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Playa del Carmen: Fish Tacos and First Impressions

Playa del Carmen
Statue near the pier

My two-week G Adventures trip through Mexico came to a beautiful conclusion with two days and nights in Playa del Carmen.

Like the islands of Thailand, I felt as though everyone and their mother had already been to Mexico's Riviera Maya, the country's crown jewel of tourism along the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Cancun was the over-developed epicenter, complete with an international airport, dozens of towering hotels, and a reputation for Spring Break partying.

Meanwhile, Playa del Carmen, an hour south by bus, had managed to keep development under control, which is not to say it hasn't been completely transformed over the last 10 to 20 years.

But at least you can walk the length of town along a quiet, pedestrian-only street, and there are no hotels towering overhead, or cars to contend with.

Mandala dance club
Mandala dance club

Our First Night

We arrived after a long travel day by bus from Merida, taking in the ruins of Chichen Itza along the way.

Once we were checked into our hotel for the next two nights, Gaby, our guide, lead us to dinner at 100% Natural.

We walked most of the way along Playa del Carmen's main drag, a pedestrian-only street lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, and bars. One block over was the beach.

The weather was perfect, there were lots of vacationers out enjoying themselves, and I knew immediately, Playa del Carmen was my kind of town.

100% Natural is a Mexican-owned restaurant chain featuring a menu of health-oriented fruit smoothies and dishes.

I ordered a salmon filet with fruit salsa, accompanied by wild rice.

After dinner, we headed over to another Gaby recommendation, a dive bar with cheap mixed drinks served in giant Styrofoam cups.

Everyone liked the place, and we played a drinking game or two to pass the time.

By midnight we were walking around on the streets again, checking out the nightlife scene.

It was early in the week, but there were still people out.

Playa del Carmen is one of those places where time stands still.

Every night feels like a Saturday night because everyone is there on vacation, looking to let loose and have a good time.

We began splitting up, as some people returned to the hotel, but I managed to last a few minutes in a small reggae bar with a live band before I too called it a night.

White sand beaches
White sand beaches

Day 2

The next day, we had no activities planned, so I slept late and took some time to explore the town on my own.

To my surprise, I ran into Will Peach, a British travel blogger, while walking along the beautiful white sand.

We made plans to hang out later and went our separate ways.

Fusion Beach Hotel, Bar and Grill
Fusion Beach Hotel, Bar & Grill

That night, Gaby took us to the Fusion Beach Hotel Bar & Grill for dinner.

Oddly, it was one of the few beach bars and restaurants still active at night.

We took a table inside due to the size of our group. A constant Caribbean breeze blew right through the place. I loved it.

Delicious fish tacos
Delicious fish tacos

I ordered fish tacos, some of the best of my trip, and far better than the ones I'd ordered way back in Puerto Vallarta for my first lunch in Mexico.

Fusion isn't the cheapest place in Playa, but it's hardly the most expensive either.

And considering the atmosphere couldn't be beaten, I was happy to pay.

My four fish tacos cost 160 pesos ($12).

I'd return to Fusion at least three more times during my stay in Playa.

Some nights they'd have a bellydancer perform, and other nights, fire dancers on the beach. It reminded me of Thailand.

Playing drinking games at a dive bar
Playing drinking games at a dive bar

Dinner consumed, we headed back to the dive bar with its styrofoam cups.

Alex, our guide-in-training (who also worked as a ski instructor for the Aspen Ski School during the Winters), taught us a silly drinking game called Moose.

The premise was simple, but it was quite entertaining.

A person points to another in the circle. The person pointed to has to raise both hands to their head like a moose.

The person on each side of the target needs to raise one of their hands as well. Whoever gets it wrong has to drink.

We were laughing so much from the drinking games like Moose that other patrons would look over at us like we were nuts.

La Vaquita dance club
La Vaquita dance club

It was officially the last night of the G Adventures Mexico Civilizations trip, so we were all in a partying mood.

After the dive bar, we walked down to the club zone and entered La Vaquita (The Little Cow), which had no cover that particular night.

Cows hung from the ceiling, and the music was so loud it was all but impossible to hold a conversation.

I lasted one beer, or about 30 minutes, before excusing myself because of the loud music.

Even though I wasn't there long, I could tell upon leaving that I'd hurt my left ear.

Sounds were muffled, and having experienced some short-term hearing loss in my twenties after a particularly loud Warped Tour, I knew it was going to take weeks, possibly months, for my ear to feel normal again. 

Until then, I'd have to avoid loud music and clubs and wear my earplugs.

My ivy-covered hotel, the Delfin, was just a block from the beach in the heart of Playa
My ivy-covered hotel, the Delfin, was just a block from the beach in the heart of Playa

Day 3

The next morning, I checked out of the G Adventures hotel, and into the Hotel Delfin.

Covered in green ivy, it was located in the middle of Playa del Carmen, one block from the beach.

I took a room with a window looking out over the main pedestrian street. At $41 per night, it was more than I had planned to pay, but I didn't care.

I knew the Delfin would make a convenient base from which I could enjoy my time in Playa. I also believe I negotiated a discounted rate for a week's stay.

The Wi-Fi was dependable, and they offered free spring water, so I wouldn't have to waste a lot of plastic.

Sand sculpture
Sand sculpture

Once I was settled in the Hotel Delfin, I walked over to 100% Natural for whole wheat pancakes with a few of the girls from our trip who were in town a few more days.

That night, everyone still in town met up for dinner at another of Gaby's restaurant recommendations, El Fogon Fiesta Jarocha, a taco place with a loyal following.

El Fogon was easy on everyone's wallets, and both floors were packed when we were there.

If you're still with me, what should come next is no big surprise. We returned to the same dive bar for the third night in a row.

For our loyalty, the manager hooked us up with a free round of blue shooters. I had no idea what it was, but we all took one.

Day 4 and Beyond

The next day, I grabbed a juicy cheeseburger at Fusion, before walking down the beach past incredible sand sculptures and local kids playing soccer.

I wanted to check out the ferry prices to Cozumel. On the far side of the pier was Senor Frog's, a famous restaurant and bar known for Spring Break parties.

There were also larger hotels, though their height had been limited, on the southern side of the pier.

Babe's Noodles and Bar
Babe's Noodles and Bar

In the evening, I met up with a few of our remaining cast for Thai food at Babe's Noodles and Bar.

In addition to a giant strawberry daiquiri, I give them props for their Thai Red Curry with Chicken (148 pesos, $11).

By now, I was in the Playa del Carmen groove. Sleep late, walk around lazily during the day, eat well, have a few drinks with friends each night. It was bliss.

Additional meals and places worth mentioning include:

  • Grilled fish filet on a bed of green beans, with garlic and walnuts sweet potato puree and mango-ginger sauce at Zabor Restaurant on the beach
  • Hawaiian pizza on La Azotea rooftop bar
  • Smoking sheesha at Pita House
  • Live bands at Fah Restaurant
  • Spicy Maya chocolate ice cream at Ah Cacao

I also managed to find the time for that day trip to Cozumel, an overnight trip to Tulum (an hour south), go snorkeling with whale sharks, swim with dolphins, and drive a Ferrari F430.

Ok, so the latter two I did from Cancun before leaving Mexico, but they're just as easy to do from Playa del Carmen.

I mention them here because I was so unimpressed with Cancun, I'm not going to write about my time there.

If you truly want to escape city vibes, you can take a Cancun to Tulum shuttle and skip the more developed parts of the coast.

Live bands and drink specials draw big crowds
Live bands and drink specials draw big crowds at Fah Restaurant

Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, is one of my new favorite places.

Another reason I wanted to visit it was to evaluate whether it's a place I'd want to spend a few months.

The answer is an emphatic “yes,” but I also know my experience would have to be different.

To keep costs down, I'd rend an apartment on the edge of the tourist area, not be in the middle of it.

I wouldn't be able to eat out at the nicer restaurants every night, nor go out for drinks.

In short, if I knew I had to work there, I know it'd change how I view the place.

For that reason alone, I may choose to continue viewing it as a vacation destination rather than the place where I'll sit down to write my next book.

___

My Mexico Ancient Civilizations tour was in partnership with G Adventures

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking uses and recommends:

Lauren

Tuesday 30th of December 2014

I have been to Playa and going back again in a couple months and had been to the dive bar you refer to with the giant Styrofoam cups and want to go back. What is the name of that bar? Thanks!

Dave

Tuesday 30th of December 2014

I think it's L'a Bassade. You can see a photo of the exterior here:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobackpacking/8759692598/in/set-72157633521462689

Jam @icoSnap

Monday 9th of December 2013

Playa del carmen looks really beautiful. I haven't heard of this beach before but it looks like a fun place to visit.

Shaun

Friday 6th of December 2013

$41/night seems reasonable to me for that place.

Great vacation overall though, you really can't beat a "Saturday night every night" when you're goal is to just relax. Mexico always moves down the list as other destinations jockey for a higher spot but I really don't have a good reason for doing so. Need to get to Playa soon!

Rashad Pharaon

Friday 6th of December 2013

Really appreciate your thoughts on finding a vacation spot for a few days vs. a writing spot for a few months. It can be hard to balance the two if you have to work and check out the sights simultaneously. I like the idea of living it up and spending more when you're there for a short amount of time, and being more frugal when you'll have plenty of time to enjoy the city.

Dave

Friday 6th of December 2013

I've found big cities like Medellin and Lima better suited for getting work done. There's a natural cycle to the weeks, between working on weekdays and taking it easy on weekends. In places like Playa and the islands of Thailand, it's always the weekend, and it can create an unnecessary challenge to getting work done!

Steve

Wednesday 4th of December 2013

I have heard a lot of good things about Playa. I'd definitely like to make it down there. It seems like there are a lot of activities, not to mention the beach which looks great.

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