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Playa del Carmen: Fish Tacos and First Impressions

My two-week G Adventures trip through Mexico came to a wonderful 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.

Statue in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Statue near the pier

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

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

[Tip: If you'd prefer to skip the bus, you can book a shuttle from the Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen.]

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.

Exploring Playa del Carmen

Night 1

Mandala dance club in Playa del Carmen
Mandala dance club

We arrived after a long bus ride from Merida, taking in the ruins of Chichen Itza along the way. Once checked into our hotel for the next two nights, Gaby, our guide, led 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, and many vacationers were out enjoying themselves. I knew immediately that 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 went 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.

Around midnight, we walked around the streets again and checked out the nightlife. 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 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.

Day 2

Playa del Carmen's white sand beaches
White sand beaches

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

Surprisingly, I ran into Will Peach, a British travel blogger, 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

Gaby took us to the Fusion Beach Hotel Bar & Grill for dinner that night. Oddly, it was one of the few beach bars and restaurants still active at night.

Due to the size of our group, we took a table inside. A constant Caribbean breeze blew through the place, and I loved it.

Delicious fish tacos
Delicious fish tacos

I ordered fish tacos, some of the best of my trip and far better than those 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. 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 belly dancer perform; other nights, fire dancers would perform on the beach. It reminded me of Thailand.

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

Dinner was consumed, and we returned 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 pretty 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 also needs to raise one hand. Whoever gets it wrong has to drink. We laughed so much from the drinking games like Moose that other patrons looked 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 party mood.

After the dive bar, we walked down to the club zone and entered La Vaquita (The Little Cow), which had no cover that night. Cows hung from the ceiling, and the music was so loud it was 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.

Having experienced short-term hearing loss in my twenties after a deafening Warped Tour concert, I knew it would take weeks, possibly months, for my ear to feel normal again. Until then, I'd have to avoid loud music and clubs and wear earplugs.

Day 3

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 a block from the beach.

The following day, 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 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 be a convenient base from which to 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 on the beach in Playa del Carmen
Sand sculpture

Once settled in the Hotel Delfin, I walked over to 100% Natural for whole wheat pancakes with a few girls from our trip who were in town for 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. The manager gave us a free round of blue shooters for our loyalty. 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.

Senor Frog's, a famous restaurant and bar known for Spring Break parties, was on the far side of the pier. On the southern side of the pier, larger hotels were also present, though their height had been limited.

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. I slept late, walked around lazily during the day, ate well, and had 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), snorkeling with whale sharks, swimming with dolphins, and driving a Ferrari F430.

Okay, so I did the latter two 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 that I won't be writing about my time there.

If you genuinely 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

On the other hand, Playa del Carmen is one of my new favorite places. Another reason I wanted to visit it was to evaluate whether it's a place I'd like to spend a few months.

The answer is an emphatic “yes,” but my experience must differ. To keep costs down, I'd rent an apartment on the edge of the tourist area, not be in the middle.

I wouldn't be able to eat out at the nicer restaurants every night or go out for drinks. In short, knowing I had to work there would 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 recommends:


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!


Tuesday 30th of December 2014

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

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.


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.


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!


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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