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Sun, Cerveza and Cenotes in Playa del Carmen

Talk to people who have been going to Playa del Carmen for years, and they’ll likely reminisce about when it was a sleepy fishing village on the outskirts of Cancún. Playa has grown substantially since then, but you can still find that laid-back Riviera Maya vibe—along with soft white sand beaches and warm ocean waves—without trying very hard.

First step? Check into Mahekal Beach Resort, where all of the palapa-style rooms and suites max out at just two floors and boast traditional thatched roofs and lovely updated but low-tech décor (no TVs but great Wi-Fi), thanks to a recent $16 million renovation. Wander throughout the oceanfront property and you’ll pass vacationers swinging on their patio hammocks, couples sunbathing on beach chaises and families frolicking in one of several pretty pools, each with its own atmosphere.

The resort has a meal plan where you can opt for breakfast plus lunch or dinner each day, and that seems to be the way to go: The food at the two restaurants, Fuego Restaurante y Cantina and Las Olas Restaurant and Bar, is wonderful—but you’ll also want to check out the restaurants and cafés that line the town’s main thoroughfare, Fifth Avenue, just a few blocks away.

Before heading to dinner, wander down this pedestrian street and buy something to take home, whether it’s woven bags handcrafted in Oaxaca and sold at Silvia Suárez, locally made art and jewelry at Casa Kuxtal, a wood painting of Frida Kahlo (I particularly like the one of her in a Daft Punk T-shirt) or a lucha libre mask from a street vendor or a chic new swimsuit (one- or two-piece) at La Bikineria.

Souvenirs purchased, chill out with a margarita at one of the many restaurants or bars lining Fifth Avenue before moving on to your main meal. Some standouts: Enjoy an alfresco meal of seafood and traditional Mexican food at Almirante Pech, where a bartender roams the restaurant preparing specialty drinks from his bar cart. La Casa del Agua is a local favorite for a special meal, and Alux, a short cab ride away, is a unique restaurant featuring banquettes nestled among colorfully lit stalactites—it’s literally located in a cave. Watch out for the occasional bat!

When it comes to outdoor pursuits, you could just sit by the pool or beach all day sipping Coco Locos (Mahekal’s yummy pink coconut drink with all kinds of alcohol). Or you could venture farther afield. About an hour away, still in the state of Quintana Roo, you’ll find Tulum, where Mayan ruins sit right on the coast overlooking a picturesque beach. The ruins comprise a castle and several temples that date back to the 13th century.

Another popular activity is snorkeling in one of the area’s many enchanting cenotes, or freshwater sinkholes that were caused by the collapse of limestone bedrock, existing both as open-air pools and underground caverns. We headed to nearby Chikin-Ha with a group from Mahekal’s dive shop, where we explored the underwater scenery in several distinct cenotes. In one cavern, rays of sunshine cut through the hanging roots and water, illuminating the rocks deep below (you can also scuba dive even deeper if you’re interested).

After a day in the water or hiking through ruins, a massage is never a bad idea. Mahekal’s new Revive Spa incorporates Mayan traditions and ingredients into its services, including the sublime “5 senses” signature treatment, which includes a massage and cocoa body scrub and even a Mayan blessing with smoked-tree-sap incense at the end. The only downside to all the pampering? It will make it that much harder to leave.

Where to Stay

If Mahekal doesn’t fit your needs, Playa del Carmen has a range of other resorts from which to choose. Just north of Playa is Rosewood Mayakoba, a luxe and sprawling 1,600-acre resort surrounded by jungle and featuring 136 suites and villas with private plunge pools and sunroof decks. For luxury on a smaller scale, Viceroy Riviera Maya has a chic feel (no kids) and spa complete with 41 private villas and a Mayan temazcal sweat lodge.  

Where to Eat

Fuego Restaurante y Cantina at Mahekal sits right on the beach and specializes in Mexican cuisine with ingredients sourced from the local area and prepared over a wood-fired oven grill. At the resort’s second restaurant, Las Olas, you can enjoy an eclectic breakfast buffet with views of the infinity pool and ocean. 

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