An Insider’s Guide to Playa del Carmen

On my first trip to Playa del Carmen in 2007, I wasn't sure what I'd find.

But I was pleasantly surprised. This beach town was growing fast—but in a low rise, laidback kind of way. The locals were friendly, there were plenty of expats, and enough amenities and conveniences to live comfortably there all year.

And this was a beach town with beautiful beaches. The kind you snap and share with friends and family. Trust me, it will make them want to visit, too.

Playa charmed me on that first trip. I've gone back countless times since. Each time, I'm amazed by what's changed: New restaurants, new hotels, new businesses, new faces. And what hasn't changed: The beaches, the high quality of life, the instant appeal of Playa.

Playa's gone from a fishing village to a chic beach city in a couple of decades. In the early 1970s, it was little more than a dock, with ferries running across to the island of Cozumel. Businesses popped up close to the ferry dock...before spreading east along Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue). When I arrived in 2007, growth had reached Calle 20. Today, it's way past Calle 40 and shows no sign of stopping.

The newer section of Playa, past Calle 30, is the location of the Zona Dorada. This leafy, exclusive part of Playa is home to boutique hotels, luxe beach clubs, and high-end dining. It's also where folks like you have banked some serious paper gains. In 2017, luxury two-bed condos in the Zona Dorada were on offer from as little as $193,800. This year, the first owner moved in...and that $193,800 condo would now set you back $314,333.

I'm often asked to reveal the “best" of Playa. Where to eat, shop, relax. So, here we go...

Where to Eat: My favorite restaurant is Gluay Maai Thai on Calle 38. In a leafy corner of town that's just off Fifth, it's easy to miss. Hidden by curves in the street and lots of mature trees, it feels secluded. The food is good and the wait staff friendly and attentive.

A few streets away, Axiote mixes traditional Mexican food with a modern twist. From the front, it looks deceptively simple with a huge palapa roof. But the food is amazing. I still rate its green salad (with a spirulina garnish) as one of the best I've eaten anywhere.

When in Mexico, you've got to eat tacos. I've tried lots of different places for these in Playa and it's hard to go wrong. Las Hijas de la Tostada on Calle 38 does some nice veggie options.

For dessert, I'd recommend Amorino on Calle 28 for delicious gelato... Chez Celine for melt-in-the-mouth French pastries on Calle 34...or Ah Cacao on Calle 38 for decadent chocolate frappés.

Where to Shop: A must-visit every time I am in Playa is Sol Jaguar, a small store on Fifth. It carries a fantastic selection of Mexican handcrafts. From hand-stitched cushions to painted wall hangings, it's excellent for gifts for family and friends—and gifts for yourself as well, of course. I've purchased several alebrijes (small wood sculptures, carved and painted in the state of Oaxaca) from this store.

Stores line Fifth Avenue, the main shopping, dining, and entertainment street in Playa. There are the typical souvenir shops you'd expect in a resort destination, but also boutique stores, upscale malls, and chic restaurants.

Fifth is also brilliant for people-watching. Early mornings, it's my go-to walking trail. In the evenings, pull up a seat in one of the cafes or bars along it and you can watch the world and all its wonders and craziness drift past.

5th Avenue stretches for miles and offers a huge variety of restaurants, nightlife...
5th Avenue stretches for miles and offers a huge variety of restaurants, nightlife...

Where to Relax: Playa's beaches are some of the best you'll find anywhere. With cool powder sand washed by the clear Caribbean Sea, they're postcard perfect. The beaches are public, so you can roll up with a beach towel to sunbathe and swim. But there is a more luxurious option. There are lots of little clubs along the beach. They charge a cover fee, but it's often credited against food and drinks. You get to use the loungers, umbrellas, and tables, and there's wait service on hand with frosty-cool drinks and snacks.

If you want to explore beaches outside Playa, you won't run short of options. North and south of the city, the coast boasts mile after mile of powder beaches. Plus, there are regular ferries running across to the island of Cozumel, which is well worth a visit. It's home to stunning beaches, snorkel and dive spots, and a relaxed vibe. The ferry ticket is $25 for a round trip.

Your Comments and Questions

In response to Margaret's article on June 8, which compared two places on the French Riviera: Cannes and Antibes...

Edi says: Great article thank you!

Two additional thoughts ...

1) How would you compare the restaurants, cafes, and amenities?

2) Which would do better for rental return opportunities?

My guess is Cannes which just might break a tie if someone was on the fence of which city to buy in!

Keep up the great work.

What's your thinking on Brazil at this point, and possibilities in the future?

Margaret responds: Great to hear from you, Edi. Cannes is movie-star glamour, upscale, very modern, very luxurious...great marinas, a lively promenade, dining and especially shopping. It feels like a small city with everything you could want or need. And lots of entertainment [normally] on offer, from cellar bars to live music to casinos.

Antibes is more bohemian, a bit lower key, it feels more like a relaxed town than a busy would not go to Antibes to shop (Cannes is better) but you still have nice dining options (restaurants and cafes). And Antibes has the Picasso Museum...and lots of little galleries and pottery studios around the marina. It feels more historic and artsy than Cannes (Cannes, outside a tiny area in Le Suquet, is modern). Antibes is much more picturesque with its city ramparts, narrow streets, and thriving historic center. Plus, you can walk to Juan Les Pins in 25 minutes or so, and from there to Cap d'Antibes, so for me it was a better spot for long walks.

Rental returns are typically tied to a relatively short season in both locations and because of the super-high real estate prices they are not great. Cannes might just have the edge as it normally hosts a year-round calendar of events and expos in the Palais des Festivals, so lots of folks want to rent in walking distance of the Palais—but property that is walking distance to the Palais (as outlined in my alerts) comes with steep prices. You are likely looking at around a 5% yield. Bottom line, you can make better returns elsewhere if investment is your aim. As one local agent commented: You don't buy on the French Riviera to make money. You can see the [pre-COVID] stats for 2019 for Cannes here, Antibes is not in this unfortunately.

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