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Playa del Carmen, about 45 minutes from Cancun, is a beach resort on the Mexican Riviera Maya. It is supposed to be what Cancun was like 20 years ago - quaint, friendly, less-touristy. I never made it into the hotel zone at Cancun but if what they say is true, I dread to think what Cancun is like because Playa is essentially Blackpool-meets-Benidorm. It's fab.
I came to Playa to do a month long teacher training course with the intention of staying for a year afterwards. But things don't always work out like you've planned and I left a month later to take up my current job in Mexico City. That said, even with only a month in Playa under my belt, I still stayed twice as long as most British visitors in a single trip.
*** Getting Here ***
Playa is one of the main destinations for tourists arriving by plane in Cancun so there are various options for getting from plane to hotel. Package holidays usually have organised transfers, but you can also take a taxi or a shuttle service. Grayline do shared minibuses that you book when you arrive at the airport, and which set off as soon as they are full. I tried and failed to find the bus stop for the local ADO bus which would have cost $80 pesos so went with Grayline instead which cost $240 pesos. You can also arrive in Playa by ferry from Cozumel or by road from other places in the region if you are touring. There are two bus stations, one on 5th and Juarez and the other on 12th and 20th, from which busses leave to other local towns and to the airport (getting back to Cancun is a lot easier than arriving from there).
Just a note - immigration at Cancun has to be seen to be believed. We landed early but then queued for the longest time to get through, get visas, pick up luggage, have it x-rayed again (um, why? What would Manchester let onboard that Cancun wouldn't allow to enter the country?) All visitors need a tourist card but these are granted automatically. They will ask you how long you want and you can get up to 180 days with little in the way or hassle (or I could). Most people will get 30 days which is sufficient, though if you leave the country (say, to pop to Belize) you have to surrender it and get a new one on the way back. Thus, the borders are crowded with people "renewing" their about-to-expire tourist cards by popping over to a neighbouring country for a few hours.
*** Getting Around ***
Playa is the easiest place to navigate because it runs on an American-style grid layout. The only thing slightly off is the numbering. Avenues run parallel to the sea and go up in 5s, except the first one is Avenue 1, right next to the sea (then 5, 10, 15 etc). Streets run perpendicular to the sea and go in 2s (2,4,6). Avenues are called Avenidas, and streets are called Calles. Most tourists navigate locally based on the Quinta Avenida also known as 5th Avenue. This is the busiest street in Playa, is mainly pedestrianised and is where you find shops, bars, restaurants and tour offices. It can be extremely busy especially in the evening, and people call out to you constantly, often using the annoying "Excuse me" which makes you think you've dropped something or similar, and therefore turn round, at which point they try to lure you in.
*** What to do ***
Playa is not the place you go for a power shop, but there are nonetheless lots of places to buy beachy things - sunglasses and sandals and bikinis and hand-made arty-things to take home and stick on the wall. Most of the shops are on 5th Avenue, which ends in a mini outdoor mall towards the south end. There are 2 excellent supermarkets in Playa for
those who are self-catering any meals - WalMart and Mega are within walking distance of each other between 30th and 35th streets, between Avenues 8 and Constituyentes. They open daily at 7am (even Sunday) and stay open until 12 midnight or 1am. They sell clothes (Mega has a Tesco range, WalMart stocks Asda stuff), homewares and food including fresh bread and deli counters. Everything is ludicrously cheap when compared to the $ or £.
5th Avenue is the busiest restaurant street and therefore prices are higher than down the side roads. Repetition is the order of the day here - they have 3 Starbucks, 3 Haagen Dazs cafes, 2 Ciao Gelatos, etc. They also have Subway, McDonalds, Burger King, my favourite Dairy Queen, as well as "proper" restaurants. La Tortuga on 10th Avenue between 12th and 14th is great for breakfasts that come with free coffee, wifi and attentive staff. Ronaldi's down near the mall does wonderful Italian food, and 100% Natural, a local chain, feeds the more health conscious diners and more with their salads, enchiladas and 4 types of chocolate cake (though sadly no fizzy drinks - chocolate cake is ok, but Coke is evil). Bodeguita del Medio is the only Cuban bar/restaurant in Playa and offers free Salsa classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at about 7.30pm - we went on the invitation of one of our students who also worked there, and though our Salsa-ing leaves a little to be desired, we had a great night.
As you head down 5th Avenue, things get quieter after about 16th Street and you can walk in peace without being accosted every 2 seconds. There are two main strips of beach, one that centres around the lighthouse on 10th Street and another north of the pier starting around 20th street. Both have lifeguard type people on them, though whether they're really there to guard life or just try to sell them trips and jet skis is difficult to determine. We found the beaches her incredibly safe. Most afternoons when we were supposed to be having lunch / a siesta before some lesson planning, we hit the beach instead, and would leave our things unattended on the sand for an hour while we swam in the sea. The beach here is nice but not wonderful - for the really gorgeous sand and crystal water you need to either hop across to Cozumel or Xpu-Ha, or crash one of the private beaches in the beachy bit of Playa, Playacar (not that I would ever even consider doing this of course, but if you would, see the appendix at the end for tips).
5th Avenue is busy by day and truly jammed by night as most of the nightspots are located on or just off it. Night starts quite late here - we went out for drinks one night and as we came home about 10pm most people were only just starting to come out. The restaurants stay open all day to accommodate lunchers and families, but adult parties tend to favour a Spanish timetable when it comes to dining.
Playa does not have much in the way of architecture or museums or other non-beachy things, but the two churches (one on 12th and 15th, the other near Juarez and the sea) are adorable, and the Plaza Ayuntamiento (on 15th between 8th and 10th) has some nice fountains and is a place to relax away from the sea.
*** Trips ***
Playa is a great base for trips to other parts of Riviera Maya. We went to Cozumel twice, catching a ferry over to the island from the port at the south end of 5th Avenue. The ferry costs $120 pesos each way and takes 30 mins. Once there we went to the Uvas beach club which is a heavenly spot on the west coast of the island. Another day we went to Xpuh-Ha which is a 30min bus trip south of Playa and another paradise beach set up. The bus drops you literally at the side of the road and you have to flag down a taxi to take you down to the beach itself. Along the main highway which leads south you can also find various Centoes (fresh-water swimming holes), some dubious themed places offering "adventure" activities and the eco-parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret which are all inclusive set-ups offering snorkelling, river rides, diving and swimming.
The Mayan city of Chichen Itza is a must-see for most visitors. I took a day trip for 450 pesos which was great - as well as a tour of the remains we got roundtrip transportation (it's 3 hours away), a trip to a Cenote, a stop in Valladorid and lunch. Another day I went on the bus to Tulum which is just past Xpuh-Ha and is another set of ruins, unique for being situated right on the beach. Smaller than Chichen Itza but equally crowded, it is a good place to go if you don't fancy a 6 hour round-trip in-land in the heat.
I enjoyed my time in Playa and at the time was sad to leave. However, having been in the Big Smoke (sorry, Smog) for a month now, I'm so glad I got a job here instead. However nice Playa is, it's not "proper" Mexico, just as Benidorm is not "proper" Spain. I struggled to speak Spanish while I was there (a bonus for people who don't speak the language, as everyone does indeed speak English, but kinda a pain at the same time) and now that I've moved on I know I made the right choice. It's a nice place to visit...but you wouldn't want to live there.
The electricity supply in Playa is tempremental, as is the case in much of Mexico. Power cuts are common, as are power-surges. If you take anything electrical (e.g. a laptop) invest in a 80 peso surge protector when you get there - they're stocked with the light bulbs in Mega and WalMart, randomly enough. Even if you don't have a sudden surge, this will save you the alarm of seeing sparks fly every time you plug in a British appliance using an adaptor.
After 4 years of working in the NHS and never, ever being sick, I need a doctor within my first week of Mexico when a mosquito bite goes funny and my leg looks, well, like an obese person's leg. To see a doctor here costs 500 pesos including any prescriptions you need writing, and any follow up. This is the discounted student rate, but I don't think even the proper rate is bad. Mexican Doctor Man recommended antibiotics which I could buy over the counter and Ibuprofen which I needed a prescription for. There's something wrong with that in my mind.
I stayed in a residence belonging to the school (see that Playmobil church in the pic above? That was the view from my window) so didn't check out hotels, but 5th Avenue has a ton of small ones, La Tortuga, again, looks like a nice place to stay, and if you're coming on a package as most people are, Airtours, Thomas Cook, First Choice etc all over selected lodgings in Playacar.
It many resorts, the posh hotels will be clustered together all claiming to have private beaches which they rope off from each other. As a crasher you should
Pictures of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
avoid the complexes at either end of the strip, which border the commoners' public beaches, because these will be the most on guard for trespassers, either intentional crashers or those who have lost their way. No, you need to keep going for the ones 3 or 4 along which they don't expect non-residents to casually stumble across (because you can't casually stumble across something when you have to trek through various hotels' grounds to get to).
2. ARRIVE IN STYLE
You can't walk in through reception, head straight to the beach and expect not to be challenged. Staff on front desks are surprisingly alert when it comes to interlopers. Instead, come at the problem from the side. I like to sidle up, strolling onto the beach from a neighbouring hotel's stretch. If you can, lose some clothes along the way - maybe take off your top (NB this works better if you have already got your swimsuit on underneath). Dangle your flip-flops in one hand. Gaze out to sea. Do not stop to read the signs on the beach - they are never going to say "Private Beach: Crashers Welcome" and you'll look like you've just arrived (which you have, literally). Instead, stride purposefully towards an empty sun bed (see 5, below) and set up shop. Don't rush, but do strip, oil up and get reading as soon as possible so you look like you've been there a while.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO THE BOARD BASIS
Most post hotels are All Inclusive. They can enforce this with an ID card but these days they are more commonly opting for wrist bands which look tacky and have to be worn for the duration of your stay, no matter how much they clash with your outfit. Anyway, the point is that you will stand out a mile if you set up camp on the beach and pull out a sandwich in a bakery bag. You can probably just about get away with a bottle of water, but cans of soft drinks are out since the proper guests will all be sipping watered down fountain stuff in plastic cups (as you would be too, if you'd paid that much in advance for all inclusive meals and drinks).
4. BLEND IN
It's all about the details when it comes to blending in to a private party to which you've not been invited. Look at the towels - does everyone have the same colour? If so, they'll be hotel-provided beach towels, and whipping out your own one will make people look twice. Remember: you don't want people to look twice. If you can, find a beach where everyone's towels happen to match the colour you have with you (fine if you have plain blue, less so if you have a Winnie The Pooh or a Union Jack monstrosity). Check out if people are wearing AI bracelets (see 2, above). If they are, you need to keep one wrist out of sight whenever possible. Try lying on your back with one arm lopped behind your head, or wrapping a t-shirt around your hand in a hip-gangster way.
5. MAKE FRIENDS
A single person in a couples / family resort stands out more than, say, a threesome. It's a weird, slightly disturbing fact, but a fact none the less. You don't literally have to make friends with people on the beach (though if you can, you're even safer) but try taking a sun-lounger next to ones already occupied by a couple or family and you'll blend in with the crowd more than if you're off on your own to the left and everyone else is down by the sea.
6. STEAL, BUT ONLY WITHIN REASON
The sort of hotels that claim to have private beaches tend to cost megabucks. The ones in Playacar start at £100 per person / £200 per room per night, so as a non-guest you really shouldn't steal the pool, or the umbrellas or the other facilities. The beach is something different though - I mean, who can really own a stretch of an otherwise public beach? So it's ok to swim in the sea and lounge on the sand but you have to draw the line somewhere.