Playa del Carmen: An intro to Mexico

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As I write this the chilly wind keeps forcing the frozen branches outside to slap against my window pane. My house is warm but I can’t help but feel a slight chill come over me. “It’s freakin’ cold outside,” I think as I grab a warm cup of tea, in the hopes that it will make me forget.

Oh, to be back in Mexico, on the beaches of Playa del Carmen, taking in the rays and drinking a Negra Modelo.

My first impression

Playa del Carmen is not that far from other popular touristy spots such as Cancún, Riviera Maya, Tulum, and Sian Ka’an (all of which were my introduction to Mexico as well).

Tourists love Playa del Carmen. It’s Mexico, but Americanized. Super tourist-friendly, everyone speaks English – some people only speak English (which I’m still in awe of) and you can even pay in American dollars in many of the restaurants and businesses!

It’s one of those destinations that I would say are perfect for the nervous traveler who maybe isn’t really sure what to expect from a new country, or maybe a family traveler who doesn’t want to have to deal with too much or think too hard, or worry about too many things. You get the atmosphere and the beautiful beach, the great Latin culture, and then of course all the amenities of a resort, but on a larger scale.

For someone like myself, who speaks Spanish fluently and is comfortable traveling across Mexico and can easily assimilate to the cultural norms, it might not be the ideal Mexican experience I would seek out, but I can still appreciate why so many visitors like it there. And during the cold months here, I’d take it without hesitation.

Where I stayed

There are no shortages of lodging options in Playa del Carmen. Hotels, B&B’s, even vacation home rentals. I visited as a guest of House Trip (full disclosure), a home vacation rental which operates primarily in Europe but is slowing growing their market in North America and Mexico.

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The apartment complex was beautiful. Secure, bright, modern, clean, pretty luxurious in fact. Many of the apartments faced the beach and all had balconies. Some had private access to a rooftop hot tub and barbecue area, and the complex was literally steps from restaurants, shops, and night life.

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It was great for families, but I thought it fun to come here with a bunch of friends too. Some apartments had up to three floors and plenty of bedrooms, while others had one or two. (The listing for this property).

I absolutely loved my stay here and highly recommend it. I was able to get to see what Playa del Carmen was all about, but I also loved how easy it was to get out of Playa del Carmen and enjoy the rest of what the area had to offer.

Where I ate

I ate at several small eateries in the area, and when on a tour, many of which would go on through lunch time, I ate whatever the tour organizers had set up for us.

But there were two memorable meals I had. One was at a restaurant in Playa del Carmen called Plank. The name comes from their concept of cooking directly on Himalayan salt or wooden planks. It’s a pretty cool concept and a unique presentation of food to the table. Everything I tried here, from the fish to the steak was delicious, but I will say the winner was their carrot cake. If they have it on the menu get it, if they don’t ask for it – if you get lucky and they serve it, I promise you that unless you have some weird visceral reaction to awesomeness of this kind, you will remember this dessert for a very long time.

The other great dining experience I had was actually in our apartment rental (I shared with other media pros). We had Chef Alexandra Iserte, owner of Food in Motion, which offers cooking classes, catering and events, and personal chef services. She was funny, entertaining, smart, and despite our large and easily distracted group, she was able to pull off a really great dinner and a quick cooking lesson which we all took a part in.

Playa del Carmen_girlgonetravelLoved Chef Alex’s energy. She’s made the cooking lesson fun and the food was delicious.

Great option for those with a bigger budget who want delicious, authentic Mexican dishes, without having to go out each time (which might actually even out the costs) or try to prepare it themselves.

What I did

I took a couple of tours offered through Viator which were a lot of fun. (Read about my experience in swimming with whale sharks and swimming in the cenotes.)

Playa del Carmen_girlgonetravelPlaya del Carmen is a great central point to all the wonderful things to do in the area.

Playa del Carmen_girlgonetravelMake the most of your visit by getting out there!

I think that’s really the way to go, when visiting any area of Mexico, is to take tours and recruit local guides to help you get around and discover areas that you wouldn’t otherwise.

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Playa del Carmen_girlgonetravelTake advantage of the tour photographers. They are friendly and take great shots. The memories alone are worth it. 

Now that I have been to Mexico a few times since my first visit to Riviera Maya, I have found that I most enjoy the places that have a bit more local tradition and culture. Areas like Mexico City which is so rich in culture and diverse and Mazatlán, which is slowly changing as well, but retains many of its traditions and customs, these are places that I feel have really given me a sense of what Mexico is. This is a huge country and so its safe to say that visiting one of two or even three different areas won’t give you the full flavor of all one can experience here. Every city and region has its own identity, allowing for something different.

I would encourage anyone to visit beyond the larger tourist areas, but understand that we all have to start somewhere. And when it comes to beginnings and laid bad vacations, Playa del Carmen is not a bad place to start.


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Carol Cain

Carol is her happiest when on an adventure, either close to home or farther away. She's the mom to three fun boys and wife to a handsome Irish/Scot. She lives in New Jersey with her happy crew, but will always be a girl from Brooklyn. You can read her full profile here.

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