Playa del Carmen offers easy access to the beach, extreme sports in the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and a hell of a nightlife scene.
By Camper English
Cancún is the big cheese in the area; it’s full of high-rise resorts, cruise ships, and a zillion other American tourists just like you. It’s like a big city with an awesome beach. But less than an hour away is Playa del Carmen, which is the suburb to Cancún’s city, spread out for miles down the coast in individual resorts, with a small but classy central nightlife district.
Many tourists come to stay at these resorts all day and night, relaxing with umbrella drinks and indulging in spa treatments, but we’ve come to Playa del Carmen because it is a centrally located launchpad for action. We’re here to see as much as possible in two days with the winners of the Dos Equis Cargo Hunt: five crafty bastards (plus a crafty journalist to “report” on it) who won a four month online treasure-hunt contest in search of the Most Interesting Man in the World. This trip is the grand prize, an opportunity to track down some of the artifacts (like a Mayan version of a basketball hoop carved from stone) from the game in person. Plus, beer.
DAY ONE: PLANES, PYRAMIDS, AND THE OLD SWIMMING HOLE
Our first stop is the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá. Every day, endless busloads of tourists take the three hour trip each way from Cancún to be at the site for a couple of hours, but we don’t have that kind of time. We head to the local airport, which is more of a parking lot with a runway, and load into tiny five-person planes.
The flight passes over the Yucatán Peninsula, the tail end of the country that curves up into the Gulf of Mexico. From the plane we can see the geography of the area: endless jungle. It looks flat, with the occasional blue lake. The 40-minute ride is not nearly as terrifying as I expect, except for when the pilot lets one of the guys in the group fly the plane for a bit. Personally, I prefer my planes to be piloted by pilots, not passengers.
Chichén Itzá is dominated by a central pyramid with steps up the sides that people are no longer allowed to climb. (The stairs are crazy steep—I’m guessing there were a few accidental human sacrifices.) We take a guided tour of the site and check out the local crafts—they have some pretty amazing wooden figures for sale, and it’s hard to pass up a giant snake-head mask that would rock at Halloween, but probably wouldn’t fit in the plane.
From the ruins we take a quick drive to a cenote; those “lakes” we saw from the plane aren’t lakes at all, but giant sinkholes. Beneath the jungle is a whole system of underground rivers, and every now and then a sinkhole forms and the surface of the Earth drops out. Most of the fun stuff to do in the area takes place in the rivers, caves, and subterranean swimming holes formed by the sinkholes.
We’ve rented out the entire cenote for our group, and we tiptoe down treacherously steep, stone-carved steps to a sinkhole probably 100 feet below the surface. In the cenote we swim around in masks and snorkels and try to find the entrance to the underground river. The water is clear and deep, dark blue.
After the flight back, we hang out at the resort for the night. The clever people hosting the trip try to distract us from going to party in town (and potentially missing the next morning’s events) with dinner on the beach, a drum show, Cuban-style cigars hand-rolled in front of us, and a pair of scantily clad ladies whose sole purpose is to serve us Dos Equis all night. Not surprisingly, this works.
DAY TWO: ZIPPING, SPELUNKING, RAPPELLING
Up early(ish) the next morning, we head off to Río Secreto, an enormous cave system beneath the jungle that was discovered when the property owner was chasing an iguana he wanted to eat. This is one of several places just a few minutes from Playa del Carmen where you strap on a helmet, headlight, and wet suit, then head into the caves. We walk, crouch, swim, and feel our way through a series of caverns with an underground river running through it. We find cave catfish, huge freaky spiders, and bats aplenty.
Though we spend an hour and a half underground, they offer up to five-hour cave tours at Río Secreto. At other cenotes in the area, certified scuba divers can swim in the underground rivers, jumping into a hole in the jungle in one place, swimming through an underground tunnel, and resurfacing in another hole.
We head to another spot in the jungle with an adventure-tour operator called Alltournative. First we climb into another cave for a Mayan purification ceremony, which some of us may need after the previous night’s indulgences. The cave walk itself is pretty amazing, and lit up so you can see the rock formations, unlike the spookier Río Secreto.
Then we jump on mountain bikes and ride through the forest on a path that includes a few jumps. They tell us it’s not a race, but we race anyway. At the end of the road we strap on harnesses and head for the zip lines. The first goes down a steep slope, the second through the treetops, and the third high above the other two lines, making you feel as if you’d get split in half by the wires below if you fell. You clip in on a pulley, then they hand you a “brake”—literally a stick with a hook shape that you use to slow yourself down by dragging it on the wire.
After racing back through the jungle on bikes, we take a dip in another cenote, but this one doesn’t have a walkway; we have to rappel down like mountain climbers, 50 feet to the bottom. There we float on inner tubes and dive off the rope swing until they make us come out. (We are reluctant to leave, so they tempt us with beer.) We don’t go up the rope, but climb a set of ladderlike stairs.
We end our daytime adventure here, but Playa del Carmen offers a lot more options: deep-sea fishing, golf, scuba, snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, skydiving, kite surfing, and even crocodile hunting. Maybe all those spa resorts would come in handy after a full day in the jungle.
OUT ON THE TOWN
Pretty much everything in Playa del Carmen looks like an urban ultralounge with breezy open-air settings beneath tall ceilings, comfortable seating surrounding a dance-ready space, thumping Euro-house beats, and a mishmash of Eastern and Western symbolism, from Quetzalcoatl to Shiva to Buddha lording over the dance floor. It’s way more modern than you might expect to find in Mexico, and more upscale, too. Pack not just beach clothes, but clubwear for the nightlife; downtown is full of groups of young singles, and everybody appears to be looking to hook up.
Clubs in Playa stay open all night, and many don’t get swinging until midnight, even during the week. There is a service called Playacrawl that takes groups on a bar tour and arranges no-wait admission and free drinks all night—not a bad option if you’re in a big group with limited time. But all the bars are near one another if you just want to barhop. That’s what we do, walking down the streets with clubs on either side pumping out music to compete with the others, while employees try to lure us in with drink specials. We end up hitting the ocean-side fire show at the Blue Parrot, dancing at Mandala, lounging upstairs at La Santanera, and getting stupid at Coco Bongo—a huge, cheesy, and ridiculously fun theater club with acrobats and lipsynching celebrity impersonators.
Next thing we know, it’s after 3 A.M. and we’ve had plenty of beer. We need to call it a night: We’ve got an 8 A.M. airport shuttle. I’m hoping this time they won’t let the passengers fly the plane.