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Exploring Playa del Carmen, beach vibes and Mexican culture

When was the last time you visited Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya’s vibrant waterfront capital? If it has been a while since you browsed the craft stores on Fifth Avenue or watched the world go by at a local café, or you have never visited this chic town before then why not plan a day or an afternoon there on your next Mexican Caribbean vacation?

Head for the beach

Most visitors to Playa del Carmen 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 with a comfy sun bed, cocktails and live music at one of the chic beach clubs that line the shore.

Relax and soak up the view or join in a game of beach volleyball and soccer. For the activity-minded, there’s snorkeling, paddle boarding, windsurfing or even kite surfing along the shoreline.

Parque Los Fundadores

After a day at the beach you’ll be ready to stretch your legs and go for an afternoon or evening stroll through Playa. Parque Los Fundadores, the original town square behind the ferry terminal is a good place to start. The views of the Caribbean and the island of Cozumel on the horizon are spectacular. 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.

There’s always something going on in this small square. You may see a wedding party emerge from the white chapel to a mariachi fanfare and the applause of the crowd that gathers to see the bride and groom.

Next to the chapel, the Papantla Flyers from northern Veracruz draw a crowd every hour as they climb a thirty-meter-pole. They tie ropes to their feet and launch themselves into space, arms outstretched like wings, circling the pole and descending until they make their landing. All the while, one man remains on top of the pole dancing and playing a reed flute. This is the representation of an ancient Totonac ritual to worship the sun god.

Elsewhere in the park, children play on slides and swings, families buy Mexican snacks from stalls and visitors pose for photos in front of the impressive Portal Maya. This is an arch erected in 2012 to commemorate the end of an era in the ancient Mayan calendar and the dawn of a new cycle.

Fifth Avenue

All roads in Playa del Carmen lead to Quinta Avenida or Fifth Avenue, the main street that runs north for miles from Parque Los Fundadores. For shopping, dining and people watching, this is the place to be. Visitors from all over the world mingle with local families out enjoying the evening air. Start your walk and you’ll soon hear Spanish, Maya, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Dutch.

Even the most demanding of shoppers will find Playa’s brand of style and color and quirkiness hard to resist. Craft shops, boutiques and art galleries share space with international brand stores and sprawling open-air shopping centers such as Paseo del Carmen, Quinta Alegria and Plaza Corazon.

If it is clothing you are looking for, you’ll find international brands, Brazilian beachwear and designer clothing from Mexico, Italy, Indonesia and beyond. Imported perfumes, leather bags and luxury goods and the shimmer of Mexican silver, gold, and gems are everywhere.

Stores selling Mexican folk art or artesanía from all over the country line “la Quinta.” Look out for hand-painted blue and white Talavera pottery from Puebla, colorful vases and plates from Hidalgo and Guanajuato, glass hearts from Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende and arboles de la vida or trees of life. There are strange wooden figurines from Oaxaca called alebrijes, angels and day of the dead skulls. Shop for Huichol yarn paintings and beadwork and brightly colored textiles and embroidered cushions, dresses and blouses from Chiapas, Yucatan and Oaxaca.

For a unique memento of your Mexican Caribbean vacation, pick up a Yucatecan hammock, a wooden jaguar, embroidered cotton napkins, and mobiles and lamps made with strings of shells, seeds and carved gourds. 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 naive-style art by Mayan painters from the Guatemalan highlands.

By now you are probably ready to embark on a culinary adventure – the restaurants along la Quinta and neighboring streets serve everything from traditional Mexican dishes to Thai cuisine, Italian pasta and Caribbean seafood. Order a plate of tacos, sample home-cooked Mayan recipes or indulge your craving for Argentinean grilled beef or French fare.

Café culture is alive and kicking in Playa del Carmen and la Quinta is thronged with open-air eateries serving freshly ground Mexican coffee, baguettes and homemade gelato.

As soon as dusk falls, the rhythm picks up along la Quinta. Thousands of lights glimmer in the trees, candles are lit and the musicians gather for their nightly parade.

Mingle with the crowds and listen to the beat of world music as you walk along. You’ll hear trumpet serenades and song from strolling mariachi bands and the rippling melodies of “La Bamba” and other jarocho favorites from the state of Veracruz. Guitar-strumming trios from the Yucatan play romantic ballads and there are even accordion players from Northern Mexico. Another block down the street, you can listen to reggae, jazz and rock, Cuban salseros and lilting flutes and pipes from the Andes.

Street artists always draw a crowd on Fifth Avenue, as do mimes dressed as Mayan warriors and famous Caribbean pirate captains. If you like to people watch, sip a margarita or martini in one of the open-air cafes or chic terrace bars.

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’s ancient heritage

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.

Museum hopping in Playa

There’s more to do in Playa than beach time and shopping, it now has three very different museums to visit.

The exhibits at the 3D Museum of Wonders on 10th Avenue are 3D drawings and famous paintings decorating the floors, walls and ceiling that create optical illusions. Come face to face with a lion or a dragon, drag a zebra out of the jungle, surf the waves, fly like the birds and even pose in a shell like Botticelli’s Venus.

The state of the art L’Aquarium has 45 spectacular aquariums on three floors of the Plaza Corazon Mall on 5th Ave and Calle 14 (the entrance is on Calle 14). Exhibits showcase the coral reef and other marine ecosystems and there are more than 200 species of multicolored fish and marine creatures.

On 5th Avenue, the Frida Kahlo Museum celebrates the life and work of this iconic Mexican artist. It features paintings and sketches by Frida, multimedia displays and work by local artists inspired by her.

Visiting 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. You can arrange a tour or a private van with Thomas More Travel. There are also regular buses and vans during the day from the bus terminal in Downtown Cancun.

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