Mexico’s busy little port Playa del Carmen is a hotbed of small boutique hotels and condos for families who want to get away from large all-inclusive resorts. Playa del Carmen is the biggest town along the Riviera Maya, that beautiful hundred-plus-mile stretch of gold sand beaches on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Colorful “Playa” as it’s known, was for many years just a disagreeable little port for the Cozumel ferry. We’re happy to say it’s blossomed into a hip, funky and Euro-chic beach town with its own eclectic personality. The resident population of 7,500 Mexican and expats primarily supports the booming real estate market for Riviera Maya, Sunset Beach (north on the Gulf coast near Merida) and the southern Costa Maya condo developments south of Tulum.
Orienting Yourself to Playa del Carmen
Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue is pronounced KIN-tah AH-ven-eeda) is the pedestrian-only main street running parallel to the scruffy beach, and if you stroll it from north to south you’ll quickly get the scene.
The most recently built commercial businesses on the north end include La Coste and Tommy Hilfiger, stylish wine bars, fine Italian ristorante and, off 5a Avenida, several terracotta-tiled cul de sacs lined with tiny boutiques selling European swimwear and Indonesian sarongs. After about 15 minutes’ strolling south past discos, lots more discos, ATM machines, a wonderful branch of Cancun’s celebrated La Parilla Grill and more T-shirt and Cuban cigar shops than we could count, you’ll arrive at Avenida Juarez and next to it, the main square or Zocalo which intersects the cross street for the Cozumel ferries.
Mid-day you may encounter the hordes who come from the big cruise ships to shop and enjoy land-locked margaritas. At night, everyone turns out in their resortwear finest at sunset. There are dozens of very good restaurants right in town. Playa del Carmen’s loud bar scene makes it seem less kid-friendly after supper. Writes Bianca OrvaÃ±anos of Cancun about her 10-year-old brother’s favorite nighttime show: “If you are here on Tuesday, there is a sensorama entertainment in the Hotel Los Itzaes in central Playa del Carmen. We love it, it is about traditions in Mexico and about feeling them, by listening to a narration with your eyes closed.”
Playa’s beach was never a wide gold sand stretch, but it is used to full advantage – where the sand is narrow and the coral reaches the shoreline, that’s where you’ll find the barefoot discos and cheapest hotels. In the past few years, the sand reclamation technology perfected by restoring the width of Cancun’s beach after several bad hurricanes, has been put to good use in Playa to enlarge and improve its beach.
Days are fun: thanks to government investment, a playground and outdoor mercado have spring up at the south end of town, alongside Wal-Mart, sporting goods stores and a supermarket catering to condo owners.
Recommended Playa del Carmen Hotels & BnBs
Yes, you can sleep in a two-cots-and-a-lightbulb-abode for under US$35 per night, but we’re going to suggest some of the better resorts off 5a Avenida where your family can get to sleep before 2am.
There are many, many small beachfront inns, while others have morphed into full-fledged “rustic” beach developments. South in Akumal and Tulum, near the beautiful beachfront Mayan ruins of Tulum, you’ll find the hideaway sand-floor bungalows (or cheap, student huts) of your dreams as well as newer, luxury boutique hotels with a New Age, yoga and wellness focus.
The Mahekal Beach Resort (866/909-5225 or +52-984/873-0611), formerly the Shangri-La Caribe Beach Resort, is where my family stayed for a small reunion over the 2004-2005 New Year’s holiday. There are 126 one and two-story bungalows in two wings at 38th Street, about a 10-minute walk along the beach north of town. At our visit, the higher-priced, stucco beachfront bungalows had been fashionably renovated in Frida Kahlo colors. In contrast, our wooden “garden-view” bungalow (much cheaper) with two double beds and a tiny bathroom with shower boasted a large verandah and two hammocks to swing from. The new owners have upgraded these simpler rooms and freshened them with bright colors. We found this small resort’s buffets, holiday parties and a smattering of family activities to be a decent value, considering breakfast and dinner (no drinks) are included in day rates. The beach is very pretty but the Caribbean can be windy and rough, so the two good-sized pools are welcome. Mahekal offers the ease of an all-inclusive at a price that encourages you to dine out in Playa with no guilt. Let your teens know that there’s an Internet cafÃ©, and send us an email with your reactions to the new owners and what they’ve done to change our description.
Petite Lafitte (+52-984/877-4000) For more than 30 years, its beachfront location in Puerto Juarez (at Km 62 of the Cancun-Tulum Highway about 11 kms north of the Playa town center) has symbolized the laid back style of the Yucatan coast, even before the “Riviera Maya” name was coined. With ocean and garden view standard rooms and bungalows, a restaurant, a poolside bar and grill and a friendly and experiences staff, the Petite Lafitte is an ideal spot for those seeking relaxation and privacy. Peak rates start at $250/N, while summer rates are as low as $160/N. Rates will include breakfast, dinner, and taxes. .
Other Recommended Playa Inns
Having said there are dozens of inns in every price range, we asked some local insiders to select the smaller hotels that would welcome kids and still provide a good night’s sleep and easy beach access. From what we learned, here are the top picks within the small lanes of Playa del Carmen:
Kinbe is close to the sea, not beachfront, but it does welcome kids under age 6 to share parents’ rooms and is easily accessible to the late-night Playa scene.
The higher-priced Lunata is the project of a local architect and designers with great taste. Within a short walk of the beach (some upper rooms have a partial sea view), the Lunata is a bit away from the Playa party scene and is suitable for those seeking a more peaceful place. Note that this stylish Mexico-chic property welcomes families with children above age 12 only.
At Playa Maya, a newly built development managed by an American/Mexican couple, you’ll find contemporary, attractive rooms with interesting touches. For example, the Garden Jacuzzi rooms have a king bed and a private garden area with its own Jacuzzi tub, while the two-bedroom Deluxe Family Suites have two adjoining beachview rooms with small balconies, their own hammocks and more overall space inside. It’s located in the heart of Playa but since most rooms face over the small pool, it’s a bit quieter than expected.
The Blue Parrot is right in heart of town, convenient for the party-goers. This jazzy B&B welcomes young couples to its attractive rooms and lively bar. Kids under 12 can stay free with parents.
Hotel La Tortuga is quieter, but your teens will have to be 15 to be welcome here; this attractive 45-room stucco complex draped in plants is off the main street, with larger family rooms, including Jr. Suites and Standard Plus rooms sleeping three or four. They have a private beach club with an on-site dive operation, and spa treatments are available.
Luxury Playa del Carmen Resorts
The planned gated community of Playacar has a wide variety of private homes, budget all-inclusive resorts, high-end condominiums and a few classy, family-welcoming places, all within a 15 minute drive of Playa del Carmen. Here are two of our favorites.
Riu Palace Mexico
Avda. Xaman-Ha, Manzana 3, Lote 4, Condominio Playacar
Playa del Carmen – Quintana Roo
(+52) 98 48 77 42 00; 888/RIU-4990
The five-star Hotel Riu Palace Mexico is a world of its own, much more exclusive and toney in ambiance and decor. An all-inclusive, its higher rates mean guests may use facilities at all the other Riu properties. Akin to the colonial estates one might have found outside Mexico City at the turn of the century, this resort is all wrought iron, marble and dark mahogany furnishings. The soaring lobby boasts a replica of the Santa Rosita Chapel from the state of Jalisco and enormous twinkling chandeliers. Most striking is the U-shaped layout which surrounds fountains in a long reflecting pool marching triumphantly down to the beach. Its 434 larger rooms include 20 junior suites, eight of which have honeymooner-pleasing rooftop Jacuzzis. The rooms are grand, yes, but a bit conservative for us, and the families we met seemed to be those who had insisted on “the best resort in Playacar” without stopping to consider a complimentary bar setup stocked with full liquor bottles (leash those teens!) and the monastic somber tones of the furnishings and public areas. Nonetheless, even the less expensive garden-view standard rooms have a pullout sofabed and are able to comfortably accommodate four people. In addition to a full spa, this resort also has a children’s playground and kiddie pool. The Don Julian is the attractive buffet restaurant, but for a special meal, try to get a table at the premium-priced Sir Edward, where you can dine elegantly indoors or in view of the fountains outdoors, on surprisingly gourmet fare.
Hotel Riu Palace Riviera Maya
Av Xaman-Ha Mza 9 Y 10 Lote 1 INT. FRACC. Fase II Solidaridad
Playa del Carmen – Quintana Roo
(+52) 98 48 77 22 80; 888/RIU-4990
Like the other five all-inclusive properties adjacent to each other in Playacar, this place — the newest — has copious dining facilities, unlimited beverages of every type imaginable, organized adult activities and nightly entertainment provided by a professional troupe. The most exclusive property, the Riu Palace Riviera Maya has a regal ambiance and a Spanish Colonial style. Similar in feel to the Palace Mexico but with even more pampering and 24-hour room service, the Palace RM has five gourmet a la carte restaurants as well as several poolside and beachfront bars. Ask the concierge desk for help in planning an excursion to the significant Mayan archeological sites or cenotes — sinkholes and water bodies used by the ancient settlers of Yucatan.
Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa
Carretera Chetumal Pto Juarez – Km 295
Solidaridad, Playa del Carmen 77710 Mexico
(+52) 98 48 73 44 44; 866/887-5601
The Sandos Caracol is popular with families largely for its outstanding waterpark including 17 waterslides and fun waterplay features. Kids of all ages are welcome at the Aqua Park, but adults are asked to hang around too, and comfortable poolside chairs and a bar make that easy to do. There’s a lifeguard on duty at all times. Additionally, this high-end all-inclusive has a kids’ club with supervised activities (pool, games, crafts) for children ages 2–12, a mini disco and teen activities. The staff gets high marks for its helpfulness and friendly demeanor, and you can enjoy more personal concierge service by booking the Sandos Select superior rooms instead of the regular resort guestrooms. Check online for summer specials, when prices drop here. Note that this resort is located south of Tulum on the Riviera Maya, making it a longer drive from the Cancun Airport.
Outside of the village of Playa del Carmen are many Riviera Maya resorts built on substantial property. You can read more about the top budget all-inclusives for families in our Playa del Carmen Budget All-Inclusives roundup.
A footnote about Playa: If you’re based in one of the small hotels here, you may be missing the service of a concierge or knowledgeable front desk staff who can help you plan family excursions. Rely on Alltournative Expeditions, a local tour operator which works closely with the Mayan communities to promote sustainable tourism. Within their eco-friendly outings, you can plan snorkel and ATV adventures, visits to Xcaret and the other archeological sites and explore any part of the Yucatan peninsula you’re interested in.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.