The once sleepy village of Playa del Carmen doubled twice in population in the last few years, mainly due to Europeans who discovered the alabaster-white beaches, gentle surf, coral reefs and slow lifestyle were the equal of the more expensive island of Cozumel just across the straits. Playa's dock is the pier for the 'people ferry' to Cozumel, so it's only a short trip over to snorkel or dive on Cozumel's incredible coral reefs.
The strong foriegn influence has created a unique vagabond traveler ambiance. Numerous outrageously delicious restaurants provide sustenance and several foreign-owned hotels raise the standards of service to exacting levels. Combine that with a relaxed Mexican-Caribbean feeling and a sprinkling of American free- spirits and you've got Playa. It's definitely not the place to 'get away,' but it is a place to enjoy marvelous beaches by day and a lively nightlife in the evening. The mix of backpackers, archeological buffs and New Age sun worshippers makes Playa very interesting and worth some time.
To get to Playa, 68 km (42 miles) south of Cancun, take a bus from the station downtown (about 1 1/2 hours). If you're in the hotel zone, you could negotiate a fare with a Cancun taxi driver to scoot you down.
The main road into town, Av. Juarez or Av. Principal, depending on whom you ask, leads you right to the ferry dock and the pedestrian-only 5th Avenue, running perpendicular to the beach. It boasts many hotels, stores and restaurants. The bus station is right there at Av. 5 and Juarez and is a hub for further journeys down to Tulum, Chetumal and Belize. Many hotels are within easy walking distance from the bus and the street in front of the station is full of men on large yellow tricycles, who will ride you and/or your luggage cheaply to your hotel in a Mexican version of a rickshaw. If your hotel isn't close or you have to go on the back streets of Playa, get a cab right there. In 1994, in response to the growing popularity of the town, the streets were torn up for sewer and water lines. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough money left to repave them. Consequently, many of the new streets look as if the American Air Force has been using them as target practice with 500 lb smart bombs. The water-filled potholes in the unpaved roads outside of the oldest part of town make traffic crawl and require zig-zagging to the max.
A stroll on the beach leads to Playa's attractive lighthouse (faro), where you can climb its exterior circular cement staircase to the top. The view is excellent and provides a great photo op.
The post office is three blocks back from the beach on Av. Principal, with the police station (9/87-3-02-91) right next door and the Centro de Salud Medical Center across the street. You'll find Tourism information on Av. 5 near the central plaza. Several hotels rent bicycles, but get a mountain bike to dodge the water-filled cenote-like potholes and sandy streets.
The majority of the banks are located on Av. Juarez, most have an ATM. (ATMs disperse mexican pesos). Recently Banamex opened another branch on the corner of Ave. 10 and Calle 12, also boasting an ATM. Check or ask around as new banks and cash machines are popping up daily. There are several Money Exchanges (Casa de Cambios) located in Playa, so exchanging money should not be a problem. Exchange rate can vary daily and from place to place. Most shops and restaurants will accept american dollars.
There are plenty of 'minisupers' (corner grocery stores) and fruit shops located in Playa, as well as a few 'large' supermarkets (Super San Francisco being the most popular due to its location on 30th). Some supermarkets also accept credit/debit cards.
The ferry to Cozumel has a schedule that changes constantly. If you're going over, just ask about times at any of the ticket booths scattered around the plaza. Try to get a ticket on the WJ Mexico, a fast waterjet (25 minutes). The Xel-H or Cozumelero takes 45 minutes.
For shopping, the stores of Playa's Av. 5 and surrounding sidestreets offer an eclectic assortment of hand-made pottery, arts and crafts both local and from all over Mexico, gifts and New Age paraphernalia.
Most of Playa's activities involve the water - the beaches are fabulous for swimming, snorkeling, or diving. There are numerous dive shops around. Try the Tank Ha (Ha means water in Mayan) dive shop at the Maya Bric Hotel. The Abyss Dive Shop at the Blue Parrot Inn - Calle 12 North on the Beach offers a variety of dives geared to meet each divers needs: from beginners to experts.
Golf is available in Playacar on an 18-hole course designed by Robert Von Hagge. Beachcombers could hike north and make a whole day of it, relaxing in one or two beachside restaurants along the way. Wear a hat and much sunscreen.