Practical guide to the heart of Riviera Maya
From the eyes of a local expert
If by 2020 you haven’t heard about a certain paradisiacal corner located right in the heart of Riviera Maya, known by the name of Playa del Carmen, it’s because you definitely live under a rock. Nowadays it’s one of the most sought-after and busiest destinations in all of Mexico (as well as internationally), which throws its googly eyes at people with all tastes and ages. However, there are those who wonder what lies beyond the promise of a dream vacation in the Caribbean. What’s hidden in the history of a small town that became the desire of many?
It should be noted that I am not a historian, but I’ve been living in this beautiful destination since the beginning of 2001, arriving at the place right on New Year’s celebration. After practically 20 years as its resident, I feel confident enough to call myself a local expert. Taking this into consideration, I am always very pleased to know that everyone who visits us leaves with a happy memory. However, to achieve this, a couple of pro tips from someone who knows the area from head to toe never hurt, but for that, let’s get to know it a little better.
Playa del Carmen, or “Playa” as us locals call it, is a city located in the municipality of Solidaridad in the state of Quintana Roo, on the southeast coast of Mexico and right in the heart of Riviera Maya. Its beaches are drawn by the Caribbean Sea to the East and by the lush Maya jungle to the West.
Anyone who works on the tourism sector will tell you that its position is highly privileged, since it’s close to all the most visited tourist destinations in the state. It will not be difficult for you to find transportation and it won’t take long to reach places such as Cancun, Tulum, Cozumel, Mérida, Isla Mujeres and more.
Explore the area, read: Ideal road trip in the Mexican Caribbean for those traveling as a couple
How to get to Playa del Carmen
Now that you can locate it on a map, you need to know what means of transportation will get you to Playa. Nowadays it’s extremely easy to get there, since you have at your disposal practically all means available.
- Air: Arrive by plane at one of the busiest airports in all of Mexico, the Cancun International Airport, located just a few kilometers from Playa that can be traveled by road.
- Land: Either by bus or car, it is reached through federal highway 307, which is easily accessible.
- Sea: Through cruise ships that arrive at the port of Cozumel, this being one of the favorite stops of the destination’s maritime routes, and then “cross the pond” on a ferry to Playa’s port.
A trip to the past
Many will tell you that the beginnings of Playa were nothing more than a few dirt streets that framed a small fishermen’s settlement. This fact is true, but its true origin dates back many years before, back to pre-Hispanic times.
The area originally used to be inhabited by the ancient Maya civilization. This settlement was known as Xaman Há, a Mayan name that means “water from the North” (although there are those who attribute other meanings to it such as “the black wind of the North water” or “place where the water of the god Xaman emerges”).
No matter how small it was, it was considered an important point of passage for the Mayas who made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Ixchel in Cozumel (formerly known as Cuzamil), from the port of Polé. If this story sounds familiar, you have surely heard about the Sacred Mayan Journey of Xcaret that precisely seeks to recreate this ancient pre-Hispanic tradition.
Discover more about this ancient tradition, read: What is the Sacred Mayan Journey in Xcaret?
What kind of life did the people lead?
Xaman Há was one of the first towns seen by the Spanish fleet of conquerors at the beginning of the 16th century. Despite being a simple port of passage, its few inhabitants were dedicated to fishing and agricultural activities. In addition, its constructions were made of masonry, with wooden and palm platforms. Of course, in modern times, the type of construction has raised its quality, with residential areas of all kinds and even tourist properties for those who visit us in passing.
Although during the time of the Conquest there were intentions to create a Spanish settlement on the coast (even being called Salamanca de Xamanhá), it was not until the colonization that the site received the name of Playa del Carmen in honor to “la Virgen del Carmen” (our Lady of Mount Carmel). This was commemorated with the founding of its chapel (to this day, and after several renovations, it still stands). Today it is known as the Parish of Nuestra Señora del Carmen.
Creating a stable settlement took many years, as the area always ended up being relegated because its land did not present the best attributes to support the needs of the Spanish. In addition to its infertile soil, it lacked gold and silver deposits, so it remained a bit forgotten.
Although if the words “pirates of the Caribbean” ring a bell (Jack Sparrow, who?), it was not very far from reality. Leaving aside the love story dramatic arc, the Caribbean area was heavily traveled by European galleons which carried their new treasures to their homelands. For this reason, they were the favorite prey of many pirates in the area who attacked the coast, even if it did not have many fortunes inland.
The urbanization of Playa del Carmen
The first modern settlement in the area dates back to just the 20th century. In the 80’s there were barely 1,500 inhabitants, we can consider them our “playense” ancestors. In 1996 it had a population of 10,000 inhabitants and by 2003, it grew to 49,000 (already including myself in that count). Tourism development continued to increase this figure to such a degree that in 2010 there were already 159,310 inhabitants, reaching 300,000 by 2017.
Its first residents were settlers who came from other places and began to dedicate themselves to the trades of fisherman, coconut seller and gum extractor. However, the evolution of Playa was not reflected only in its population count, since over time it became one of the cities with the highest exponential growth. Therefore, today it is one of the most important tourist centers in all of Mexico. I remember that when I was little, when I traveled to other parts of the republic, I had to tell kids my age that I lived in Cancun, because nobody had heard of Playa del Carmen. Nowadays, there is no one who does not answer me, “how cool that you get to live in Playa!”, every time I mention it.
What do the Playa locals do?
After such a simple past regarding day-to-day activities, Playa started to have one of the most important tourist economic activities in the country, thus becoming, along with commerce, its main source of income. Today it offers thousands of visitors a very wide series of activities ranging from ecotourism, adventure, beaches and even entertainment.
It is for this reason that many of us are dedicated to the tourism and services sector, because with all the visitors we receive each year, there is a lot of job opportunities. Despite this, don’t go thinking that we have beach offices, our jobs are like any other. Of course! I’m not going to lie to you, every weekend I try to get away to the beach or the nearby cenotes.
Its tourist attractions also enchant us locals
Playa del Carmen is known for having, among its main attractions, amazing natural spaces, both within parks and tours. This is something not only designed for tourists, we also love being able to enjoy such a privilege. In addition, the city has options for shopping such as malls and the famous Fifth Avenue. And who could forget its popular nightlife? Having within reach some of the most fun clubs and bars where the mood and the party are experienced to the fullest.
Perhaps Playa del Carmen is not as traditional as other towns in Mexico. However, it always highlights the ever so cheerful personality, characteristic of the country and its people. This is reflected in the treatment one receives upon arrival, even with its cosmopolitan combination, as well as the festivities it celebrates:
- The carnival (January)
- The festival of “la Virgen del Carmen”, with its respective fair (July)
- The exhibition of the Guelaguetza originally from Oaxaca (April)
- The Riviera Maya Jazz Festival (November)
- Xcaret Life and Death Traditions Festival (October-November)
It’s the perfect place for any type of traveler. From simple backpackers looking for a relaxed and hippie atmosphere, to those looking for maximum comfort and ultra-luxury Mexican tourism.
Iconic places in Playa del Carmen
In addition to the previously mentioned activities, you’re probably still looking for those iconic parts of the city that you cannot leave out on your visit. Every city, be it the peak of tourism or a hidden town, has parks, beaches, monuments and special sites that are important to locals. Hence their attractiveness in the eyes of outsiders and therefore they become a must within your visit. Playa del Carmen is no exception, take note so that you don’t miss out.
- The archaeological zone: It might be small, but it has a very important historical value. Because it’s located within the Playacar Phase 1 residential area, the entrance is not charged, but you must go through a security booth. It won’t take you more than a few minutes to visit.
- Mamita’s Beach: This beach club was founded in the year 2000 with a modest palapa-roofed restaurant. Today it serves as the venue for some of the most important music festivals in the destination. If you are interested in visiting other public beaches, there’s also Shangri La and Phase 1, as well as others further away, for example, Playa Paraíso, Paa Mul or Maroma.
- Xcaret: Awarded as the best park in the world, was founded in 1990. It offers the perfect combination of culture, nature and fun.
- Xaman-ha Aviary: Mexican bird sanctuary with more than two hectares that houses about 200 specimens of 45 different species. It’s a great way to spend a morning in tune with nature.
- The House of Culture and the Theater: Two different venues which main objective is the promotion of culture. Within them, dance and music presentations are exhibited, workshops are offered, as well as pictorial, sculptural and artisan exhibitions.
- Parque la Ceiba: A small refuge in nature where community and environmental activities are highly promoted. In addition to its restaurant, it offers workshops, a movie club, bazaars, and recycling events.
Get to know other iconic sites in Playa and nearby places, read: Landmarks of Cancun and Playa del Carmen
How to move around once you are in Playa?
Knowing the local means of transport will be the best way to get the most out of your visit. It will allow you to know beyond what is in walking distance and will prevent you from taking a wrong turn. You will find different types:
- Urban: buses (trucks and combis), municipal taxis, motorcycle taxis (only in certain neighborhoods) and a bicycle rental App.
- Foreign: ADO bus service to transfer to other cities, as well as buses that also take you to Tulum and Cancun.
- Maritime: round-trip ferries to Cozumel.
After reading me, you have a vision of this beautiful city from the perspective of a simple local. I hope that, if you were not convinced before, now you are sure that your next trip will be to Playa del Carmen. If you have other specific questions, leave them in the comments, we’d love to read you!
Avid reader and creative writer who enjoys sharing what she is passionate about.