Toss aside the itinerary, skip the tour buses, and keep your ears, eyes, and options open. The best way to explore sunny Playa del Carmen is to see the city through the eyes of its local inhabitants. Playa del Carmen, or “Playa” as the locals call it, may be the largest and fastest-growing resort town on the Riviera Maya, and it’s a city that reveals her charms at a slow and leisurely pace.
Stroll Along Avenida Quinta
Located on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula just a 52 km drive from popular Cancún, Playa del Carmen offers a low-key alternative to visitors weary of Cancún’s crowds and jam-packed resorts. Put on some comfy sandals and a broad-brimmed hat and take at least one stroll down “La Quinta,” or 5th Avenue. The pedestrian-only street will be crowded with tourists, but the 20-block-long thoroughfare boasts an array of restaurants, bars, and shops favoured by locals as well. La Quinta runs parallel to the beach, so you can scope out the best places to park your umbrella on the powder-soft sand.
Chow Down Like a Local
Sampling the local cuisine is one of the best things about experiencing Playa like a local, but it can be challenging to find authentic dishes. To experience indigenous Mayan cuisine, head to Yaxche near La Quinta on Calle 22 Norte. The restaurant’s chef spent five years living in a Mayan community learning how to master dishes like tikin xic–fish marinated and grilled in a banana leaf, and the Mayan-style tamales called tsotobilchay.
For grilled fare, mix with the residents at the local gem Taqueria El Fogon, located on the corner of Calle 6 and Avenida 30. Load up your plate with tacos al pastor filled with slow-cooked pork or try the arrachera steak.
Go Fishing on the Deep Blue Sea
Once a sleepy fishing village, modern Playa del Carmen makes most of its money off tourism, but you’ll still find locals waiting to take you out to sea on a fishing excursion. Avoid the small, unlicensed panga boats and look for the charter boats moored between Calle 29 and Calle 47. Expect to catch fish like snapper and mahi-mahi. A number of restaurants near the marina will cook your fish for you for a small fee, providing true local flavour.
Explore a Cenote — If You Dare
The Riviera Maya first gained fame among adventuresome travellers as a great place for scuba diving – the region’s Great Maya Reef is the largest coral reef in the northern hemisphere – but today, the region is just as well known for its freshwater diving opportunities. Cenotes are steep inland sinkholes filled with water that often serve as entrances to underwater caves. Many cenotes feature an otherworldly visual effect known as a halocline, which occurs when fresh and sea water mix.
There are many cenotes within easy driving distance of Playa del Carmen. Located around 25 km south of the city, the cenote Chickin-Ha is one locals often recommend. It connects to several other cenotes through underwater passages, and the site boasts well-marked trails and bathroom facilities as well.
Whether gazing in wonder at the play of light and shadow on a cenotes dive or rocking the night away at a beachfront bar, it’s surprisingly easy to experience Playa like a local. All it takes is a willingness to slow down and explore the region with the same easygoing attitude and friendliness as the city’s natives.