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Playa del Carmen, Mexico: Beyond the All-inclusive Resorts

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People whirl through revolving doors. Sirens whirl and blare in 5-minute intervals. Potted wildflowers divide the North .....
Mexico's Caribbean Coast has become a top vacation destination over the past few years.

What attracts most visitors to the area is the many mega-resort properties that line Highway 307 from Cancun to Tulum, also referred to as the Riviera Maya. People are lured by the miles of beaches, clear turquoise sea, and the ability to leave their wallets in the hotel safe for a week for an all-inclusive Caribbean holiday. Unfortunately, if you never leave the resort, you miss out on experiencing the culture and beauty of the Mexican Coast.

Playa del Carmen, once touted as a tiny fishing village where backpackers and hippies pitched their tents on the beach, has now grown into a thriving, developed town. Playa, as the locals call it, still retains a charm that can't be found in Cancun's high-rise hotel zone.

About 40 miles south of Cancun, Playa del Carmen's location makes it a prime spot to set up base while exploring the rest of the Mayan Riviera. Local bus service runs from the Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen. Busses are modern, with televisions, reclining seats, luggage racks, bathrooms, seatbelts and air-conditioning.

The bus station in Playa is on the edge of 5th Avenue, downtown's main pedestrian walkway. Lined with outdoor cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels-this is where both locals and tourists gather to enjoy a meal while traditional Mexican strolling mariachi bands stop to play along the street.

Due to the large influx of foreign business owners relocating to the area, you will find Asian, Thai, Italian, Argentininan, and French cuisine along with traditional Mexican and Mayan restaurants. To experience some of the best and most authentic Mexican food, take a short walk off of 5th Avenue, along Juarez or 10th Avenue. Local vendors around the town square sell fresh fruit and home made tamales and sweets.

Accommodations range from youth hostels to upscale, luxury boutique hotels. Along the beach you can find modern hotel rooms with a balcony overlooking the Caribbean Sea or beachside palapas with colorful hammocks strung outside.

If you would like to shop in Cancun for a day, the bus to downtown Cancun departs Playa's bus station every 15 minutes. How about scuba diving in Cozumel' The ferry departs Playa del Carmen every half hour. More experienced divers can explore the cenotes, or underground caves, all around the Mayan Riviera. If you'd like to explore other Mexican towns, you can take a bus over to Tulum or Vallodolid for the day, or explore the magnificent ruins of Coba or Chichen Itza.

For shorter day trips, there is a collectivo van that runs up and down Highway 307 all day from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. For about two dollars you can hop on and go out to snorkel at Yal Ku lagoon in Akumal, Xel Ha or XCaret Parks, take an ATV jungle tour, or explore the Mayan Ruins in Tulum.

Of course, you can also just lounge on the pristine beaches with an ice bucket of Dos Equis and a good book.
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