Playa del Carmen is a gorgeous vacation spot on Riviera Maya. White beaches, blue water, delicious food and great people. I can’t wait to go back!
My friends Jack and Betty go to Playa del Carmen twice a year. I always loved seeing their pictures on Facebook and hearing about the great food and how much fun they have. In January they were talking about their next trip coming up in May, and I started thinking…I’ve never been to Mexico (except for a one-day trip during a college spring break trip to South Padre), and this would be a perfect treat to myself for running my first half marathon. So I jumped at the chance to join their week-long adventure.
Playa del Carmen is an amazing Mexican city along the Caribbean Ocean, about a 40-minute drive from Cancun. I had never heard of it before I met Jack and Betty, but it’s obviously a hot-spot.
5th Avenue is the main shopping and dining hot-spot area in Playa del Carmen. There are dozens of little shops and restaurants along 5th Avenue. The street is about 3 miles long, and each side street along the way has more shops and restaurants. Many of the shops are full of touristy souvenirs, but we did find a few things we liked. I didn’t have enough suitcase space to take anything back, so I only window-shopped. Probably a good thing, because it would have been very easy to go way overboard.
A couple things I learned during our trip to Playa del Carmen…
- You really don’t need to know much, if any, Spanish. Playa del Carmen is a tourist town, so the natives speak at least conversational English, even though it is often broken.
- Don’t drink the water. Well, this is something I think every American knows. And if you don’t know it before you get to Mexico, you’ll learn it pretty quickly–the hard way. They serve bottled or purified water in all of the restaurants, and our hotel had a water cooler in each condo.
- Just accept that you’re going to have chips and salsa at nearly every restaurant. They’re going to bring you both mild and hot salsas…and hopefully they warn you ahead of time what’s really hot. If they don’t, you’re going to get a really rude awakening.
- The merchants on 5th Avenue will hound you every time you walk past them. It kind of reminds me of the kiosks at the mall. Some are pushy, but most are very friendly. We got called the Spice Girls, some guy called me his “brown sugar friend”, one guy was obsessed with Barb, and several of the guys told Jack he was a very lucky man with 3 women.
- I know that the exchange rate fluctuates daily, but on one day we found different exchange rates at different booths around town. I thought that was kind of odd. Also, don’t change all your money at once, because you never get back as much US currency at the end.
Wi-Fi in Playa del Carmen is pretty widely available, but password protected in every hotel and restaurant. So every time we got to a restaurant, the first thing we did was ask for the Wi-Fi password and then hop online to check in or post pictures
We stayed at Porto Playa, an amazing condo hotel. It sits about a block and a half from the beach, and is comprised of 1, 2, and 3-bedroom units. Ours was a 2-bedroom on the 3rd floor, and we even had a private rooftop space above our unit, with a hot tub, grill, lounge chairs and a seating area. We also had a view of the pool below, as well as the ocean.
The Porto Playa staff was so friendly and accommodating. I had my Nook, and was having problems getting the wi-fi to work to download more books. When I called the front desk, they sent the IT guy up to the condo, and he spent an hour figuring it out. Now that is great service.
I told my mom they should buy a vacation condo…she laughed. I guess that means it’s not happening.
The beaches in Playa del Carmen are gorgeous. The sand is a beautiful white, and the water is warm and clear blue. Even though our hotel wasn’t on the beach, they “own” a portion of the beach with another hotel that is. So our breakfast each morning was on the beach, and we had full use of the lounge chairs.
One of the best parts of the beach is people watching. This week actually wasn’t horrible, but we did run across one epic. I had to be covert, so the picture wasn’t nearly as clear as I would have liked it to be.
Every day we spent a couple of hours out at the beach. Barb and Betty got restless about every hour, and wanted to walk. They kept trying to convince me to go with them, but I was perfectly content to sit and read my book and occasionally doze off. I probably should have gone walking at least once, because they got these gorgeous pictures
Included with our condo was breakfast each morning. We had our choice of Indigo Beach Club or Imprevist. Most of the days we went to Indigo because it was right on the beach. The breakfast was great, and they had a lot to choose from. There was unlimited fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple & papaya), 3 flavors of yogurt, assorted toppings (seeds, nuts, dried fruit), and a few different types of bread. You also got to select one item from the menu, and also coffee or juice. The whole grain bread was definitely my favorite, thick sliced and homemade. I ate tons of all the fruit except the papaya (not a fan). I also had vanilla yogurt topped with granola and sesame seeds, and at least 2 slices of the bread. I don’t like orange juice with pulp, and that’s all they had, so I stuck with coffee and water. I tried a different entrée item each morning, and I think my favorite was the Monte Cristo.
Our flight departed OKC at 7AM on Sunday morning. After a short layover in Dallas, we were on our way directly to Cancun. We arrived at about 11am, which was perfect because it gave us another half day. Our condo wasn’t ready when we arrived, so we walked around town for a little bit.
For a late Sunday lunch we went to El Fogon for street tacos. It’s one of the top rated restaurants in Playa, and I can understand why. We started with a side of sautéed cactus (nopales guisados). I’m usually not that adventurous, but Jack assured me they were good so I took the plunge.
They really weren’t bad! They were very mild and had a soothing flavor so it was good way to tone down the heat of the dishes.
I got the el pastor tacos (BBQ pork)
Amazing. The pork was incredibly tender, and had such a great flavor. I was very pleasantly surprised with the amount of pork in the dish.
After lunch we went to the grocery store across the street to stock up. We had a full kitchen and a grill up on the patio, and momentarily thought about cooking dinner one night, but then realized that meant we would have to clean up after. So instead we stocked up on beer, tequila, and snacks.
We also got Mexican diet coke. They use real sugar, and it tastes so much better than the American stuff. I rarely drink soda, but I was hooked on this stuff. We went through it fast, and I walked back to the store 2 more times during the week to get more. We also bought Squirt, to make Palomas. Barb brought snacks with her, which was such a great idea.
Dinner the first night was a complimentary welcome buffet at Indigo Beach Club. The food was pretty good, but nothing really stood out. It was kind of your basic restaurant buffet food. The drinks were good, but those specialty fruity drinks are expensive and don’t pack enough of a punch to be really worth it.
Monday morning I went running on 5th Avenue. I got out there about 7:45AM and it was pretty quiet, as the vendors were just starting to open up their shops. Once you get to the end of the touristy part, it turns into a neighborhood that doesn’t look that great. I didn’t feel unsafe, but there were no people or shops or restaurants, so I just figured it was safer to turn back. It was super humid out so that wasn’t too fun, but it felt great to get out and run. I have to admit I don’t normally work out much on vacation. But Barb is a trainer at the gym, and Jack & Betty work out every morning like clockwork. I would have felt like a lazy slob had I slept in.
For lunch on Monday we went to Yo Amo Tacos. We ordered the obligatory chips & salsa, as well as a side of guacamole.
I loved that the salsas came in the tower. One of the salsas was habanero. I’m very glad our waitress mentioned it, or that would have been a horrible surprise. It was delicious, but lethal at the same time. Barb and I shared el pastor tacos and fish tacos.
The el pastor was really good, but the fish tacos were amazing. It was made with sea bass, lightly breaded, and perfectly fried.
After lunch we went to Luna Blue bar to see Jorge, Betty & Jack’s favorite bartender in Playa del Carmen. He quickly became mine too. I highly recommend going to see him next time you’re in Playa del Carmen.
Monday night we walked 5th Avenue and had a light dinner at Pizza Pazza. My friend Greg told me about it several times, so we went to check it out. There are several locations in Playa del Carmen, and they sell pizza by the slice. It was pretty good for dinner Monday night, but amazing–and much needed–after our Playa Crawl on Thursday night.
On Tuesday we took the bus to Tulum and Akumal. The plan was to spend a couple hours in Tulum, and then swim with the turtles in Akumal. It was pouring rain the whole 40-minute ride to Tulum, and was raining off and on while we were there. We walked about a mile looking for a beach club that Betty had heard about, but we never found it. We did, however find some extremely peaceful beaches and stopped and had a beer and took a bunch of pictures.
We also saw a couple that had just gotten married jumping into the ocean in their full wedding outfits.
By the time we got back to where the taxis and buses were we were exhausted from the walking, but forged on to Akumal. Once there we walked about another mile to La Buena Vida for lunch. The restaurant was right on the ocean, and although the weather was icky, it was still an awesome view, and we even saw a fisherman out in the water bringing in loads of fish in his net…without a boat.
Barb had the fish tacos, Jack & Betty shared the fajitas, and I had the mango chicken empanadas.
I’m so happy I went with the empanadas, because they were amazing. I’m pretty sure they cooked them fresh when I placed the order. The mango retained its texture, and was still in generously sized chunks.
I had one of Barb’s fish tacos and they were fantastic. The fish was grilled, light, and super fresh (obviously)
The fajita meat was so tender and perfectly cooked. The chicken was so juicy. I was kind of wanting this dish for myself but I knew it would be too much for just me.
After lunch we took a short nap on the hammocks. If the weather had been better we would have spent a lot more time there, like Betty, Jack and Barb had done during their trip in October. By the time we got to the swimming with the turtles place we were all worn out. So we called it a day and headed back to the hotel.
After we got back to the hotel, relaxed, and regrouped, we went back to Luna Blue to see Jorge. The drinks are strong, tequila shots just sort of arrive in front of you without warning, and I love the swing seats at the bar. It wasn’t very crowded, but I like that better because it’s really not very big. We met 2 couples from Maryland, and had a great time with them.
Wednesday morning I got a little later start on my workout, and I did a power walk in a different direction. This time, 5th Avenue ended at beautiful neighborhoods with gorgeous vacation homes. I walked through a few, marveling at the beautiful residences.
For breakfast we decided to go to Imprevist. As I mentioned earlier, it was also included in the free condo breakfast, but wasn’t on the beach. It’s about halfway between our hotel and the beach. It’s a tiny little place, with 4 tables on the patio and about 10 tables inside. This breakfast wasn’t a buffet, but we still got a basket of assorted breads for the table, a small plate of fruit each, and yogurt/granola/honey for the table.
My burrito was fantastic. It was full of beans, egg and avocado, and the salsa added just the right kick to pull it all together.
For lunch we walked to the far end of 5th Avenue to La Cueva del Chango. You feel like you’re walking into a rain forest. The main part of the seating is inside, but they’ve also got a tree-covered patio out back. Even though it was super humid we sat out there, because there were big fans to keep us cool.
None of us were super hungry so I ordered the chef salad, Betty and Barb split the turkey sandwich with bean soup, and Jack had the chicken skewer salad.
Everything was really delicious! I tried a bite of the other dishes and was very impressed. My dressing was really heavy on the coriander…maybe a little too heavy. But it was still really good. This was the first place where we really had a language barrier with our server. He spoke very little English, and we had to do a lot of pointing. He also didn’t understand when Betty asked for her coke with her meal. Other than that, we had a great experience.
For dinner we decided to go American, and went to Wah Wah Beach Bar. It’s a large place on the beach, with an awesome view on the patio of the ocean, and the whole floor inside is sand. They also have a huge stage, and that night there was a local band playing that was comprised of music teachers from the local school. It was their first performance as a band, and they were really good. A bunch of their friends and family came out to hear them, and it was awesome to see them celebrate their first show afterwards, and how relieved they all looked that it was such a success! I can imagine that’s pretty nerve wracking.
I honestly forgot to take pictures of our food, because we were too busy listening to the band and being nosy watching them talk with friends and family. But we all got burgers and fries, and they were all delicious.
Thursday morning I decided to go running on the beach. It was so peaceful with the wind and the waves, but running in the sand is super hard work! I ended up alternating between running and power walk. Regardless of what you do, your legs are gonna hurt when you’re done.
At one point I saw 3 military guys in full gear with machine guns on the beach. Not sure if they were watching for drug smugglers coming across the water or what.
— Karyl Henry (@KarylHenry) May 31, 2016
For lunch we went back to Yo Amo Tacos…because it was so good the first time around! I got the fish tacos this time, and they were just as good as the previous day.
For dinner we went to Oh Lala, the top rated restaurant in Play del Carmen, according to TripAdvisor. Jack and Betty have become friends with co-owners George and Mikaela. George is the chef, and Mikaela runs the front of the house, and they were both so friendly and welcoming. It’s a very tiny restaurant, with only 9 total tables. The tables are split between inside and outside, and we were seated at an outside table. With such a small space, reservations are critical.
The menu is short and sweet, which makes me very happy, because I don’t do well with a lot of options.
Jack had the butter soy tuna steak. I’m not a big fan of seared tuna, but I tried a bite and it was fantastic. I can’t remember what Betty and Barb had, and clearly I failed miserably by not taking pictures.
I had the Thai curry with fish.
This was the best dish I had all week. I can’t remember the specific type of fish, but it was a whitefish of some sort. Some fish will break down being cooked in broth, but this one definitely didn’t. Although the broth was creamy it was still very light, and the curry lent a great subtle flavor without being overpowering. It came with a pretty large side of rice. I combined it all in the bowl of fish and the broth soaked into the rice and was absolutely wonderful.
After dinner we met Jack and Betty’s friend Sina for Playa Crawl. For $70 US per person, we had unlimited drinks at 3 clubs. That might sound expensive, but it was well worth it. The bars all have cover charge, and that was included in our $70. There was another group of 3 20-somethings with us, but they only made it to the 2nd bar before they called it a night. We were very impressed with ourselves that we, at twice their age stayed out the whole night.
The first bar was a hookah lounge. I’d never done hookah before so I tried it, but I couldn’t inhale at all…pitiful. It tasted really good too, so I was a little disappointed.
The second bar was a really fun dance club, and that’s where we spent most of the night. Earlier in the day we had seen a group of Americans on the beach right in front of us, and they were there for a wedding. All of the guys were at the bar, for the bachelor party. The groom could barely stand up by that point, but he was still going strong, dancing the night away. We ended up hanging out with them for a while. Barb and Betty were up dancing 5 minutes into the first bar. I didn’t join in until the second bar. Jack was the slowest to join in, but once he did he couldn’t be stopped. We had a really great time.
After all the funtivities Thursday night, none of us worked out Friday morning. We just went to breakfast and then to the beach.
Barb didn’t want lunch, so Jack Betty and I went to Babe’s Noodle House . It’s a very interesting place, located on one of the side streets off 5th Avenue. It’s a Swedish-owned, Asian style restaurant. All of the décor is pin-up girls from the 50’s and Barbie dolls. I’ve never seen anything like it. For the entrees you can get either half or full servings
We asked the server how big the full serving was, and it didn’t seem huge. I had the Babe’s pad Thai, and Jack & Betty shared the Thai chicken, and we both got the full.
Both dishes were awesome. The picture of my dish was sadly so blurry, I couldn’t even post it. Our server way under-estimated the full portions, as they were huge. Jack & Betty said theirs was better after they added a little of the sauce from the table. My pad Thai was delicious on its own, and had a very generous amount of protein, which was really nice.
Friday night Jack and Betty’s friend Johnny came to see us. He brought his wife and absolutely adorable baby girl, and we went to Sushi Club. Johnny’s wife speaks/understands very little English, so she asked for a Spanish menu. That’s the first I had seen of that all week, but I’m guessing a lot of other places have that as well. She ordered salmon ceviche and the Ensalada SC as appetizers to share.
The salmon was absolutely amazing. Since there were 6 of us I had to hold back from wolfing down the entire thing. It was so fresh, the citrus it cooked in was just the right tartness to not overpower the fish. I didn’t eat any of the salad, but I’m glad I took the picture because the bread sticks on the right of the pic are what came with the ceviche. It was almost like a flatbread, crisp and delicious. It paired super well with the salmon.
I can’t remember exactly which roll I got, and the only menu I can find online is mostly Spanish. But it was really good!
Saturday morning was back to power walking the beach, breakfast, and then the beach. For lunch we went to Los Aguachiles. This was the only other place where we really hit a language barrier. We had so much trouble communicating with our server on a couple of questions that he went and got his manager to help us out. I do appreciate that, but in a tourist town with so many Americans, I feel like the servers should at least have an understanding of basic English.
Betty doesn’t eat seafood of any kind, and almost everything on the menu was fish. There was a ribeye steak and fries so she got that. However, 2 bites in and she said she didn’t really like it. Even though we had all eaten, Jack, Barb and I devoured the steak for her. We all thought it was delicious.
I ordered 3 tacos: shrimp on the grill, shrimp with cream sauce & tempura shrimp. However, I only got 2 of them. But I decided not to make a big deal because it probably would have taken more effort than it was worth to correct things. We also got coconut shrimp, and it was fantastic
It hardly rains in Mexico outside of the rainy season and when it does, it’s usually about 30 minutes and then it blows over. Tuesday we had rain off and on most of the day, which again is very rare. Saturday around lunchtime it started raining, and never stopped. It would slow down for a little bit, but then pick right back up again.
We planned to go to dinner at a very small restaurant that Jack said had awesome food. Before we left the rain had slowed down significantly and we thought we would be good. But about a block from the hotel the rain started coming down again super hard. And by the time we reached the restaurant, we found out it was closed. We were shocked considering it was Saturday night, but the owner said that Saturday is usually very slow for them. A friend of the owner very generously offered to drive us to Sushi Club. It’s a good thing too, because by now several of the roads were starting to flood.
At Sushi Club of course we had to get the salmon ceviche again. And it was still amazing. I also ordered gyoza. I was kind of disappointed though, because they were just very average. I’ve had much better in other places. I can’t remember which kind of sushi I had, but it was pretty good. Not as good as the night before, but oh well.
Since the sushi place is right near Jorge’s bar, we stopped by to see him. That, and it was our last night in Playa del Carmen. One of Jorge’s friends very generously offered to drive us back to the hotel, again wonderful because it was pouring. I woke up at one point and thought I heard water dripping inside. I moved my suitcase away from the window, which is a good thing because water leaked through the window and when I finally woke up in the morning there was a puddle where my suitcase had been.
One last power walk on the beach, one last breakfast on the beach at Indigo Beach Club. We took a few final pictures, and then had to catch our shuttle back to the airport. Of course the shuttle gets you there almost 2 hours before your flight, so we did a little shopping before our flight back to the US and back to reality.
Oh, and all that rain the day before? This was part of our drive to the airport
We had an awesome week and a fantastic trip to Playa del Carmen! On their October trip, they had a larger group. Jack said they were super busy every single day, going places and doing stuff. That’s fine maybe one or two days, but definitely not the entire trip. Towards the end of the week I found this amazing reading spot at our condo pool. That’s another place I could have stayed the entire week.
I really want to go back to Playa del Carmen again next spring. I’m thinking this is the perfect excuse for after the half marathon, to make the Playa del Carmen trip my annual treat to myself. I want to discover more of the area, take a lot more pictures, and try out more restaurants.
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