One of the reasons I like Playa—perhaps more than any other Mexican beach resort—is that you kind of get two vacations in one. You’re in Mexico (though it’s wise to keep in mind that until the mid ‘70s, Quintana Roo was only a very, very sparsely populated territory that held a few small, quite primitive Mayan villages and a bunch of outlaws) with those incredible white sand beaches and blue Caribbean waters, but you’re kind of in Italy, since so much of Playa is owned by (and caters to) Italians … and French and Dutch and Germans. That means a crowd that’s looking for nice places to linger over food and good wine lists to accompany the kitchens’ offerings. The cheap, gaudy, American-looking chains with their emphasis on tequila shots and the like aren’t in great abundance in Playa. And neither are the mega-hotels, since the town has a moratorium on building anything over four stories. It’s a great walking city—everything’s spread out, not up—with lots of little shops, restaurants, wine bars, spas. Don’t miss Artevela on First Avenue up near Constituyentes for the wax and sand candles we have in Topolobampo. One of my favorite stores in Mexico.
What our family likes to do in Playa is rent a condo on the north side of town with a nice kitchen (we go through Bric International) and go shopping. Here’s our routine:
• Go to the Mega store on 20th Street at 30th Avenue and buy staples (the bakery is decent and the wine selection okay).
• Go to the DAC market a half a block north on 30th Avenue and buy great produce, wonderful international staples (they have everything from Thai curry pastes to Italian polenta), good-quality Mexican chiles and spices, and wonderful cheeses, Serrano-style ham, chorizos, real Mexican crema. And once a day, a baker brings in warm loaves of very, very good crusty sour dough bread.
• Down on 16th, just north of 30th Avenue, is a very good fish market that has lots of local catch. The fishmongers will clean and fillet your fish however you want. I bought the best grouper I’ve ever had there, filleted it for salt-and-pepper ceviche and used the bones to make an incredibly good fish soup.
While you’re wandering these few blocks near the corner of 20th Street and 30th Avenue, you’ll probably be hungry. I suggest that you have an incredibly good smoothie at the stand connected to DAC or check out the simple, little Mexican places around there. I love La Bamba Jarocha (on 30th Avenue just past DAC market) for ceviches, seafood cocktails and a seafood soups. But there’s a big charcoal grill for meats at HC de Monterrey and a place called Playita for great big corn masa flatbreads called huaraches (among other things). Both are on 20th Avenue, just east of 30th Avenue. I guarantee you that these places turn out some pretty memorable, rustic, unfancy Mexican food. I only pinpoint these because they’re close to my favorite food-shopping corner. There are a number of other solid Mexican places around town, but you’ll have to get pretty far off of 5th Avenue to find them.
About Yaxche, the upscale modern Mayan restaurant on 8th street near 5th Avenue. I’ve eaten there several times through the years and have always found it quite good. Until this time. The food was so disappointing that it broke my heart: all I could think of was the poor visitors who are going to leave Mexico thinking that Yaxche is as good as real regional Mexican food gets.
We had a wonderful meal at John Gray’s Place—not Mexican at all, but contemporary American with a few Mexican ingredients thrown in. Go for the Mexican wine list. John is friends with James Suckling (Wine Spectator) and together they toured Mexico’s wine region in northern Baja California and chose the list. The Barón Balche Grenache-Cabernet blend will knock your socks off (though you probably won’t be wearing any in Playa).
Don’t miss Delit, a small shop that turns frozen fruit into sorbet (adding water or yogurt at your request). They make pure fruit into the perfect Playa frozen dessert.
And if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten path kind of tour, either go swimming through the cenotes at Hidden Worlds or choose one of the tours through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere just south of Tulum. You could also try the Mayan Adventure through Alltournatives where you visit Cobá (well worth seeing), do a little zip line, rappel into a cenote and swim—the adventure stuff in the context of a Mayan village (the company is culturally sensitive).