gorgeous beaches and mayan secrets
If you've been thinking about a beautiful beach vacation with tranquility, palm trees, crystal blue waters, but not too far from the action if you want it and treasures of culture nearby, we've got just the place for you. While many spring-breakers enjoy the fun-loving Cancun resorts, we think that if you travel just a bit further down the road, you'll be utterly delighted with the pleasures of Playa Del Carmen. We've got the inside scoop on how to play posh in the playa without losing authenticity, get the best value for your money and enjoy a magical stay. We'll also share some insights about the Mayan people, who still thrive in this area of the Yucatan peninsula, and give you a glimpse of their culture that will enrich to your experience.
Vamos a la Playa
The most visible gems of Playa del Carmen are its beaches. Well-groomed and wide, white sands beckon visitors to come and relax in the sunshine. The water, being the Caribbean Sea provides that intoxicating turquoise color that, when matched with the gently swaying palm trees dotting along the way, practically shouts "paradise." The sunrises and sunsets are ones you'll dream about long after your visit. Insert photos of beach with palm trees and sunrise/sunset here The beaches in Playa del Carmen are all public, so there's nowhere you will be prevented from walking. In fact, we walked quite a way up and down the shoreline late one evening, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, an activity we'd recommend to just about anyone. There are plenty of places to snorkle or scuba, parasail, paddle board, and just about any other water activity you might enjoy. Or if you'd rather just read or nap in the sun, there's ample room for doing nothing at all.
Shopping on 5th Avenue
Just like in New York, 5th Avenue has a special place in Playa. Considered the heart of the Riviera Maya, Playa has been developing over the past decade. 5th Avenue is a pedestrian walkway that offers unique shops, restaurants and even some fun attractions nestled in a bohemian, warm ambiance that differs from many such streets around the world. We even found a wonderful little tea shop - somewhat of a novelty in Mexico. The shop called Namaste, is the first gourmet and organic tea shop in Playa del Carmen. They also sell unique Indian-inspired garments and items, if you like to sip and shop at the same time.
When strolling along the Avenida, you'll find restaurants of every sort, from Italian to Asian to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. There are also plenty of places for liquid refreshment. Shops are equally varied, with high-end purveyors to producers of indigenous arts and crafts. There's one spot, though, that we hope you will not miss. It's the Tequila Museum (with an adjoining store) on the 5th. Once inside, you walk past the scores of gifts and tequila bottles to the back of the store. There you will see a simple but very useful visible explanation of the process of making tequila. Once you've walked through the production explanation, you will see several amazing display cases of unique tequilas, some in the most incredible bottles you have ever seen. The displays themselves are worth stopping in. We saw tequila in bottles of every shape and size.
A Magical Home Away from Home
Of course, we're partial to being pampered so when we got a glimpse of the Mahekal Beach Resort we were practically chirping. Mahekal, which is the Spanish pronunciation of "magical," is just that - magical. Mahekal is one of the few remaining beachfront palapa style resorts in Mexico. The beachfront rooms are standalone casitas, with their own deck and doors that literally open to the beach. If your idea of paradise is waking up to see the sunrise over the water, watch the palm trees sway and lay on a hammock on your own little porch (or on a covered lounge chair on the sand) with servers who come now and again to ask you if you'd like something to eat or drink, this is for you.
We have to admit that we even got a little lucky. After our trip began, we discovered that the folks at the Mahekal are testing out super luxury accommodations through a few units - one beach front, one penthouse, and two ocean view rooms. As we discovered, we were lucky enough to get unit 4C as ours on the beach front, which we would highly recommend. This room has been recently renovated in a beautiful, open footprint, with open walk-in "rain" shower, and even a little private plunge pool. All of the rooms come with a sitting area out front where you can lie in a hammock and read or listen to music peacefully. And the price of accommodations come with, what is called "modified American plan," meaning that breakfast and dinner are included. If you find that you would like to eat outside of the resort at one of the many restaurants in town, which is only a few minutes walking distance away, you can let them know in advance that you would prefer to have lunch, and then you will be free for dinner on your own. There were quite a few children at the resort when we were visiting, so if you need to bring a family there seems to be no problem there.
The resort has two pools, a restaurant for breakfast and lunch and another for dinner, and a bar that offers 2-for-1-drinks (the strongest we've ever had!) in a happy hour from 5-6 daily and also has pool and ping pong tables and swings to sit on at the bar. If you feel like even more pampering, you can get a massage in a little wellness center tucked away on the beach. One special amenity we quite enjoyed was the "origami" towel arrangement on our bed each day. The lovely decoration just added a little something extra to the already posh room, with french doors opening out onto the beach, and a view that could be seen directly from the bed.
Some things you won't find at Mahekal are a television or telephone in your room. Wireless Internet is available for free in the bar and lobby area. The bar also has a computer station. We have to say, as plugged in as we usually are, we didn't mind enjoying the natural beauty of the area, and happily fell asleep watching the waves instead of television.
My oh Mayan!
Despite what some may think, the Mayan people, whose history of course is long and rich, are alive and well in this part of the world. The Riviera Maya, as the district of Yucatan Peninsula from Playa del Carmen to Tulum is known, is filled with Mayan culture, ecological wonders and archeological sites. There are tours available for such fascinating sites as Xcaret - a unique sea park, Xel-Ha - the world's largest natural aquarium, Tulum - home to some of the most remarkable Mayan ruins and others. While the term Mayan encompasses a diverse range of the Native American people of southern Mexico and northern Central America, there are an estimated 7 million Maya living in this area today and the largest group of Modern Maya can be found in the Yucatan Peninsula. The Maya peoples are known for their brightly colored yarn-based textiles, woven into capes, shirts, bracelets, and other colorful painted items. When you're walking down the 5th and elsewhere, you will see many of these brightly colored offerings for sale.
Since culture and food go together, you'll be interested in visiting one of the local restaurants specializing in Mayan cuisine. One we can recommend is Yaxche (pronounced jag-shey) on the 5th Avenue, a two level restaurant displaying Mayan paintings, and a sophisticated decor.
On our visit we tried a variety of traditional and fusion items. Among our favorites were the Cochinita Pibil, which is Axiote and sour orange marinated pork wrapped in a plantain leaf and then baked. We also enjoyed a sampling of Mayan appetizers called Moloch, which included such items as Papadzul, prepared with tortillas filled with boiled eggs and covered in a pumpkin seed sauce, Pbixcatic, very hot grilled peppers filled with cheese and topped with julienne pickled red onions, and Tsotobilchay, a Mayan style tamale made of moist corn bread filled with boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds in a tomato sauce.
One of the most versatile ingredients in Mayan cuisine can be seen in everything from drinks to salads to entrees. It's chaya, also known as tree spinach, and native to the Yucatan Peninsula. Traditionally, the leaves are immersed and simmered for 20 minutes or more and served with oil or butter. Its vibrant green juice is also mixed into drinks, and is considered a rich source of antioxidants. However, the leaves must be cooked first to inactivate some toxic components. Chay has a unique flavor that is difficult to describe. You might just have to try it yourself in a cocktail such as Yaxche's Absolutely Maya, with vodka, a fruity mixture and chaya or a non-alcoholic Cuzamil with orange juice, pineapple and chaya.
So, whether you are looking for a place to relax, a unique shopping experience, a bit of ecotourism or archeological adventure, great food and drink with a splash of culture and fun or just beautiful sunrises and sunsets, Playa del Carmen has a lot to offer.
If you'd like further details on anything Playa, don't hesitate to leave a comment and ask!