Playa del Carmen and Beaches South – November 2014
We just got back from a 10 day Thanksgiving holiday in Playa del Carmen and Merida. Since Southwest Airlines just opened up flights to Cancun earlier in the year, we were able to cash in around 20k points and fly into the area for free (the second ticket was free with the companion pass). Playa is just a short 1 hour bus ride away from Cancun. We stayed in another Airbnb locale, which was two blocks from the beach, one block from the main drag of 5th Avenue, and was a full apartment complete with kitchen, two beds and bathrooms, laundry area and a small pool. Since Elisa’s sister Nicole and boyfriend Jose joined us on the trip, we were able to save alot of money over a traditional hotel due to the kitchen facilities and extra bedroom. The location was great too, although unfortunately the host was not very communicative.
Playa feels much more local than Cancun, without the all-inclusive properties and is not a single hotel strip but an active and vibrant city. The main drag of 5th avenue is tourist central however, with similar tourist trinkets in every shop, lots of bars and overpriced restaurants, and hawkers on every corner. It’s a fun stroll once or twice, but we quickly learned to avoid it. Fortunately, once you step a street off the main drag, the city becomes much easier to take in.
We learned that the Yucutan was only recently (in the past couple decades) developed for tourism, and that the further south one goes from Cancun, the more laid back and local the destinations are. All the Atlantic beaches (which have the whitest sand and blue-green waters) are in the state of Quintana-Roo, in the eastern side of the Yucutan peninsula. There is a single highway up and down the coast, with a wonderfully efficient system of taxis, buses, and “collectivos” that run non-stop up and down the highway. We especially enjoyed the collectivos, which are the cheapest form of public transport. They are large vans that accommodate 13 persons in seats, but routinely have a couple more passengers standing or sitting in the lap of another. They will pick you up or drop you off seemingly anywhere along the highway, you just have to flag them down. If there are not seats then you stand until someone leaves at a subsequent stop. These vans must be a central American thing because I remember riding them in Costa Rica as well. However, we couldn’t think of seeing them anywhere else in the world. For a few minutes I thought how great it would be to have them in the states, and then I remember that we have laws against stopping on the interstate!
While transportation is cheap, prices everywhere we went were surprisingly high, and not just in the touristy areas. We visited a Walmart in Playa several times, and we found the prices for food and everyday items to be similar to those in the states. Like anywhere else, you also have to be careful with the exchange rate used, since US dollars are accepted in many places (at usually poor rates).
Utilizing the cheap transport, we took several daytrips to beaches south of Playa, including Tulum (where we saw some quaint ruins and a beautiful white sand beach), and Akumal, where Jose and I went snorkeling in the Akumal Bay National Marine Park and had the pleasure of observing around 10 sea turtles. The equipment rental and guided tour for about 1 hour was well worth it at around $30. The turtles are truly beautiful creatures. They remind me somewhat of cows in the sea – large, slow, and munching away at seagrass for most of the day. Unlike cows though, they each have unique stripes on their shells and carve gracefully through the water. After the snorkeling and walk along the quiet beaches, we stopped at a second bay just north of the turtle bay and found it to be almost devoid of tourists. We had an excellent dinner at the Buena Vida cafe, which came complete with killer views, a pool, hammocks and treehouses for any kiddos..
On another day, we took the 40 minute ferry over to Cozumel, where we rented a car for $60 and drove around the main road loop through the southern half of the island, stopping at a few of the sites. Unfortunately, the weather that day was poor, which may have clouded our impressions of the island. It seemed extra touristy due to the cruise ship terminal and there was overall a lack of interesting sites to make the bumpy ferry ride worth it. Apparently it’s world-class scuba diving though, and on a nice day some of the beach parks – which usually come with beach chairs, a bar and various activities for a fairly cheap entrance fee – would might have been worthwhile.
Since we had a kitchen, we usually only ate out for one meal per day. We enjoyed almost all our meals out as well. One of our favorite restaurants in Playa is El Fogon for tacos and tortas “al pastor” (spiced pork on a gyro style rotisserie).
We also really enjoyed the restaurant aguachiles for its ceviche and fresh fish. Without a doubt, ceviche is a must-have dish while down in the area, as everywhere we tried them they were fresh and delicious.
Overall Impression – we still enjoy Playa much more than Cancun, but if we come back to the area we may stay further south along the coast where it’s less touristy and more laid-back. With the beautiful beaches, authentic mexican culture and food, and loads of activities within an hour’s drive – such as cenotes, beaches, adventure parks, snorkeling, diving, etc – it’s an awesome area for a vacation.
More pictures from our trip: