First of all - be on vacation! That's what people do best here. The first thing you have to do when you get here is wind down. Relax... kick back. Get in vacation mode. The slow pace of Mexico is even slower here in the Caribbean. Don't feel like you have to do things all the time. Just strolling around town, eating good food and drinking ice cold beers is enough excitement for a part of your vacation, at least. Luckily Mother Nature provided Playa with the best possible set-up for relaxing – the beach! The beach here is truly fantastic. The white soft sand never gets hot, so you won't burn your feet. The clear turquoise Caribbean sea is warm and clear. From the blue sky the Caribbean sun heats up your body and your mind. Sitting in the waves on the edge of the continent is a great way to spend your time here in Playa.
So, the setting alone is a sure recipe for a successful vacation, but admittedly variation is a good thing. Besides, you probably shouldn't be in the sun all the time anyway. Playa and the immediate neighborhood offers a wide variety of things to do. Do check out sports and diving. In this section we will give some tips of things to do that are not sports.
The Yucatan peninsula is unique for its many Mayan ruins. They are all over the place. There actually some in the town of Playa del Carmen and in Playacar. One can be found on Quinta Avenida, between Calles 12 and 14, another one inside the gates of the budget hostel/camping ground La Ruina on Calle 2 by the beach and yet another one in Playacar. These small coastal outposts are hints of the grand scale of the prolific and ancient Maya world. Many of the most amazing sites are near Playa, including Chichén Itzá, Cobá and Tulum. Do try and visit at least one of them. Read more about them in our section of Mundo Maya, where we help you pick the ruin of your choice.
The absolutely unique geology of the Yucatan is an unexpected treat for many visitors. There's more to this area than just beach and sun. Huge cave systems with underground rivers are all over the peninsula. There really aren't any over ground rivers or lakes to speak of in the area due to the topography and geological characteristics of the limestone base rock. In many places the roof of the cave has collapsed, creating a sinkhole and an entrance to the cave. The local name for such a sinkhole is cenote, stemming from the Mayan word dzonot. Learn more about these exceptional natural wonders in our cenotes article.
Strolling along 5th Avenue, La Quinta, is a popular pastime for vacationers and locals alike. Most of the time the street is pedestrian only, with a casual esplanade feeling. Playa's cutest shops and boutiques, offering souvenirs, clothes, handicraft, silver and much more are found here. Open air restaurants creates an over all welcoming ambiance. Stores are usually open 9-10pm with the occasional siesta break thrown in for good measure.
There are a couple of places where you can play pool. One is Atomic Internet Café and Pool Hall on Calle 8, between Avenues 5th and 10th. They have three tables, a nice bar and it's also the good place to check your e-mail.
The aviary Xaman-Ha has many interesting and rare species of birds from the Yucatán Peninsula. It's well worth a visit and maybe your only chance to see tucans and pink flamingos. There is a large 'cageless' habitat where the birds can be observed as if they were in their natural setting. It's a great little outing for the whole family that is close by, easy, and self-paced. Mornings and afternoons are best for bird watching.
We now have a nice air-conditioned three screen cinema in Playa del Carmen, located in Plaza Pelicano on Avenida 10 between Calle 8 and 10. Movies are sub-titled in Spanish, with the exception of kids' movies that are dubbed.
Just across from Playa del Carmen, you can see the island of Cozumel. Although the biggest island in the country, it's small enough to cover as a nice day trip. The town on the island, San Miguel, lacks the charm and personality of Playa, but offers some nice restaurants and generic tourist shopping. Cruise ships stop here almost every day of the week, so prices can be pretty steep. The eating and drinking scene is more focused on the American visitor, like Hard Rock Café and other franchise establishments. What the island really has going for it is the snorkeling and diving. Cozumel has been a diving destination since the 1960's when Jacques Cousteau made the world aware of the incredible reefs of the area. It is easier to dive and snorkel directly off the beach in Cozumel than in Playa. To get around the island you will have to rent transportation (taxi, car or, more commonly, scooter), since there really is no bus service. There are a few small ruins, but none of any real significance. Ferries leave to Cozumel from Playa every hour on the hour (with a couple of exceptions), starting at 5am. Check out the schedule when you get here, as it changes on a regular basis. It is a 30 minute ride and a round trip run for about 15 US dollars. Ferries back to Playa also leave every hour on the hour (again with a few exceptions) and the last one leaves the island at 10pm.
All along the coast there are little communities, empty beaches and cenotes. If you have your own transport, just go explore! Buses and colectivos run up and down the coast constantly; just make sure they make stops. Here are some nice places to visit if you want a change of scenery:
A great place to go snorkeling is Paamul, about 15 minutes south of Playa. Paamul is growing from a camping ground to an all-service laid back beach town. RV's are parked here on a yearly basis and many have their own little fence and satellite dish. There is a dive shop and a couple places to eat.
Puerto Aventuras lies about 20 minutes south of Playa. This planned development has a marina, where you can swim with dolphins or rent a fishing boat. The marina is surrounded by shops and restaurants. Puerto Aventuras also has a 9-hole golf course. There's a free museum, CEDAM (Club de Exploraciones y Deportes Acuáticos de México), which displays items found on shipwrecks along the coast. These waters have sunk many ships over the centuries .
Xpu-Ha, a little further down the highway, is a great beach with a couple of restaurants, rooms and cabañas for rent and a dive shop. It's perfect if you want to elude the crowds, but still want some service. Xpu-Ha has seven separate entrances, each with a make-shift sign (X-1, X-2 etc).
Akumal means "place of turtles" in Mayan. During the summer huge turtles make their way up the beach to lay their eggs. It is important to respect the ecology of their nesting grounds. Resorts and small family hotels share the beaches of Akumal. The little community has a store, some nice beach front restaurants and a couple of dive shops. Private villas and condos are plentiful and usually for rent. Yal Ku lagoon in Akumal offers great snorkeling (entrance fee is charged).
Tulum is the name of the famous ruin on the coast, as well as the actual village - el pueblo. The archaeological site is located a couple of kilometers north of the town of Tulum. Read more about Tulum ruin in our Mundo Maya department. As opposed to Playa, Tulum pueblo isn't on the beach. It is a nice place to have lunch and pick up some snacks for the road, but it isn't actually hugely exciting. A couple kilometers east of town is the amazing beach, with some hotels, cabañas and beach restaurants. This area is called the Hotel Zone. From here you can access the biosphere Sian Kaan.
The biosphere Sian Ka'an is a huge nature reserve, founded in 1986 to protect the unique wildlife in the area. This area of 528,000 hectares (1.3 million acres) represents 10 per cent of the state of Quintana Roo. The peninsula of Yucatan is a young formation, geologically speaking, and Sian Kaan is the youngest part - less than two million years old. The flora and fauna is vast, including impressive marine life. There are coral reefs, mangroves, fresh and salt water lagoons, cenotes, sand dunes and wetlands. Over 100 species of mammals live here, such as deer, possum, peccaries and jaguars. There used to be monkeys, but they disappeared after hurricane Roxanne. An amazing diversity of birds, both permanent and migratory, can be spotted here, including herons, egrets, pelicans and cranes. About 350 species have been counted. Furthermore there are around 30 Mayan sites in the area, including an ancient 24 km long man-made canal, connecting the old trading post Muyil with Boca Paila on the coast.
About halfway to Cancun, or 25 minutes north of Playa, is Puerto Morelos. This slow-paced fishing village has a few seaside restaurants that specialize in fresh seafood. It's a nice little place, with not much to do. The vehicle transporting ferry bound for Cozumel departs from Puerto Morelos. Check the schedule if you plan to cross, as it varies from season to season.
Just before reaching Puerto Morelos there's a Botanical Garden with several habitats of regional and endemic plants, such as the chicle tree (natural rubber). Only a couple of minutes north of Puerto Morelos, you'll find Crococun. This little zoo started out as a breeding station for the Yucatecan crocodile, which is almost extinct (maybe because it tastes like chicken?). Other kinds of crocodiles are also on display, as well as Yucatecan deer, spiders, monkeys, snakes and other regional animals. This is a great place to bring your kids as you're allowed and encouraged to pet the animals - under supervision of course.
Cancun, once a refuge for pirates, is today a pretty big, fast-paced city, catering primarily to the American tourist. The Zona Hotelera is an area with huge all-inclusive hotels, shopping malls and discos. Cancun town is where the locals live, and to be honest, it is not very pretty. The market, Mercado 28, is the best place in the region for deals on Mexican handicrafts. Bartering mandatory. Every spring a well-renowned Jazz Festival is arranged in Cancun.
From Cancun, you can take a ferry to Isla Mujeres. This slow little Caribbean island makes a nice day trip out of Playa, if you start early. It is a good place to go snorkeling and hang out on the beach. There is a national park, El Garrafon, and a small town with some hotels and shopping. The name means the Island of Women, for the statues of the goddess Ixchel that the first conquistadors found there.
Another fun thing to do is spend a day at one of the natural eco parks on the Mayan Riviera; Tres Ríos, Xel-Ha and the biggest one, Xcaret. They all have beautiful natural lagoons, perfect for snorkeling. You can also go horseback riding or float down a river on an inner tube. Xcaret has shows throughout the day and night. The night show is quite spectacular, with a Mayan ball game and a song and dance show with numbers from different parts of Mexico. All three parks are great for kids. Admission varies from 19 to 40 dollars. In Xel-Ha and Xcaret you can also swim with imported Cuban dolphins, for a steep extra charge.
A little further from Playa is Valladolid, a nice colonial town with a different ambience than the more Caribbean Playa del Carmen. It makes a great day trip together with Chichén Itzá.
Another great source on Playa and the coast is LocoGringo.com.