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Playa del Carmen: Where to eat, shop and play

Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast of Mexico isn’t just any tourist town — it has a wild spirit that lurks around every corner.

A shop sporting Mexican-styled shirts and sombreros may have a secret garden in the back, and if you look closely, the facades of many venues are half natural rock, part tree and more organic than the knickknacks being hawked inside.

It’s like the jungle is trying to take over, sneaky and slow. Here’s where to seek that spirit out.

The beach

As the name playa suggests, this town rests
Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

As the name playa suggests, this town rests on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Plenty of restaurants serve food and booze on the shore, but to get in some quality beach time, head away from the main center of town. A good place to put down your towel is Parque Los Fundadores (Avenue Juarez, next to the Cozumel ferry pier). Not only can you swim in warm blue and green waters, but the area has a great beach vibe that includes food stalls, performers, shops and daily sand sculptures.

The eats

One of the must-try foods in Playa del
Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

One of the must-try foods in Playa del Carmen is ceviche, a flavorful cold fish dish comprised of lemon or lime juice and local fruits and spice. Not only does it taste great and showcase the sea creatures of the region, but ceviche proves refreshing and comes packed with protein, perfect for boosting your energy after a day seeing the sites. Try this dish alongside other regional foods at Cinco, the rooftop restaurant in the Thompson Hotel (Calle 12, between Calle Quinta Avenida and 10 Avenida Norte, 984-206-4800, thompsonhotels.com).

Chow on classic chilaquiles and other Mexican breakfast staples at the beachside Indigo Beach (Calle 14 at the beach, 984-803-1414, indigobeach.com.mx), or head to the quaint Madrez Cafe (Calle 8 between the beach and Calle Quinta Avenida, 984-125-9505), a tiny morning and afternoon spot with fresh, simple fare like the egg sandwich with chorizo and cheese.

Another brunch or lunch option on the strip is found at Chez Celine (Calle Quinta Avenida and Calle 34, 984-803-3480, chezceline.com.mx), where you can sit down for an informal meal of fresh French pastries, hot and cold sandwiches, egg dishes, crepes and one of the best cups of coffee in the area.

And to try food inspired by what the Mayans ate, such as cochinita pibil, papadzules and pibxcatic (a xcatic pepper stuffed and pan-fried), have dinner Yaxche (Calle Quinta Avenida and Calle 22 Norte, 984-873-3011, mayacuisine.com).

The shopping

For all your souvenir needs, Quinta Avenida is
Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

For all your souvenir needs, Quinta Avenida is the place to be, from the artsy T-shirt shops that double as a place to have your feet nibbled on by tiny fish to natural cubby holes filled with turtles in the back of shops selling native-looking textiles.

Amid this chaos of coffee stands, souvenir kiosks and lots of fun-looking bars, there are some unique places to check out. For example, the beautiful beaded sculptures in Tierra Huichol (Calle Quinta Avenida Norte between calles 38 and 40, 322-144-4978). Here, each turtle, giraffe and lizard figure is covered in beeswax and then hand-decorated with tiny glass beads in the shapes of powerful symbols, a real special find in the sea of mass-produced trinkets. Corazon de Mexico (cash only; Calle Quinta Avenida and Calle 14 Norte, 984-803-3355) also sells great, inexpensive trinkets, all with a Mexican heart theme.

Also off the beaten path -- and off Quinta Avenida -- is the ceramics and pewter shop Siete Detalles (Avenida 1 Norte and Calle 14 Norte, 984-879-4510, sietedetalles.com), which offers lovely cups, bowls, platters and other serving vessels.

Where to stay

To experience the bustling nightlife, go shopping or
Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

To experience the bustling nightlife, go shopping or head to the beach, consider the modern Thompson Hotel. Quinta Avenida is right outside its door, and the ocean is just two blocks away. When you're not exploring the city, there's an infinity pool on the roof and two tasty restaurants.

Historical sights

Within an hour or two you can take
Photo Credit: Linnea Covington

Within an hour or two you can take a trip into history by exploring some of the most ancient ruins in the world. Hire a guide like Mexico Tropical (mexicotropical.travel), which hosts trips to all these spots. As a bonus, the outings include local snacks such as guacamole, ceviche and cold beer.

Tulum

45-minute drive

This resort town's real claim to fame comes from the pre-Columbian walled-in Mayan archaeological site inside Tulum National Park. On one side you have the Temple of the Frescoes, El Castillo and Temple of the Descending God; on the other the glorious Caribbean sea roaring below.

Coba

90-minute drive

This site features the nearly-140-foot-tall Nohoch Mul Pyramid and contains the largest network of stone causeways built by the ancient Mayans. These structures showcase many engraved stelae, or tall stone monuments, that represent Mesoamerican life in the area around 600-900 A.D.

Chichen Itza

Two-hour drive

The magnificent pyramid known as El Castillo is one of the most famous Mayan buildings, and you can still see the markings on the stone documenting life in 600 A.D. Other sights in this location include an ancient ball court, the Wall of Skulls and the Temple of the Warriors.

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