Back in the early 1980s, I had some free time on my hands, and I decided to live in Mexico for three months. While browsing through a guidebook, Playa del Carmen jumped out at me as being an undeveloped off-the-beaten path destination.
When I got off the bus from Cancun, I found Playa del Carmen to be a welcoming seaside town with a great beach. At this time, Playa del Carmen’s famed Fifth Avenue was a dirt track where, instead of shoppers, you were more likely to find friendly dog padding alongside you .While Playa del Carmen’s ferry to Cozumel added a bit of hustle and bustle to the atmosphere, this was a definitely a place off the mainstream tourist charts.
At that time, there were only a couple of hotels and a scattering of palapa hut accommodations. By coincidence, I arrived when they were building the Blue Parrot Hotel, which is now one of Playa del Carmen’s iconic structures. I struck up a friendship with the owner and architect and soon found myself booking a few nights in one of their partially completed ground floor rooms. There were no windows and doors, not even a floor, just white sand and open walls. Even so, it was one of the most memorable hotel stays of my life, being steps from the sea and open to the night breezes.
Playa del Carmen has certainly changed in recent years. On a recent visit, I strolled down Fifth Avenue and was amazed by the number of shops and restaurants. The Blue Parrot had been transformed into an international Palm Beach-style lounge with three boutique hotels and a restaurant. The streets were crowded with tourists, many of them chattering away in French and German.
Nightclubs ranged from ultra-cool lounges with disc jockeys to the perennial favorite Mambo Cafe, where clients will find live salsa and hip hop music. Playa del Carmen is a destination where travelers might miss out by going all-inclusive — there are just too many restaurants waiting to be experienced. One of the most intriguing is Yaxche, known for its regional Maya cuisine with a twist, serving up such dishes as knich chicken, grilled chicken marinated in a tangerine and chipotle sauce.
There were now numerous hotels; although thankfully many of these were on the boutique side instead of the mega-resort end. Two of Playa’s most popular hotels are Hotel Basico and Hotel Deseo, both Grupo Habita properties. Deseo and Basico are both off the beach a block or two, but they are right in the center of the action.
Sleek and chic Deseo sports a design utilizing natural materials from the region, with plenty of hammocks. The 15-room property is for adults only, and insiders say if peace and quiet is at the top of your list, you’d be better off choosing a different hotel. Most of the action centers around Deseo’s patio and pool deck lounge, where you’ll find a DJ, a Jacuzzi and oversized sun beds.
Considering that the property is in the tropics of Mexico, the 15-room, four-floor Basico has a surprisingly bare industrial design of concrete and exposed electrical ducts. But the minimal design works, possibly because of the relentlessly chill atmosphere. The top floor of the hotel is where clients will find the Azotea Bar and pool. At the edge of the pool are two huge petroleum tanks that have been brought into play as soaking pools. At night, a DJ works his magic and films are projected on the white concrete walls.
Beyond Playa del Carmen
Several daytrips I experienced on my first vacation to Playa should still be at the top of the list for first-time visitors. I imagine a better way to spend the day than with a morning snorkel at Xel-Ha and an afternoon tour of the ruins of Tulum. Xel-Ha is a beautiful lagoon about 25 miles south of Playa del Carmen. On my excursion, I remember snorkeling and being transfixed by a ferociously-jawed moray eel gliding in and out of the submerged rocks A snorkeling excursion at Xel-Ha can easily be combined with a trip to Tulum, a Maya archeological site about 30 miles south of Playa del Carmen. The ruins are impressive in their own right, but what really brings the experience over the top is Tulum’s seaside setting, where it’s easy to imaging Maya nobles enjoying their summer palace.
During my return trip to Playa I noticed some things hadn’t changed at all. The sea was still a vibrant blue and the white sand beach seemed to stretch on forever.
Mexico Tourism Board