Relaxed by day and lively by moonlight, Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya’s capital and one of the world’s favorite vacation spots moves to its own rhythm. Its heart beats strong with the whisper of a Caribbean breeze, the murmur of the waves, and the mellow sounds of music from Mexico and beyond its borders.

Playa Days

Most visitors to Playa make a beeline for the beach and vistas of soft white sand, gentle surf and palm trees swaying in the breeze. You can set your towel down for the day on your own piece of paradise or be pampered in one of the chic beach clubs that line the shore. One of the most popular beach hangouts for visitors and locals alike is Playa Mamitas, also the venue for the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival in November.

While there are impromptu games of beach volleyball and soccer all day long, the list of things to do in Playa is extensive. You can try your hand at golf, windsurfing, kite boarding and skydiving. There are go-karts, bikes and ATVs to rent, caves and cenotes to explore in the surrounding area, horseback riding along the beach, scenic flights and jungle adventure trips. As an alternative, brush up on your Spanish or take a course on Mayan culture and traditions. And of course, the famous Xcaret and Xplor nature parks are just down the road.

Be sure to visit Playa’s main square for spectacular views of the Caribbean and the island of Cozumel on the horizon. The water changes color from turquoise to a band of darkest indigo that marks the course of the Cozumel Channel, an ocean trench thousands of feet deep. The ferry crossing to this world-famous dive destination takes between 30 and 40 minutes and there are departures throughout the day. Keep a look out; you may be lucky enough to spot wild dolphins during the crossing.

The white chapel in the main square that is a Playa icon has been joined by an impressive arch that was erected to commemorate December 21, 2012, the day marking the end of an era in Mayan timekeeping and the beginning of a new cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar.

The Maya were the first to settle in Playa del Carmen and you’ll see the crumbling temples of ancient Xaman-Há in several parts of town and in Playacar, the resort and residential community to the south of the ferry dock. Pottery and other archaeological finds indicate that there was a settlement here as far back as 300 B.C. Initially a fishing village, it grew in importance during the Post-Classic period of Mayan civilization (A.D. 900 – 1521), reaching its peak around 1450 as a trading port and the embarkation point for the sacred island of Cozumel, site of the shrine of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and childbirth.

Located in a stand of tropical forest in Playacar, the Xaman-Há Aviary is home to over 200 birds belonging to 60 native species, among them macaws, parrots, great curassows and keel-billed toucans. Paths wind through the jungle past a couple of cenotes and converge on a walk-through enclosure where some of the rarest birds are kept. Wild orioles, hummingbirds, turtledoves, tropical flycatchers and great kiskadees can also be spotted.

Playa Nights

All roads in Playa del Carmen lead to Quinta Avenida or Fifth Avenue, the main street. The nightly shuffle along La Quinta has shades of the passeggiata in an Italian hill town; visitors from all over the world mingle with local families out to catch up on the latest gossip. Walk two blocks and you’ll find yourself listening to snatches of conversation in Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, Dutch and Maya, the language of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Even the most demanding of shoppers will find Playa’s brand of style, color and whimsy hard to resist. Craft shops, boutiques and international brand stores share space with tiny rustic arcades, art galleries and larger shopping centers such as Paseo del Carmen. Located at the southern end of La Quinta, beyond the main square, this open-air plaza has more upscale shopping options, cafes and bars.

If it is clothing you are looking for, you’ll find Brazilian beachwear and designer clothing from Mexico, Indonesia and beyond. Imported perfumes, leather bags and luxury goods and the shimmer of gold, silver and gems are also very much in evidence.

A joyous celebration of color and creativity, the selection of Mexican souvenirs on offer includes items from all over the country such as hand-painted Talavera pottery from Puebla, trees of life, strange wooden figurines from Oaxaca called alebrijes, Huichol yarn paintings and chaquira beadwork, amber and Mayan weavings from Chiapas and Yucatecan hammocks. For a unique memento of your Mexican Caribbean vacation, pick up some community products such as engraved gourds, carved animals, embroidered cotton napkins, seed jewelry and funky wood, mobiles and lamps. They are produced by artisans from the villages of the Zona Maya in central Quintana Roo using sustainable forest resources and are available in several of the stores lining the street. In one of the small plazas on the left-hand-side of Fifth Ave you can also find Mayan naive-style art from Guatemala.

By now you are probably ready to embark on a culinary adventure – the restaurants, and bistros lining La Quinta and neighboring streets serve everything from Thai cuisine, Italian pasta and traditional Mexican tacos to the freshest Caribbean seafood. Sample home-cooked Mayan recipes with a hint of habanero chili in a freshly made salsa xnipek or indulge your craving for grilled beef. Looking for something lighter? Playa residents have also taken café culture to their hearts and the street is thronged with open-air eateries serving baguettes and homemade gelato.

On the subject of gelato, Playa’s ice cream makers – some of whom are Italian and part of a diverse ex-pat community that is proud to call this cosmopolitan town home – are masters of their craft. In addition to favorites such as vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and pistachio, you’ll find an exciting variety of flavors to keep you coming back for more. If you like the sweetness of tropical fruit, be sure to try the mango, mamey and guanabana or soursop when in season.

As soon as the shadows lengthen and the soft rose and mauve tinted clouds of heralding the twilight blow in from the sea, the rhythm picks up along la Quinta. Thousands of lights glimmer in the trees, candles are lit and the musicians gather for their nightly rounds.

Mingle with the crowds and listen to the beat of world music as you walk along. You’ll hear rousing trumpet solos from strolling mariachi bands, the rippling melodies of “La Bamba” and other jarocho favorites from the state of Veracruz, romantic guitar serenades from Yucatecan trios and even accordion players from Northern Mexico. Another block down the street, you can listen to reggae, jazz and rock, Cuban salseros and even pipe players from the Andes.

Street artists always draw a crowd, as do mimes dressed as Mexican cowboys and Mayan warriors. If you like to people watch, while away the hours in one of the open-air cafes or terrace bars where you can relax in a traditional Mexican wicker chair known as an equipal and sip a margarita or an exotic cocktail.

For night owls, there are candlelit beach bars, dance clubs and stylish hideaways that draw a crowd and have found their way into the leading travel magazines as the places to see and be seen in Playa.

Playa means different things to different people and this is precisely its charm. Whether you spend time on the beach, indulge in a spot of shopping or call in for a meal on your way back from Tulum or Coba, you’ll find it difficult to leave as the sun sets and the warm Caribbean night beckons.

Getting to Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 68 kilometers to the south of Cancún along Highway 307 and the journey takes about 40 minutes by car. Thomas More Travel offers a Playa del Carmen Shop & Dine trip and transport services.

Royal Resorts’ Riviera Maya hideaway The Royal Haciendas is a five-minute taxi ride north of Playa del Carmen.