The small city of Playa del Carmen on Mexico's Yucatan coast is the geographic and cultural center of the Riviera Maya, one of Mexico's fastest-growing destinations. It is enjoyable for what it is, but perhaps more for what it's not.
It's not Cancun, the major resort area that's about an hour's drive north. For those who find Cancun too large and glossy and lacking in local character, bustling Playa del Carmen is the cure: cozy, funky and quite international, though still with a Mexican flair.
But the once small town has been changing quickly: Large numbers of luxury and all-inclusive hotels, boutiques and restaurants are the norm, and the lovely Playa del Carmen beach is becoming sandwiched between large-scale developments. The Playacar complex just south of downtown Playa del Carmen includes more than a dozen resorts, with further development spread all along the Riviera Maya.
Playa del Carmen's main pedestrian walkways are often jammed with tourists and aggressive salespeople trying to lure them into stores and restaurants. Some claim this is the fastest-growing city in Mexico, but lovers of the relaxed vibe shouldn't give up on Playa just yet.
Despite the town's growing popularity, the pace remains delightfully slow much of the time. And the core of this pleasant town is young, vibrant and joyous. During the day, the downtown beaches always have a lively crowd of locals and tourists enjoying the azure waters of the Caribbean, and the downtown shops and restaurants are alive with customers. In the evenings, Playa takes on a more festive air, with groups of friends, families and strolling musicians filling the street as the local restaurants, bars and discos compete for their attention.
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