For some weird reason in the past couple weeks I’ve literally had 8 friends tell me they are going to Playa, and asked for advice. I started typing this in an email to one of those lucky peeps but now figure I’d post it. Haven’t had much time for creative thinking with the crazy work load, but hopefully this is helpful for someone.
Disclaimer: I haven’t been down to Playa in a couple years, but the main point I hope to convey is the general feeling of cool relaxation there. Its one of those fantastic places that (thanks to tourism) combines friendly Mexican culture with the natural beauty of the Yucatan, and a dash of European chic. First off, if you’re looking for an all-inclusive kind of thing, thats all you. There are plentiful on the stretch of Rt. 307 between Cancun and Playa, and I’m sure they are fine. You’re bound to get an easy-peezy cruise ship experience. ”Free” drinks and generic food at your beck and call, allow one to laze around the pool and gorge while getting no context of their arresting location.
First step, book your hotel. I strongly encourage staying near or on Avenida 5 (la Quinta) in downtown Playa. Yes this is the tourist epicenter, and yes there will be tons of sunburnt white people with shitty cornrows by day, but usually by the time the cruise ships pull out it is more of a local, european, tropical party zone. Sadly my favorite spot Basicó is now closed, but if you’re looking for a fancy hotel experience try out Deseo; part of the same design hotel group. In all honesty, most of the times I’ve gone I just show up in town, and find which ever middle grade hotel has vacancy, and check in there. For $50-$100 you’ll get a cozy bed, usually AC and often a pool/beach lounge access. One of the places I’d like to crash is Hotel Kinbe. My theory is always skimp on the hotel because I really only sleep there, but either way staying near la Quinta will position you in the heart of the nightlife, easy access to the beach, and close to the best restaurants. I swear those fatties from the cruise ship will go away when their short time at port comes to an end.
Next up transpo. You’ll fly into Cancun, and assuming you’ll skip Cancun proper (although also awesome if you know what you’re looking for) you’ll need to travel the 40 minutes south to Playa. Renting a car would be a great idea. The 307 is a totally smooth, modern highway that covers you all the way from Cancun to Playa, then to Tulum and eventually the Belize border. Having a car makes you freer to explore the region, but if you don’t want to do that there is plenty of tour companies and infrastructure in town to get you around. (***If you do rent a car “Topes” means speed bumps, so if you see that sign SLOW DOWN)
If you want to remain car-less, a taxi will take 30-45 minutes from CUN and cost $60-$70. Same as from my apartment to JFK so still not that big of a deal. Probably best to have a decent idea of where you’re hotel is to help the driver find it, especially if it is one of those smaller businesses (or nutt up and just show up to find a place!). You’ll be fine if you look at a map before hand. Tell the driver to go to Playa and at least have a cross street to give him. You can’t blame the driver if you ask him to take you to Hotel Azul or whatever and he doesn’t know how to get you door to door. Its probably not a scam, its like you hoping in a cab at LAX and asking the driver to take you to Joe’s house.
Cheapest option is taking the bus. There’s also a colectivo which will be a little van that takes a handful of people to whichever hotels they are staying at, but for some reason these annoy me. If you like the SuperShuttle to the airport, grab a colectivo. For me I’d rather take the bus. ADO is comfy, air conditioned, cheap and direct. For $7 you get straight from CUN to downtown Playa on La Quinta and Avenida Juarez. If you’ve heeded my advice and are staying downtown it’s a pretty short walk down Avenida 5 to the center of town. Don’t let the hawkers selling their wares bother you. They are used to dumb cruisers. Be friendly, but let them know you don’t want their shit (unless you do). Maybe they have a recommendation for a dinner spot a “secret” beach nook, or can hook you up with a guy that has a boat to rent.
Alright you’re checked in, and ready to go. Depending on your length of stay, and what you’re looking for, do this stuff.
Walk around. Day one, check out your block, scan for the essentials. For me it’s beer store, coffee shop and food option. Take a bit to decompress, figure out your surroundings and ease into the lifestyle. Head home, take a shower and get dressed in your finest Playa-wear.
Go to Diablito Cha Cha Cha. Open air, and in the center for nightlife in Playa. To this day I dream of the Brochetas de Robalo. Possibly the best grilled sea bass I’ve ever had anywhere.
First night, enjoy the party in Playa. If you start with dinner at Diablito you’re in prime locale to start the night. My first night there my friend Aida told me there was a tradition to visit Las Siete Casas de La Playa. The goal is seven joints in one night. Pretty sure we made this “tradition” up, but I try to do it every time I’m back. The circuit always starts with La Mezcalinna across the way from Diablito. I had never heard of mezcal when I first went there in ’09, but now it seems the OG Mexican spirit is infiltrating into the US “artisanal” liquor scene. It’s a good, loud “dive bar” to do some fruit infused shots of mezcal, and start the night wrong (in the best of ways). After that you have a dozen beach bars and clubs bumping house music to drink, socialize and groove to on the same block. Traditionally (according to us) you end at La Santanera. Although my memory is usually hindered by alcoholic agave by-products by the time I get there, I can confidently say La Santanera is one of my favorite clubs on earth. If you go to Playa, just check it out. Hopefully it’s late night but either way if you make it, do a tequila shot in honor of Malverde. If you’ve never heard of him he’s like the Robin Hood of Mexico, and my personal patron saint. Also the same owner/vibe as Diablito Cha Cha Cha, aka campy perfection.
Next day you want breakie. This is the spot “%100 Natural”. Pronounced “Cien por ciento Nat-tu-ral”. Yes its a chain, but goddamn it’s levitated me out of hungover terribleness on multiple occasions. Chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, whatever. All “na-tu-ral”. This place bridges the gap for us US folks and traditional Mexican on breakfast. Its on la Quinta and offers all sorts of healthy brunchy items as well as fresh juice and/or beers depending on you personal vision for the trip. If you stay at Deseo its a couple blocks to the left. A life saver for sure.
Ok so, this is the cross roads. If your goal for vacation is to chilax, rinse and repeat; this is formula so you’re good. If after a couple days you get sick of the Playa party stomping grounds, check out Cozumel. La Isla famed by Beach Boys and Jacque Cousteau is just a ferry away. This is just my experience, but unless you’ve rented a car and/or are a serious diver a quick glance at Cozumel is all it takes, honestly didn’t gain much for being in the main port.
It’s easy to get out of town and see some sights from Playa. Just ask the front desk peeps at whatever hotel you choose. I never knew how obsessed I was with Mayan ruins until I started seeing them. Please see Chichen Itza and the Tulum ruins. Wonder about the power of our indigenous people, and take in their massive edifices. If Playa is too much of a bustling tourist destination, go to Puerto Morelos; just 20 minutes up the road. If you have a car I’ll tell you how to get there. Easy Money. Moral of the story is, eventually get out of Playa and see some amazing spots.
Anyone who knows me will attest to my love and advocacy for Mexico. Still think it’s the best country to visit, especially for us gringos up north. The Yucatan/Riviera Maya has a special place in my heart, and I’ve spent some of my happiest moments in Playa del Carmen.
Enjoy your trip, wish I could come.