Playa del Carmen Travel Tips From a Local
While on my honeymoon in Playa del Carmen back in 2003, I remember walking along 5th Avenue, the beach town’s main tourist hub. Folk dancers performed on wooden platforms along the cobblestone street. The men, dressed in white, wore cowboy hats and red bandanas around their necks. The ladies’ dazzled passersby in elaborate, embroidered skirts. People sat at thatched-roof pubs with swings around the bar. Tables of outdoor eateries were set under the umbrella of massive ceiba trees. That evening and the rest of our romantic getaway in Playa del Carmen left me awestruck.
A couple of decades later, and low and behold, I live in Playa, which has blossomed into a vibrant, multicultural city. Thanks to its glorious beaches, extraordinary nature parks, and world-class diving, this epitome of a tropical paradise continues to attract nationals and expatriates from across the globe. Although it is still one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico, it has managed to preserve its simplistic, magical air.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of answers to the frequently asked questions from first-time travelers to Playa del Carmen. Whether you’re the type that travels with a fine-tuned itinerary or you prefer to wait to see what each day brings, these Playa del Carmen travel tips will equip you with insider knowledge for the trip of a lifetime!
Where is Playa del Carmen?
Due to its prime location on Mexico’s pristine Caribbean coastline, it has been nicknamed ‘The Heart of the Riviera Maya.’ Playa del Carmen is just 40 minutes south of the Cancun International Airport on the 307 Highway. It is part of the state of Quintana Roo, one of the 3 states that make up the Yucatan Peninsula in southeastern Mexico.
Tip: Once you arrive at the Cancun Airport and go through customs and immigration, you will receive your tourist visa. Keep that safe with your passport, as you will need it to leave the country. If for some reason it does get lost, you will have to pay around $50US for a new one at the Immigration office.
The principal currency in Cancun and the Riviera Maya is the Mexican Peso. However, US dollars are widely accepted at grocery and retail stores as well as restaurants and gas stations throughout Playa del Carmen. You’ll also find that the majority of properties for rent or for sale are listed in USD.
To exchange your money, there are several conveniently located ‘casas de cambio’ around town. You can trade in your USD, Canadian dollars, and Euros at the exchange houses and in most cases, expect a fair rate.
It is recommended that you use only the ATMs at the main banks in town and avoid using random machines (even in hotels), as they are known to be not as secure. Despite the convenience of exchanging your money at the front desk at a hotel, it is likely you’ll incur the worst exchange rates in the area.
Tip: For the best rates, we suggest buying Mexican pesos from your local bank beforehand if possible. Also CIBanco offers acceptable rates even if you do not have an account with them. There are two locations on 10th Avenue— on Calle 14 and on Calle 1 Sur.
Navigating The City
As a visitor, you’ll love the fact that no car is necessary to get around Playa del Carmen.The town consists of a series of one-way avenues that go up by 5s beginning from 1st, 5th, 10th and so on. These avenues run parallel to the beach or north and south. The majority of streets or Calles, are also one-way and go up by 2s, running east and west.
Important Streets In Playa del Carmen
5th Avenue or La Quinta in Spanish
5th Avenue is Playa del Carmen’s primary dining, shopping and entertainment district. This famous pedestrian-only, cobblestone avenue is lined with restaurants, galleries, dive shops, artisan and boutique stores, pubs and cafes.
This central local hub is where you’ll find the ADO bus terminal on 5th. To the south heading towards Playacar from Benito Juarez, the Calles go up 1 Sur, 3 Sur, 5 sur. To the north of Juarez the streets are even numbers – Calle 2, Calle 4, Calle 6 and so on. For those wanting to explore the enchanting island of Cozumel, you’ll find the Ferry Terminal on 1 Sur and the beach.
In the heart of the downtown core is where you’ll discover the city’s most popular dance clubs. For a taste of Playa del Carmen’s incredible nightlife, Calle 12 pulsates with the beats of top DJs in the region. It also happens to be the place for sizzling salsa venues, and dazzling Vegas-style shows.
This main drag falls between Calle 16 and 20 and features excellent Mexican restaurants such as La Parrilla and Los Aguachiles. Right at the corner of this street and 5th Avenue is Quinta Alegria, a beautiful shopping plaza with brand name stores such as Forever 21, American Eagle, Aldo, and Nike. There are many other useful businesses for tourists on Constituyentes. The large Mega Soriana grocery store sits on 30th, as does HSBC bank. Scotia Bank on 10th next to a Subway and some quaint bakeries.
Situated in between Calle 44 and 48, this is the newly developed north end of 5th Avenue. This up-and-coming area is bursting with quaint eateries and incredible beach clubs. There are many little markets for fresh fruit and fresh juices. Plus you’ll also find bakeries, spas, seafood and international restaurants, and OXXO convenience stores.
Carretera Federal (the 307 Highway)
307 is the main highway running through the Mayan Riviera from Cancun to Chetumal, the state’s capital. Along the highway within Playa del Carmen, you’ll find OfficeMax and Office Depot, CostaMed and Hospiten hospitals. At the entrance of Playa del Carmen on the 307 Highway is a stretch of furniture stores, while at the south end is Centro Maya (the second main shopping mall.) It’s a modest shopping center with Telcel (cell phone provider), Soriana grocery store, ScotiaBank, Banamex, CiBanco, and a few clothing stores. Also just off this highway are City Club and Sam’s Club, two of the main membership-only, bulk grocery stores in Playa del Carmen.
Best Transportation Options While In Playa del Carmen
Getting around by bike is a quick and effective mode of transportation. Since the new bike paths have been created along 10th Avenue, it makes using a bike somewhat safer. But typically, you have to be extra alert as traveling by bicycle can be dangerous. Many of our clients love to cruise around on their bikes and get about the city with no issues. Just be warned that cyclists and pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way here.
If you want to see some of the countless notable sights in the Riviera Maya, a car rental is the way to go. At least one road trip is absolutely a must, whether you rent a car or hire private transportation. In this manner, you can explore local marvels like cenotes or the Sian Ka’an Biosphere on your own time versus on a regimented (and crowded) tour bus. Sometimes the highlights are the stops at unexpected points of interest on route to the tourist attractions.
There are numerous companies operating in the city and at the airport. We suggest always purchasing insurance. Reputable companies will take photos of the vehicle before you drive away from the rental agency. Try Fiesta Car Rental and Hertz in Playa del Carmen or www.turo.com. This is a seamless platform on which private owners can rent their cars, similar to Airbnb, but for vehicles.
The Basics Of Driving In Mexico
Traffic lights work differently than they do in other areas of North America. In Mexico, each side at the intersection must wait for a green light in order to proceed. The light is green only for one direction at a time.
A road sign with an E and a red line through it means no parking or (no Estacionamiento.) It is illegal to drink and drive, to not wear your seat belt and to talk on your cellphone while driving. The Blood Alcohol Content in the state of Quintana Roo is 0.041 to 0.08. Depending at what level you are, you could be fined from 10,000 to 12,000 pesos. So it’s best to designate a sober driver and not take your chances with the Policia Municipal.
Tip: At the gas station, always check to make sure the gas attendant starts the pump at $0.00. Keep your money until the end, handing it over once the attendant has replaced the pump and has stated the amount. Spread the bills out as you hand them to the attendant. If paying by credit card, walk with the attendant to the machine rather than handing the pump person your card. This goes for restaurants as well. This will help you to avoid gas pump scams and fraudulent activity. Leaving $15 pesos or about a buck is customary as a tip for gas station service.
The ADO bus system is a reliable and cost-effective method by which to get to and from the airport, as well as to many of the attractions in neighboring towns such as Puerto Morelos or the ancient Maya ruins at Tulum. The buses are air conditioned and clean. For longer trips, bathrooms are available, plus you receive a courtesy snack bag for the road.
The larger of the two stations is on Benito Juarez and 5th Avenue, and the alternate is on 20 Avenue and Calle 12. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting the ADO website or at the station and run about $11 USD for a one-way ticket to the airport.
Shared van shuttles are one of the most economical ways to get around town and also conveniently run along the 307 throughout the Riviera Maya. For under $50 pesos ($3 USD), you can travel in one of these handy van taxis to swim with turtles in Akumal Bay or even develop your culinary skills at a cooking class at El Pueblito at Mayakoba.
The central colectivo station in Playa del Carmen is located on Calle 2 and 20th Avenue. This is your starting point but it will make stops wherever you need to go along the highway. Just be sure to mention to the driver at the time of boarding where you’d like to get off.
Although readily available, taxis are one of your most expensive options for traveling around the region. The rates within town are set and many taxis post them now inside the cab. To travel in the downtown core the cost is quite reasonable. But it’s always a good idea to confirm and agree on the price before you jump in. Most of the taxistas speak English and they are a wealth of information if you happen to be looking for the best taco joints in town, for example. WhatsApp Taxi Playa del Carmen is a trusted way to book a ride. You can text (984)197-0814 or (984)138-1075 24 hours a day.
Private Van Services
A perfect option if you’re traveling with a group. Private transfer companies such as Travel Yucatan offer a variety of different schedules and planned trips. On the other hand, flexible routes allow you to completely customize your own itinerary.
Playa del Carmen receives an average 300 days of sunshine a year, which makes for many unforgettable beach days!
November to February are the coolest, driest months averaging about 24C or 75F. This is the most comfortable time of year to visit as the days are warm and sunny, and the nights cool off just enough for a light sweater. In March, April and October, the weather warms up to about 26C or 79F. From May to September, temperatures average 29C or 84F. This is the time of year when we spend the majority of our days by the water. The turquoise sea, glistening swimming pools, and cool cenotes are even more inviting during the extra warm summer months!
Tip: Packing for this climate is simple. Think cool! Light, airy sundresses, cotton shirts, open toe sandals, wedges (stilettos + cobblestone streets = twisted ankles.) Of course, don’t forget your flip flops, shorts, tanks and swimsuits! For the evenings, you might want to bring a wrap or a thin sweater.
Dining out in Playa del Carmen provides hundreds of opportunities to taste fantastic international fare. Although it’s a relatively small city, the gastronomy scene in Playa is an impressive one!
From tacos to tartars, tender Argentinian steaks to catches of the day straight from the Caribbean Sea, visitors are often surprised and delighted at the number of delicious restaurant options. With Playa’s large expat, Italian and French communities, along with nationals from every corner of Mexico, the colorful mix of cultures means a sumptuous array of cuisine selections.
Tip: When dining out, on occasion, there can be a ‘discrepancy’ in the bill. When you receive the bill, double check that the total number of cervezas reflects the actual number that was consumed. Also, confirm that the PROPINA (tip)has not already been added on.
Back in the day, grocery shopping could be a frustrating experience in Playa del Carmen. If you were making lasagna for example, it took a full morning and three different stores to find all the ingredients! Nowadays, the grocery stores are stocked full of typical products and specialty or imported items.
For superstores, the downtown Walmart location on 30th Avenue & Calle 8 is a convenient location. Additional supermarkets include Soriana in the Centro Maya Mall (Federal Highway at the south end of the city,) Mega Soriana (30th Avenue & Constituyentes) and Chedraui (along the highway a block south of Benito Juarez.) One of the most popular markets for produce and specialty items is DAC (30th Avenue between Constituyentes & Calle 20).
Tip: For fresh herbs like basil or dill that can be hard to find at the main grocery stores, ask the clerks at DAC to retrieve some from their back cooler for you.
Note that Wednesdays are the busiest day (longest check-out lines) of the week. Alcohol sales usually begin at 9am and stores stop selling it early on Sundays (2-4pm) due to the liquor laws. For packing your groceries, the clerks appreciate tips. A minimum of $1 peso per bag is standard.
Helpful Apps When Visiting Playa del Carmen
Even if ‘cerveza’ and ‘hola’ are the only two words you know in Spanish, that will get you by just fine in Playa del Carmen. Since it is a world class leisure destination, you can rest assured that most hospitality staff are fluent in English and Spanish.
That being said, when traveling to a foreign country, it’s handy to download a translator app before you arrive. Popular offline translation apps include ITranslate or Google Translate.
Another app recently created by the Government of Quintana Roo is Guest Assist, available at the App Store. Guest Assist provides a wide range of information from Emergency Services to the state’s current COVID-19 protocols, along with consulate locations if you have lost your passport.
Make Friends On Land And At Sea!
Not only is the weather warm in Playa del Carmen, but also, in general, the hospitable nature of the residents matches the warmth of the climate. Most have come to live in paradise, leaving friends and family behind. Therefore, we welcome newcomers and love to share the best this region has to offer!
Tip: One way to get off on the right foot with our ocean friends is by wearing biodegradable sunscreen and repellent. By respecting and protecting the delicate underwater ecosystems, we’ll be able to marvel at and allow marine life to flourish for years to come!
Whatever your workout style, there are an abundance of exercise classes in which to meet like-minded people from yoga to bootcamps to Crossfit. The two most popular gyms in the downtown core are The Gym and Evolve.
The region has an impressive list of championship golf courses which present the perfect platform from which to mingle with fellow golfers. Not only do these golf clubs offer first-rate services, but also tropical backdrops of local wildlife and breathtaking Caribbean vistas.
If you’re the social butterfly type, visit popular expat hangouts such as Zenzi Beach Club or Tiny Tiki Hut. If you want to fully immerse yourself in the incredible nature and local life, try a paddle boarding class with Aloha Paddle Club. Fun, adventure, and unforgettable moments await in Playa del Carmen.