Playa Del Carmen Vacation!

My friends Jack and Betty go to Playa del Carmen once a year, sometimes twice.  I always loved seeing their pictures on Facebook and hearing about the great food and how much fun they have.  Back in January they were talking about their next trip in May, and I started thinking…I’ve never been to Mexico (except for a one-day trip during a spring break in South Padre back in college), and the trip would be a perfect treat to myself for running my first half marathon.  So I jumped at the chance to join their week-long adventure.

After months of counting down, the trip was finally upon us.  We had a 7am flight out of OKC on Sunday morning, but it got us to Cancun about 11AM so we ended up having about an extra half day in town.  I love that they have a Margaritaville right outside the airport terminal, to get your trip started off right.   
Playa del Carmen is an amazing Mexican city along the Caribbean Ocean, about  a 40 minute drive from Cancun.  The weather is usually awesome, the water is clear, blue and warm, the people are friendly, and the food is fantastic.

5th Avenue is the main shopping and dining hot-spot area in Playa.  There are hundreds of little shops and tons of restaurants along the drive, and it’s about 3 miles long, and each side street along the way has a few more shops and restaurants.  Most of it is touristy stuff, but we did find a few things we liked.  I didn’t end up buying anything, mainly because I didn't have enough suitcase space to take anything back.  Which is probably a good thing so I wouldn't have spent all my money.

A couple things I learned during our trip...
*  You really don't need to know much, if any, Spanish.  Because it's a tourist town, the natives speak at least conversational English.  It may be broken, but you can definitely carry on a conversation.
* Don't drink the water.  Well, this is something I think every American knows, and if you don't know it before you get to Mexico and you drink the tap water, you'll learn it pretty quickly, the hard way.  They serve bottled or purified water in all of the restaurants, and our hotel had a water cooler in each condo.
* Just accept that you're going to have chips and salsa at pretty much every restaurant.  And they're going to bring you mild and hot...and hopefully they warn you ahead of time what's really hot. Because if they don't, you're going to get a rude awakening.
* The merchants on 5th Avenue will hound you every time you walk past them.  But you just ignore them.  Some are pushy, but most are very friendly.  We got called the Spice Girls, some guy called me his "brown sugar friend", one guy was obsessed with Barb, and several of the guys told Jack he was a very lucky man with 3 women.
* I know that the exchange rate fluctuates daily, but we found different exchange rates at different booths around town.  I thought that was kind of odd.  Also, don't change all your money at once, because you never get back as much US. 

Wi-Fi is decent when you can get it.   It's pretty widely available, but password protected in every hotel and restaurant.  Every time we got to a restaurant, the first thing we did was ask for the Wi-Fi password so we could hop on Facebook to check in. 


We stayed at Porto Playa, an amazing condo hotel.  It sits about a block and a half from the beach, and is comprised of 1, 2, and 3-bedroom units.  Ours was a 2-bedroom on the 3rd floor, and we even had a private rooftop space above our unit, with a hot tub, grill, lounge chairs and a seating area.  We also had a view of the pool below, as well as the ocean.  I need to convince my parents that they should buy a vacation condo there.  Not sure how well that's going to go

We arrived a little too early for our room to be ready, so we checked out the beach, had a drink at The End Zone, a sports bar on 5th Avenue and walked around for a little while.   For a late Sunday lunch we went to El Fogon for street tacos.  It's one of the top rated restaurants in Playa, and I can understand why.  I got the el pastor tacos (BBQ pork) and it was amazing.  The "mild" salsa had chunks of jalapeno, and I swear my first bite was half jalapeno.  I was not pleasantly surprised.  We also got a side of sautéed cactus (nopales guisados).  I'm usually not that adventurous, but Jack assured me they were good so I took the plunge.  They really weren't bad!  They were very mild and had a soothing flavor so it was good way to tone down the heat of the dishes.

After lunch we went to the grocery store across the street to stock up.  We had a full kitchen and a grill up on the patio, and momentarily thought about cooking dinner one night, but then realized that meant we would have to clean up after.  So instead we stocked up on beer, tequila, and snacks.

We also got Mexican diet coke.  I don't know what they put in it, but it tastes so much better than the American stuff.  I rarely drink soda, but I was hooked on this stuff.  We also bought Squirt, to make Palomas.  Barb very smartly brought snacks with her, and those were a definite lifesaver.
Dinner the first night was a complimentary welcome buffet at Indigo Beach Club.  The food was pretty good, but nothing really stood out.  It was kind of your basic restaurant buffet food.  The drinks were good, but those specialty fruity drinks are expensive and don’t pack enough of a punch to be really worth it.  But it was included, and we had a view of the ocean, so we really couldn't complain.

Included with our hotel was breakfast each morning.  We had our choice of Indigo Beach Club or Imprevist.  Most of the days we went to Indigo because it was right on the beach.  The breakfast was great.  There was unlimited fruit (watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple & papaya), 3 flavors of yogurt, assorted toppings (seeds, nuts, dried fruit), and a few different types of bread.  You also got to select one item from the menu, and also got coffee or juice.  The whole grain bread was definitely my favorite.  It was thick sliced and homemade.  I tried one of the crossaints the first morning, and it was okay, but the bread was so much better.  I ate tons of all the fruit except the papaya (not a fan).  I also had vanilla yogurt topped with granola and sesame seeds, and at least 2 slices of the bread.  I don’t like orange juice with pulp, and that’s all they had, so I stuck with coffee and water.  When I was a kid, my mom had to strain the pulp out so I would drink the juice.  I tried a different entrée item each morning, and I think my favorite was the Monte Cristo

Monday morning I went running up and down 5th Avenue.  I got out there about 7:45, so it was pretty quiet as the vendors were just starting to open up their shops.  It was super humid so that wasn’t too fun, but it felt great to get out and do it.

For lunch on Monday we went to Yo Amo Tacos.  We ordered the obligatory chips & salsa, as well as a side of guacamole.

I loved that the salsas came in the tower.  And the bottom picture is the habanero salsa.  Thankfully our waitress pointed that out, otherwise I was going to take a big bite.  It was delicious, but lethal at the same time.  For my meal I got the el pastor tacos again.  Barb ordered the fish tacos, so we shared. 

The el pastor was really good, but the fish tacos were amazing  It was made with sea bass, lightly breaded, and perfectly fried.
After lunch we went to Luna Blue hotel to see Jorge, Betty & Jack's favorite bartender in Playa.  He quickly became mine too.  Luna Blue has a small bar on the street, with swings for seats around the bar.  Jorge is awesome!  I highly recommend going to see him next time you're in Playa.

Monday night we went to Pizza Pazza. My friend Greg told me about it several times, so we went to check it out.  There are a couple locations in Playa, and they sell pizza by the slice.  It was pretty good for dinner Monday night, but amazing after our Playa Crawl on Thursday night!

On Tuesday we took the bus to Tulum and Akumal.  The plan was to spend a couple hours in Tulum, and then swim with the turtles in Akumal.  It was pouring rain the whole 40-minute ride to Tulum, and was raining off and on while we were there.  We walked about a mile looking for a beach club that Betty had heard about, but we never found it.  We did, however find some extremely peaceful beaches and stopped and had a beer and took a bunch of pictures.  We also saw a couple that had just gotten married jumping into the ocean in their full wedding outfits.  By the time we got back to where the taxis and buses were we were exhausted from the walking, but forged on to Akumal.  Once there we walked about another mile to La Buena Vida for lunch.  

The restaurant was right on the ocean, and although the weather was icky, it was still an awesome view, and we even saw a fisherman out in the water bringing in loads of fish in his net…without a boat.

We did start with chips, salsa and guacamole.  But they all basically look the same, so there was really no need to take pics every time.

Barb had the fish tacos, Jack & Betty shared the fajitas, and I had the mango chicken empanadas.

I had one of Barb's fish tacos and they were fantastic.  The fish was grilled, light, and super fresh (obviously).  The fajita meat was so tender and perfectly cooked.  The chicken was so moist.  I was kind of wanting that, but I knew it would be too much for me to eat by myself.  I'm so happy I went with the empanadas, because they were amazing.  I'm pretty sure they cooked them fresh when I placed the order.  The mango was in chunks and I was very pleased that they didn't cook down to mush.  I could still see the chunks as I ate. 

After lunch we took a short nap on the hammocks.  If the weather had been better we would have spent a lot more time there, like Betty, Jack and Barb had done during their trip in October.  By the time we got to the swimming with the turtles place we were all worn out, from the walking and the crappy weather.  So we called it a day and headed back to the hotel.

After we got back, relaxed, and regrouped, we went back to Luna Blue to see Jorge.  The drinks are strong, tequila shots just sort of arrive in front of you without warning, and I love the swing seats at the bar.  It wasn’t very crowded, but I like that better because it’s really not very big.  We met 2 couples from Maryland who were sitting on the other side of the bar, and had a great time with them. 

Wednesday morning I got a little later start, and I did a power walk in a different direction, through a very nice neighborhood where there are a ton of beautiful vacation homes. 

For breakfast we decided to go to Imprevist, which was also included in the free breakfast, but wasn’t on the beach.  It’s basically about halfway between our hotel and the beach.  It’s a tiny little place, with 4 tables on the patio and about 10 tables inside.  This breakfast wasn’t a buffet, but we still got a basket of assorted breads for the table, a small plate of fruit each, and yogurt/granola/honey for the table.  I went with the breakfast burrito as my entrée.

My burrito was fantastic.  It was full of beans, egg and avocado.  It sounds like kind of a weird combination, but it worked really well.  And the salsa added just the right kick to pull it all together.
For lunch we walked to the far end of 5th Avenue to La Cueva del Chango.  You feel like you're walking into a rain forest.  The main part of the seating is inside, but they’ve also got a tree-covered patio out back.  Even though it was super humid we sat out there, because there were big fans to keep us cool.

Our guacamole looked so pretty I had to take a picture

None of us were super hungry so I ordered the chef salad, Betty and Barb split the turkey sandwich with bean soup, and Jack had the chicken skewer salad.

Everything was really delicious!  I tried a bite of the other dishes and was very impressed.  My dressing was definitely really heavy on the coriander...maybe a little too heavy.  But it was still really good.  This was the first place where we really had a language barrier with our server. He spoke very little English, and we had to do a lot of pointing.  And he didn't understand when Betty asked for her coke with her meal.  But other than that, it was great.
For dinner we decided to go American, and went to Wah Wah Beach Bar.  It's a large place on the beach, with an awesome view on the patio of the ocean.  And the whole floor inside is sand.  They also have a huge stage, and that night there was a local band playing that was comprised of music teachers from the local school.  It was their first performance as a band, and they were really good.  A bunch of their friends and family came out to hear them, and it was awesome to see them celebrate their first show afterwards, and how relieved they all looked that it was such a success!  I can imagine that's pretty nerve wracking.
I honestly forgot to take pictures of our food, because we were too busy listening to the band and being nosy watching them talk with friends and family.  But we all got burgers and fries, and they were all delicious.

Thursday morning I decided to go running on the beach.  It was so peaceful with the wind and the waves, but running in the sand is super hard work!  I ended up alternating between running and power walk. . Regardless of what you do, your legs are gonna hurt when you’re done.  At one point I saw 3 military guys in full gear with machine guns on the beach. Not sure if they were watching for drug smugglers coming across the water or what.  

For lunch we went back to Yo  Amo Tacos...because it was so good the first time around!  I got the fish tacos this time, and they were just as good as the previous day.  We only got chips & salsa, but not guacamole.

For dinner we went to Oh Lala, the top rated restaurant in Play according to TripAdvisor.  It’s a very tiny restaurant with only 7 tables, and so you definitely need a reservation.  The menu is short and sweet, which makes me very happy.  Because I don't do well with tons of options.  All the tables are outside, so if it's raining that's a big negative, but they do have a retractable awning to protect the patrons.  The waitress is the chef/owner's wife, which is pretty cool.  I had the Thai curry with fish

This was the best dish I had all week.  I can't remember the specific type of fish, but it was a whitefish of some sort.  Some fish will break down being cooked in broth, but this one definitely didn't.  Although the broth was creamy it was still very light, and the curry lent a great subtle flavor without being overpowering.  It came with a pretty large side of rice, but I combined it all in the bowl of fish and the broth soaked into the rice and was absolutely wonderful.  Jack had the butter soy tuna steak.  I'm not a big fan of seared tuna, but his was fantastic. 
After dinner we met Jack and Betty’s friend Sina for Playa Crawl.  For $70 US, we had unlimited drinks at 3 clubs.  That might sound like a lot, but it was well worth it because they charge cover in the bars too, and that was covered by our $70.  There was another group of 3 friends with us, but they only made it to the 2nd bar before they called it a night.  We were very impressed with ourselves, because they were only in their 20’s, and we stayed out and partied the whole night.  The first bar was a hookah lounge.  I’d never done hookah before so I tried it, but I couldn’t inhale at all…pitiful.  It tasted really good too, so I was a little disappointed.  At the second bar we saw a bachelor party of guys we had seen on the beach earlier that day.  To say the groom was wasted would be an understatement.  I was impressed that he was still going strong though, dancing the night away.  Actually we all did that...not sure if Jack did too much, but we made up for him.  Barb and Betty were up dancing 5 minutes into the first bar, after a couple of shots and drinks.  I took a little longer to get going, but by the second bar I was dancing with the rest of them.  We really had a lot of fun, and thankfully there was a Pizza Pazza right up the hill from the clubs.

After all the funtivities Thursday night, none of us worked out Friday morning.  So we just went to breakfast and then to the beach.  Barb didn’t want lunch, so Jack Betty and I went to Babe's Noodle House.  It's a very interesting place, located on one of the side streets off 5th Avenue.  It's an Asian style restaurants, and all the décor is pin-up girls from the 50's and Barbie dolls.  Very odd.  This weird guy came in and talked to us for a little while after we ordered, and tried to just plop down and join us.  He acted like he'd never been to Babe's before, but then he said he's lived in Playa for years...I find that combination hard to believe.  I had the Babe's pad Thai, and Jack & Betty shared the Thai chicken

They offer both half and full servings, and we both got the full.  Did I need to get the full?  Probably not, but I figured they would try a little, and what the waiter showed as the half portion didn't look like it would be enough for me.  Both dishes were awesome.  Jack & Betty said theirs was better after they added a little of the sauce from the table.  Mine was delicious on its own, and I had tons of protein in mine, which was really nice. 
Friday night Jack and Betty’s friend Johnny came to see us.  He brought his wife and absolutely adorable baby girl, and we went to Sushi Club.  Johnny's wife speaks/understands very little English, so she asked for a Spanish menu, and they had a separate one.  That's the first I had seen of that all week, but I'm guessing a lot of other places have that as well.   She ordered salmon ceviche and the Ensalada SC as appetizers to share. 

The salmon was absolutely amazing.  Since there were 6 of us I had to hold back from wolfing down the entire thing.  It was so fresh, the citrus it cooked in was just the right tartness to not overpower the fish.  I mean seriously, it was awesome.  I didn't eat any of the salad, but I'm glad I took the picture because the bread sticks on the right of the pic are what came with the ceviche.  It was almost like a flatbread, crisp and delicious.  It paired super well with the salmon.

I can't remember exactly which roll I got, and the only menu I can find online is mostly Spanish.  But it was really good!

Saturday morning was back to power walking the beach, breakfast, and then the beach.  For lunch we went to Los Aguachiles.  This was the only other place where we really hit a language barrier.  We had so much trouble communicating with our server on a couple of questions that he went and got his manager to help us out.  I do appreciate that, but I also think in a tourist town where so many people speak English that the servers should have to have a better understanding of the language. 

Betty doesn’t eat seafood of any kind, and almost everything on the menu was fish.  But there was a ribeye steak and fries so she got that.  However, 2 bites in and she said she didn’t really like it.  Even though we had all eaten, Jack, Barb and I devoured the steak for her.  We all thought it was delicious.  I ordered 3 tacos: shrimp on the grill, shrimp with cream sauce & tempura shrimp.  However, I only got 2 of them.  But I decided not to make a big deal because it probably would have taken more effort than it was worth to correct things.  We also got coconut shrimp, and it was fantastic

It hardly rains in Mexico outside of the rainy season and when it does, it’s usually about 30 minutes and then it blows over.  Clearly Tuesday we had rain most of the day, which again is very rare.  Saturday around lunchtime it started raining, and never stopped.  It would slow down for a little bit, but then pick right back up again.
We planned to go to dinner at this other place, another very small restaurant that Jack said had awesome food.  Before we left the rain had slowed down significantly and we thought we would be good. But about a block from the hotel the rain started coming down again super hard.  And by the time we reached the restaurant, we found out it was closed.  We were shocked considering it was Saturday night, but the owner said that Saturday is usually very slow for them.  A friend of the owner very generously offered to drive us to Sushi Club.  It’s a good thing too, because by now several of the roads were starting to flood. 

At Sushi Club of course we had to get the salmon ceviche again.  And it was still amazing.  I also ordered gyoza. I was kind of disappointed though, because they were just very average.  I've had much better in other places.  I can't remember which kind of sushi I had, but it was pretty good. Not as good as the night before, but oh well.

Since the sushi place is right near Jorge’s bar, we stopped by to see him.  That, and it was our last night in Playa.  One of Jorge’s friends very generously offered to drive us back to the hotel.  It continued pouring rain all night.  I woke up at one point and thought I heard water dripping inside.  I moved my suitcase away from the window, which is a good thing because water leaked through the window and when I finally woke up in the morning there was a puddle where my suitcase had been.

One last power walk on the beach, one last breakfast on the beach at Indigo Beach Club.  We took a few final pictures, and then had to catch our shuttle back to the airport.  Of course the shuttle gets you there almost 2 hours before your flight, so we did a little shopping before our flight back to the US and back to reality.  We had lunch at Johnny Rockets in the airport, which is nothing exciting, but I had to laugh at the ketchup that I got…  Honestly they give you way too much and I ended up throwing a bunch away, but the thought was there.

We had an awesome week and a fantastic trip!  Jack and Betty said that on their October trip they were super busy every day going places and doing stuff.  Quite honestly, I was very content to do the more relaxing thing.  Barb couldn’t sit still on the beach for very long and always wanted to go walk somewhere. Me, I was perfectly happy to lay on the beach--or at this awesome pool chair at the hotel--and read.

I'm definitely planning to go back again next spring.  Since I'm planning to do the half marathon every year, the Playa trip will be my annual treat to myself.