Beers, beach and burritos

By Amanda LeNeve

Sur's wine manager, Capi, shows off his favourite Mexican wines
Sur’s wine manager, Capi, shows off his favourite Mexican wines

A long weekend in Playa del Carmen? Why not!

Playa del Carmen, fishing village turned tourism metropolis on the Mayan Riviera, about 70 kilometres south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, is well-known to Albertans for its white sand beaches and blue Caribbean waters.

Though famous for its party scene, my sister and I were looking to experience the other side of this charming city that wouldn’t have us woo-hoo-ing at Coco Bongo all weekend, and coming home with a week-long hangover.

We checked into Hotel El Punto, located right on bustling 5th Avenue, convenient to both the nightlife scene and the beach.

We wanted to dig a bit deeper into what the city had to offer, culinarily speaking.

Over the course of the weekend, we experienced many unexpected treasures. On the rooftop of Hotel El Punto is the restaurant/bar La Azotea, where we spent a perfect evening sipping on tasty cocktails and snacking on delicious wood-fired pizzas and several other yummy bites all while watching a Caribbean sunset.

A mariachi band serenades diners at Mi Pueblo.

Mi Pueblo, kitty-corner to the hotel, served an incredible Mexican feast complete with queso fundido — essentially melted Manchego, Oaxaca and Parmesan cheeses flamed with tequila and eaten with handmade tortilla chips — and one of the most satisfying desserts I’ve had in a long time, crepa de cajeta — a goat-milk crepe drenched in a caramel also made from goat’s milk. Topping it all off was our very own personal mariachi band performance.

Calle Corazon is one of my favourite pockets of Playa. The street is a little loop that connects to 5th Avenue on either end and is lined with big beautiful trees that twinkle with white lights at night.

Two of the best restaurants in town are located on this enchanting little street: Sur, an Argentinian steak house and Lateral, a seafood and steak restaurant. Managed by the same group of owners, Sur and Lateral share a good wine list featuring Mexican wines, which Sur’s wine manager, Capi, is passionate about. Specifically, Mariatinto and Santo Tomas Unico — both powerful reds (a Nebbiolo and a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend) that paired well with Sur’s delicious and meaty Argentinian fare.

Both Sur and Lateral have a relaxed, yet special, atmosphere with their patios extending right into the middle of Calle Corozon. The high quality of both ingredients and food preparation made both of these restaurants somewhere I wanted to return to and hunker down for a couple of hours amid the trees and sparkly lights.

Aldea Corazon is also not to be missed. This restaurant celebrated its grand opening while we were there and is the result of a major rejuvenation project. The location of the restaurant is at the original heart (corazon) of Playa del Carmen, once considered a sacred place by the Mayans. Over the years and through Playa’s growth, the location had been neglected, overgrown and polluted. Wanting to bring this sacred part of Playa del Carmen back to life, Aldea Corazon owners cleaned up and rejuvenated the spot, and now restaurant guests can enjoy their meals next to a cenote (a natural sinkhole from a collapse in limestone exposing groundwater underneath) amongst native vegetation — a beautiful respite from busy 5th Avenue just out the front door.

Meat! at HC de Monteray

I was surprised again and again by the diversity and standard of cuisine available in Playa del Carmen. Playa has long been a vacation destination for European travelers — and that influence is obvious as you stroll through its streets. Listen closely and you’ll hear a number of European languages — Dutch, German, Italian, French, Iberian Spanish. There’s really something for everyone and with a little digging and asking around, these little treasures are worth looking out for — on and off the main drag.

The best way to find out what’s worth checking out? Ask the staff. Francisco, our enthusiastically helpful front desk clerk, directed us to El Fogan, a busy place at the corner of Calle 6 and 30 Avenue serving delicious Mexican fare at very reasonable prices, too. Perhaps it was the elation of leaving the Edmonton winter behind us, but this lovely open air restaurant several blocks off 5th Avenue was everything we were looking for.

With three airlines offering direct flights to Cancun, Playa del Carmen makes an ideal destination to get away from the Alberta winter. If you don’t have a whole week available, try a long weekend — it worked perfectly for us.

Other spots we loved:

  • Los Tabernacos
    (1st Avenue between Calle 10th and 12th): want to catch a hockey game or have a craving for poutine? This is a little French-Canadian bar filled with Quebecois transplants. Another nice spot to get away from the bustle of 5th Ave.
  • Buckets of beer on the beach: there are several little bars with lounge chairs right on the beach. For 150 pesos, you can get five bottles of beer and a nice spot to catch some sun — not a bad deal.
  • HC de Monteray
    (Avenida de Constituyentes — across the street from the Mega supermarket): we were charmed by the staff here, which was true actually, pretty much every place we visited. If you’re craving a steak, this is a great place to get it.
  • Las Quesadillas (Calle 8, just off the beach): a good, inexpensive, family-run spot with great tacos. Close to the beach and the centre of the city — easy to pop into during an afternoon on the beach.
  • El Fogan (Calle 6 and 30 Avenue)
  • Sur (Calle Corazon)
  • Lateral (Calle Corazon)
  • Aldea Corazon (5th Avenue at Calle 14)

Amanda likes long walks on the beach… and piña coladas.