The Best of Playa del Carmen

If you associate travel with faraway lands and exotic cultures, it can be easy to overlook your neighbors when planning your next big trip. So when my family was planning our last vacation, Playa del Carmen, Mexico, seemed like a good place to start. Turns out you don’t have to be halfway across the globe to feel far away.

Cancun may get more attention, especially during Spring Break season, but its sister city to the south is the real gem of the Riviera Maya.

Here are my recommendations for making the most of your time in Playa:

Historic Site: Tulum

You can’t experience the new Riviera Maya without paying tribute to its roots. Get a glimpse of the Maya in one of the last cities they inhabited. The fact that Tulum is the only Maya city built on the coast makes it a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s well worth a visit. The Castillo, which sits on the edge of a limestone cliff, is a highlight, and provides sweeping views of the ruins.

Beachside Bliss: A Massage at Playa del Carmen Beach

Playa del Carmen Beach runs the entire length of the city and serves as its focal point for obvious reasons. Lounging on the sand is relaxing enough, but you’re on vacation, right? Up the indulgence ante by snagging a massage from a walk-up beachside masseur (look for small tents). The location is unbeatable and the price is reasonable (I paid about $25 USD for a 70-minute session).

Ocean Activity: Deep-Sea Fishing

Scuba diving and snorkeling are popular Caribbean activities, but why not try a different brand of high-seas adventure? You’ll find boats just waiting to take folks out on fishing excursions. Captains catch their own bait (sardines) right in front of you on the shore. Once your bucket is full, you’ll be whisked away to deeper waters to catch mahi-mahi, snapper, and even billfish.

Street Scene: La Quinta Avenida

La Quinta Avenida (Spanish for “Fifth Avenue”), conveniently located between the beach and many of the best accommodations, has everything from posh nightclubs to quaint second-floor restaurants. Watch as tourists and locals bump elbows purchasing anything from straw fedoras to expensive tequila. Enjoy a quiet meal and shopping during the day and dancing at night.

Local Attraction: Xcaret Park

If you feel the need to leave your beach chair and get some exercise, Xcaret Park proves an ideal day trip. Offering everything from natural lagoons and cultural performances to swimming with sharks and scuba diving, this “eco theme park” has something for everyone.

Fresh Flavor: Fish Tacos

Fish tacos are ubiquitous — and delicious — in Playa del Carmen. Between the fresh-caught fish and the traditional Mexican sauces, you simply can’t go wrong with this local staple. That said, it can be shockingly difficult to find authentic cuisine. Save some time by checking out the always-busy Yaxche on La Quinta Avenida. Despite its location (close to a Starbucks), the food is 100 percent Maya.

Dream Stay: Mahekal Beach Resort

Paradise found. While there are scads of high-rise hotels in Playa, the Mahekal Beach Resort, a small boutique outfit that boasts beautiful beachfront bungalows and lush tropical landscaping, is ideal for travelers who value authentic experiences. Whether you’re lounging in a hammock on your private deck or under a palapa-style umbrella on the beach, you will feel worlds away from the craziness of La Quinta Avenida, while being close enough to enjoy all the street has to offer.

Erin Block is an editorial assistant at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her story on Instagram and on Twitter @ErinSBlock.