Check out these must-see attractions at Playa del Carmen, a resort city on the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico.
Scott and Tina Nelson, my uncle and aunt, spent over six months in Playa del Carmen, a resort city in Mexico where snorkelers glide alongside massive sea turtles and vacationers relax on long stretches of creamy-white sand. From beautiful beaches to hidden spa-like cenotes, or natural limestone sinkholes permanently filled with groundwater, here are the Nelsons’ top recommendations for your unforgettable visit to Playa.
The easiest way to get to Playa is to fly into Cancun International Airport and take a shuttle or bus about 40 miles to the sunny beach town. Upon arrival, Tina recommended using a colectivo, or inexpensive van, to get around—a much cheaper option than the high-priced taxis that operate in the region. To flag down a colectivo, wait at a designated spot along the highway, then fork over a couple dollars and hop aboard. If you would rather enjoy Playa’s beauty from within walking distance of your hotel, head to the beach or pool for a relaxing swim.
“Playa is a walkable city, which we love,” Tina said. “We were a 10-minute walk from the gorgeous white sand beaches and warm water. We spent each day either at the beach or the rooftop pool of our hotel. We love the water, sun and weather as well as the casual, laid-back style of a beach community.” `
Bask in the blue-green Casa Tortuga cenote, a natural pool surrounded by rock walls and leafy greenery. Whether you jump off a cliff and plunge into the aquamarine water or ease in with a provided life jacket, take time to swim and splash around in the refreshing sauna. Playa Punta Esmeralda is another tropical paradise where swaying palm trees accent a spa-like cenote that is open for all visitors to enjoy.
“Playa Esmeralda is a local beach hangout that the locals flock to,” Tina said. “There is a free cenote where the cool underground water travels from the pond and makes its way to the beach, creating natural wade pools along the way for families to sit in and children to play in. There’s a pocket out in the ocean where the cenotes’ cool water mixes with the warmth of the ocean and creates an amazing natural spa feeling not experienced anywhere else.”
Turquoise water laps against pure-white beaches on Holbox Island, a captivating locale where emerald palm trees sway beneath a clouded blue sky. Escape the hustle and bustle of daily life on this peaceful island, where the beauty of kayaking by moonlight through the ocean’s bright bioluminescence makes up for the absence of paved roads and high-rise buildings. Experience the best of what Holbox has to offer at the deluxe El Corazón Boutique Hotel, an adults-only seaside resort surrounded by the incomparable beauty of the Caribbean.
“Holbox is a hidden gem off the coast of Cancun,” Tina said. “No cars are permitted on the island. There are beautiful beaches with sandbars a few hundred feet from shore during low tide as well as pink flamingo havens and magnificent sunsets.”
Mint green surf bathes the seashore at Playa Akumal, a beach lover’s utopia whose creamy sand glistens beneath the clear, sunny sky. Plunge into the sparkling water on a snorkeling expedition that brings you face-to-face with giant green sea turtles. As you snorkel, watch for the schools of bright fish and vibrant bunches of coral that dot the ocean with splashes of color.
“We got a personal guide who swam with our family through the protected snorkeling area, taking us right up close to the turtles that come to this area to feed,” Tina said. “After snorkeling, enjoy another stretch of the magnificent powder-white sand beach that dots this entire region of Mexico.”
Maroma Beach Camel Caravan
For the full Playa experience, climb on a light brown camel at Maroma Beach and set off on a Caribbean safari. The swaying beast of burden will ferry you across the soft sand in style as you sit in a high saddle atop its tan hump. As you ride, watch the teal ocean water shimmer under a clear blue sky just a few yards away from the camel caravan. Make sure to stop and snap some pictures—this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you will not want to forget.
“Our family got to spend a couple hours riding camels with the sweetest temperament along a stretch of beautiful beach,” Tina said. “There was a lot of time for photo-ops and we even got to feed apples to the camels.”
Xcaret Theme Parks
An entertainment bonanza in the heart of Playa, Xcaret Park is home to underground rivers, Mayan ruins, a coral reef aquarium and butterfly pavilion as well as mazes of caves and a spectacular night show that blends history, folklore and dancing in an unforgettable performance. This unique eco-park complex includes water activities and amusement parks with adventures ranging from kayaking and whitewater rafting to cliff jumping and spelunking.
“Xcaret parks each have their own unique theme—you can enjoy authentic Mexican cultural dinner shows, zipline through the jungles or snorkel along miles of cenotes,” Tina said. “All of the theme parks, however, are built around the natural beauty of the mangroves and jungles.”
For the Nelsons, the joy of traveling extends beyond these popular attractions.
“The experiences we remember most are the ones that take us out of the tourist trap areas,” Tina said. “It’s when we immerse ourselves in the culture, language and get to know the locals that make this a wonderful experience. When traveling the world, remember we are guests in their country. Try to speak their language, ask them for their favorite spots to visit, try that strange looking food and you will no doubt have an amazing adventure. We have!”