11 Reasons To Visit Playa del Carmen Beyond Its Breathtaking Beaches
Sure Playa del Carmen has seduced millions of travelers over the years with its sublime beaches and heavenly ocean views. But the fastest growing city in Latin America, has captured hearts with far more than the alabaster coastline and turquoise horizon. (Although these two attributes are definitely enticing factors!)
Due to its prime location in the Riviera Maya, this seaside paradise provides a central base for exploring beyond the beaches. From this tropical Garden of Eden, bursts spectacular flora and fauna, fascinating wildlife and a vibrant international community. This once isolated fishing village has now garnered the reputation for being a world-class vacation destination.
Coming up are 11 attractions that might just ignite a spark of curiosity to propel you off that beach chair! Of course, the idea of completely unwinding on a Caribbean beach sounds divine. But even a week is plenty of time to relax, plus discover some of the many regional highlights. For certain, it would be a shame to pass up the chance to see them!
1. A Fantastic Arts Scene
Many local and famed graffiti artists have painted the town red– and every other color of the rainbow! Stunning murals decorate the city and discovering these gems is a delightful tour in itself.
When you’re not happening upon incredible graffiti art, you can visit some of the local galleries such as the Art Gallery by Gaston Charo. Located in El Jardin de Marieta off of 5th Avenue between Calle 6 and 8, the gallery displays works from over 30 artists. Additionally, you can stroll 5th Avenue every Thursday night to view creations by local artists displayed along the famed cobblestone street. Thirdly, an option for the whole family, is the 3D Museum of Wonders on 10th Avenue between Calle 8 and 10.
Music ‘En Vivo’
From Jazz and Blues to Rock n Roll and Mariachi, Playa del Carmen boasts a terrific live music scene. Catch riveting live performances at popular spots like Le Lotus Rouge, Zenzi Beach Bar, Wine O’Clock and Lido Beach Bar.
The Teatro de la Ciudad is a state-of-the-art facility, which often showcases free performances in an effort to promote the arts. The intimate theatre is located on the west side of the highway on 115th Avenue near Wal-mart. The main stage plays host a variety of ballets, musicals, and seasonal events.
2. Eco Parks
Whether you ‘re an explorer with a mild sense of adventure or a thrill seeker, Playa del Carmen eco parks present loads of fun activities for every type of traveler. Within 45 minutes from the city are several options to choose from.
Xplor Park offers a bird’s eye view of the scenic jungle canopy. You’ll fly over the lush terrain on a series of 14 zip lines ranging from 8 to 45 meters above the ground. At one point, there’s an opportunity to zip behind a waterfall. Later, you’re paddling on a raft and riding amphibious vehicles through marvelous caves dripping with stalagmites and stalactites. This all-inclusive nature park is just 5 minutes south of Playa del Carmen.
Taking the adrenaline level down just a notch, while still exhibiting extraordinary natural beauty is Xcaret Park. This 200-acre sanctuary is home to an array of the region’s most fascinating flora and fauna. Throughout the ecological park, you’ll see Scarlet macaws, jaguars, tapirs, bats, butterflies, howler and spider monkeys, deer, and flamingos. Besides the jungle creatures, the aquarium is home to over 5000 marine species. This is the perfect opportunity to view sea turtles, tropical fish, coral, octopus, seahorses, jellyfish and starfish.
Within the park flows a picturesque underground river. Along your float, you’ll be awed by exquisite limestone formations and stunning wilderness. Finally, at the last stop of your magical day, the Xcaret Cultural Spectacle takes you on a journey back in time. The performers dazzle through song and dance revealing the compelling history behind this region’s most famous events.
3. Spellbinding Islands
For a taste of the island life, you need only board the 45-minute ferry from downtown Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. During your enchanting island escapade, renting a jeep is the way to go. Cruise the meandering road, stopping at the towering lighthouse or seaside eateries, which dot the picture-perfect sea wall.
Since Cozumel’s waters are known for their excellent clarity, you might participate in an unforgettable dive adventure. Or hire a local boat captain to sail you to El Cielo. Meaning “Heaven” in English, El Cielo is a striking bay only accessible by boat just off the southwestern side of the island. It’s in these unbelievably translucent waters that you’ll witness slumbering starfish and majestic stingrays gliding along the sandy sea floor.
Just over an hour from Playa del Carmen, this is one of our favorite islands in the area. Without a doubt, Holbox is the quintessential island life. You’ll settle into the cool, laid-back charm the moment you arrive. Via a golf cart on the open dirt roads, you’ll come across delightful holes-in-the-wall. At these delicious Mexican diners, you can sample the island’s renowned lobster pizzas, as well as traditional and upscale national cuisine. Additionally, the street art is exceptional and adds even more cheerful color to the happy-go-lucky vibe.
Since Holbox is situated within the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, you can book a boat tour to see the fascinating creatures that call it home. The otherworldly encounter transports you to the open sea, where dolphins, sea turtles, flamingos, and whale sharks (seasonal) frolic about in their natural habitat.
Created thousands of years ago, these turquoise sinkholes are natural phenomena ideal for swimming and diving. As each limestone cenote is unique, you can visit some that are gorgeous, open pools, while others are completely enclosed. If you’d like to get the most bang for your buck, you can check out 5 remarkable cenotes all within one park at Kantun Chi.
Spend the day cliff jumping, enjoying a picnic lunch, or scuba diving the depths of these ancient aquifers. There are hundreds of these splendid gems throughout the Riviera Maya. Some of the most popular near Playa del Carmen include Cenote Azul, Cristalino, and Eden.
5. Mouth-Watering Menus
Due to a high concentration of expats in the community, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the vast choices of local and international cuisine. For example, you can dine on authentic Mexican dishes such as tacos or enchiladas at El Fogon, Axiote, or La Cueva del Chango. Hot picks for Italian include Luma Taverna del Mar or Trattoria del Centro. For a taste of Asia, grab a table at Po Thai or Sushi “n” Raw Bar. Delight your taste buds with French favorites at La Brocherie or the longstanding Chez Celine with its savory pastries. Craving sensational seafood? Head to Zitla or Los Aguachiles for a scrumptious casual meal. However, if upscale dining is what you’re in the mood for, Porfirios and Harry’s Prime Steakhouse are excellent choices. This is just the tip of the tantalizing iceberg when it comes to Playa del Carmen’s delectable gastronomy.
If you feel daunted by the enormous selection, perhaps a food tour is a good place to start. Eating with Carmen presents a delicious introduction to typical Mexican cuisine during a walking city tour. The palette-pleasing experience lasts around 3 hours and is recommended for all ages.
6. Magic Towns
Just 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, this Pueblo Magico beckons with its ancient Mayan city and outstanding festival scene. Hipsters and seasoned sun-seekers alike flock to the trendy vacation spot with its host of artsy installations, holistic retreats, and glamorous beach clubs.
Not exactly walkable as Playa is, Tulum is a great place to rent a bicycle and explore the neighborhood shops, cafes, and pubs. Surrounded by lagoons, cenotes, as well as the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, the area is a nature-lover’s playground. With a long list of stylish restaurants shrouded by jungle, Tulum is appealing to foodies who appreciate wholesome eats prepared by top chefs. Not to mention, after sipping on a few mezcals during dinner, you can always find a hotspot to dance until the sun comes up.
7. Mayan Encounters
Though the cause of the downfall of the once thriving Mayan civilization is unclear, remnants of the sacred cities still dot the Yucatan Peninsula. Likewise, lovely little Mayan villages continue to flourish in the area to this day. Companies like Alltournative work with these communities to help visitors understand the lifestyle, customs, and beliefs of the Mayan people. The tours give travelers a unique chance to speak with the first inhabitants of the region. Even more, you have the opportunity to participate in a traditional Mayan ceremony in the heart of the mystical jungle.
Ek Balam is another area where you can delve deeper into the history of the Maya. At the entrance of the ruins, you’ll notice some of the native trees have been labeled. Nearby, the local villagers peddle souvenirs in a small market with thatched-roof stands. They are happy to tell the interesting stories behind such trees as the Chechen and Chaca. As well, they can offer intriguing insights behind the story of Ek Balam, a city that is believed to have been constructed from 100 B.C. – 300 A.D.
8. Serene Lagoons
15 minutes south of Tulum, is Kaan Luum, one of the most calm and breathtaking emerald lagoons in the Riviera Maya. This hidden treasure is the perfect spot for a paddle board session with a local SUP company. Of course, lounging on your own inflatable floatie would be sublime as well.
There’s not much in the way of beaches or amenities, which makes it less crowded. This is an optimal day trip for relishing peace, quiet, and the great outdoors. Relax in the overwater hammocks or find a spot for your towel on either of the two piers to bask in the glorious Mexican sunshine.
Following the main road from the highway to the bay area in Akumal, you’ll eventually come to the Yal-ku Lagoon. Within the park, you can enjoy a panoramic view of the turquoise lagoon, teeming with a vibrant array of tropical fish.
All snorkeling equipment is available for rent, as are shaded palapas complete with shaded hammocks. Leave your food and drink at home as Yal-ku has its own restaurant on site. Alternatively, you can make a pit stop at La Buena Vida, ( just down the road) for an afternoon bite. It’s one of Akumal’s best ocean-front restaurants that happens to serve the most amazing piña coladas in the Riviera Maya.
9. A Dose Of The Mexican/Mayan Culture
By day, while visitors are soaking up the sun on the beach or making memories at local attractions, the locals are at work. However, after dark, residents fill the city squares and they buzz with activities. On the municipal grounds (Calle 8 and 25th Avenue) you can often find vendors selling marquesitas (crunchy crepes filled with Nutella and sprinkled with cheese.) Furthermore, the site is host to many free cultural dances and events. For instance, this is the main venue for Carnival each spring.
As well, the newly remodeled Parque Fundadores, home to the iconic Portal Maya statue, is often bustling with performances. Here, you can watch the Danza de los Voladores, or Dance of the Flying Men. The time-honored ritual was created to offer gratitude and to show love to the Earth and its natural forces. 5 men play songs on flutes and drums at ground level, then climb a seemingly sky-high pole. From above, they fasten a rope to their ankles and swing, upside down, as they descend slowly back towards the ground. It’s a marvelous ceremony to see, especially with the Caribbean backdrop!
10. Captivating Colonial Cities
Adding a stopover in Valladolid to your Ek Balam visit makes for an amazing combination day trip. Although the full day adventure will likely leave you worn out by the end, it will surely be a highlight of your vacation. Featuring several colonial structures built in the 1500’s, the small city has much to offer visitors.
Charming former mansions converted into magazine-worthy restaurants are a typical site in one of Mexico’s friendlies cities. Also several grand cathedrals present a glimpse of what life looked like in the 16th century. Not to be missed, Casa de los Venados, an 18000 square-foot restored mansion, showcases the largest personal collection of Mexican Folk Art.
What’s more, free walking tours are available. These easy-paced strolls present the best of the city. The Magic Town is adorned with fanciful eateries and a romantic main square. And, after a visit to the Convento de San Bernardino, you’ll walk away with a deep appreciation for Valladolid’s fascinating history.
11. Dazzling Dinner Shows and Dance Clubs
Rounding up the list is the incredible nightlife in Playa del Carmen. From the spectacular Mexican fiesta show at Coco Bongo to the Cirque du Soleil acrobatic show at Vidanta, there’s family-friendly and adult-geared entertainment alike.
As you roam 5th Avenue, in addition to the bounty of boutique stores and restaurants, you’ll discover every genre of live music. Whether a piano bar and a glass of wine are your thing, a jazz band, or rock and roll, there’s an upbeat atmosphere on every corner.
Plus, there’s nothing like salty margaritas and salsa night at Zenzi. Well maybe mojitos and mambos at La Bodeguita del Medio. Without a doubt, you’ll be a fan of not only the city’s sizzling nightlife, but also the endless activities beyond the beach.