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All around Playa – the city and beyond

Before we get to a sampling of the many unique things to do in Greater Playa, let’s have simple orientation to the city

Editor’s note: Bruce Bouchard, former executive director of The Paramount Theatre, and his partner Maureen McKenna Padula have traveled from Rutland to the Riviera Maya for the past three years. This series covers adventures, food, and testimonials from Vermont to the tropics.

Like New York City or Toronto, Playa is a grid: north/south Avenues (avenidas) increase by five moving from the beach inland — 5, 10, 15, and so on. East/west streets (calles) increase by two moving from south to north — 2, 4, 6, and so on. It is an easy city to manage and to get quickly oriented. It is a walking city, the full run of the commercial area of Fifth Avenue (“The Fifth”) can be done in a leisurely hour. (If you want to include occasional stops to investigate the many superb retail stores and brand outlets, better give it two hours.) A larger walking tour in Centro Playa is inside Constituyente to the north, Avenida Benito Juarez to the south, Fifth Avenue to the east and Calle 30 to the west. Covering these streets and avenues on foot (with a nice mid-day meal included) is a four hour walking tour — after which you will have had a good orientation to the heart of Playa.

Some people come to Playa for the sea (el mar) some come for the climate, some come for the culture, some come to learn of the mysteries of the Mayan civilization, and visit some of the important archeological wonders of the western hemisphere. Many others just come to escape the brutal cold of the winter — especially in Canada and the northern regions of the U.S.

For whatever reason people are compelled to visit the “northeast” of Mexico, they find a wide variety of things to do, and places to go inside the Playa boundaries and out (day trips). Along the way they also get visual splendor, and as much of the glorious Caribbean Sea as they wish.


Submitted
Map of Centre ville Playa del Carmen downtown streets. “The Fifth” is the regions most popular walking/shopping avenue.

 

About the sea

We have friends and acquaintances who don’t go near the sea, due to “fear of the critters,” I kid you not. While there is a greater probability of getting shot on 5th Avenue by Donald Trump than getting attacked by “The Critters” in the sea, there is no dissuading the wary whatsoever…I have tried and have failed miserably. Most of these folks stay in condominiums with pools.

Then there are those who can’t seem to get enough of swimming, snorkeling, diving (divers find heaven here, both in many ocean locations and in the cenotes), greeting the sunrises and sunsets with, yep, more swimming. On most days the Caribbean Sea is calm, with very little wave activity but some days there can be 3- or 4-foot waves that can pack a real punch.

But even for those skittish of the sea, there is always the splendor of just going down to the sand (early or late in the day), taking a seat and watching the glory of the Caribbean skies…always moving, always changing, cloud formations straight from a Turner painting and, in addition, opening your ears to the perpetual speaking of Mother Ocean, sometimes a sensual low whisper, and sometimes like Lear railing at the gods in the storm: She shouts, roars, and admonishes. 

And now, specifics about the beaches (las playas). (Full disclosure: I grew up surfing in southern California, worshiping Mother Ocean.) There are a wide variety of options here. Toward the north of Centro Playa (running from the north side of the Constituyente Pier) there are wider sand beaches most recognizable to Americans. In central Playa (running from the south side of Constituyentes pier down to 4th) are shorter rocky beaches, more akin to the Mediterranean or the Aegean than to the wider beaches to the north. From Calle 4 down to the main ferry pier, beaches widen again and there are no rocks. This area is what we call the “Proletariat beach” or the beach of the people. On Sundays (Mexicans work six days a week) you will find large numbers of families loving each other and every second of their time on the beach. Also, quality soccer is played on the sand here. Beyond the futbol are two horseshoe pits, where the French Canadians play an intense brand of “shoes.” It’s all worth a stop, look and listen. But take care…I hate to generalize, but they don’t much like us Americans and can be very abrasive.

Immediately south of the Playa town (just south of the main ferry pier) is a luxury area called PlayaCar, which has both resorts and also, many private high-end houses and condominiums.  Beach access is available just past the pier and you can walk for miles on the beach in PlayaCar. 

Resorts vs. rentals

If resorts are your thing, you have many to choose from.  We like being right in the thick of things. If you are the same way, then stick with Airbnb, Vrbo or any of the rental booking sites to find an apartment/condo unit that best serves your needs. Just speaking for us, the resort option doesn’t work; you go in, all your needs are met for your stay and you return home. This has precious little to do with Mexico or a desire to mingle with or immerse in the culture; though we fully understand that for families with children or couples who work very hard 50 weeks per year the best solution is “all inclusive resorts.” 


Courtesy Bruce Bouchard
Maureen McKenna Padula (left) and Bruce Bouchard (right) enjoy the beach.

 

Beyond the beaches (Mayan ruins)

The Mayan ruins are some of the most impressive and three sites can each be visited in a single day trip from Playa: Coba, Chichen Itza, and Tulum. The latter two feature the most visited and well photographed of all the Mayan Ruins. Chichen Itza on the left and Tulum on the right.
The Mayan cities, full of magnificent stone and pyramids, were primarily ceremonial centers. The Maya are famed for their impressive knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, which were integral to their religious rituals. They are also known for the practice of human sacrifice, which was a means of appeasing and nourishing the gods. 

The final Mayan location is Coba, a bit of a trek from Tulum but doable in a day. Coba, sits northwest of Tulum and was essentially the capital of the Mexican portion of the Mayan civilization, being central to Chichen Itza to the north and Tulum to the south. All trade from the north and to the south/southeast moved through Coba, Note: if visiting Coba, you might want to do some research in order to find a compelling guide, the staff guides were less than stellar, mumbling through a rote presentation and constant use of a decades old flipbook. It was disappointing, as I came prepared with many questions and had mad desire for some inside scoop on the more ritualized side of the culture. Remember: it was an honor to lose at fire-ball soccer and get eaten!! 

Amusement/ecological parks

Two large-scale recreational parks lie just south of Playa. The closest is X-caret, and a bit farther south is Xel-ha (Zell-Ha). X-Caret is more an ecological journey (aviaries, animal compounds, a floating journey through underground waterways, dioramas, etc.). There are also beaches and lagoons to enjoy between the eco-walks. Xel-Ha has aquatic elements married to elements of ecology: water floats down rivers, snorkeling, gardens, caves, a “cliff of courage,” and impressively long zip-lines make this a great destination for children and teens. We thoroughly enjoyed our time at X-Caret, which concludes with a spectacular performance in the massive 4,500 seat, semi-outdoor theatre, chronicling the history of the Mayan Civilization, and ending in song and dance of today. It is truly a fantastic performance at the end of a rich, educational and participatory experience.

Sports, entertainment, education

Beyond swimming in the sea or the hotel pools, enjoying the numerous cuisines morning, noon or night, or strolling “The Fifth” there are wonderful additional options:

Professional soccer: Inter-Playa del Carmen Club is a superb brand of soccer (futbol) and is played in a large outdoor stadium on 34th street. This second division club (equal to our AAA-baseball) has won two championships in the past four years. The games are free and we loved the avid fans, the continuous noise of the drums and the futbol-mad vibe. In the upcoming World Cup U.S., Mexico and Canada co-host and will all play in the tournament.

Outdoor Music Festivals: Mexican culture is inextricable from live music. Festivals large and small proliferate and take place primarily in the spacious central square of Playa. We just had a four-day festival, which was celebrated alongside Mardi Gras, called Carnival 2024. Four evenings featured rock, traditional, hip hop and a closing night from Sonora Santanera, who crushed it with a Cuban blues- and soul-infused set that even had grandma and grandpa up and dancing. Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead – Mexico’s Halloween on Nov. 2) features a grand parade and is perhaps the largest four-day celebration of the year. In short, the Mexicans will open their arms to any opportunity to party, sing and dance and offer up parades.


Courtesy Bruce Bouchard
A silhouette of Bouchard by the seas.

 

Cirque du Soleil Theater in Vidanta Riviera Maya. Yes, the Cirque machine has set down in a huge resort north of Playa. The show called “JOYA!”,  is performed in a theatre built for this very occasion. We saw it in 2023 and while aerial athleticism is breathtaking as always, the concept has sagged a bit. Someone convinced the Cirque organization to center the piece on a story…some crazy search for a book detailing the future of mankind. It is garbled at best and confusing but, not to worry, spectacular Cirque high wire and thrills on the ground will grab you and shake you.

Coco Bongo is located in the heart of Playa on 12th and 10th will make you feel high voltage power while you are surprised with acrobats flying across the room and exciting tributes to the great figures of music (Michael Jackson, Queen, The Beatles, etc), plus a reenactment of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival. A place to dance, be amazed and to be part of the show.

Two smaller attractions

Museo Frida Kahlo Playa is a beautifully curated jewel of a museum. It’s a must for art enthusiasts. It details the life, loves and torments in vintage pictures and documents and there is a brilliant collage of some of her more controversial works. While the jury is out on (and rages about) the importance of Kahlo (beyond her much publicized marriage to Diego Rivera), she remains Mexico’s most storied female painter and her image is ubiquitous in Mexico.

3-D Museum of Wonders (very near the Kahlo) is an interactive museum that starts out as amazing images, that soon morphs into irresistible opportunities to ‘jump into the art’ and become active parts of the illusions.

It is high-end, wonderfully produced and presented, a one of a kind interactive entertainment experience. For all ages and all segments.

‘Hawkers’

So, in conclusion, whatever it is that you seek to do when you travel, you will find plenty here.  One little snippet to end: as you walk Fifth Avenue, you will encounter many “hawkers,” owners and employees trying to engage you to look at, engage with (and of course buy) their food or wares. A few samples:

“Mister, Mister, Amigo… you can quit therapy tomorrow – all you need to do is drink tequila” or “Happier marriage, more children with tequilla” or “Don’t be wimp, drink tequilla!”

Alternatively: “Amigo, Amigo, remember me from the bus, I remember YOU!! Step inside: souvenirs for one and all” or “Hey lady, lady, Amiga… you are a woman of taste, I can tell by your jewelry. We have the best pure silver in all of Mexico to compliment those fine accessories.”

You don’t need to be rude to these people, they are just trying to earn a living. Consider it part of the performance art of Fifth Avenue. It is best to memorize and say, quietly — with a smile: “No, gracias, Amigo.”

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