Playa Del Carmen: Pulsing City, Small Town Feel

At the epicenter of the Rivera Maya lies one of the fastest-growing towns in Mexico.  Once an unpretentious fishing village, Playa has grown to be a pulsing city — while safekeeping its small-town feel. It has everything you would want in a backpacker destination: cheap accommodation, great food, and easy interaction with the locals. Its location allows you to explore pretty much any of the Mayan ruins in the Yucatán, in addition to a variety of adrenaline-pumping activities.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, beach
Playa Del Carmen beach (Carl Hancock, Flickr)

Where to stay

From hostales to local pensiones — one of the best things Playa Del Carmen has to offer is accommodation. I advise you against choosing one of the international chain hotels though, as these are typically located miles away from the heart of Quinta Avenida (5th Street), Playa’s main draw. It is definitely the part of town you want to have within walking distance.

Recommended hostels include Hostel PlayaCasa Del Shiva, Hostel Vive La Vida, Hostel Quinta Playa, Green Monkey, and 3B Hostel . Word-of-mouth points to Hostal Rio Playa (rooftop bar) and Hostel Playa (big, open-layout common area) as a party centrals, although a good time may be had by any of the aforementioned. Please note though, I stayed at the 3B Hostel and they have a no-alcohol policy in the premises. Thus, this is a better option for those who want a central base, close to the beach, but don’t want the party to be at their sleeping quarters.

Speaking of which — if you plan to party, but still enjoy a good night sleep, I recommend you stay on 10th Ave. It runs parallel to Quinta (5th), but once you are inside a hotel, you won’t even notice you are that close to it.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, Hostel Playa
Open-layout common area inside Hostel Playa (Dan Zelazo, Flickr)

If you are a flashpacker or simply want to enjoy a budget boutique experience for a night or 2 (don’t we all?), I highly recommend the Aqualuna Hotel on 10th Ave. and 14th St. It’s quiet, it’s cozy, and its hospitality unbeatable.

Other great midrange options include the condo hotel Maya Villa (with its own beach club) and D’Angelos Hotel (on the quieter side of 5th Ave.).

Where to eat

Unlike popular belief, Mexican food isn’t as spicy and hot in the Yucatán Peninsula.  In fact, the rule of thumb is that the further south you go in Mexico, the milder the food gets. Thus, Yucatec Maya food is a mix of sweet and savory, due to the Caribbean trade influence during colonial times. Achiote (annatto seeds paste), chayotes, tomatoes, guava, mangoes, and papaya are common ingredients.

You definitely have to try the street food. The way the small city is laid out allows you to easily walk to some of the best (and cheapest!) local restaurants and food carts. Most of my favorites are located between 10th and 15th St., at intersection of 6th and 4th St.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen tacos
3 tacos al pastor from La Patrona – only 30 pesos! (lapatronadeplaya.com)

Local-approved establishments in the area include La Delicia (bet.  4th and 6th) and La Chabela (by the ADO bus station on that side of town). There, a hearty plate will only cost you between 30-40 pesos. By the way, this is the only area where you will find truly authentic food in Playa!

Another personal favorite, which I visited twice while staying at Aqualuna Hotel as it’s just a stone throw away, is La Patrona de Playa. Due to its proximity to 5th Ave., it’s not as cheap as the establishments around 4th and 6th St., but still quite delicious and the service is fast. I had a big plate with 6 fat tortillas for about 60-70 pesos. However, you may order their equally-delicious tacos al pastor (3 per order) for 30 pesos.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, Maya coffee
Maya coffee ceremony at Yaxché Mayan Fusion restaurant

If you decide to splurge, I recommend the Yaxché Mayan Fusion restaurant. Sample one of the mixed platters, the ceremonial Maya coffee, and the special plantain flan for dessert. Pie de platano is made of hazelnuts and cajeta (goat dulce de leche). Trust me when I tell you must give this unique delicacy a try.

Tacos y Tortas Light is a food cart has an upbeat owner cookin’ from 2 PM to midnight daily. It’s located right by the mini park entrance on Juárez and 15th. I am so sad I discovered this little gem on my last night in Playa Del Carmen. It was, hands down, the best meal I had on my trip there. The seasonings on the meat and the cheeses were  simply out of this world.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, street food
Tacos mixtos and local apple soda from foot cart Tacos y Tortas Light in Playa Del Carmen

By the way, do me a favor and try La Gringa quesadilla mixta (30 pesos) and a taco mixto with asada, chorizo, and pastor beef (10 pesos) there. You’ll thank me later!

Day trips and activities

Playa Del Carmen gas easy access to the plethora of ancient Mayan sites and adventurous activities in the Yucatán. Recommended tour operators include Karma Trails (whose initiatives include partnering with local tour agencies and Maya communities) and Alltournative.

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, Ek Balam
Ek Balam temple carvings

Some of the activities I sampled included the lesser-known Maya ruins of Ek Balam and Cobá;  a mud bath and boat trip around Río Lagartos (almost like an experience in Israel’s Dead Sea!); zip lining in a Maya village; and rappelling into a cenote. However, you may also visit the theme parks Xelhá, Xplor, and Xcaret or go off-the-beaten-path and spend a day at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Tulum.

After an active day, you need to come back to town and relax. And what’s best than a 70-minute reflexology massage for under US $20? With so many beach clubs offering cheap massages right on the beach,  you have bargaining power. Practice your haggling skills by scoring a seaside massage for US $18 or less. If I did it, you can do it too!

backpacking Playa Del Carmen, zip lining adventure
Zip lining over a Mayan village is even cooler than it looks! (Alltournative)

Nightlife

From world-class dance clubs to laid-back beach lounges — you will like Playa Del Carmen’s nightlife, no matter your tastes. If it’s your first time in town, you can book one of the excellent VIP bar crawls. For only US $70, your pass includes cover charges, a 5-hour open bar in 3 different clubs or lounges, and unlimited bottle service in 2 of those venues. Seeing that the cost of a night out in Playa is comparable to any other American city, a crawl is great value for your money.

I personally used Playa Crawl and had a great time. Venue selection is tailored to the group each night, so if your peers prefer a more laid-back atmosphere, your guide will take you to the relaxing beach lounges in town. Otherwise, you’ll be hitting the hottest clubs 😉

The best nightclubs in Playa include La Santanera, Mandala, and Palazzo. Conversely, a more laid-back atmosphere may be had at the lounges and bars, including Blue Parrot, Mamitas Beach Club, and Kartabar. Please note though, the latter is located in the middle of a dance club intersection, so the loud music can be heard from the bar.

backpacking Playa Carmen, nightlife
Coco Bongo Playa Del Carmen (Dan, Flickr)

Going to Playa Del Carmen can be as action-packed or as laid-back as you make it. ¡Ven y visítanos!

[question]Have you been to the Riviera Maya or Playa Del Carmen?[/question]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top