Once a soporific fishing village where travellers camped out en route to Isla Cozumel, PLAYA DEL CARMEN (often called simply "Playa") is now a hot spot with pretensions of being the next Miami Beach – and, from a local perspective, a goldmine of employment in construction. Mexico City’s elite pop in, as do day-trippers from Cancún and passengers from cruise ships docked on Cozumel. As a result, the town’s main centre of activity, Avenida 5 (also called La Quinta), a long, pedestrianized strip one block back from the sea, is often packed to capacity with tourists rapidly emptying their wallets in pavement cafés, souvenir outlets and designer-clothes shops.
Nonetheless, the low-rise development and numerous European-owned businesses make it seem, at least on the quieter north side, relatively cosmopolitan and calm (certainly when compared to Cancún). The nightlife in particular has a hip edge, but as the town has grown, it has become tougher on budget travellers.
Playa’s main beach has suffered some erosion and looks thin in some stretches. More serious beach-goers head to the area north of Constituyentes, called Playa Norte, where the deep, silky sand drops into waist-high green water with mid-size swells. A couple of beach clubs form the major social scene here.
A 40km-long island directly off the coast from Playa del Carmen, ISLA COZUMEL is known to package tourists as a cruise-ship port: nearly every day, up to ten liners, each with several thousand passengers, dock at one of the island’s three dedicated piers, all just south of the only town, San Miguel. But Cozumel’s other major attraction provides the perfect escape from the crowds: the reefs that dazzled Jacques Cousteau in the early 1960s are some of the finest in this hemisphere. Even if you don’t dive, there’s a certain appeal in wandering the relaxed inland blocks of San Miguel, away from the piers, spotting Maya ruins and birds (the Maya called the island cuzamil – “land of the swallows”) in the dense forests and being the only person on the windswept eastern beaches.