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Playa del Carmen: Cancun's Laid-Back Next-Door Neighbor

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, QUINTANA ROO - When my sister Jen invited us to join her family for a vacation in Playa del Carmen last summer, I was suspect at first. After all, "Playa" (as it's known to those in-the-know) is just south of Cancun on the Riviera Maya...a stretch of gorgeous Caribbean beachfront with a reputation for overdevelopment, ginormous all-inclusive resorts, and gung-ho American partiers and Spring Breakers (a travelers hell, in my mind). Further, my son Wolfie had just turned three and had a penchant for disruptiveness and running away from us at inopportune times in most public places (parks, streets, zoos, you name it).

Mahekal Beach Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico Our "partial" ocean view taken from hammock on our front porch.

La Quinta, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

La Quinta (5th Avenue), the walking street of Playa del Carmen, Mexico

After doing a little research on the Yucatan Peninsula, however, Playa seemed an ideal spot for a base of operations to explore nearby Mayan ruins such as Tulum, scenic wonders such as the bays and lagoons of Akhumel, and the starting point of an extended trip in which we could drive to some Spanish Colonial cities such as the largely Mayan populated capital city of Merida. And from Merida, we were perfectly located to explore some of the Mayan sites on the Ruta Puuc (The Mayan Puuc Route just south of the city). And to seal the deal, I’ve been promising Ursula a beach vacation for a long time, and the Caribbean seemed like a fine place to finally deliver on that promise.

Staying at an all-inclusive with sis and family was out. If you are a regular follower of my blog, you know that’s just not how your Gringo rolls! A bit of Internet research unveiled an excellent alternative, right on the beach at the quieter, northern end of Playa del Carmen. The Mahekal Beach Resort features Mayan-style bungalows, right on the beach.

Mahekal Beach Resort

The front entrance to the “Magical” Mahekal Beach Resort.

The resort is also on a public beach, so you have the opportunity to chillax with local families as well as your fellow resort guests. The grounds are perfectly kept with a meandering walkway that takes you through the property’s gardens, to their excellent restaurant and right up to the beach. Our bungalow was at the end of one of the pathway’s many branches, right next to the public road (only separated by a rope, but the locals are friendly and the crime is low overall in the Yucatan. We enjoyed hanging in our hammocks with cervezas watching the locals come and go).

Mahekal Beach Resort Bungalow

Our beach bungalow at Mahekal Beach Resort.

Mahekal offers a meal plan known as “double board”. A full breakfast buffet is included in the morning, with your choice of lunch or dinner later on. We typically chose dinner so that we could enjoy lunch in town, or wherever our daily adventures found us. It was nice to have a package price on some of our meals, but the freedom to explore the local cuisine as well. We found the price to be a bit lower than some of the larger all-inclusives. Mahekal rates 4-5 stars on TripAdvisor with lots of repeat visitors for a reason. See your Gringo’s review of Mahekal on TripAdvisor here.

Mahekal Beach Resort, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

View from the hammock of our bungalow at Mahekal Beach Resort.

Playa’s main drag, the walking street known as “La Quinta” (5th Avenue) was not nearly as crowded or obnoxious as I’d thought. Shops ranged from the touristy to the upscale, as did the restaurants. The kiddos enjoyed rummaging through boxes of colorful toy Mexican guitars and trying on sombreros at one store. We dined on Argentinian steaks and MUY CALIENTE habañero salsa. I dug the “Museum of Tequila” and their impressive collection of said libation (and tasted several as well). We enjoyed drinks and people-watching at outdoor bars and cafes.

Wolfie with Sombrero

Wolfie with Sombrero at one of the many shops on La Quinta.

Mexican Blankets, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Mexican Blankets for sale on La Quinta, Playa del Carmen.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

World’s largest Tequila Collection. Playa del Carmen.

One of my very referenced guide books also led me to a very small Mayan ruin right off La Quinta in the center of town. Making it to the designated intersection, I took a left into a maze of stairs and shops and was surprised to find this tiny Mayan excavation right in the center of Playa’s main tourist drag! It bordered a small, muddied cenote and was fenced off to the public. Look for it if you go. It’s at the intersection of La Quinta and Calle 14. Buenos suertes!

Hidden Mayan Ruin, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

The small Mayan ruin right on Playa del Carmen’s main tourist drag.

The feel of the town’s main tourist areas is definitely more European than American as are much of Playa’s clientele. There was a definite police presence, but they were labeled “Tourist Police”, making one feel more at ease, i.e. you are being assisted vs. protected. While I’ve been quick to criticize this level of development in the past, Tijuana here closer to home could take a lesson from Playa in regard to zone improvements and pedestrian areas. La Quinta maintained it’s “Mexican” feel, while offering a clean, safe shopping and entertainment destination (it also lights up quite beautifully at night as evidenced in the photo, below).

La Quinta at Night, Playa del Carmen

La Quinta at Night, Playa del Carmen.

I’d heard about the dreaded Time Share salespeople who lurk in wait for unsuspecting tourists and wrangle them into a day long presentation in exchange for Xcaret tickets, free drinks, etc. etc. Our hotel manager even indicated that sometimes they arrived back at Mahekal with aforementioned tourists, much to the chagrin of Mahekal’s staff, who generally frown upon the practice. I was accosted only once during a solo walk down La Quinta. After picking the salesman’s brain for information on the area’s natural attractions, I easily detached myself from him with a fuzzy “maybe” that I’d show up at his resort’s presentation the next day (knowing full well I wouldn’t!).

Given it’s natural beauty, clean and safe pedestrian areas, friendly natives, proximity to world-class destinations such as Mayan ruins, cenotes, Spanish Colonial cities and gorgeous beaches, I’d recommend Playa to anyone..especially couples or those with families.

Your Gringo in Mexico,
Scott

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