Playa del Carmen has always been a place for travelers, innovators, and explorers, even in ancient times.

The ancient Maya called the area Xaman-Ha (“Northern Waters”)–and used it as a base to canoe to nearby Cozumel, the sacred home of Ixchel, their lunar fertility goddess.  (Their settlement’s ruins are still visible today near the Playacar beach.)

Eventually abandoned by the Maya, the town was resettled around 1900 by about 50 chicleros (workers who extracted a special sap from trees used to make chewing gum back then.)  These workers–who migrated there from Belize or other nearby towns–named their new home “Playa del Carmen” after Carmen Romero Rubio, the wife of Mexico’s then-president Porfirio Diaz.

Little by little, the tiny seaside settlement attracted more adventurers.  Fishermen from other villages slowly settled with their families along the wide, white-sand beaches, and had the place mostly to themselves up until the 1970’s.

But at that time, something big was brewing nearby: the Mexican government decided to build Cancun, a huge new tourist attraction, on the deserted beaches to the north.  Soon, tourists began flocking to the state.

And Playa, thanks to its ferry dock leading to Cozumel–a more developed area–gained popularity, especially among European tourists seeking a calmer alternative to Cancun.

At first, small hotels and bars catered to bohemian Italian and German visitors and nature lovers.  But by the mid-1990s, the first large luxury hotels arrived in Playa, and the collection of relaxed beachfront inns near the ferry dock gave way to ever more varied lodging options–ranging from lively hostels catering to South American backpackers, to world-class eco-hotel complexes complete with their own rivers, spas, and golf courses.

Today, Playa del Carmen has the most hotel rooms of any municipality in all of Mexico and receives about 4 million visitors each year.  It continues to grow at lightning speed, with new condominium developments seeming to spring up weekly.

Nowadays, the largest group of foreigners is easily Argentines, followed by Italians, Cubans, Americans, and Canadians, among others. But tens of thousands of Mexicans from other states have flocked here too, drawn by the robust job market and the turquoise Caribbean sea.

Thanks to the local spirit of constant innovation, the town now has several modern shopping centers; a new city theater; a planetarium; outdoor movie nights; a jazz festival that attracts the likes of Norah Jones, Sergio Mendes, and Earth, Wind, and Fire; and many other amenities rivaling those of much larger cities.

Yet, in certain sections of town, some of the old small-town bonhomie continues to exist, if you know where to find it.  Whether you’re looking for that, or the glamour of the new Playa, here’s your insider’s guide to all things local.

Playa Del Carmen’s Neighborhoods

Most visitors will find it most comfortable to stay in the neighborhoods close to the beach, where there are lots of restaurants and shops, walking and bicycling are easy, and there are plenty of English-speakers around.

These neighborhoods include: Playacar (a private gated community in the south), the Centro (yup, right in the middle of town), friendly and tree-lined Hollywood/Tohoku, rowdy party zone Mamitas, the family-oriented Zazil Ha, elegant Coco Beach, the more rustic and artsy Colosio, and the suburb-like development Grand Coral at the northern end of town.

The Cancun-Tulum highway divides the city in half, and the areas to the west of the highway are typically more residential and less touristic.

For those seeking a more “authentic” local experience, some of those areas across the highway have vacation rentals too, including the Ejido neighborhood around Parque la Ceiba–home to outdoor movie nights, lots of trees, and on some days, an organic- and natural products market.  But walking to the beach is less convenient, depending on how far into this side of the city you’re staying.

Here, a quick guide to each of the city’s main areas:

Playacar (Phase I and II)

Who’s there: well-off families, professionals, and tourists

Plusses:

  • lots of vegetation
  • 24-hour security
  • close to the golf course and the beach
  • relatively close to downtown

Drawbacks:

  • not many shops and restaurants
  • no grocery stores or nightlife
  • taxis are more expensive

Walkability: good

Distance to beach:

  • from Phase 1: a few yards
  • from Phase 2: 10-60 minutes walk

Food Options: limited

Playacar is made up of two large, gated neighborhoods with 24-hour security, which function almost like a separate city.  The location, bordered by the highway to the west, and the Avenida Aviación to the north, is one of the fanciest parts of town, and typically this is where the families of hotel executives live, along with other well-off professionals.

It’s also one of the parts of Playa del Carmen with the most trees–most of its streets are shaded, making them peaceful havens for both humans and animals. Serekes (local animals that resemble sleeker, bigger guinea pigs) abound, along with coatis (local cousins of the raccoon), and colorful birdlife.  We’ve even spotted deer and monkeys there on occasion.

Phase I is right next to the beach and is mostly made up of large, well-appointed houses used only for vacation rentals. It’s one of the best places in Playa for walking, with its giant flamboyán trees, palms, and the ocean breeze.

There are no stores in Phase I at all, but it’s mostly not far on foot or bicycle from the beginning of the downtown/Centro, where there are more shops (from 5 minutes to 30 minutes walking, or 5 minutes by car.)

Playacar’s beach lies between the Cozumel-bound ferry dock and the extensive hotel zone, so it’s possible to walk or run several miles on the white sand without hitting any obstacles.

At high season, the beach can get crowded with young tourists partying, especially closer to the dock.  If you’re looking for a quieter spot, try walking all the way past the hotel zone (a good 30 minute+ walk).  You’ll be rewarded with an empty, quiet beach that barely anyone visits.

Phase II is bigger and includes the hotel zone, several condominiums, a golf course, and a few convenience stores, shops, and restaurants.  The beach is a little further (you need to reach Phase I), ranging from 10 minutes to an hour’s walk.

The neighborhood is set up as a loop, making it ideal for jogging, dog walking, and bicycling (the whole circle is about 4 miles). It’s one of Playa’s quieter areas, mostly home to families or retirees.

The strict security coming in and out of the development can seem a little excessive  (expect a wait when entering with a car), but it also ensures the area is safe and orderly.

One caveat: there is a small carcamo (sewage treatment plant) in the roundabout where Paseo Tulum meets Paseo Xaman-Ha.  Depending on the day and time, the immediate area can be a bit smelly.

Catching a taxi in Phase II can also be inconvenient.  It’s the most expensive of the city’s taxi zones, so expect to pay at least 60-100 pesos to go anywhere (rates start at 30 pesos everywhere else.)

Also, the only supermarket (a Soriana) is across the highway in Centro Maya, and small stores are scarce within Phase II, so if you don’t have a car, you’ll have to walk across the highway to get groceries (an adventure), or take a taxi to the stores in the center.

Downtown Playa/ El Centro

Who´s there: lots of tourists, ranging from families to the party crowd

Plusses:

  • close to the 5th Avenue pedestrian area
  • lots of shops and restaurants
  • nightclubs
  • lively and good for people-watching

Drawbacks:

  • the beach in the center is Playa’s least nice
  • during high season the area can get crowded

Walkability: good

Distance to beach: 5 to 20 minutes walk

Food options: wide variety–seek out local favorites and newer places with innovative cuisine instead of the bland tourist traps along 5th or 10th Avenue.

Here’s where it all started–and it’s still the center of Playa’s tourist districts today.

Officially, this neighborhood stretches from the beach to the highway, and between Avenida Juarez to Avenida Constituyentes, two of the city’s main streets. On the beach, it’s the area between the city’s two main piers.

This is the area where Playa feels most crowded and lively. It’s full of restaurants, bars, tourist shops, and has the most populated part of the 5th Avenue pedestrian street.  12th street is home to nearly all of the city’s main nightclubs (mostly large corporate-owned bars and dance-clubs playing pop or techno music).

To enjoy a little local flavor, stroll at night through the little park in front of the original palacio municipal (City Hall), at 15th Avenue between 8th and 10th Streets. Happy dogs and children play here while parents relax, and rollerbladers, skaters, or bicyclists sometimes meet up to set out on nocturnal adventures.

Parque Fundadores, at the beach end of Avenida Juarez, is a spot to see Prehispanic dancing, or the Voladores de Papantla–a memorable traditional performance featuring indigenous men who glide through the air suspended by cords attached to their feet (UNESCO named it part of their intangible cultural heritage list.)

For shopping, the neighborhood is flanked by two chic shopping centers: Paseo del Carmen near Avenida Juarez, featuring Zara and Benetton, and Quinta Alegria, with Forever 21, Nike, and American Eagle.

Though the area is constantly being reinvented, a few classic Playa gems survive: Check out the Comida Casera restaurant for comida corrida (economic, homemade luncheonette food) on 10th Avenue between 6th and 8th, owned by some of the nicest old-timers in the city.  Some of the informal beach seafood restaurants have also been there for years and are worth a visit–we like La Tarraya on 2nd street at the beach.

Sadly, the beach in the center suffers from the effects of overcrowding these days.  Especially at night in the Parque Fundadores, drunk people from other states tend to leave confetti of litter behind.  So for beachgoing, take the short walk south past the ferry dock to Playacar beach.

Hollywood/Tohoku  

Who´s there: friendly young professionals and families

Plusses:

  • good neighborhood restaurants
  • close to deportivo sports center
  • good grocery stores
  • friendly, neighborhood feel
  • close to everything
  • trees!
  • In Tohoku, a nice park

Drawbacks:

  • The closest beaches can be crowded, and sometimes the sand erodes.

Walkability: excellent

Distance to beach: 15 minutes walk

Food options: wide variety, from innovative artisanal takes on traditional Mexican cuisine to homey cevicherias.

If you want nice neighbors, and an array of cozy hang-out spots, look no further: Hollywood and Tohoku are the friendliest and most neighborhoody zones in all of Playa.

Hollywood, sometimes also known as Little Italy, is the area between 30th Avenue and 20th Avenue, and roughly from Constituyentes to 34th Street.  Tree-lined streets and colorful houses plus excellent local restaurants make it a favorite with Argentines, Uruguayans, and Italians.

In the space of just two blocks (25th Avenue between 26th and 30th), you’ll find great, reasonably-priced food at Elementos and Papa Charly’s, a cool artisanal furniture shop called Casona, and the Mercado 30 market with fresh vegan and meat options.

Grocery shopping is close by at either the giant Mega supermarket or the DAC on the corner of 30th Avenue and Constituyentes–an old-school Playa market with lots of ethnic and organic products.

Just two more blocks north on 38th Street lies the Tohoku neighborhood, a circle of comfortable houses built around a verdant park that’s great for dogs and kids (although, bring the repellent–this shaded oasis also makes a nice home for mosquitoes!) Friendly neighbors are happy to strike up a conversation or offer locals’ tips, and even the security guards are usually among the city’s nicest.

Maybe best of all, is that both areas are close to Playa’s Mario Villanueva deportivo on 10th Avenue and 30th Street–the town’s main sports center, with a track, a soccer field, basketball courts, a gym, and fun exercise and dance classes (cardio salsa meets daily in the evening). It’s one of the best places in Playa to make friends with locals, and where friendly people of all ages and walks of life mingle.

The only drawback to these areas is that the closest beaches are sometimes almost as crowded and eroded as the Centro’s. Take a trip north or south to the beaches at the edge of town for clearer waters.

Mamita’s

Who’s there: young party animals and “mireyes” (rich 20-somethings from Mexico City)

Plusses:

  • close to deportivo sports center
  • close to 5th Avenue
  • lots of restaurants and bars
  • large music festivals tend to be held here
  • the Constituyentes pier on a breezy evening is a relaxing spot to sit and chat

Drawbacks:

  • Litter on the beach
  • Loud techno music all day on the beach could be a plus or minus, depending on your musical taste.
  • If you’re not into staying up all night, your neighbors’ partying could be annoying.

Walkability: good

Distance to beach: <10 minutes walk

Food options: a wide variety

Mamita’s beach, at 28th Street, has appeared in reggaeton videos and fashion shoots and is still one of Playa’s most popular with the party crowd.  That means it often gets as packed like a New York City public swimming pool on a 100-degree day, especially in high season.

If drinking, people watching, and techno music is your thing, Mamita’s beach club is your mecca.  But if you want a pristine environment, steer clear. Sadly a lot of visitors here are litterbugs, leaving beer cans and chicken bones all over the sand. The water is also less clean than at other beaches.

On the plus side, once a year in December, Mamita’s hosts the city’s free jazz fest for three nights, which usually has at least one truly famous pop or jazz headliner like Chick Corea, Sergio Mendes, or in 2018, Norah Jones.  Other festivals and sports tournaments have graced the neighborhood in past years, plus some memorable one-time concerts.

The surrounding area, between Constituyentes and 34th Street, and between the beach and 15th avenue, is convenient–it’s got plenty of restaurants and bars that stay open late, plus two organic/health food mini-markets.  Yes, the partying can get loud, but the closer you are to 15th Avenue, the quieter.  Or, for a more tranquil activity, sit on the Constituyentes pier at night and enjoy the ocean breezes.

Zazil Ha/Coco Beach

Who’s there: in Zazil Ha, families and Argentines; in Coco Beach, high-end vacation renters in interesting-looking new buildings

Plusses:

  • Close to stores, restaurants, and the small Soriana supermarket
  • A cute playground for children
  • Real local food carts and street vendors
  • In Coco Beach, ogle some cool architecture

Drawbacks:

  • Construction is everywhere in these two neighborhoods–so expect some dust and noise.
  • The Shangri-La and CTM beaches aren’t the cleanest.

Walkability: good

Distance to beach: 10-15 minutes walk

Food options: several good local spots, plus some great casual-chic options close to the beach.

These two neighborhoods between 38th Street and Avenida CTM have been growing skywards fast. In Zazil Ha, it seems like every other week a new condominium building appears where a simple house once stood.

While a few years ago, the area was home mostly to local families who sent their kids out to play in the Zazil Ha park, nowadays many have moved, selling their houses to developers.

The park on 20th Avenue and 40th Street is still there though–featuring one of the better kids’ playgrounds in town and a small soccer field.  And you’ll still find local families near the park selling saborines (an even better local version of popsicles) from their living rooms.

If you want to sample marquesitas (a delicious Yucatan peninsula take on dessert crepes) or pozol (a traditional cornmeal drink blended with coconut or cocoa), you’re in the right spot too–on the corner of 30th Avenue and 40th Street, there are plenty of food and drink carts, and others roam the neighborhood selling their wares.

Coco Beach, the neighborhood at the same latitude, between 5th Avenue and the ocean, is another world.  Ten years ago, this was practically wilderness, but today, it’s full of the newest luxe developments, including some eye-catching architecture.

Whether it’s quiet or noisy all depends on the day. Since it’s at the end of the commercial part of 5th avenue, the area is usually peaceful at night, but when there are parties at the nearby Canibal Royal or Martina beach clubs, the music can reach for blocks.

One more plus here: lining the edge of these neighborhoods, you’ll find some of Playa’s best casual restaurants: Piola for Italian food, El Zorro Plateado for interesting grilled dishes, La Cueva del Chango for Mexican eclectic, and Sanga Rito for healthy fare.

A beach tip: avoid the often-malodorous beach that’s straight in front of you at the end of Avenida CTM and instead walk about a hundred yards to the left.  After the Reef hotel, there’s a narrow corridor that will lead you to cleaner sands stretching all the way to Xcalacoco.

La Colosio

Who’s there: locals from the surrounding Maya towns, bohemian artists, liberal-minded Americans.

Plusses:

  • a more relaxed vibe along 5th Avenue
  • new cafes near Avenida CTM
  • a great paved bicycle and jogging road along 5th avenue.
  • trees!

Drawbacks:

  • West of 10th avenue, some areas are sketchy due to drunk young men
  • on some streets, loose dogs barking in the night

Walkability: good

Distance to beach: 5-15 minutes walk

Food options: mostly just near Avenida CTM

La Colosio was formed by land invasion during Playa’s early expansion, meaning families from other states and the surrounding Maya towns came and built houses here without permission.

Mexican law states that after some years of living on a piece of land, the land can be awarded to its inhabitants. So eventually, the neighborhood went from being a rustic squatters’ settlement without electricity or running water to becoming a vast barrio popular or working people’s neighborhood.

Colonia Luis Donaldo Colosio, or just la Colosio as it’s known here, stretches from Avenida CTM all the way to 110th street (30+ blocks), and from the beach up to the highway.

In recent years, the southern part of La Colosio has become ever trendier, and nowadays you’ll see cool new cafes and restaurants in the first few blocks of 5th Avenue passing Avenida CTM.

Starting from this area, you can take a nice 1.6-mile jog along the 5th avenue pedestrian path all the way to Punta Esmeralda around 110th Street–a crystalline cenote (with kid-friendly shallow waters) that leads into the ocean.   (The best things along the way: a collection of colorful artists’ murals that line the entire route; and fruit trees ripe with edible capulines, medicinal noni, and even bananas.)

Punta Esmeralda is a popular neighborhood spot, so if you want to beat the crowds, come on a weekday morning as early as possible.   Weekends get hectic, and though it’s fun to soak up the local atmosphere (think yummy grilled shrimp, joyful children, and banda music on the radio), too many people in a small space can occasionally lead to fights.

The beach on 88th street has also been renovated in recent years–and now has outdoor showers, super friendly lifeguards, and buoys set up to mark a 1000-meter swimming course.  When the seaweed is low, this laid-back spot is one of the few that attracts an even mix of tourists and local families. Bring a buoy and you can even swim out the 500 meters or so to the reef!

While the area of La Colosio closest to the beach is generally safe, west of 10th avenue, street robberies and break-ins do happen sometimes.  Use common sense: keep valuables secured in a safe in your apartment, and don’t flash your last-model iPhone in the street.

Grand Coral

Who’s there: older couples and families seeking quiet

Plusses:

  • really peaceful
  • this beach is often one of Playa’s cleanest
  • nice flat smooth roads for biking

Drawbacks:

  • food is far away
  • in certain seasons, there are “agua mala” a jellyfish cousin producing a short-lived sting
  • the neighborhood just outside is run-down

Walkability: you’ll do better on a bicycle or with a car

Distance to beach: <10 minutes walk

Food options: none, except at the beach club.

The area around the Grand Coral complex is probably the most American-looking of all of Playa–a smooth suburban-style road curves past a beachfront hotel and a modern condo complex with a giant swimming pool.

Here, you’ll find a beach club, the Board Sports surf shop (where you can take kiteboard and paddleboard lessons), and a mostly calm, clean, family-oriented beach.   Here, you’re at the outskirts of the city, so if you keep walking north along the sands, you’ll find only hotels and eventually (after about a 30-minute walk), the public Xcalacoco beach, also one of the city’s nicest.

The only drawback is that without a car, you’ll be walking pretty far to find a restaurant or grocery store.  That and the “agua malas” who sometimes float in the water here, especially in the summer, and mete out a sharp, yet harmless, sting. (You can avoid them by not touching anything that looks like a long squishy piece of light-colored jello.)

The Ejido

Who’s there: local workers, families, and a handful of tourists

Plusses:

  • authentic local life
  • Parque la Ceiba
  • trees!
  • some houses have huge patios

Drawbacks:

  • farther from the beach
  • some areas can feel isolated at night

Walkability: moderate

Distance to beach: <10 minutes walk

Food options: the cafe at Parque la Ceiba, or look for street vendors selling roasted sweet potatoes and tamales. Along Avenida Juarez, you’ll find some great, large fruteria produce shops.

Travel around Mexico for a while, and you’ll see a sign in almost every town marked “El Ejido.” This isn’t just a popular neighborhood name but instead refers to a unique system created after the Mexican Revolution that parcelled out collective farmland to groups of humble farmers.  This land could never be sold or rented–up until the 1990’s when a change in national laws coincided perfectly with Playa’s early boom.

The local ejido communal farms were sold to developers and private owners–which is why today in this giant neighborhood on the other side of the highway, you don’t see many milpas (backyard mini-farms) anymore, but rather mostly houses and condominiums.

The neighborhood officially lies between Avenida Juarez and Avenida Constituyentes, between the highway and 115th Avenue.   There’s a wide variety in houses here, from vast mansions with extensive patios to humble rooming houses–often side by side.

Probably the most attractive area is around Parque la Ceiba, one of Playa’s few real public parks, a green oasis in the middle of a rapidly cementifying city.  At this park, you’ll find weekend markets, a café, outdoor film screenings, events for children, and more.  Just remember to bring repellent because the mosquitos can be dense!

Restaurant options are limited here, but the Chedraui supermarket on the highway near 3rd Street South offers a good selection of both regular and specialty foods, and there are well-stocked fruterias on Avenida Juarez, some of which even carry exotic local fruits not found in local supermarkets.  If you’re lucky, you’ll encounter the steamboat-type whistle of the camote cart at night–an ambulatory food vendor who sells freshly roasted sweet potatoes and plantains with lechera condensed milk.

While the beach isn’t really in walking distance from the Ejido, it’s easy to hop on the highway, catch a collectivo mini-bus, and visit some of the area’s best cenotes (try el Jardin del Eden, an expansive cenote complete with a diving cliff, about a 20 minute ride outside the city.)