If you associate travel with faraway lands and exotic cultures, it can be easy to overlook your neighbors when planning your next big trip. So when my family was planning our last vacation, Playa del Carmen, Mexico, seemed like a good place to start. Turns out you don’t have to be halfway across the globe to feel far away.

Cancun may get more attention, especially during Spring Break season, but its sister city to the south is the real gem of the Riviera Maya.

Here are my recommendations for making the most of your time in Playa:

The Temple of the Lizard King in Tulum. (Photograph by Scott Ingram, Flickr)

The Temple of the Lizard King in Tulum. (Photograph by Scott Ingram, Flickr)

Historic Site: Tulum

You can’t experience the new Riviera Maya without paying tribute to its roots. Get a glimpse of the Maya in one of the last cities they inhabited. The fact that Tulum is the only Maya city built on the coast makes it a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s well worth a visit. The Castillo, which sits on the edge of a limestone cliff, is a highlight, and provides sweeping views of the ruins.

Beachside Bliss: A Massage at Playa del Carmen Beach

Playa del Carmen Beach runs the entire length of the city and serves as its focal point for obvious reasons. Lounging on the sand is relaxing enough, but you’re on vacation, right? Up the indulgence ante by snagging a massage from a walk-up beachside masseur (look for small tents). The location is unbeatable and the price is reasonable (I paid about $25 USD for a 70-minute session).

Ocean Activity: Deep-Sea Fishing

Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular Caribbean activities, but why not try a different brand of high-seas adventure? You’ll find boats just waiting to take folks out on fishing excursions. Captains catch their own bait (sardines) right in front of you on the shore. Once your bucket is full, you’ll be whisked away to deeper waters to catch mahi-mahi, snapper, and even billfish.

Street Scene: La Quinta Avenida

Playa del Carmen overflows with fresh produce and fruits of the sea. (Photograph by David Gordillo, Flickr)

Playa del Carmen overflows with fresh produce and fruits of the sea. (Photograph by David Gordillo, Flickr)

La Quinta Avenida (Spanish for “Fifth Avenue”), conveniently located between the beach and many of the best accommodations, has everything from posh nightclubs to quaint second-floor restaurants. Watch as tourists and locals bump elbows purchasing anything from straw fedoras to expensive tequila. Enjoy a quiet meal and shopping during the day and dancing at night.

Local Attraction: Xcaret Park

If you feel the need to leave your beach chair and get some exercise, Xcaret Park proves an ideal day trip. Offering everything from natural lagoons and cultural performances to swimming with sharks and scuba diving, this “eco theme park” has something for everyone.

Fresh Flavor: Fish Tacos

Fish tacos are ubiquitous — and delicious — in Playa del Carmen. Between the fresh-caught fish and the traditional Mexican sauces, you simply can’t go wrong with this local staple. That said, it can be shockingly difficult to find authentic cuisine. Save some time by checking out the always-busy Yaxche on La Quinta Avenida. Despite its location (close to a Starbucks), the food is 100 percent Maya.

Dream Stay: Mahekal Beach Resort

Paradise found. While there are scads of high-rise hotels in Playa, the Mahekal Beach Resort, a small boutique outfit that boasts beautiful beachfront bungalows and lush tropical landscaping, is ideal for travelers who value authentic experiences. Whether you’re lounging in a hammock on your private deck or under a palapa-style umbrella on the beach, you will feel worlds away from the craziness of La Quinta Avenida, while being close enough to enjoy all the street has to offer.

Erin Block is an editorial assistant at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Instagram and on Twitter @ErinSBlock.

Comments

  1. jen
    http://www.venturists.net
    June 9, 12:00 pm

    I’m also a new fan of Playa. Lots to do, amazing beach, great food. What’s not to love. We took a cooking class here that I’d also recommend. http://bit.ly/1kXaJGX Great fun!!

  2. Abuela12
    TX
    June 5, 8:21 pm

    Playa was a great place, we loved the 5th avenue with all the shops and restaurants, I thought it had more to offer than Cancun. We took a day trip to Cozumel and went on a Snorkel Tour, which was great! We loved the Mayan Riviera and will be back!

  3. Gareth James
    United Kingdom
    April 15, 6:03 am

    I’ve been to this area for years and in love with Tulum, although it has totally losts its hippy feel. For the adventurous I would head down to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere (http://www.tulum.co.uk/activities/sian-kaan-biosphere/) its a really wild place to explore and amazing for people who love nature.

  4. Tourist Love MX
    Monterrey, México
    August 15, 2013, 10:48 am

    I usually travel once or twice a year to Playa del Carmen (one of the pros of living in México and buying with time and on offer season with VivaAerobus VivaAerobus Offers).

    If traveling to Playa del Carmen, you cannot leave without visiting Coba, pyramids that you can climb and they have a great scenary. Really good.

    Another recommendation, try to book you hotel near Playa Mamitas, it’s the best beach around.

    If you are interested in good healthy food, try The Way to Eat near the 5th Ave. and 26th North (I think).

    And at night clubing, CocoBongo is more than that, it’s a Las Vegas Tour since the moment you get in, but please, DO NOT GO DURING THE WEEKEND. You won’t be able to move at all.

    And it’s true, Fish Tacos rule! And the massages by the beach. Love them!

    Xcaret, Xplor and others are good but try going on a different road; Jungle Tours or cruises.

  5. Bonnie
    Merida, Mexico
    April 8, 2013, 3:26 pm

    Great post, Playa is very nice – it’s about 3 and a half hours from where we live, Merida. Merida is a beautiful city to visit and is a great place to visit the fantastic ruins from. I am a Bed & Breakfast owner, love for your readers to visit: http://inkaan.com/our-residence/pool-side-bungalows/

    Keep up the great blogs!

  6. Basil pospolyta
    March 20, 2013, 1:25 pm

    Love this place; even the resort you mentioned; was a bit worried when my wife booked it ( no tv. No telephone, no WIFI) but all worked out!

  7. Martin
    London
    March 20, 2013, 11:56 am

    Playa Del Carmen is amazing! There’s loads to see and do at the Riviera Maya. Tulum is impressive, so is Chichen Itza which can be done in a day trip when leaving early in the morning.
    Here’s a few impressions: http://www.fm1721.net/#!mexico/ctp6

  8. Peggy Coonley/Serendipity Traveler
    Boston
    March 19, 2013, 3:15 pm

    Just returned from Playa del Carmen. Great tips Erin. The Tulum ruins are best early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the crowds. La Quinta Ave is lots of fun and a few blocks off 5th you will find many local small restaurants worth trying. Try the cucumber margarita’s and seviche.

  9. UjENA Swimwear
    Mountain View, California
    March 19, 2013, 2:49 pm

    We Love coming to Playa Del Carmen, we go to this location once a year to shoot our Swimwear line. Such beautiful and elegant scenery we just cant get enough. One day we will have to stay an extra couple of days to see more then just the beach. Thank you so much for sharing : )