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Playa del Carmen
Not What It Used to Be Ö But Who Cares?
After Cancun, Playa del Carmen is Mexicoís most popular vacation destination. Canadians make up the bulk of winter tourism, with the Americans close behind. During the summer, Mexican families claim the sugary Caribbean coastline and occupy the townís many hotel rooms, timeshares, apartments, and beachfront vacation rentals.
The first time I visited, Playa (as itís commonly called) was a tiny village with a few shops and a short pier for ferries to Cozumel Island, 19 km (12 miles) offshore. Even then, as I strolled on an almost deserted beach, plans were in the works to replicate the success of Cancun, just 68 km (423 miles) to the north.
Today the coast between Cancun and Sian Kaían Biosphere Reserve has been developed and christened ďThe Riviera Maya.Ē Formerly pristine beaches like Xel Ha and Xcaret have literally been turned into (admittedly wonderful) theme parks. Because I was sure that Playa and Mexicoís Caribbean coast had been ruined, I avoided the area for years, traveling instead throughout Yucatan and Campeche states.
But last winter I decided it was time to return to coastal Quintana Roo, the most important tourist destination in Mexico.
After a brief stay in Puerto Morelos---another ferry landing turned vacation village---I headed south to Playa del Carmen. One benefit of its complete transformation from tiny township to full-on beach resort is that it so completely does not resemble the Playa of the past that I didnít even compare the two, or pine for the sylvan beaches I knew in the 1980s. Itís now a totally different town.
Playa has gone through more than one transformation. In the 90s it was the hip landing strip favored by topless Europeans fleeing Cancunís mass tourism. Today its clubs and beaches still pack in the partiers, but fashion-industry Brooklyn-ites now head farther south, to Tulum, while soul-seeking sojourners hole up in earthy digs south of Mahahaul. Change is not a one-time thing.
But for those looking for a wonderful Mexican beach experience, Playa still has plenty of magic. Clubs cater to late-night party girls and boys, and many dozens of restaurants feature world cuisines in addition to steaks, seafood, and nouvelle Maya cuisine. Taco stands and juice bars attract travelers trying to stretch vacation funds.
The beach is gorgeous. Its bath-like waters improbably occupy the transparent-turquoise-blue-green side of the artistís color wheel. Visitors can hang out near their hotel or beach club, or explore other beautiful beaches, including those of Akumal, not too far south, or Cozumel, a short ferry ride away.
Hotels and independent businesses rent small sailboats, kayaks, and snorkel gear and teach diving, kiteboarding, and other sports. Want a change from the salty sea? Sinkholes (called cenotes) are unique to this region. Dive, snorkel, or just float in a rock-lined pool surrounded by jungle plants. There are hundreds of pretty cenotes in Quintana Roo state; each has its own personality. Youíll find your favorite and want to return again and again.
For all-inclusive play time, Xcaret---39 km (24 miles) south of Playa---offers too many activities to count (but Iím told there are 40). Built around the gorgeous cove I so loved in its previous incarnation, Xcaret houses birds and butterflies, manatees, jaguars, and exotic flora. Swim in a protected cove, snorkel along an underground river, or engage in tons of other activities (some at an additional price). The dinner show is extensive and amazing, so plan to stay late. There are hammocks around the property if you need to recharge your batteries. A bit farther down the road, Xel Ha is another park centered around a gorgeous cove; admission price there includes food and drink.
Playa del Carmen has changed enormously over the last thirty years. But who hasnít? I like to think we are both evolving (if not necessarily maturing). Embrace the change and youíll find lots to love about this full-service Caribbean destination.
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