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En español | Here's what I like to do after unpacking and slathering on sunscreen when I arrive in Playa del Carmen: Head a few blocks off the main tourist drag to always lively El Fogón. Guitar-strumming mariachis serenade the locals and visitors chilling out at simple wooden tables. A smiling server brings icy margaritas with a mound of guacamole with chips and a plate of 85-cent pork-and-pineapple tacos, or chicken quesadillas dripping gooey white cheese.
The bill is easy to swallow, typically less than $30 for two. You definitely get a lot of pop for the peso.
I fell in love with Playa del Carmen, on the Caribbean south of Cancún, 20 years ago. And I keep returning to the fast-growing beach resort that now has about 250,000 residents.
You can get here from the Cancún airport in a little more than an hour for about $10 per person via air-conditioned ADO express bus, and the palm-tree-lined Quinta Avenida (“Fifth Avenue”) tourist zone is so compact, you don’t need a rental car or taxi to get around.
Those on a budget are also drawn to Playa by low-cost lodgings, including new boutique hotels that can cost less than $500 weekly. Ocean Zen Suites on the quiet northern stretch of Quinta Avenida, which wins raves on TripAdvisor, boasts a small rooftop pool, money-saving kitchenettes, free Wi-Fi and furniture crafted by local artisans. Best of all is the warmth of its staff, from manager to night watchman.
To find hotel deals, scroll through reviews on sites such as Booking.com and Hotels.com. You can book the cute thatch-roofed Aventura Mexicana, for instance, on discount sites for about $80 nightly, with breakfast.
On Day 2, following your El Fogón feast, you can loll on public beaches (one caters to visitors who use wheelchairs) then marinate in the madness of Quinta Avenida, where it’s fiesta time 24/7.
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On another day, consider taking a ferry to the beaches of Cozumel Island, whose turquoise waters lure snorkelers and divers. Nature lovers can swim in a cenote, a jungle sinkhole with pure, cool water. You might also book an excursion to Mayan ruins at Tulum.
In the evening, wander off the pedestrian promenade for cheaper and more authentic spots. At 500 Gramos Grill, in a quiet courtyard, a juicy T-bone and potatoes will set you back only $15.
Though Playa has grown with its popularity, a smile and a few words of Spanish win me a small-town welcome that — along with this place’s affordability — keeps me coming back.