At the start of 2014, Nick & I needed a place to chill out and get some serious work done. We had three months to spare before a wedding in California, and we were totally flexible on where we would spend them. We had pretty simple requirements for our lounge spot:

    • An easy flight to/from the USA. (we were flying from DC in February and to San Francisco in May)
    • Reasonably cheap, so we could save money for major events later in the year. (SDCC here we come!)
    • Near a beach. It’s my favorite way to chill.
    • All the comforts a digital nomad loves: fast wifi, lots of cafes, and plenty of cool people for us to hang out with.

So I did what any travel blogger would do – I surveyed my Twitter followers! The same place kept coming up over and over again in their answers: Playa del Carmen, Mexico.

I checked with my nomadic friends, did a Google Image search, and read tons of blog posts from people who’d spent time in Playa. As with any place, there were pros and cons. I think Wandering Earl described it best as a place that’s not great for sightseers or adventurers, but perfect for digital nomads who want a place to hang out, get some work done and chill at the beach. It sounded perfect for us, so we booked an apartment and hopped on a plane!

So were they right?

After three months, here’s my take on Playa…

 

I ABSOLUTELY LOVE:

The food scene.

The foodie culture here is AWESOME. You can walk down 5th Avenue (aka “La Quinta”) for thirty minutes and pass countless cafes, bars and boutique restaurants, and at least 30% of them aren’t tourist traps. And you’ll find even more hidden gems if you get off 5th.

There’s an especially amazing array of choices between 32nd & 42nd (our ‘hood). There’s the little shop that makes everything with local cacao, from chocolate lasagne to Mayan-inspired drinks and, of course, decadent truffles. There’s the falafel & lemonade bar that became our go-to lunch spot for burritos, salads and sandwiches all made with delicious falafel. There’s the healthy smoothie joint, a place that serves kobe burgers, and of course Ah Cacao, the “Mexican Starbucks” that seemingly all nomads and expats use as a co-working space from 8am to 11pm.

The sheer variety of food really surprised us and while it’s not Thailand-cheap (unless you’re only eating tacos) it’s still very reasonable compared to US cities. There’s also massive supermarkets and cute little corner shops that allow you to cook anything your heart desires, from tacos to sushi. Nick even found knock-off sriracha so he wouldn’t have to go without.

 

The endless stream of new friends.

There’s a really big expat scene here. Add to that a steady stream of nomads and other travelers that breeze through the city and we were never without company. During our time in Playa we made new friends from Austria, Finland, Denmark, Germany, the States, and of course Mexico. Every coffee shop and cafe has wifi, so you pretty much can’t work outside of your apartment without running in to people you know. You’re never without someone to chat with about a new business idea, a cool cenote you haven’t been to yet, or just to grab a cerveza or two. It’s a real community atmosphere and I haven’t made friends this easily in a while.

Not only does Playa attract a very chill and open group of people, but the locals are warm and welcoming. We were on a first-name basis with seemingly all the waiters in town within a week!

 

Easy day trips.

You can easily grab a cheap bus, collectivo or ferry to an insane variety of destinations. Tulum, Chichen Itza, Akumal, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Merida, Holbox, and plenty of other interesting places are all a quick day trip away. There are dozens of blue-green cenotes to explore, reefs to dive, beautiful beaches to lay on, and ancient ruins to photograph. Whatever type of adventure you’re in to, it’s probably here.

Though I have to admit that over the course of three months we barely did any of it. Between friends coming to visit, work to be done, and general laziness, we just weren’t motivated enough to explore the entire peninsula. We resisted the urge to “see it all” and just let the chill vibe of Playa wash over us.

 

I’M NOT SO IN LOVE WITH:

The Beach

I’m conflicted about this… while I’ve got some absolutely GORGEOUS beach shots, I’m sad to say that overall Playa’s beach was a bit of a disappointment. (The irony of that sentence does not escape me.)

In the pictures other bloggers have on their old posts, the beach looks idyllic. Long and white and spotless. The beach now? It’s different. Not bad, but different. Apart from an overcrowded stretch of beach from Av. Constituyentes to Mamita’s Beach Club, the beach from 2nd to 60th is almost comically small. South of Constituyentes the beach is almost entirely made up of sandbags, and resort chairs are practically sitting in the waves. And on “our beach” at 44th street there were some days where the beach was so tiny families were forced to sit single file up against the fence so their towels didn’t get soaked.

Playa is dying…. maybe

Not sure if this graffiti is prescient or paranoid.

But the ocean changes the shape of the sand every day, and no one can predict what you’re going to get. When we walked up towards 60th street and beyond, we’d reach wide beaches that are barely populated. That’s what I loved about this beach: you can walk for miles. Need to take a break from work, or plan out your next business idea? Kick off your shoes and walk in the waves for hours without stopping. It’s simply wonderful.

Sadly, I can’t finish this section without mentioning the weird smell that occasionally wafts across the more populated beaches. It smells vaguely of rotten eggs, and no one knows why. Some say it’s from the overloaded sewage systems draining into the ocean. Others say it’s natural gas. Still others swear it’s just seaweed. Whatever is causing it, it’s certainly strange.

If I were to give someone advice on whether or not to plan a one-week vacation to Playa del Carmen, I would make sure to tell them that the gorgeous white sands of Tulum are just a collectivo ride away. And they don’t smell at all.

 

The “Haagen-Dazs” Zone

After being here a few days Nick & I drew an arbitrary line in the sand. Dubbed “the Haagen-Dazs line”, we decided we wouldn’t walk on 5th Avenue south of 30th street (where the first of many Haagen-Dazs is located) if we wanted to keep the illusion that we were in a chill beach town. Past that line, the prices suddenly go up, tourist trinket shops outnumber restaurants, and you start to hear lots of calls “Hey honeymooners! Come try some tequila!”

KitsPlayaMap

So is Playa worth your time?

That’s really up to you. I love the friendly people and the cafe culture, and it’s certainly a hotspot for digital nomads and other cool people, but I can’t unreservedly recommend it to everyone I know. While it’s certainly cheap compared to most American & European cities, it’s not cheap compared to, say, Thailand. And while I love the fact that I can walk for hours on the beach, I’m definitely disappointed that it’s not as nice (or smell-free) as the photos led me to believe. And though I’m fascinated by this growing boomtown (we witnessed several buildings appear from nothing in a matter of weeks), the constant construction noise from 7am to 6pm was more than a little annoying.

That being said, it is a reasonably-relaxed beach town and a nomad-friendly space that’s perfectly situated for enjoying plenty of short trips to Mayan ruins, underwater reefs and white-sand beaches. I can honestly say our first month here was perfect. But three was too much for me. The little things that didn’t bother me much in our first few weeks really started to annoy by week 7. But, of course, there are nomads and expats who’ve been here close to a year or more who still love it!

ThingsPlayaIs

I hope this post has given any of you would-be beach bums a good idea of what Playa is like, whether you intend to spend one week here or one hundred. Come if you want a place to chill on the beach, get some work/reading/writing done, hang out in cafes, make friends from all over the world and still be able to eat fresh sushi and tacos in the same day.

Playa del Carmen was nothing but a sleepy beach town just 15 years ago. Only time will tell if this multi-cultural, multi-lingual town can balance its rapid development with the natural beauty that brought people here in the first place.

  • Michele in Playa

    I think you pretty much hit the nail on the head with your impressions of Playa del Carmen. In December, we will have been here for 10 years. I’ve seen the beach come and the beach go…and the weird smell ebbs and flows as well and migrates up and down the beach. We have taken the advantage of the location to extensively travel through and explore Belize, Guatemala and all of the Yucatan and southern Mexico. You can’t beat Playa when it comes to location and accessibilty. We have young kids still in school here. This is now “home” and I cautiously look forward to our next 10 years on the Riviera Maya.

    • http://www.seeknewtravel.com/ Kit Whelan

      Thanks Michele! It is a fabulous location with all the comforts you could want or need. I hope the beach holds out for you over the next 10 years! I’m sure I’ll be back sometime to check on it :)

  • http://tendegreeswarmer.com/ Robb Hillman

    Thanks for this review! We are heading to Asia this fall, but I often wonder about Mexico. It is just so close and, having gone through the Yucatan as backpackers a few years ago, we simply LOVED it. (The food, the food!) But backpacking isn’t the same thing as staying put, so thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • http://www.seeknewtravel.com/ Kit Whelan

      You’re very welcome Robb! My goal with this post was to give people an honest idea of what to expect (at least in 2014, I’m sure it will be different next year!) so I’m glad if it can help!

  • http://www.venturists.net/ Venturists

    Just got to Playa – it’s been raining so we haven’t checked out the beach yet. Not looking forward to the smell! But we have sampled the tacos – so far so good! We will see. Thanks for the tips.

    • http://www.seeknewtravel.com/ Kit Whelan

      You’re very welcome! I hope you have an enjoyable time despite the rain. Make sure to check out the cenotes! Definitely one of my favorite parts :)

  • http://www.letsregale.com/ Valerie Fidan

    Great post! This is very spot on. I love the map of Playa…great way to “map it out.” It’s interesting how much Playa has changed over the years.

    • http://www.seeknewtravel.com/ Kit Whelan

      Thanks Valerie! The map was fun to make!

  • http://www.vivaplaya.net/ Viva Playa

    Hope you come back soon! here you can find more useful information about Playa del Carmen –> http://www.vivaplaya.net ;)

  • http://www.swankpad.org Tim Swanky Glazner

    Funny, I would completely invert your map! We always stay down around Calle 4, and note that Playa gets worse as you go further north. At Calle 4, the exchange rate is usually at least a point higher if not 3. It is quieter, more relaxed. We only venture up around 38th for Cuban food. Otherwise we avoid the mall like atmosphere of rich people in fancy clothes spending too much money. Certainly the local shop owners are annoying compared to the fancy shops further north, but I am not there to shop at any of those places anywhere. We also stay off 5th in general and travel by 10th to avoid being bothered. 5th is good for people watching. Stop at a place with a 2 beers and nachos deal for $2 and just see the people show. Go eat further away and pay 1/4 the price for better food. Regardless, it is so far better an experience that Cancun now. I’d never go back there. And you can also just stay at Akumal or Puerto Moreles for a more small quiet experience. Playa offers a lot more options within a walk or collective away without the extreme hassle of Cancun.

    • http://www.seeknewtravel.com/ Kit Whelan

      Haha, that is funny! To each their own :)

  • Tony DD Pinal

    Awesome post, especially the map which I found really useful and funny (in a good way :) I will be heading to Playa on the 1st August this year, anyone around?

  • Michi Weber

    The beaches here in Playa are a mess! Especially between CTM down south to Mamitas. No rotten eggs or seaweat smell but pure unfiltered drainage water. In other words its our SHIT you are smelling and people are still bathing in the ocean!

    Playa del Carmen = Playa del Baño