Once overshadowed by the city of Cancún—Mexico’s pulsating epicenter for spring break shenanigans— the Riviera Maya, a 100-mile strip of tropical jungles, lagoons and blue-green Caribbean ocean landscape that floats along the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, has come into its own, cementing itself as a hot travel destination for adventurists, food enthusiasts and beach bums seeking refuge from Cancun’s overpopulated swatches of sand. And there’s nowhere more reflective of Mexico’s paradisiacal Riviera Maya than Playa del Carmen, an old fisherman’s village that’s now a bona fide vacation hub infused with scenic beauty and infectious energy.
Where to stay
Within walking distance of the hustle and bustle of nearby Fifth Avenue, Playa’s lively pedestrian-only epicenter of restaurants, shopping and nightlife, is A-nah Suites (from $130), a whitewashed cluster of spacious, family-friendly accommodations, complete with laundry facilities, a courtyard with covered cabanas and a rooftop terrace spoiled with sunlight and an infinity pool. At A-nah, just four blocks from the beach, you’ll find oneto four-bedroom suites, plus one- and two-bedroom penthouse apartments and amenities including a complimentary kids club, fitness center and private chef service.
Where to eat and drink
Dozens of restaurants and bars dot Fifth Avenue, but locals—and savvy tourists—know to meander off the main drag to experience the town’s culinary prowess. La Perla, a sultry, dim-lit restaurant with a thatched roof, open kitchen, mezcal bar and intimate sidewalk patio, showboats flavor-bombed Oaxacan and Mayan specialties: tlayudas paved with chorizo, cecina (air-dried beef ) and queso oaxaqueno; whole grilled octopus; duck tacos; and Playa’s best guacamole. If you follow the scent of pork exposed to live fire, you’ll end up at Taqueria El Fogon, a pulsating, open-air taco shop that’s packed with locals and tourists feasting on parrilladas (marinated, charcoal-grilled meats piled on a grill) and al pastor tacos crowned with charred pineapple. Oh Lala, a Mediterranean restaurant that unleashes stunning seafood dishes in sophisticated environs, also struts a lovely wine list.
Where to soak up the sun
Playa’s clean, soft sand beckons the beach crowd, and while the majority of beaches are open to the public, they’re often overpopulated. Your best bet is to splurge on an all-inclusive day pass to a private beach club. The five-star Gran Porto Resort offers half- and full-day passes, which grant you full access to its world-class beachfront, complete with shaded cabanas and sunbathing lounge chairs. Also included in the price: access to the pools (including a third-floor tranquility pool with a swimup bar), unlimited alcoholic beverages and food from a collection of restaurants.
Where to spend a day away
While there’s plenty to do in Playa, a side trip to Akumal Bay, about 25 miles south of the city, just might be the most mesmerizing highlight of your trip. Here, below the rolling waves of a turquoise haze, swim majestic sea turtles, gracefully floating across the ocean surface. Pricy guided tours, as well as snorkeling gear, are available in the onsite dive shop, and while the tours all but guarantee sightings, it’s a very good bet that if you venture out on your own, you’ll have the same luck.
There are taxis and colectivos (shared transportation vans) all over Playa, but if you want to get a true sense (and taste) of the Riviera Maya, do yourself a favor and hire Agustin Cruz, a remarkably courteous, engaging and terrific tour guide and driver whose knowledge of the region is unparalleled. He’s fluent in English, creates personalized itineraries that are off the tourist grid and provides transportation to Cancún International Airport.