of Mexico’. Once you venture slightly out of the tourist area, you find the local 10 peso taco shops, grocery stores, Pelateria’s (popsicle shops) and food stands.
Playa del Carmen is a really amazing town, and depending on your budget could provide the greatest vacation ever! Because our goal was to travel for a much longer time than usual, it was important that we stuck to our budget which meant mostly avoiding the outdoor, 5th Avenue restaurants. That was hard! We did however manage to sample (cheap!) Mexican foods here and there, an adventure all its own!
Having said that – here is a real life account of a fabulous day in Playa del Carmen with my family:
Morning – Breakfast
Wake up in our Mexican-style condo overlooking 5th Avenue (completely unnecessary for us – next time we will stay off of 5th!), smile, give thanks and enjoy the beautiful blue sky and lush palm trees from the balcony.
Breakfast in would be a little breakfast of organic eggs and drinking yogurt (so much cheaper here) or fresh fruit smoothies, while breakfast out would be a lovely indulgence sitting on the outdoor patio at Chez Céline, just a few blocks away. Authentic french baguettes and quiche in a Mexican city (so worth the extra cost compared to the crap pancakes you might get at an off-the-beaten path restaurant unless of course you head to 100% Natural and try the surprisingly yummy whole wheat pancakes).
If we had breakfast in, we would head out afterwards for some coffee and chocolate at Ah Cacao! While I try to avoid “tourist trap” places, this chain of cafe’s really lived up to the hype. The coffee is very good, while the cacao (mochas, sipping chocolate, chocolate croissants…) is antioxidant-rich goodness, grown in Mexico – there’s something here for all of us!
After a coffee and treat, we may stroll along 5th Avenue to look at all the colorful souvenirs that spill out of hundreds of stores that line each side of the walkway. While we are called to from shop owners hundreds of times, it is still a nice walk, especially since there are no cars to dodge! From here, we walk south to the area where the Cozumel ferry is. There is a really great playground in the sand (about the safest you can find in Playa) where the kids can run around and buy fresh watermelon, mango and plantain chips from the carts that are in abundance in these parts.
Afternoon – Beach
A perfect day for me definitely involves grabbing a large fresh fruit shake (about 30 pesos for .5 litre) and/or some tequila coolers and heading to the beach to soak up some sun and salt air, so off to the beach we go! With lots of money in the budget, we would pay to sit on comfy chairs with umbrellas at a beach club (there are many to choose from) since the shade from an umbrella is welcomed! But beggars can’t be choosers, so a spot on the crowded sand is awesome too – preferably slightly away from the most popular Mamita’s Beach Club, which although is lovely, blasts techno music all day and night – ideal if that’s your thing.
Now, I found during our 10-day stay that beach days at Playa are unpredictable. One day might be picture-perfect, while others the sea is too wavy or mounds of seaweed – or sea grass – has washed up onto the beach, making it too uncomfortable to swim. In my experience, there were cigarette butts and bottle caps on the beach everyday.
On a perfect day though, the sky is blue (with a little cloud coverage for shade), the sea is calm and our spot on the sand is free of trash from last night’s party.
I can think of nothing better than an indulgent dinner at one of the (authentic) Italian restaurants on or near 5th with their wood-burning pizza ovens and handmade pasta. Outdoor patio dining, candles and palm tree decor, delicious food and drink – a dream! Near our rental at 26th street, there were plenty to choose from.
A dinner in, of fresh fish tacos with guacamole and corn tortillas, made by my hubby however is also a wonderful dinner in Playa – one that we had many, many times! It took us awhile, but we finally found a local pescaderia (seafood market & restaurant), El Pirata, located on 40th street, west of Av 5th – amazing since all the grocery stores sell some sort of ‘orientele’ fish which scares me!
An after dinner walk is essential – the city is so beautiful and lively at night! We avoid 5th Av, south of Av Constituyentes with all its crowds and either stroll north where it’s quieter and less populated or head up to 30th instead where we find little gelaterias (ice cream), cheap tostadas and my favorite, DAC market – one of the few healthy grocery stores in Playa. Here we buy organic Mexican coffee grounds, organic eggs and vegetables and delicious tapioca, vanilla coconut baked goodies! This place is always busy!
By this time, my little one has fallen asleep in his stroller (since he never takes a siesta), so we head back to our rental to whip up some late night guacamole and chips and one or two margaritas that we enjoy on our balcony.
On a perfect day, it’s cool enough to sleep with just the fans on and the bar below us won’t blare the music until 2 or 3 am. Not having to bundle in fleece pjs and slippers, we slip into clean sheets with smiles on our faces, give thanks for a beautiful day and hope we can come again and again!