Mexico: Playa del Carmen and the Yucatan peninsula

MEXICO’S popular Yucatan peninsula attracts thousands of tourists every year to its spectacular palm-fringed beaches, beautiful clear waters and bustling nightlife.

Cancun and Cozumel are the best known resorts in the UK market, but Playa del Carmen is quickly emerging as a more laid-back alternative.

Thrust into the limelight when recent hurricane damage to the main resorts forced many operators to relocate their business elsewhere on the Yucatan, Playa, as it is known locally, was a small village just 15 years ago.

Today, it has become part of the ever-growing tourist strip that runs south from Cancun all the way down the Riviera Maya to the relatively undeveloped beach town of Tulum.

Playa is the most central location on the Costa Maya. With excellent reefs, it used to act as a gateway to Cozumel’s underwater paradise, which is just 60 minutes away by fast catamaran.

However, its position on the mainland means Playa also offers quick access to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum, as well as Xcaret Ecological Park and Xel-Ha National Park.

By day, Playa offers an endless golden beach where restaurants meet the sea and sunbathers sip cocktails by the gentle surf.

By night, there is a lively but relaxed entertainment scene with a pedestrian area – Quinta Avenue, just a couple of blocks back from the beach – filled with restaurants that feature a wide range of cuisines along with a host of bars where the local tequila goes down a treat.


Where to stay

Quetzal Resort, Iberostar Tucan

Occidental Royal Hideaway Playacar: five-star all-inclusive, with spa, water sports, scuba diving and beauty salon. Located on the beach two miles from Playa, this elegant hotel offers tastefully decorated rooms, three swimming pools and three relaxation pools, an array of bars and dining areas and a plush international restaurant with a strict dress code and Michelin-starred chef.

Real Playa del Carmen: four-star all-inclusive offering a yoga area, water sports, scuba diving and babysitting. This centrally-located, 135-room block-build hotel offers good facilities at a good price, although it is 400 metres from the beach. There are two restaurants with evening entertainment in the attractive garden grounds and an associated beach club.

Sandos Playacar Beach Resort: four-star all-inclusive with crèche (extra), water sports and sauna. This resort, on the beach just two miles from Playa, is designed in true Mexican style with tastefully painted villas, clean bright rooms, two pools and a large thatched central area. Four restaurants offer a variety of food and one of its four bars is on the beach.

Iberostar Tucan: a four-star-plus hotel with kids’ club, teenagers’ club, water sports and spa (extra). This is a beautiful resort designed in traditional Mayan style with thatched roofs, a large beach and lots of space around the expansive main pool. Located a couple of miles from Playa, this complex combines the Tucan and Quetzal resorts and includes three pools, six restaurants and six bars, including the exquisitely decorated lobby bar.

Reef Playacar: a three-star-plus all-inclusive kids’ club and water sports centre. This 200-room hotel offers pleasant accommodation located on the beach within walking distance of Playa. Standard rooms sleep up to four and facilities include two pools, two spacious restaurants – one of which stretches out to the beach – four bars and plenty of entertainment.

Occidental Allegro Playacar: a four-star all-inclusive offering weddings, a kids’ club, massage and water sports. This 286-room resort, which opened earlier this year after major renovation, features Polynesian-style bungalows located around lush beachfront grounds approximately two miles from Playa. Two shapely pools, three restaurants and four bars offer plenty of variety with nightly entertainment.


Days out

Chichen Itza ruins, Yucatan peninsula

Xcaret (pronounced Shkar-et): this heavily developed eco-park, six miles south of Playa, reveals the raw side of the Yucatan. There are Mayan ruins, nature walks, restaurants, a butterfly pavilion, lagoons and a cenote (underground swimming hole). For around £90 you can swim with dolphins all day.

Chichen Itza: this is one of the most impressive Mayan sites with a well-restored centrepiece pyramid and traditional ball court. The full-day trip includes a long bus ride with shopping stops, a guided tour and swim in a cenote. The cost is around £33-£56.

Tulum and Xel-Ha (pronounced Shell-Ha): on a cliff edge by a long white sandy beach is the spectacular Mayan ruin of Tulum. Around one hour from Playa, it can be visited privately, or on a prebookable tour for around £59, including a trip to the
Xel-Ha water park, with cenotes and restaurants.

Cozumel reefs: boats ply the waters between Playa and Cozumel hourly, taking up to 60 minutes to reach the pier where boats set off for the Palancar and Chankanaab reefs. The ferry costs £7, the snorkel trip £25.


Nights out

100%  Natural, Quinta Ave: this chain restaurant is nicely laid out and the fresh natural food is a change from greasy Mexican dishes. Mains start at £3, and the pittas are great for lunch.

La Parrilla, Quinta Ave: this three-storey venue has a fantastic atmosphere. Prices start at around £5 for Mayan specialities, including orange-glazed chicken, and Mexican dishes.

Tequila Barrel, Quinta Ave: has a back room with live bands and some great cuba libras. Drinks start at £2.

Pirate Bar: plastic chairs spread along the beach create a laid-back, low-key feel to this place. Drinks are cheap at around £2 and reggae music creates a good vibe.

The Blue Parrot Beach Bar: this place claims to be one of the best beach clubs in the world. A little optimistic perhaps, but it’s the place to see and be seen. Entry is £8, drinks start at £3, and two dancefloors play a mix of cheesy tunes and dance music.


The lowdown

Who: Cosmos passengers fly with Monarch, and there are also flights with Virgin Atlantic, First Choice, American Airlines, Thomas Cook and Air Canada. A peak season return flight is approximately £630.

Via: direct with Thomas Cook or via Miami, New York, Dallas, Philadelphia or Toronto.

Flight Time: 10 hours 30 minutes direct, or up to 15 hours with one change.

Transfers: Playa del Carmen is around 45 miles from Cancun Airport – a 60 to 90-minute journey.

Currency: Mexican pesos.

Time difference: GMT –6 hours.

Weather: best to visit between November and April, when rainfall is low and temperatures remain around 30C. Temperatures rise to 40C in May before the rainy season begins. Large numbers of US students visit between late February and mid-April, and also late May to early July.


Sample product

Cosmos offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Occidental Royal Hideaway Playacar for £1,925 per person, including return flights from Gatwick, and transfers departing early April 2007.

First Choice offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Iberostar Tucan for £1,165 per person, including return flights from Gatwick, and transfers departing early April 2007.

Funway offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Reef Playacar for £955 per person, with return flights from Heathrow, and transfers departing early April 2007.

Online training: the Travel Weekly academy for Secrets, Dreams and Sunscape Resorts and Spas features several properties on the Yucatan peninsula

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