Playtime in Playa Del Carmen

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After a great month and a half at home for the holidays, Chad and I were really ready to be back on the road where our pace is slower, everything is a little bit simpler, and we have more time together. Our first stop was Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya, because I was able to book a cheap non-stop flight from St. Louis to Cancun to get us to Mexico. 

We’d been to Playa del Carmen once before, 15 years ago on a vacation with Chad’s parents. It has changed a lot in 15 years – grown, sprawled, and become even more touristy. For these reasons and a few others, we didn’t find Playa to be a great fit for us, but we managed to make the most of our nine days there.

Arrival and Settling In

Our flight arrived nearly an hour late despite its on-time departure and combined with the slow-moving luggage collection and small issues getting our rental car, it made for a late arrival in Playa del Carmen, which is about 45 minutes from the Cancun airport. I’d been hoping to be there by 6 p.m. and it was nearly 8 by the time we checked in. However, I hesitate to complain because we were apparently lucky to get a rental car at all – Budget and all the others were apparently way overbooked and the man at the counter told us some people would be arriving later with reservations only to find there were no cars to be had. For us it was bad enough that the only car available was a minivan (which I knew would get worse gas mileage) and that it was running on fumes, which meant we also had to wait in line at the gas station to fill up before driving to Playa. But again, I shouldn’t complain. We escaped the winter weather of Missouri and unlike nearly everyone else, we wouldn’t have to return to it!

Our rough arrival was made worse by a general feeling of disappointment in our Airbnb apartment (review below). It was pretty shabby, and I think we left Mexico after our last trip with such wonderful feelings for it that we forgot about the adjustment period. But, we were able to get essential supplies at the Oxxo on the corner and a quick meal at a nearby food court called Public Market (where we enjoyed two other meals and highly recommend).

Snorkeling Trips

Snorkeling was definitely what Chad was most looking forward to in Playa del Carmen, in part because the first time we ever snorkeled was here and we loved it. But being here on vacation and willing to pay for snorkel boat tours and expensive parks like Xcaret is far different than seeking rewarding off-shore snorkeling. 

We first tried Akumal, after reading great things about its public beach online. However, the public beach was quite a disappointment. First, there are costs – both parking (50 pesos) and entry (100 pesos per person). Second, there’s the hard sell at every turn to join a snorkel tour. One “helpful” person went so far as to tell us there was no snorkeling off the shore there – you had to pay for a tour. That proved not to be true, but while we saw a number of fish, there were no turtles or rays or any of the other things the internet led us to believe we might see. We could have done a boat tour out to the turtles for US $25 each, but were frustrated enough by the whole experience to not want to fork over the money. From there we went over to Half Moon Bay, which had a much better vibe (and delicious vegan tacos that we enjoyed for lunch) but even worse snorkeling.

A couple of days later, we decided to try the fishing “village” of Puerto Morelos. It was a nice beach and a cute town, but the snorkeling was mediocre at best. However, after trying a couple spots along the beach, Chad found some cuttlefish (kind of like squid), and it was interesting seeing them for the first time. But that was the only real highlight. These snorkeling attempts were so disappointing that we didn’t take a single photo at any of those beaches.

Our Day of Play

On Thursday we took a full day off to see some Mayan ruins we’d missed on our earlier visit and to check out some cenotes. We left super-early with a couple of PB&J sandwiches to eat on the road so we could arrive at Coba when it opened at 8 a.m. The Coba ruins were neat – not as grand as Uxmal or Ek Balam or even Monte Alban, but a lovely place to walk around and there was a pyramid to climb. It was nearly deserted at 8:15 in the morning when we went in, which was nice, especially because by the time we left 90 minutes later it was crawling with people. Also, ruins are still a pretty affordable activity in Mexico, at just 80 pesos per person entry.

There is a set of three cenotes near Coba, so that was our next stop, before the crowds could descend there too. Each was 100 pesos per person, cash only (which almost goes without saying in Mexico; you can expect nearly everything you do here to be cash only). We paid for all three at the ticket booth and the attendant was kind enough to recommend that we start with Multum-Ha, the farthest away, because it was the best one and no one was there yet. As the ticket seller, he’d know, so we headed that way. As promised we had the cenote all to ourselves, descending several flights of wooden steps into the cave. It was really cool and entirely different from any of the cenotes we’d visited on prior trips to Mexico.

The other two cenotes are nearer the ticket booth and close to each other. We chose the Tamcach-Ha cenote next because we saw vehicles parked at the other one when we drove past. Once again, we got the cenote to ourselves. This one was different in that the cave was much taller and it featured several high platforms to jump in from. Chad jumped right away from the medium platform and gathered his courage to jump off the high one, which was really high (and he said really hurt his feet on impact to the water). I was so enthralled with watching him and trying to take pictures that I let go of my snorkel mask, which is now lost forever because it is a very deep cenote. By the time we emerged and went to the 3rd cenote, Choo-Ha, which is in a much shallower cave, it was empty too. We enjoyed all three and were thrilled to have them all to ourselves each time.

After a quick stop for gas and a snack, we headed onto Tulum to have lunch and see the famous coastal ruins there. The ruins are pretty far from the downtown area, so we picked a roadside restaurant for our lunch and had a great meal. I think our favorite thing about Mexico is that we just keep having one surprisingly wonderful meal after another hear – the food is so good and diverse and interesting. The ruins were neat, but crowded, and so popular that parking is absurdly expensive and there are tons and tons of hawkers trying to sell you stuff. But I’m glad we went and I think it was worth the price (the ruins themselves cost the same as Coba; it’s just the parking that is more expensive at 180 pesos).

Other Highlights

We visited the main centro area of Playa del Carmen a couple of times, including for a fabulous dinner out, a fabulous breakfast out (at La Cueva de Chango, which we visited 15 years ago with Chad’s folks), and a really nice walk on the quiet part of the Calle 5 Avenida pedestrian street (which is also the main tourist street, but if you follow it far enough, it gets much quieter). We also saw a movie (the new Star Wars), ate really well all the time, and got plenty of work done. There was a small park near our apartment, so although there wasn’t a great place to walk in our neighborhood, we could walk “laps” around it and one day took a picnic there. 

Summary

All in all we had a really good stay Playa del Carmen. While I don’t see us trying to settle there for longer than a week at any point in the future, we definitely enjoyed our nine days there. Unfortunately, highly touristic beach towns like that don’t have great places for walking and tend to be expensive for basics (though our apartment was cheap, as were groceries and our meals at the Public Market, where often we were the only gringos). But it was a good start to our time in Mexico and still, I think, one of the best places people can choose for a vacation to escape the winter cold.

Airbnb Review (a rare 4 stars out of 5) – Communication – Gustavo was a good host – easy to communicate with and helped us fix an unexpected issue in a reasonable amount of time. I also appreciated his willingness to communicate in English! His associate, Cris, was also kind and friendly when letting us into the apartment and arranging for our departure. Overall, the communication was good, although I wish the directions to the apartment when we checked in had been a little more clear. 

Condition – Because of the excellent price, I really can’t complain too much about the condition of the apartment, but future guests should know there is a fair bit of wear and tear, especially in the kitchen. We needed to buy our own soap, dish soap, trashbags, and pretty much everything else of that nature, so be prepared for that (some hosts make a point to provide those things, but it isn’t an expectation). The wifi was excellent and reliable and we were comfortable overall in the apartment throughout our stay.

Location – We liked the location of the apartment since we had a car, and especially liked walking just five minutes to the Public Market with all its great eateries. So much variety! The nearby Oxxos were handy and it is a short drive to Plaza Las Americas mall, which has a great grocery store. We used a taxi to get downtown and back for 50 pesos each way – also very convenient. 

Overall, we had a good stay and I recommend this apartment if you’re looking for something affordable.

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