• Photo: Agnieszka Guzowska / Shutterstock

Playa del Carmen

Welcome to the party! "Playa," currently Latin America's fastest-growing community, has a population of more than 150,000 and an international flavor lent by the estadounidenses (United States citizens), Canadians, and Europeans who have been moving here since the early 1990s. Full of lively bars, restaurants, beach clubs, shops, and hotels, its eminently walkable downtown is one of the few places on the Riviera Maya where you can have a car-free vacation.

Sunbathe and swim at trendy beach clubs by day, then drink and dance at nightclubs until the sun comes up and start all over again. In between, there's an enjoyable array of diversions along Avenida 5, a pedestrian-only cobbled street that is the town's main drag. Its southern section, from about Calle 4 to Constituyentes, is busy, noisy, and sometimes rowdy—the place to go for nightlife, tequila shots, and souvenir shopping. Its quieter, more upscale northern end, north of Constituyentes up to about Calle 38, is the place for chic cafés and stylish boutiques. Rapid development means a decline in Mexican culture, with chain stores and cheap souvenirs emerging on every corner (Starbucks junkies can easily get their fix.) It also means businesses open and close monthly, surviving on the hope they can offer a better service than their neighbors.

Although building-height restrictions have helped to keep Playa from turning into the next Cancún, you'll have to leave town to get off the beaten path. Much of the area is developed, most recently by a slew of all-inclusive resorts opening up on the city's outskirts. If you plan on leaving the town center, be aware of your surroundings. A slight increase in criminal activity was reported between 2011 and 2013, most of which occurred outside major resort areas.

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