I just came back from one month in Playa del Carmen. While spending just the month of October is not enough to say I truly know the city, it was enough to get a decent feel and share a few tips. I watched several YouTube videos before heading down, and while I got a lot of great tips for what trips to make, and the scams I would find on 5th avenue, I never really found exactly what I was looking for: tips for everyday living. What about the water? Restaurants off 5th? Where can I wash my clothes if my Airbnb doesn’t have a washer? So here are the answers to the questions I couldn’t find before I went.
ADO BUS: This is the most affordable way to go between the Cancun Airport and Playa del Carmen. In Playa, there are two stations: Turistica, and Alterna. The Turistica station is on 5th Avenue and Benito Juarez Avenue. This is where you’ll get dropped off when arriving to Playa. It didn’t seem that any buses actually stopped at the Alterna station when arriving from the airport. However, you can leave from the Alterna station to head back to the Cancun airport.
Airport to Playa: When I first arrived, I didn’t have any cash with me (I went to several banks before going and none of them allowed me to exchange because I wasn’t a member, and my own credit union didn’t have pesos). I looked around the airport arrivals but didn’t find an ATM. So luckily for me, the ADO accepts credit card payment. In the airport, once you grab your bags and head out the door, you’ll pass through a hallway full of car rental spots. Once you pass through the next set of doors after that, you’ll see a big red ADO counter on your right. If you go there, you can pay with a credit card. Then with ticket in hand, head out the doors and go straight. Once you arrive to the section where everyone is waiting with signs for people who can afford private rides, go to the right. Then you’ll see the big red ADO buses off to the back. It’s really quite easy. The buses come often. If you wait to pay on the bus, you’ll need to pay in cash.
Playa to the Airport: You can leave from either station, Turistica or Alterna, to head back to the airport. You can buy tickets there, or online. I opted for the online ticket from the Alterna station. I wanted to avoid the crowds at the Turistica station since that is where most tourists head to. The Alterna station is on Calle 12, and Avenida 20. It’s much more relaxed there, less chaotic. You can pay for your ticket with a credit card at the window if you haven’t already purchased online.
hot tip: Playa del Carmen is hot and humid. If you arrive to the city in jeans (overalls at that) like I did, you might suffer a bit, like I did, as I dragged my suitcase along 5th Avenue for 40 minutes until I found my Airbnb. Pack a second set of clothes that is easily accessible. That way, as soon as you arrive, you can throw on your tank top and shorts and you’ll be much more comfortable. Vice versa on the way back. That time I was smart. I wore a tank and shorts in the taxi, on the ADO bus, and as soon as I got to the airport, I could put my jeans back on, prepared to fight that cold, cold AC.
hot tip: Also, taxis along 5th Avenue are more expensive, of course, but that is always an option to take you from the Turistica Station to yourhotel/Airbnb. It wasn’t for me though, as aforementioned, I did not have any cash upon arrival.
hot tip: Have cash upon arrival.
SIM CARD: Before I went to Mexico, I called my US carrier to see if I could use it in Mexico. The answer was, for $5 a day. No thank you. You can buy a SIM card from pretty much any Oxxo (like a 7-11); I bought mine for 100 pesos ($5). There are a few carriers, and a few plan options. I selected Telcel, since it was the only card the Oxxo had where I went. I also selected some plan with free social media use and some gb internet use, but to be honest, I don’t remember what. I had just arrived, in my overall jeans, I was very hot, had my suitcase with me, and I needed data to use Google maps in order to get to my Airbnb. So I just selected whichever plan seemed fine and would allow me to use Google maps right away. I definitely topped up a few more times at various Oxxo’s throughout the month, which is very easy to do. You can pay with credit card.
hot tip: Before arriving, while you still have data or wifi, zoom all the way in to your Google maps so that everything loads. Make sure the path between the Turistica station and your hotel/Airbnb has loaded so you can easily make it there without needing a SIM card right away. Ideally I would have arrived at my Airbnb with calma, showered, then gone out to find a sim card a lot lighter, without a suitcase in tow.
NEIGHBORHOODS: This is not a comprehensive guide to Playa del Carmen neighborhoods, as one month is not enough to know that. So I’ll just give a general sense of a few areas to get an idea of the layout.
As you must have heard by now, 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) is the main drag in Playa del Carmen. When you walk down this street, you’ll be offered to take tequila shots, mezcal, asked if you smoke weed, or want cocaine. You can buy blankets, and wallets, and skulls painted with your favorite American football team. There are several overpriced restaurants along this street, and so of course any housing near 5th Avenue tends to be on the higher side.
The area around Calle 10 and 1st Avenue is what you think of when you think of Spring Break. Loud music. Dancing. Parties. Plastic cups. Kids away from their parents for the first time.
I never went all the way to Playacar, but from the way people talk about it, it’s the chill area. Nice but relaxed. Calm. Less Spring Break vibes.
The area around Calle 30 and Avenida 30 was the area I found most charming, and if I were to return to Playa, is probably where I would look to stay. It’s the best of both worlds. Along Calle 30, there are a ton of great little cafes and restaurants with plants hanging down. It’s not a far walk from the lively bits of 5th avenue, but if you walk the other way and cross Avenida 30, or walk along it, you actually feel you are in Mexico, and not a town created and manufactured for tourism. Along 30th Avenue, you can find a ton of great local restaurants, including one of the Playa favorites, El Fogon.
Along CTM (basically calle 46), there is also a much more local feel as well, especially as you walk away from the beach. As the avenues get higher, you’ll start to feel more like part of a local Playa community, rather than the 5th avenue tourist conglomeration. This is the area where I stayed. When I first arrived, I was uncertain of the neighborhood, as it felt quite far from anything. But after just a few days, I really grew to love it. Everything I needed was close by. It felt safe. It was more affordable.
LAVANDERIA: I found that most places on Airbnb did not have laundry. Since I was going to be there for a month, I knew this was something I was going to need to figure out. As it turns out, it was much easier than expected. There are lavanderias on seemingly every block. There was one across the street from my apartment. The turnaround is usually about 7-8 hours. If I dropped off my things around noon, they would usually tell me to come back just before closing, at 8-8:30.
hot tip: Many lavanderias also offer discounts on certain days of the week. The one near me had a 10kg special on Wednesdays. So I went on Wednesdays. Towels usually cost a bit more. One time I paid $60 pesos ($3) for a week’s worth of laundry, and another time I paid $75 pesos ($3.50), both times including towels.
WATER: When traveling, one of the most common questions to ask is whether or not you can drink the tap water. In Mexico, I would say no. I did it once by accident and it tasted terrible. I spit it out immediately once I realized what I had done. All around town, I see locals with giant 5 gallon water bottles, leading me to believe the locals also do not drink the tap water without a filter. One thing that is hard for me about traveling and buying water, is that I hate feeling that I am using so much plastic. But in Playa, getting water is an easy, minimal plastic using task. There are 24 hour water stations on nearly every corner. To fill up a 2.5 gallon water bottle, it costs $5 pesos (.25 cents). I bought two of these 2.5 gallon bottles from a small shop, and then every two days I walked less than a minute to the water station near me to fill up for a grand total $10 pesos (.50 cents). Five gallons for .50 cents is a pretty sweet deal, in addition to the fact that I only bought these two plastic bottles the entire month.
COMIDA CORRIDA: If you are eating at mostly tourist restaurants near 5th, you may start to realize they are overpriced and less authentic. One way to get away from that is to move further away from 5th. As the avenues increase in number (5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, etc.) the food becomes both more authentic and more affordable. Some of the best restaurants I found were of the style ‘comida corrida,’ which is essentially a home-cooked meal at a set price. Comida Corrida restaurants will usually have a few items they make every day, and one or two options that are the special, and rotate every day.
My favorite spot doesn’t even have a sign announcing its name in front; I don’t know what to call it other than ‘comida rica’ (delicious food), since that’s what the sign outside says: “comida rica, $30p.” So for $30 pesos ($1.50) you can get a full meal and a flavored water. One time it was tamarind, another time melon, and both times delicious. This spot is located on Calle 44, about 3 doors down from 30th avenue. The front is covered in white planks of wood, like stripes. It’s family owned and everyone is so kind. You can see the grandma in the back cooking. Sometimes I would pass by at night when they were closed, but could see in through the planks as the family turned up the music and danced.
Another great spot for comida corrida was on the CTM and 25th Avenue, La Fondita de la CTM. The outside is covered in plants and bushes, so inside you feel like you’re eating in a jungle, hidden away from the street. The menu del dia is $65 pesos ($3.15) and once again includes that home-cooked meal and a flavored water.
hot tip: If you don’t want comida corrida, but you do want something delicious and a bit away from 5th Avenue, check out Coa. The prices aren’t bad, and the food is a delicious fusion of Mexican and other cuisines. Very imaginative. It’s on 10th Avenue between Calle 56 and 58.
PLAYA 88/PUNTA ESMERALDA: Okay so maybe you’ve spent some time going to the beaches in Playa and are overwhelmed by the crowds, the loud music, people selling you bracelets, hats, and empanadas, and wish there was something calmer. You’re in luck, there is! Head north along 5th avenue, and keep going until the street is no longer lined with restaurants, shops, and massage offers. At about Calle 72, you’ll see a dirt path to your right. Follow that until you reach the ocean. You can of course walk along the beach the entire way. If you keep walking until about Calle 88, you can see the official entrance to Playa 88. There you will find public bathrooms and showers. I believe it is the only beach in the area with public facilities.
This strip of beach is much thinner, and much more peaceful. There were only a handful of other people when I went, all looking for the same thing- algo tranquilo.
If you keep going a bit further, you’ll hit Punta Esmeralda. I went here one evening for sunset and while it was a bit cloudy, it did not disappoint. The color of the sky perfectly matched the water. It was warm, and the area was full of local families having bbq’s on a Sunday evening. The ambiance here was really lively. There is a natural water lagoon here, which makes it perfect for kids.
MAKING FRIENDS: The Playa del Carmen expat scene is huge, and everyone I met is incredibly kind and welcoming. Whether you’re staying for a week, a month, or five years, everyone here has that open expat mindset. There are different events happening throughout the city every single day, so there is always something to join if you’re keen. For example, Laura’s Quiz is every Tuesday at Buzo’s (Calle 26, Avenida 30), a meet-up group every Wednesday evening at Chela de Playa (best craft beer), and a comedy night, again at Buzo’s, every other Thursday.
I’m not in to Bitcoin, but if you are, this is the spot. Every 3rd person I met was massively into Bitcoin and was going to Bitcoin/NFT meet-ups every night of the week. There are also a ton of different whatsapp groups for everything, so if you meet someone, ask about getting into a whatsapp group so you can learn about other events. I was in a couple different groups for women, which brought me to a rooftop pool party, which introduced me to a wonderful new Brazilian friend, as well as several other great people.
hot tip: Search Facebook using the words “Playa del Carmen,” “expats,” “foreigners,” etc, and join those groups before you go. There you can ask any questions you may have, and even get put into some groups before you go so you’ll have a leg up!