When we first traveled to Playa del Carmen back in 2003 on our honeymoon, I remember walking along 5th Avenue, the main cobblestone street where the majority of the action took place. There were folk dancers dressed in white, the men in cowboy hats and the ladies in wide, embroidered skirts performing on wooden platforms. Neighborhood pubs with swings around the bar, and restaurants built with massive trees standing in their centers left me awestruck.
The city still possesses that same simplistic and magical air, one that draws millions of visitors from near and far each year. However, Playa del Carmen has blossomed significantly and is one of Mexico’s fastest growing cities. For this reason, decisions like choosing from its hundreds of restaurants can be overwhelming, on top of the questions and concerns that arise when traveling to a foreign country.
In this article, we have compiled a list of answers to the frequently asked questions we receive from travelers who are new to Playa del Carmen. It’s an extensive list, but I assure you, once you spend a couple of days in the city, it is still small enough that you get your bearings quite easily. For those travelers who prefer to go with an agenda more so than on a whim, hopefully these suggestions and tips will help with the pre-planning!
Where is Playa del Carmen?
Because it is located in the middle of this world-renowned stretch of white-sand 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. This laid-back seaside city sits along the picturesque Caribbean Sea.
Tip: Once you arrive at the Cancun Airport and go through customs and immigration, you will receive your tourist card. 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 principle currency is the Mexican Peso, but US dollars are widely accepted at grocery and retail stores, restaurants and gas stations. Many properties for rent and for sale are listed in US as well.
To exchange your money, there are several conveniently located ‘casas de cambio’ around town. These exchange houses sell US, Canadian dollars, and Euros.
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. However, it is possible to exchange your money at the front desk of most hotels, but be aware that they tend to offer a poor exchange rate.
Tip For the best rates, we suggest buying Mexican pesos from your local bank beforehand if possible.
Navigating The City
As mentioned above, Playa del Carmen is still small enough that you can get around without a car. 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.
There are a few main streets to remember:
- 5th Avenue or La Quinta in Spanish – Playa del Carmen’s dining, shopping and entertainment district. This famous cobblestone avenue is pedestrian-only and is lined with restaurants, galleries, dive shops, artisan and boutique stores, pubs and cafes.
- Benito Juarez 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, they also go up from 1 but are even numbers – Calle 2, Calle 4, Calle 6 and so on. On 1 sur and the beach is where you will find the Ferry Terminal to Cozumel.
- Calle 12 is where the city’s most popular dance clubs and bars are located. For a taste of Playa del Carmen’s incredible nightlife, where top DJs in the region gather, salsa-lovers congregate, and vegas-style shows dazzle, you need to check out this street’s sizzling vibe!
- Constituyentes is the main drag between Calle 16 and 20. There is beach access at the end of this street and it is where you’ll find Quinta Alegra (a beautiful open air mall) on 5th. There are many businesses on this street including grocery stores, bakeries, a Scotia Bank (and HSBC near Mega grocery store on 30th) a Subway, and barbershops to name just a few.
- CTM is in between Calle 44 and 48. This is the newly developed north end of 5th Avenue and offers public beach access. There are many little markets for fresh fruit and fresh juices along this street. You’ll also find bakeries, spas, restaurants, convenience stores and many other businesses for your household needs.
- Avenida 115 – If you go on CTM from Playa’s downtown core and head west across the highway, you’ll come to 115th Avenue and one of the city’s main malls, Plaza Las Americas. There is a large grocery store (Chedraui), retail stores for clothes, shoes, and accessories, a cinema (Cinepolis where adult movies are in English with Spanish subtitles and animated films are dubbed in Spansih,) a furniture store and a kids indoor fun place (Chiquilandia.)
Also along 115, you can find plumbing stores, the city’s second Walmart location, a cultural center (Centro Cultural behind Radio Shack,) many restaurants and the Municipal Transit building (in case you ever have to pay a parking ticket!)
- Careterra Federal (the 307 Highway) – 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 Office Max and Office Depot, CostaMed and Hospiten hospitals, pediatric centers, a stretch of furniture stores at the entrance of Playa del Carmen, Centro Maya (the second main shopping mall) a movie theatre, the Telcel (cellphone provider) office, Soriana grocery store and more. 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.
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 biking 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.
Car rentals are often an option if you want to see more of the area. It is convenient to have your own vehicle if you plan on a road trip and wish to make several stops along the way. There are numerous companies operating in the city and at the airport. We suggest always purchasing insurance and be sure to take photos of the car before you drive away from the rental agency.
Traffic lights work differently than they do in other areas of North America. You can turn left on a green since there is no oncoming traffic. 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 Estacionmiento.) The rules of the road are basically the same as anywhere else nowadays. It is illegal to drink and drive, to not wear your seat belt and to talk on your cellphone while driving.
Tip: At the gas station, always check to make sure the gas attendent starts the pump at $0.00. Keep your money until the end, once the attendent has replaced the pump and states the amount. This will help you to avoid gas pump scams. Leaving $10 pesos or about a buck is customary as a tip for service.
The ADO bus system is a reliable and cost-effective method by which to get to and from the airpoirt, as well as to many of the attractions in neighboring towns such as Puerto Morelos or Tulum (to see ancient Mayan ruins.) The buses are airconditioned and clean, some have bathrooms for longer trips.
There are two stations in the city, the main one is on Benito Juarez and 5th Avenue, the other on 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 to the airport.
Colectivos are one of the most econonmical ways to get around town and also conveniently run along the 307 throughout the Mayan Riviera. For under $50 pesos ($3 USD), you can travel in one of these handy van taxis to swim with turtles in Akumal Bay, take a cooking class at the Little Mexican Cooking School in Puerto Morelos, or take a dip in one of the many cenotes (stunning limestone sink holes) located along the highway.
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 when you board where you would like to get off.
Taxis are readily available, but 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 are a wealth of information if you are looking for the best taco joints in town for example.
Private van services are a great option if you want to go on a road trip with a group of people. Most drivers can offer different schedules and routes or are flexible and allow you to completely customize your own itinerary.
Playa del Carmen receives on average 300 days of sunshine a year, which makes for many unforgettable beach days! No typical four seasons here! We just have warm, hot and melting point!
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. Those turquoise ocean waters, glistening swimming pools, and cool cenotes are even more inviting during the extra warm summer months!
After living here for a few months, you eventually become climatized to the higher temperatures and humidity. But if you can’t handle the heat, we recommend taking advantage of Playa’s ‘Winter’ season.
Tip: Packing for this climate is fairly simple and your clothing necesities shouldn’t take up much space in your suitcase. Think cool! Light, airy sundresses, cotton shirts, open toe sandals, wedges (stilettos + cobblestone streets = twisted ankles,) 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 point of Mexico, the colorful mix of cultures means a sumptuous array of cuisine from around the world!
Tip: When dining out, on occasion, there is 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 or tip has not already been added on.
Just a few years ago, 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 international items.
For superstores, there are 2 Walmart locations (one on 30th Avenue & Calle 8, the other on 115th Avenue & Colosio,) Soriana in the Centro Maya Mall (Federal Highway at the south end of the city,) Mega (30th Avenue & Constituyentes) and Chedraui (along the highway one 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 and they will retrieve some from their back cooler for you.
A couple things to keep in mind, Wednesdays are the busiest day (longest check-out lines) of the week. Just because the store is open, does not mean they will sell you alcohol. Usually, you cannot buy booze before 9am and the stores stop selling it early on Sundays (2-4pm) due to the liquor laws. For packing your groceries, the clerks appreciate tips. $1 peso per bag is standard.
Make Friends On Land And At Sea!
Not only is the weather warm in Playa del Carmen, but the people are very sociable and hospitable as well. Most of us come to live in paradise, leaving friends and family behind. Therefore, we are open and welcoming to 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 to please wear all-natural or biodegradeable sunscreens and repellants. By respecting and protecting the delicate underwater ecosystems, we will be able to swim amongst the amazing marine life that dwell within them for many more years to come!
Whatever your workout style may be, 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 (1st Avenue between Constituyentes and Calle 16) and Evolve (Calle 24 between 5 and 10th Avenue.)
The region has dozens of championship golf courses which present the perfect platform from which to strike up interesting conversations with fellow golfers. The tropical settings are breathtaking as are the ocean vistas on some of these pristine courses.
There are meetup groups, seminars and spiritual retreats happening every month. Also, Bric Vacation Rentals hosts a Happy Hour (and a half) most Fridays from 4:30 – 6pm at our office located on Calle 38 near the OXXO at the beach. It is a great opportunity to get to know other guests and owners and to mingle with Bric representatives. If you are new to Playa, it would be our pleasure to answer any questions you may have!
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.