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Destination: Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen, Al Argueta

Photos by Al Argueta

I’m sitting on a chair in the sand, facing the Caribbean Sea, watching beachgoers watch my friends’ wedding. A woman in a red bikini stops and snaps a photo. Three spring break bros laugh and wave. As the bride walks down the aisle, a mariachi band strikes up an improbable cover of Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes” (Dave, the groom, is a huge fan of the late indie crooner). The trumpeter nails the solo, and then it’s “I do” and “Me, too,” followed by a Vietnamese tea ceremony honoring Dave’s heritage. It’s a quirky, beautiful scene—which is a pretty accurate description of Playa del Carmen itself.

Piola, the global Italian pizza chain, has a home in Playa del Carmen.        
Cenote Cristal near Tulum.        

Located on the eastern side of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, this fishing village-turned-resort town is smaller and, thanks to an ordinance that caps buildings at four stories, shorter than Cancún, its crazy primo to the north. Not that you can’t get wild in Playa, as everyone calls it (my suggestion of “del Carmen” never catches on). Wander Quinta Avenida at midnight and what was a funky, cobblestoned commercial node by day becomes a freewheeling party backed by boom-chick beats pouring from every nightclub. Stay out really late and a street vendor might even offer to sell you a leopard cub (I declined).

But for the most part, Playa is laid-back, with beaches that belong in a Corona commercial and restaurants of every flavor—the latter evidence of European tourists who “discovered” Playa in the 1980s. But you’re in Mexico, amigo, so why not order the raw tuna tostadas at local favorite Los Aguachiles? When you’ve had enough fresh seafood and bright-orange habanero sauce, wander back to your room at the nearby Mahékal Beach Resort for a nap. At least that’s what I do the day after the wedding. Mahékal is a gem—close enough to town to keep things interesting but quiet enough for a siesta. Also, it’s right on the beach and its rooms are sheltered by thatched palm-leaf roofs that make you feel far from home—assuming you don’t live in a palapa hut.

On my last day, I rent a car and drive south to the Mayan ruins of Tulum and the seaside town of the same name. Both are worthwhile, but the highlight of the trip is my swim in Cenote Cristal, one of many freshwater sinkholes that connect to the area’s massive underground river system. Refreshed, I climb into my Geo Whatever and head back to Playa for one more night of boom-chick. //

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