Fifteen years ago we fell in love with a place called Playa del Carmen. A relatively quiet coastal town that, despite attracting many visitors, held on to its Mexican charms and wooed us with its glorious beach, local restaurants, friendly smiles and quiet shopping precinct along Quinta Avenida, or 5th Avenue.
Rocking into town from our previous stop in Tulum, we were met with a very different place to the one we saw fifteen years ago.
Big residential and hotel developments were everywhere, Walmart and a very unrecognisable Quinta Avenida.
Mass tourism seems to have hit Playa del Carmen smack in the face, and little old Quinta Avenida has turned into an international chain, street hawker, tourist tat, drug dealer and night club monster.
Sadly a chunk of the town is turning into another US-style outpost like it’s northern neighbour of Cancun, not particularly our cup of tea, but if convenience and familiarity makes your vacation, then you’d feel right at home.
If it doesn’t, then you needn’t walk too far to find PdC’s less affected areas.
If I could choose between entering a store that sells American-branded active-wear, garishly printed t-shirts and plastic figurines donned with sombreros or somewhere with aisles of aromatic spices, fresh produce, dried herbs and condiments, I’d go with the latter.
All it takes to get away from the commercial madness is walk a few blocks west from the beach. Here you’ll stumble upon places like DAC Market, a food store that’ll keep any gourmand happy.
Local and international ingredients, fresh produce, dried herbs, spices and pastes and so much more. So if you favour your fab food over the faux figurines, seek it out. You can even stay and munch on some cheap, local food at the café.
DAC Market – 30 Avenida Norte
Chou Chou Café – Corner 20th & 24th
Falafel Nessya – Calle 4 between 10th & 15th
We didn’t eat out a great deal in PdC due to having a kitchen in our apartment, but we were lucky to have Chou Chou Café one block away. These guys pump out some mighty fine espresso and juices from the coffee bar inside a reused shipping container tacked onto the main building. Food-wise, it’s all about tasty breakfasts, sandwiches, tartines, salads and bao varieties.
Coming across a falafel bar when we were searching for another restaurant, which we discovered was closed, was like a breath of fresh air. Falafel Nessya is a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint that specialises in exactly that – falafels. Grab a seat and enjoy 3 falafels with hummus & pita (80), wrapped in pita or have them piled into a burger. There are some complimentary condiments on the table by the counter.
The taco is the ultimate fast food in this part of the world. Well, one of them, so you needn’t wander too far to find a decent place that produces a decent specimen.
The best are meant to be found at El Fogon, a traditional restaurant that has a few locations in PdC. Go for good old al pastor or one of the other toppings. Plenty of other edibles on the extensive menu, like char-grilled meats, quesadillas, queso fundido, tortas, nachos, fajitas and more.
El Fogon – Corner 30th Ave & Bis St and Constituyestes Ave between 25th & 30th Aves.
Colectivos run regularly from the main drag in Tulum. Check the map for location. It costs 45 pesos per person. There’s no luggage storage, so if you have luggage that takes up another seat, you must pay for that seat as well.