DESTINATIONS

Mexico: Playa del Carmen

The Mayan Riviera, running from Cancun to Tulum on the Caribbean side of Mexico, is best known for the multitude of resorts anchoring a string of 10 beach towns that dot the coast from Puerto Morelos to Punta Allen. All offer the best in sun and white, white sand.

And just 40 minutes south from Cancun, the city of Playa del Carmen (population 150,000) sits near the middle of the Riviera, opposite the island of Cozumel. Calm, cool and collected, the vibe is assuredly unhurried. And whether you’re touring around, enjoying the water, hunting for souvenirs or just sitting in a chair, you’ll find great people, sublime scenery and amazing food.

• Drag the main drag. Avenida Quinta (Fifth Avenue) is the main pedestrian strip, where you can get your shop on any time of the day or night. Hundreds of restaurants, bars and stores line this little main drag, catering to the daily influx of tourists popping off cruise ships for a poke around town. They dock near the south end of Fifth Avenue, making it more touristy; stick to the north end for some peace and quiet, plus a better quality of both shopping and dining.

• Do a day trip. While sitting in a chair staring at the surf has it’s benefits, block off a day to rent a car for a drive to Tulum, and a visit to both the 13th-century ruins and the surrounding beaches. The only Mayan city built on a coastline, the Tulum pre-hispanic ruins are ringed by a limestone wall seven metres thick, with the prominent castle sitting at the top of the limestone bluffs. This is a very popular tourist site, so try to get there as close to opening time as possible (8 a.m.) to avoid the throngs and take advantage of the best sunlight of the day for your photos.

• Check out the reef. Scuba diving put Playa del Carmen on the map. It was just a sleepy little fishing town until a ferry service began from there to the island of Cozumel, one of the best places to dive in the world. The Great Mesoamerican Reef, which stretches 725 kilometres from Cancun south to the Bay Islands of Honduras, is the world’s second largest reef. It marks the spot for surveying 150 varieties of reef fish and 100 species of coral.

• Swim in a cave. Freshwater sinkholes, called cenotes, make for a fun afternoon of crystal-clear diving or snorkelling in and around caves where the visibility can reach up to 125 metres year-round.

• Learn something. The Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, at 1.3 million acres, is the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, and includes the 23 archeological sites of the Maya civilization. Promoting ecosystem conservation and the sustainability of natural resources, the Centro Ecológico champions low-impact tourist activities, while educating visitors about the region at the same time. Pasttimes include flyfishing, kayaking, “ponga” boat tours and more, and you can even stay at the centre in deluxe, eco-friendly cabins.

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