While there are plenty of oceanfront getaways that feature beach activities to the exclusion of all else, if you’re looking for a destination that offers more than just surf and sand — we’re talking days spent swimming in cenotes (natural sinkholes) and eventful nights scoping out a lively bar and club scene — Playa del Carmen just might be for you.
A small resort town on the Yucatan peninsula situated halfway between Cancun and Tulum, Playa del Carmen has a great location from which to explore the area’s lush natural wonders.
Its positioning also allows you to take a quick ferry ride to Cozumel’s famed coral reefs. And less than an hour away by car, the Mayan ruins at Tulum give insight into a civilization gone by.
So, if you’re ready for a beach adventure, read on for our version of a perfect 48-hour stay in this charming Mexican beach town.
Book an early flight into Cancun, and you’ll likely arrive in Playa del Carmen just in time for lunch. For accommodations, one of the newest and hottest hotels in town is Thompson Beach House, the little sister to Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Thompson Playa del Carmen. Debuting in 2016, this beachfront boutique stay feels more like a private residence than a hotel. Channeling a 1950s midcentury-modern vibe by Mexico City-based Niz+Chauvet, the property’s 27 rooms and suites are centered around a long rectangular pool with a bar, patio and series of plush cushioned loungers leading straight onto the beach.
Upon entering your room, open the sliding glass doors and inhale deeply to fill your lungs with the crisp, clean ocean air. Spend a bit of time acquainting yourself with the space’s glass-enclosed rainfall shower, plush platform bed, terrace and, if you’re lucky, its Aquaspa tub (available in some suites).
After freshening up, don your beachwear, slide on a pair of flip-flops, grab some sunglasses and head downstairs to Thompson Beach House’s waterfront CGrill restaurant.
Helmed by executive chef Pedro Abascal, CGrill is not only convenient, but also one of the best restaurants in the area thanks to its commitment to sourcing local, fresh produce and seafood. If you’re lucky enough to catch the venue’s weekend brunch, don’t miss out on a local fruit smoothie, incredible egg cassoulet and the so-good-they-could-be-from-France croissants. If the regular lunch menu is being served, try the knock-your-sandals-off fried and charred octopus or the whole wood-roasted fish “al pastor.”
With lunch out of the way, it’s time to either hit the beach — in which case, all you have to do is stake your claim on a lounger or a cabana just steps away from where you’re eating and enjoy chair-side service — or take a stroll through the city center.
Let’s say you vote for the latter after lunch. Half a block up from the hotel and just one block west of the beach is Playa del Carmen’s famed Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), a three-mile pedestrian walkway lined with shops, restaurants and bars. Heading east just a few blocks will put you in front of a large outdoor shopping mall, above which you’ll find the aforementioned Thompson Playa del Carmen.
One of the great advantages to booking a room at either Thompson property is that you’re granted full resort privileges at both hotels. This means that if you’re staying at the Beach House, but prefer sunning on the rooftop pool at Thompson Playa del Carmen, you can (and vice versa). In fact, it’s highly likely that once you set foot on the rooftop deck, you won’t want to leave. If that’s the case, ask the cabana staff to set you up with a lounger, order some poolside cocktails and enjoy.
There’s a swim-up bar at the far end of the pool as well as partially submerged booths where you can have healthy snacks like sushi while sipping on a frozen margarita or a refreshing michelada (a spicy beer and lime cocktail).
When you’ve had enough fun in the sun, wander around La Quinta to pick up souvenirs or visit the mall. Keep in mind that sunset happens around 7 p.m., so you’ll want to head back to the hotel about 15 to 20 minutes before to take it all in. Once you’ve arrived, choose a lounge chair or a cabana (a privilege reserved for guests of the boutique property) to relax in as the sun disappears below the horizon, then head back to your room upstairs to get refreshed before a night out on the town.
Tonight, consider indulging in a mind-blowing seven-course degustation menu at Passion by Martin Berasategui, just a 13-minute cab ride from your room. The Spanish celebrity chef’s eponymous restaurant in Lasarte-Oria in the Basque region of Spain is recognized as one of best in the world, and thanks to a partnership with high-end hotel Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Perla, you can get a taste of his exceptional cuisine on this side of the pond. His avant-garde menu, which has been likened to the experience at Grant Achatz’s Five-Star Alinea in Chicago, is a must-try for foodies who visit the area.
If you seek a livelier ambience with the option to party afterward, have the concierge book you a table at Catch, Thompson Playa del Carmen’s edition of the chic NYC eatery of the same name. Tuck into shareable seafood entrées ranging from salmon belly carpaccio to crispy whole red snapper for two before diving into Playa’s hottest pool party — dining at this popular rooftop restaurant grants you automatic access to the after-hours lounge. A DJ starts spinning around 10 p.m. and the party lasts until 2 a.m., or whenever you’re ready to call it a night.
After an evening out on the town, you’ll probably want to sleep in for a bit in the morning. If you can get out of bed early enough, however, take advantage of Thompson Beach House’s oceanfront location by taking a leisurely sunrise swim. The Caribbean is gentle in the morning and the salt water is great for your complexion.
Breakfast is as easy as walking off the beach and grabbing a seat at CGrill. The quesadillas — fresh handmade tortillas filled with cheese and chorizo or potato — are amazing, if you want to try some local flavor. The avocado toast, served on housemade toasted bread, and the fresh-pressed kale and ginger juice are also quite popular.
Today, you’re headed on an excursion with Living Dreams Mexico, a local tour operator helmed by a couple of young guides committed to creating an unforgettable experience. They’ll pick you up at the hotel in a private car, outlining your day and elaborating on the history of the area as your vehicle makes its way through some bumpy roads deep into the Yucatan.
Once you’ve arrived, they’ll guide you to swim (or jump) into an open-air cenote so you can experience the cool, crystal-clear mineral-rich waters of these magical natural pools. Then, after a short trek through the jungle, you might try zip-lining across the river, followed by canoeing back across for a local lunch of chicken cooked in a deep pit underground, grilled beef, strips of nopales (cactus), salsa and guacamole.
Saving the best for last, you’ll then be whisked off to a hidden cave, where, upon descending some steep wooden steps (water shoes are recommended), you can swim through the cenote’s natural underground pool and marvel at the pure aquamarine-colored water that surrounds you.
Upon returning back to your hotel, you’ll have just enough time for a quick nap and shower before heading out for your last night. Make your way downstairs to participate in Thompson Beach Club’s nightly tequila tasting, during which you’ll get to learn about and sample several variations of the local spirit before savoring one last meal on Quinta Avenida, this time at celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez’s adorably Instagrammable La Fisheria Playa just a few blocks north.
It’s here, as you sip on a big jug of freshly made agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea) and munch on crispy potato chips covered with charred octopus or tostadas topped with avocado mousse and chunks of ahi tuna, that you can plot your next adventure back — because the thing that you realize quickly in Playa del Carmen is that two days in this beach town is just enough time to whet your appetite for more.