Lots of travel sites promote trips to the Riviera Maya, and when people say they’re visiting the Riviera Maya it’s always very vague. I’m going to break that vagueness and describe exactly what and where the Riviera Maya is.
Riviera Maya is an area of Mexico outside the big cities. It’s between Cancun and Playa del Carmen – a long stretch of nothing but all-inclusive resorts located directly on the beach. If a travel site is selling a trip to Riviera Maya, it will be quiet, relaxing, and not in a city. Most parts of the Riviera Maya are close to Playa del Carmen though, which is where you really want to go. If you’re staying in Riviera Maya, you’ll most likely end up in Playa del Carmen (and many hotels offer shuttles into the city). Basically, Playa del Carmen is a city in the Riviera Maya region, but they can also be used synonymously.
Playa del Carmen is a cute, authentic Mexican resort city on the Caribbean Sea with about 150,000 people. It’s about an hour south of Cancun. There are two ways to get to Playa del Carmen: fly into Cancun and drive/take a bus to Playa del Carmen, or fly into the island of Cozumel, just off the coast of Playa del Carmen, and take a ferry over to the mainland.
La Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue), or La Quinta, is the main street in Playa del Carmen. It’s full of tourist huts, souvenir shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels. Walking down La Quinta is the main thing to do for families visiting the area; for younger crowds or partiers, there are plenty of bars to watch a sports game or socialize, and nightclubs for those night owls.
Where To Stay
I visited Riviera Maya (outside of Playa del Carmen) with my family for Christmas one year. We had a timeshare we were able to switch to the Royal Haciendas: a huge, optional all-inclusive (which we didn’t get) resort about 10 minutes drive from Playa. The view was incredible; the resort was right on the beach with nothing else around, so beach walks were easy and nice. There were many big resorts like this one lining the beach and if you walked far enough, you’d find them.
The water in Riviera Maya is as blue as can be with powdery white sand beaches, and the resorts in Riviera Maya all have palapas (palm huts) and lounge chairs. There is waiter service on the beach and at the pools.
Our waiter spoke broken English, but it was easy to understand him. My mom is a Spanish teacher so she practiced her Spanish with him. She learned that he learned English on the street and had never taken a formal English class. Good for him! I guess when your job depends on you speaking the language of the tourists, you learn however you can. Remember, the resort staff don’t get paid much – they mostly work on tips. Be generous!
The Royal Haciendas offers a shuttle into Playa del Carmen at certain hours and by request.
Resorts are great if you want to be away from the action and want big rooms with lots of space. If you want to be walking distance to everything without worrying about a shuttle, stay in Playa del Carmen.
Where To Eat
When in Mexico, tacos, tacos, tacos! A great taco spot is Aca Los Tacos on La Quinta (now called Yo Amo Tacos Bar n Grill). It’s a great low-key spot for some authentic Mexican street tacos while people watching on La Quinta!
For an authentic Adobe style Mexican restaurant, try Los Rancheros, also on La Quinta. It’s upstairs so you can overlook the main street below. The waiters have a lot of flair and love to do bar tricks like balancing drinks on their heads or pouring a pyramid of drinks. There are also always mariachi bands willing to serenade you while you eat. Good food and great atmosphere!
There are so many great places to sit and enjoy a meal and the scenery – don’t take the lazy way out and do all-inclusive! You’d be missing out on some great, authentic Mexican food if you don’t go down to Playa del Carmen and enjoy the restaurants.
Where To Party
Most of Playa del Carmen is small neighborhood bars and pubs. You can easily find an NFL game on La Quinta, and probably meet some of your neighbors from back home!
Coco Bongo has become a chain nightclub, the second one opening in Playa del Carmen in 2008. Coco Bongo, as I explained in my Cancun post, is more than just a nightclub. It’s fun for all ages; instead of a dance floor, there are tables throughout the club to enjoy performances by locals dressed as famous personalities. For example, Beetlejuice flies above the crowd dancing to Jump In The Line (Shake Senora), Pink, Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, and Mya dress in costume to sing Moulin Rouge, Elvis shows up, Madonna sings several of her songs, and others fly across the ceiling of the club doing other acts. It’s well worth a visit and all ages are welcome, though it is the most expensive club to enter.
And there you have it – the difference between Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen, where you should stay, and what you should do. If you have been to the area, please leave other recommendations in the comments below!