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Riviera Maya: the very name is enough to spark visions of endless beaches and pure fun under the sun. But while it certainly offers more than its fair share of all that, this destination also weaves in eco-adventures, ancient Mayan archaeology, and experiences in modern-day Mayan villages, giving it a considerable edge over any other vacation destination in the Americas.

It’s also now a “top five” for living in Mexico. This expanse of Caribbean shore and inland forests can be a top choice for expats seeing the best of Mexico + Mayan + Caribbean, all with easy US air access, sophisticated amenities, booming real estate offers, and genuine Mayan culture.

And because development in this expanse of coastline has been kept in check, you’ll find this region’s large resort complexes are intermingled with small independent communities and residential zones with plenty of wilderness in between. Growth has still been impressive, but even more impressive is the ability of its people to keep so much of their land preserved in its natural state. If you’re thinking eco-vacation or living in Mexico’s resort Mecca, then you’re in the right place: think the pristine Great Mayan Reef for diving and snorkeling; myriad archaeological sites and thriving Mayan villages for exploring; the uninterrupted miles of virgin beaches for relaxing; and eco-parks, mangroves and lush jungle for green adventures.

PLAYA DEL CARMEN

(55 km/34 mi from the Cancun International Airport)

If you haven’t been to Playa in a few years, boy, are you in for a surprise! Playa is all grown up and is now the place to see and be seen. It’s only a 50-minute ride from the Cancun International Airport via the four-lane 307 Highway and still ferry central for jaunts to Cozumel, plus it’s right next door to the mega-resorts at the Playacar development, all of which has helped the city grow to over a quarter of a million residents—some local, some national, with a very heavy sprinkling of foreigners.

It also has plenty of day visitors from all over Riviera Maya and via cruises (both from Cozumel or those docking at Calica, just 10 km/6 mi south) who stream in to enjoy its excellent shopping, dining, people watching, and calm, beautiful beach. Two blocks inland and parallel to that sea is La Quinta Avenida, Playa’s answer to 5th Avenue, only beachier, funkier and a whole lot more fun. This busy iconic pedestrian byway now stretches about 20 blocks (4.5 km/2.8) from the Paseo del Carmen outdoor shopping center at the southern end all the way north into the city.

Easily the hippest, most internationally diverse street in the entire Caribbean, it’s “divided” into the Old Quinta and the New Quinta. The Old Quinta extends to 15th street and the Olmec head sculpture and it’s busy with restaurants, nightlife with DJs and clubs (especially around the corner of 5th and 12th avenues), plus great shopping at Calle Corazón and Quinta Alegría. When you hit Calle Corazon don’t miss a visit to L’Aquarium, where your entry fee contributes to coral farming and opens the door for you to see over 3,000 different species and a special cenote room. Farther down, the New Quinta is more laid-back, with a cool bohemian vibe at its restaurants and bars.

Beyond La Quinta

Even though Playa del Carmen has seen an explosion in popularity and growth, it’s still very much a pedestrian friendly town at heart. City planners have, in fact, begun initiatives on a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) walking and bicycle path that will run the length of the town along 10th Avenue. Two similar paths already connect the two commercial corridors: Centro Maya and Plaza Las Americas. The latter has a new municipal facility, city hall and theater as part of one of the largest master-planned urban developments in Mexico.

A bit to the north of town (within walking distance), the area past Avenida Constituyentes has some of the loveliest beaches Playa has to offer. Further north is Coco Beach, and if you go beyond Coco Beach you’ll find fewer sun worshippers and more places to relax far from the tourist hustle and bustle.

To the immediate south of the central ferry pier is Playcar. Since it opened in the 80s, this swanky enclave has become home to over 6,000 rooms divided among several large four- and five-star all-inclusive resorts, mostly with Spanish ownership and branding.

Among Mexico’s Best

Many of them rank among Mexico’s best, so be sure to see our Lodging Chart. Nearly all are beachfront and within walking (or biking) distance to all the fun in Playa del Carmen. The development also has three shopping malls and million-dollar villas set back in beautifully landscaped lots along winding, tree-lined streets, as well as the Hard Rock Golf Club, an 18-hole beauty designed by Robert von Hagge and open to the public. Much of Playa del Carmen’s real estate offering is located in Playacar.

Living in Playa and Playacar comes with certain challenges, like any resort. There are periods of cruise ship “invasions”, growing traffic constraints and some mounting crime incidents. Beyond the resort growth, there are condo developments popping up like palm trees. It’s best to spend some time (weeks/months) exploring the advantages and drawbacks of living scenarios throughout this booming city.