06 Jun Playa Del Carmen – Rising Digital Nomad Hub of the West?
What attracts people – Mexicans from other regions, North Americans, Europeans and other foreigners to Playa Del Carmen, or “Playa” as nicknamed by the locals? It’s likely the prime beachside location in the Riviera Maya. But I’ll argue that what keeps them coming back to Playa is the spirit.
Playa Is Magnet To Like-Minded Digital Nomads & Expats
One of the very first things I noticed about Playa is the extremely chill vibe and abundance of positive energy. And I’m not just talking about the vacationers blowing off steam near the beach and the pedestrian strip of Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue).
Dressing up means actually wearing shoes and something other than a beach coverup or tank top. Dreamcatchers grace the ceilings and doorways of shops and restaurants. A yoga mat perched in a bicycle basket is the norm. But this isn’t indicative of a sleepy beach town. The growing population is an ambitious, hustling, networking and mindful group of entrepreneurs, freelancers, remote workers, and those helping to build businesses and opportunities in the area. Oh, and of course, active retirees.
Playa is an excellent temporary or semi-permanent base for digital nomads and expats for many reasons.
First, the community is welcoming and supportive and there’s an established infrastructure of co-working spaces, cafes, restaurants, and bi-lingual schools (for families). While we were there, one of the main co-working spaces, Nest, upgraded its facilities to a larger, new location in the heart of town.
Secondly, even though it feels a bit exotic, you can still find some of the comforts of home. Maybe it’s a little too ‘Americanized’…but at least it minimizes the likelihood of experiencing culture shock. Walk into Walmart and you can find most of what you would in the U.S. Menus are in Spanish and English. Dollars are accepted, albeit, not always at the best exchange rate so it’s better to spend in pesos. For me, the small win of finding my deodorant brand was comforting. This is silly, but I seem to struggle with deodorant choices in Europe!
Thirdly, cost of living is very reasonable for a beachside community in the western hemisphere. There is an abundance of apartments and condos for rent or sale. It’s true that many of these are already book up a year ahead for high season (December – March) and that it may be a little challenging to book units for the month as many are reserved for higher profit, weekly stays. However, the continuous development will add more rentals to the market, helping to feed the demand as well as stabilize and maybe even decrease costs over time. Just watch out for utility prices! (more on this below)
Another major selling point is the close proximity to a treasure trove of activities, sights, cities, glorious beaches and natural reserves to excite your senses in your free time.
Other Playa Perks
The diverse population is reflected in the variety of restaurants across the town. And lucky for you, the fresh and delicious produce, meats and seafood typically come at a very affordable price.
Language is not too much of an obstacle, as you can get by with English and beginner level Spanish. Although learning Spanish is encouraged! If interested, there are a few options: language schools catering towards intensive sessions, you can get connected to individuals offering private lessons or conversation sessions via Facebook groups or you can use the Babbel app which I love!
If you’re into yoga or want to become a yoga teacher, then you’ve come to the right place. Those living here for a month or more can get ‘local’ priced packages at the yoga studios. I thoroughly enjoyed the classes I took while here, improving my practice and mindfulness. Afterward, you can re-energize at one of the numerous vegan and juice/smoothies cafés in town.
Our Experience Living In Playa
Playa is diverse, transient, and a tourist haven. When you arrive, you’re welcomed for your business and/or as a new potential friend. People understand that you may only be there temporarily, and don’t treat you differently because of it.
We lived in Playa for two months, April and May 2017. It was starting to die down a little bit from a snowbird/nomad perspective especially in late May, but there is a year-round expat community here.
I quickly became involved in a Playa offshoot group of the Cancun Internations community. I made friends that we hung out with several times, getting to know their families and supporting their businesses.
We became regulars at various cafes and restaurants, getting acquainted with the staff and owners and feeling part of their community. One of the cafes was affiliated with an office space that we then rented for a month, making another friend at an adjacent desk.
Towards the end of our stay, we were introduced to the Digital Nomads Playa Del Carmen Facebook group. Through this group, we attended a large event and gained invaluable insights on the page wall.
All of these resources available to us made Playa truly feel like a remote home.
Here is a list of resources we compiled during our two-month stay.
Most of our time in Playa was spent between Calle 10 (10th Street) and Calle 34 (34th Street) from the beach up to Avenida 30 (30th Avenue). We were fond of our neighborhood ‘Hollywood’ and the establishments nearby. Being a little further (but still just short walk) from the beach (15-20 minutes) and 5th Avenue (8 minutes) were actually perks as it can get quite touristy and noisy on the weekends with music echoing from the beach clubs. We noticed many of the expats lived in Playacar 1 & 2 and got around by bicycle. Beyond 30th Avenue, it becomes more local.
You can get around downtown on foot but a bike would be helpful, especially in the hotter months.
We rented bikes from Savin’ on 10th Avenue near Coco Bongo for approximately $7/day. (They also offer various excursions and adventure sports if you want someone to organize that for you.)
If you’re in town for two months or more, you may want to consider buying a bike at one of the many shops along 30th Avenue. You can get a standard hybrid city bike for around $100 USD.
Make sure to get a good lock – bicycle thefts are very common.
Store your bike indoors as able due to the humidity being particularly high and corrosive.
Because bikes deteriorate quickly from humidity or get stolen, you will likely not find a long-term rental option, it’s not a good business.
If you go on a site like Kayak.com you may find amazing rental car day rates for as little as ~$2-4 USD when booking in advance. This is not the true cost. Mexico federal law requires you have Mexican car insurance. The rental car companies will sell it to you for approximately $18-25 a day. So your total cost, including tax will more likely be $25 and up per day, depending on the season and how good of a daily rate you received by booking in advance.
The ADO bus service is a reliable and comfortable way (AC and reclining seats) to get to and from popular destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula. We paid roughly $10 USD per person to get from the Cancun airport to downtown Playa. You can also use it to get to Tulum, Merida, and other locations.
The ‘Collectivos’, small white vans operate around the city and in between Tulum – Playa – Cancun. You can hop in and out along the highway (flag them down). They are an affordable way to get around but can become crowded and do not usually have AC.
Shopping for groceries and home items
DAC our preferred spot for fresh produce – on 30th Avenue between Avenue Constituyentes and 20th Street
MEGA* a good spot for groceries – on 30th Avenue and Avenue Constituyentes
Walmart* on 30th Avenue between 8th and 12th Streets
Winery & plus they have a great variety of quality wines and liquors – on the corner of 10th Avenue and 28th Street
*these stores have a taxi stop at the exit to help you get home with your purchases.
Cafés & Casual Eateries
While there are plenty more cafés and restaurants in town, the following represent the establishments we enjoyed frequently and would recommend. Eating out in Playa can be very affordable as well as healthy, which is why we have such a long list!
Chou Chou Cafe (breakfast, lunch & dinner)
A charming eco-friendly cafe with good eats, delicious coffee, and other beverage creations. Daniel’s favorite drink in the world (a blend of avocado, vanilla ice cream, a dollop of whip cream, and cinnamon) is served here.
Elemento (breakfast & lunch)
A well-loved local spot on the side of a furniture design store. They offer a pre-fixe lunch for 140 pesos/pp and includes starter, entree, choice of 1 fresh made flavored water/juice. The menu changes weekly.
La Ceiba de la 30 (breakfast, lunch & dinner)
Despite its small size, this cafe on the side of DAC produce market serves an extensive and consistently scrumptious menu. Try a large, freshly blended fruit juice for a mere $2 USD.
Chez Céline (breakfast, lunch & dinner)
A divinely delicious French bakery & cafe – serving a variety of croissants, salads, sweet and savory crepes. Definitely, try their chocolate mousse! Even though it’s on 5th Avenue, it’s loved by the locals.
Los Aguachiles (lunch & dinner – open till 9p at the 34th St/25th Ave location)
Awesome, affordable seafood tacos. Cost is 29 pesos a taco. Three tacos usually does the trick!
Bio Natural Organicos (breakfast, lunch & dinner & store)
Delicious vegetarian dishes like salads pitas, and quinoa platters.
La Senda (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
Inventive vegan cuisine.
Axiote (lunch & dinner – reservation recommended)
A great date spot with high quality and unique menu and drinks.
Afrodisiako (breakfast, lunch & dinner)
A boutique Italian restaurant with well-crafted dishes, nice wines, and excellent service.
La Cueva del Chango (breakfast, lunch & dinner)
Quality Mexican cuisine and service in a garden setting. Even though off of 5th, it’s loved by the locals.
Ambasciata D’ Italia (lunch & dinner)
We would opt for the interior courtyard (escaping 5th Avenue) and enjoy their range of pizzas and affordable wine.
El Jardin (breakfast & lunch)
Tasty Mexican breakfast in a garden setting.
Kaxapa Factory (lunch & dinner)
Delicious Venezuelan food such as arepas and juices in a friendly environment.
note: you tip about 15% at cafés and restaurants
Deportivo Mario Villanueva Madrid a sports complex between 20th and 10th Avenues and 34th Street. We often jogged around the track here. Luckily it opens early and closes late, as in the warmer months you want to go when the sun is down.
Yogaloft on 10th Street between 15th and 10th Avenues. I took classes here and loved the teachers and the studio’s dedication to the practice. One word of caution – it can be a very hot experience for those not used to doing yoga in warm environments with little use of fans and closed windows. Good for warming the muscles. Just prepare by hydrating, bringing or renting towels, and wearing lightweight clothing.
Kava Kasa yoga is another yoga studio loved by expats. I did not personally take a class here as I had a package at Yogaloft. The studio is in a hotel and I believe the entrance is on 26th street between 10th and 5th Avenues.
There are a few gyms in town such as Evolve Gym and The Gym. We did not visit any of these ourselves but they looked like great options if you are seeking a gym.
There seemed to be a fair amount of seaweed along the beaches in April and May. It varied in volume by location as well as by day. The nice thing about paying for a beach club is they usually shovel and remove it. And while it doesn’t hurt you to have it present, it does smell quite funky when the sun starts baking it.
Xpu-Ha is about a 25-30 minute drive from Playa (~29km) this was our favorite beach in the ‘Playa’ area. There are a few access roads from the main highway to the beach, we chose one and found ourselves at the KSM Beach Club. La Playa Xpu-Ha is also a popular choice. We paid an affordable fee to park our car. (Sorry, I forgot exactly what it was but don’t think it was more than 200 pesos.) The restaurant & bar serves up tasty food/drink. There are beach cabanas, chairs, and restrooms that you can use if you’re consuming food/alcohol. If an afternoon thunderstorm swoops in, you can take cover in the restaurant, enjoying a cocktail sitting on a swing 🙂 They also have beach huts and equipment for water activities if you want to vacation here for a few days.
Playacar is a gated community. As a resident of Playacar 1 & 2, you have access to the beach. We had friends in Playacar that raved about the beach, so we rented bikes to ride over there and visit the beach. If you’re interested in visiting that beach and don’t have a friend to help you get access, I believe you can walk over along the sand from the pier/Av. Benito Juárez area or pay a fee at the community entrance gate to get a pass (the entrance from the neighborhood to the beach is gated/guarded).
Punta Esmeralda is a public beach with entrance at 115th street. This is a local hotspot and can get very crowded on the weekends.
Centro Playa public beaches have several public entrances. You can gain free access to the beach near Av. Benito Juárez where you can board the pier to catch ferries to Cozumel, at Calle 10 (10th St.), at Av. Constituyentes, at Calle 28 (28th St.), and at Calle 38 (38th St.). While these are convenient, they are usually crowded, the beach is not very wide and the sand that is there is a bit eroded.
Centro Playa beach clubs the popular spots among our digital nomad/expat friends were Zenzi and Lido Bar Restaurant. We also had drinks on the beachfront patio at the Carmen hotel as part of a digital nomads/expat event. That could be a nice spot to go during the day for drinks/beach but you’d have to check with the hotel if they are allowing non-guests.
For the first time on our travels, it was easy and natural to make connections in a short amount of time due to the active digital nomad/expat community like Playa has.
The population does ebb and flow – with fewer numbers during the summer and fall months when the rain and high temperatures soar. If you desire to come in high season December – March, you need to find accommodations well in advance. Many snowbirds book a full year in advance. Due to school being out for the summer, June, August, and September are also considered high season for tourism. Shoulder seasons like April & May and October & November offer better pricing and more availability.
While Playa is generally considered a safe place, it’s good to be alert and cautious of your belongings. We felt safe walking around downtown Playa and would stick to the busier streets (5th and 10th) when walking across town at night. In April, around the Easter holiday, there was an enhanced presence of police to help ensure safety for tourists. From what we were told, petty crime seems to become more frequent in low season. Less foot traffic sees a decrease in policing and more vulnerability. Unfortunately, we witnessed the aftermath of a mugging on our street corner in late May and heard of another instance in that same week.
Although, since we’ve left, we have heard some murmurs from the Facebook group that there have been some cartel-related shootings in the main tourist area that have affected bystanders. Recently, in August 2017, the U.S. Department of State issued this warning:
Coming from the U.S. and Brazil, one thing we noticed immediately is how the beaches are dominated by businesses, hotels, and resorts. While the beaches in Mexico are public property, it can get confusing with limited public entrances and entry fees and/or food and beverage minimums at beach clubs. You can always be on the sand and in the water. It appears that you can enter/exit through beach clubs if dressed appropriately. However, you may not use their facilities or park your vehicle in their dedicated lots unless you pay these fees or commit to the minimums. Usually, then, they give you an armband and have dedicated servers assisting you.
We learned the hard way how incredibly expensive utilities can be in Mexico. There are different prices based on the location (if a wealthier area or more local areas). They also have a kilowatts allowance and if you go over that (very easy to do if running AC) then you are penalized with a higher cost per kilowatt and taxed for a long period of time, during which you need to decrease your use or you will continue to receive a higher cost per watt. This is very important to know if you are renting an apartment during your stay. Will utilities be a separate cost? You don’t want to get a utility bill that’s equivalent to 50% of your rent. Even if they are included, it is good to be nimble to help preserve their limited access to these resources. You’ll notice most restaurants and cafes do not have air conditioning, instead relying on fans.
Wifi signals will not impress, but they are still workable. If you need a very strong connection for website work, video calls, etc. then your best bet is to join one of the co-working spaces that have the best-in-class bandwidth that’s offered, such as Nest (daily, weekly, monthly membership) or Casona (monthly membership).
Playa is a rapidly growing city and the power grid is a bit strained. There is a chance that power and/or water can go out intermittently. We experienced a ~3-hour statewide power outage during our stay. The water pump in our nicely maintained condo building also went out three times but was quickly resolved. None of these were deal-breakers, we still managed just fine.
private Facebook group “Digital Nomads Playa Del Carmen”
You can request permission to join this group and use it to gain very good insights from searching the conversations or asking your questions on the wall. Just be respectful and follow the group rules or you will be removed.
Choose from a range of rental apartments to stay for a few days, by the week, or monthly. A charismatic former nomad named Elizabeth fell in love with Playa and built up this great rental management business that’s housed many digital nomads and travelers over the years!
We discovered this site while looking for some new restaurant recommendations. They post about everything related to the city and surrounding area. They also write about moving to Playa.
Internations Cancun > Playa del Carmen offshoot groups
I’m a member of Internations and I switch my ‘home’ community every time we relocate. Playa has some groups within the Cancun community. I met some wonderful friends through this group and participated in a few planned activities while living there.
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Have you lived in Playa, if so, what was your experience like?
Leave a comment!
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