Ancient Mayans making the pilgrimage to the island of Cozumel would stop in Playa del Carmen, which they called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north.” Today, the chic resort town on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula draws water lovers who come to snorkel, sail, and scuba dive in the turquoise sea or, like Virtuoso travel advisor Limor Decter, “just relax on the white sands with a cold margarita.” A vibrant culture, renowned ruins, and a plethora of posh resorts are even more reason to head there pronto. Decter recommends visiting Playa between mid-October and mid-March, when the temperatures are warm, the humidity is low, and the breeze carries the sounds of the Riviera Maya Jazz Festival.
Natural Attractions: Decter describes the town’s eco-friendly Xcaret nature park as “a major wow” and also raves about Cozumel, which is just a short ferry ride away. Also nearby: the wildlife-rich mangroves of Sian Ka’an, a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve that’s home to more than 300 bird species. Yet Playa’s crown jewels, notes the advisor, are the area’s cenotes (limestone sinkholes). Ancient Mayans threw offerings to their gods into these underground pools, which they considered sacred. Today, the mineral-rich waters are revered by snorkelers and divers, and some cenotes even offer cliff jumping.
Day Trips and After-Dark Activities: Playa’s surf-and-sand days morph into lively, tequila-filled nights, “with much of the fun found along Fifth Avenue,” says Decter. The three-mile-long pedestrian walkway is lined with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs featuring live music, as well as boutiques and galleries that showcase artisan wares. Nature lovers can trek through the jungle, while some of the best-preserved Mayan ruins – Tulum and Chichén Itzá – make for easy day trips.
Where to Eat in Playa del Carmen: Yucatán cuisine relies heavily on Mayan and European influences for “a unique mix of savory and sweet flavors that shines through in each dish,” Decter says. Cochinita pibil, the local specialty, is a dish of pork marinated with orange juice, pungent annatto seed, cinnamon, and other spices; wrapped in a banana leaf; and slow-cooked underground. Additional highlights include fresh seafood caught just offshore, along with tantalizing ceviches and Mayan chocolates.
Where to Stay: With six hotels and resorts in the Virtuoso network, Playa del Carmen offers travelers a choice of stylish stays. Decter loves the under-the-radar vibe of Hotel Esencia and Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa, two beachfront hideaways that “ooze barefoot luxury at its finest.” Banyan Tree Mayakoba boasts one of the world’s best spas, highlighted by its Rainforest hydrothermal circuit. The sprawling, eco-conscious complex, surrounded by freshwater lagoons and mangroves, had her feeling “a Zen bliss from the moment I arrived.” She recommends the all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya for families and others who want a myriad of activities, pools, and restaurants without leaving the resort.
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