Playa del Carmen's famous Fifth Avenue, a 2-mile long pedestrian street — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
Located an hour south of Cancun, on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is the small town of Playa del Carmen. It was once a "sleepy little fishing village" and you'll still get that vibe today, even though there are roughly 150,000 residents and millions of visitors each year. Year after year, the fun little town of Playa del Carmen (known simply as "Playa" to area residents and regular visitors of the town) is mainly visited by Americans, Canadians, and Europeans.
Playa has a distinct European influence and, unlike Cancun, there are no high-rise buildings in town. In fact, there is a city ordinance that states no building can be taller than four stories (although you will find some that are slightly taller, despite the rule). The beach is easily accessible from many streets whereas, in Cancun, you can only access the beach in a few places, if you are not staying in one of the large resort properties. And, while Cancun feels like a city that happens to have a beach, Playa del Carmen has the distinct feel of a "beach town".
The differences between the two popular resort destinations don't end there but most people that love Cancun generally fall in love with Playa del Carmen too. Since the two towns are so close together, a day-trip to Playa del Carmen is definitely a "must-do".
Once in Playa del Carmen, the main attraction (aside from the gorgeous beaches, that is) is a 2-mile long pedestrian walkway, called Avenida La Quinta (also commonly referred to as "Fifth Avenue"). The avenue is filled with small restaurants and bars, souvenir shops, small hotels, art galleries, nightclubs, and upscale boutiques that sell fine jewelry, clothing, or unique gift items & home decor. While walking down Fifth Avenue, you'll encounter tourists from around the world.
Fifth Avenue is only one or two blocks from the beach and the side streets that connect the avenue to the beach are also packed with cute hotels, great restaurants, and interesting shops.
The beach, in Playa del Carmen — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
On the beach, you'll find a large number of oceanfront restaurants & bars, boutique hotels, and beach clubs, where visitors can rent a beach chair for the day and have some fun in the sun. The area beach clubs serve food and have bar service as well, so you can eat and drink, to your heart's delight, without ever having to leave the comfort of your lounge chair.
You can easily spend an entire day walking up and down Fifth Avenue, sampling food & beverages from the great little eateries and bars, along the way, or lounging on the beach, at one of the popular beach clubs. Babe's Noodles & Bar, Fusion Beach Hotel (they have a restaurant/bar right on the beach), John Gray's Place (an excellent restaurant), and Blue Parrot (both a hotel and a restaurant/bar; located right on the beach) are some nice places to check out, while in Playa del Carmen.
Hanging lamps, made from gourds. These whimsical creations can be found in Playa del Carmen, at a store called Jellyfish. — Photo courtesy of Susan R. Vincil
To get to Playa del Carmen, from Cancun, you can either rent a car and drive yourself (this is not recommended, as many of the local cops are "on the take" and often pull over tourists, in order to try to get the tourists to pay a bribe for some imaginary traffic violation), you can hire a taxi or private shuttle service to drive you to/from Playa, or you can choose the most economical option and take the ADO bus (ADO is a well-known, reputable bus line with routes throughout Mexico) between downtown Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
The ADO bus takes approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes, each way, but the cost is roughly $5 USD, per person/each way. The bus station in downtown Cancun can easily be reached by taxi or by taking the R-1 city bus into town. Then, in Playa del Carmen, the bus terminal is located right on Fifth Avenue.
Regardless of which mode of transportation you choose to get down to Playa del Carmen, you are practically guaranteed to have a great time, once you get there.