Playa del Carmen has one of the prettiest beaches on the coast and, despite its growing popularity, it has a small-town, laid-back feel to it which is part of the appeal. The offshore reef offers some spectacular diving, and less than an hour away by boat is the island of Cozumel, with some of the best diving in Mexico. There are numerous dive centres offering reef and cave diving in the limestone caverns along the coast. The small commercial town centre is packed with souvenir shops, trendy bars and cafes, restaurants, designer clothes shops and hotels, and has a vibrant nightlife that caters for the smaller beach settlements nearby so holidaymakers can enjoy the best of both worlds. It can get very overcrowded with day-trippers from Cancun, as well as cruise ship passengers. South of town, the expanding Playacar development caters mainly for package tourists, its beach packed with sunbathers and deckchairs, and lined with hotel complexes. There is also an 18-hole golf course.
Comfortable footwear is vital for holidaymakers intent on a shopping spree in Playa del Carmen, where everything you need in the dozens of enticing shops can be easily accessed on foot. The place to tog yourself out in designer-wear, from head to toe, is 5th Avenue, and to complement the look there are plenty of speciality stores to browse around for jewellery, Mayan-inspired arts and crafts, handbags and the like. Souvenirs range from tacky ashtrays to bright and beautiful sarongs, Mexican blankets and sombreros, and even genuine Cuban cigars from La Casa del Habano (US citizens may not purchase these). Playa del Carmen boasts a Wal-Mart on 30th Avenue, and several American style supermarkets like Chedraui on the corner of Juarez and Highway 307, and Super San Francisco on 30th Avenue. There are also numerous mini-marts selling essentials for holidaymakers, and plenty of pharmacies. The resort's main shopping malls are Plaza Pelicano on 10th Avenue and the Paseo del Carmen close to the ferry pier.
No one need go hungry in Playa del Carmen because wherever you are in this holiday resort, there will be a great restaurant a stone's throw away. Cuisine ranges from traditional Mexican through all the international favourites, including sushi and vegetarian establishments. For a top Mexican taste treat steer a little off the beaten track behind 5th Avenue and look out for a small taqueria where it is possible to pick up a tempting taco or two for a pittance. Street vendors in the main square (Zocalo) are also a good budget option, especially for fresh fruit and tasty tamales. When it comes to restaurant dining it is difficult to make recommendations from the dozens of good establishments available, but some of the more popular eateries are The Blue Lobster, its speciality obviously the eponymous crustacean; and Season Bistro, which serves upscale Mexican with an international twist.
Whether it is dancing cheek-to-cheek under the stars, sipping margaritas on a rooftop, soaking up some live jazz, people-watching from a street side bar, learning to salsa, or downing shots and raving it up on a flashing dance-floor, holiday visitors will find that Playa del Carmen after dark has something to fit the bill. One of the most popular hotspots is the huge Palazzo. You can find live music at Kitxen if the club scene is not your style. Numerous open-air bars are in operation until the early hours. Some offer live music or DJs and dancing as the night wears on; others serve up drinks under the stars or palapa (woven palm frond) roofs.
For sporty types a holiday in Playa del Carmen offers plenty of activity. The number one sport is scuba diving on the magnificent coral reefs that surround the area, and there are plenty of opportunities for beginners and experienced divers to make the most of it. The less adventurous can snorkel, viewing the underwater world from above. A plethora of watersports equipment is available to rent on and around the beach, from sailboats to jet skis, parasails to charter fishing boats. Those who prefer to stay dry can enjoy the Robert van Hagge designed 18-hole golf course south of town, or the sports centre on 10th Avenue which offers tennis and basketball courts and a running track. Horse rides on the beach and through the jungle are popular, too. When it comes to sightseeing there are several options, ranging from nearby Mayan ruins to exploring cave systems and cenotes (sinkholes) in the area, or taking excursions to nearby Cozumel Island or other spots along the 'Mayan Riviera' coastline.
There are plenty of topless and nude beaches around Playa del Carmen and families travelling with young children should take this into account.