The Mexican cities of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen are just an hour’s drive apart — making the destinations the ideal double bill for travelers longing for turquoise water, 85-degree weather and a never-ending flow of margaritas.
Add to that the high number of luxury, all-inclusive resorts and the area’s perfect for those who just want to relax in paradise while the temperatures go down in the Northern Hemisphere.
Located along the east coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, lined by the Caribbean Sea, Cancun is well-known for its beautiful beaches and party atmosphere and has long been a draw for tourists.
About an hour’s drive south is Playa Del Carmen, part of the coastal tourism district called Riviera Maya.
After settling into one of the more than 50 resorts along Cancun’s Hotel Zone, and getting your share of sun and tropical drinks, you’ll want to explore a bit.
There are two flea markets near the Hotel Zone: Coral Negro (Kukulkan Blvd. Km 9), which is considered more commercial and expensive, but boasts wonderful local wooden handicrafts; and Mercado 28, in downtown Cancun, offering low prices. Both are accessible by bus or taxi from the Hotel Zone.
Those looking for nightlife should visit Coco Bongo — a rowdy multilevel club that draws college students and anyone looking to let loose. Acrobats and confetti are part of the fun here. Located on the north side of the Hotel Zone, other restaurants, bars and shops are nearby.
There’s also the Blue Gecko Cantina, in the middle of the Hotel Zone — a restaurant and bar in an open-air hut known for authentic fare priced between $10 and $15 per entree.
Travelers craving culture and a unique day trip should check out the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An all-inclusive day tour runs about $65 per adult and includes complimentary pickup and drop off at Cancun hotels; the site is a full 90 minutes from the Hotel Zone.
There is also the Museo Maya De Cancun (Kukulkan Blvd. Km 16.5), which houses a collection of 3,000 Mayan artifacts and is located in the center of the Hotel Zone.
South of Cancun, in Playa Del Carmen, luxury resorts seem to have popped up in the middle of low-rise residential neighborhoods. Cheap hotels can be found in the “downtown” area known as “Fifth Ave.” for $35 to $90 per night and they give you close proximity to the ocean. This is a great area for shopping and eating.
Those looking for nightlife should visit Coco Bongo — a rowdy multilevel club that draws college students and anyone looking to let loose.
I stayed at Paradisus Playa del Carmen, La Perla, a complex with two resorts in one: the adults-only La Perla and the family friendly Esmeralda. The all-inclusive boasts beautiful modern Mayan decor and has great lounging areas both inside and outside the hotel, some of which is reminiscent of the now-closed New York club called BED.
The beach here is wonderful not only because of the pristine white sand but because the distance between walking from the road to the edge of the water is about 10 feet.
Michelin-starred chef Martin Berasategui (he’s got six!) has a restaurant in La Perla called Passion, which features a seven-course meal (for $90 with wine pairings) in a chic library setting reminiscent of the Library Bar at Manhattan’s Hudson Hotel.
There are plenty of kids activities at Esmeralda and rooms where parents can just drop off kids over 4 to be entertained by babysitters who provide endless activities and crafts — and even let kids scoop their own candy a la Dylan’s Candy Bar.
If you’re interested in natural wells and underground caves, Xplor, an adventure park, is just a few miles south of Playa Del Carmen.
The most crowd-pleasing place for meals inside the Paradisus Playa Del Carmen Resort is Mole — where Mexican fare from the expected to adventurous rules. Try the Fried Red Grasshoppers here — they really just taste like buttered popcorn although the legs are a little bitter!
For eating away from your resort, Fifth Ave. provides options from Thai to French. Fonda Regina on Fifth Ave. features an old-time Mexican grill and the succulent meats served are one of Playa Del Carmen’s best-kept secrets. The rustic outdoor café seating makes you feel as if you’re in a local’s backyard.
Overall, both Cancun and Playa Del Carmen give a lot of bang for the buck — whether you plan to spend all your days lounging pool-side, or plan to party.
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