Playa del Carmen offers perfect mix of adventure, relaxation

The pedestrian-only La Quinta Avenida, seen here in November 2015, is full of restaurants, hotels, bars and shops that stay open late into the night.
The pedestrian-only La Quinta Avenida, seen here in November 2015, is full of restaurants, hotels, bars and shops that stay open late into the night.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO — We were over halfway through a two-hour ride to Chichen Itza — one of the largest and most-visited pre-Columbian Mayan cities in Mexico — when steam started rise from the hood of our van.

Our driver pulled over to the side of the road and emptied some water bottles into the radiator as our guide apologized for the unexpected mechanical trouble. The tour company would send another van, he said. The only problem, of course, was that it was back in Playa del Carmen. And we were ... not.

After the engine cooled, we drove a few miles to a large, air-conditioned souvenir shop to wait for our replacement van. There, another tour bound for Chichen Itza invited us to hitch a ride. And so we found ourselves on a German-language bus tour of Mexico.

It was an unexpected start to our first full day in Mexico, for sure. But it also showed us how the tourism community works together to welcome visitors. At least, that was our experience during a week of sightseeing, snorkeling, beach club lounging and dining in the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico.

Wanting to be in the heart of a city, rather than secluded on a resort, my husband and I stayed at Acanto Boutique Hotel in Playa del Carmen, a quickly growing vacation hot spot about 40 miles south of Cancun.

Acanto, a chic 27-room hotel, is perfectly located between the beach and La Quinta Avenida, Playa del Carmen’s main pedestrian thoroughfare. And we definitely felt immersed in the city. Each evening we joined the throngs of people on La Quinta Avenida enjoying food and drink at local establishments, watching street performers, and browsing shops filled with clothing, art, tequila, jewelry and, of course, souvenirs.

There’s plenty to see — and hear — there. Shopkeepers constantly call out to passers-by, trying to get their attention and earn business. “Mr. Iowa!” they’d yell to my husband when he wore his Hawkeye shirt. Or “Honeymooners!” they’d call to us both, “Come pick up some gifts for your families!”

Thanks to our hotel’s staff, we never felt lost or lacking for things to do. They happily provided restaurant recommendations and guided us to a nearby luxe beach club when we asked for the best spot to enjoy a day on the beach. They also offered to arrange excursions to dive, snorkel and see archaeological sites.

Which brings me back to our journey to Chichen Itza. We’d seen pictures of El Castillo — that famous and breathtaking pyramid with exactly 365 steps selected as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World — but were surprised at the size of the full archaeological site. The ancient city is sprawling, with remains of a ball court, a temple, a market, an observatory and more. On dirt roads surrounding the city center, table after table of vendors sell handicrafts to the more than 3,500 tourists who visit every day. Our tour guide, who was of Mayan heritage, was full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of the site and the people who lived there.

By the time we were done at Chichen Itza, our replacement van had arrived, so we could continue the rest of our daylong private tour. Next stop: a swim at Ik Kil Cenote — a picturesque, mystical-feeling natural sinkhole filled with very clear, very cold, fresh water.

We wrapped up our tour with a visit to one more Mayan archaeological site — Ek Balam. Here, visitors still can walk through what’s left of the ancient houses and scale the steep stone steps of the Acropolis, which is known for the well-preserved, ornate carvings on a tomb about halfway up. This city is older, smaller and more intimate feeling than Chichen Itza, showing us that each of the ruins has its own distinct personality and character.

It’s hard to say which we liked most — or even what was the biggest highlight of our week in Mexico. And that is exactly what drew us to this popular destination: With beautiful sunny beaches, amazing cultural sites nearby, an overwhelming array of activities (we also spent a day snorkeling), lots of great food (I haven’t even had a chance to tell you about the amazing authentic tacos al pastor we got at El Fagon), Playa del Carmen offered a vacation with the perfect balance of action and relaxation.

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