“In the beginning all was invisible. The sky was motionless. There was only water, the quiet ocean, the silence, the nights. Then there came the word.”
-From The Popol Vuh, sacred Mayan scriptures
Playa del Carmen owes its growing popularity to the nearby resort town of Cancún, just 40 miles to the north, and Cozumel Island, just 12 miles to the east. The influence of these two towns has helped shape Playa del Carmen since the days of the Mayans.
Playa del Carmen is named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. She was known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a town in Italy, which was the first place where a chapel was built in her honor, in 1263, before her ascension into heaven.
The first recorded visitors to the beaches of what is now Playa del Carmen came during the Early Classic Period (a.d. 300-600) of the Mayan civilization. Then called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north,” Playa del Carmen was a rest stop of sorts for travelers making their way from the great cities of the Mayan world to the island of Cozumel. These travelers readied their dugout canoes and prepared for the journey across the straits on the same shores that now house the restaurants, hotels, and nightspots of modern-day Playa del Carmen.
Cozumel, called Ah Cuzamil Petén, meaning “island of the swallows,” by the Mayans, was a sacred site and home to Ix-Chel, the goddess of fertility and wife of Itzámna, the god of the sun. Young women across the Mayan empire, from present-day Yucatán, Honduras, Belize, and beyond, journeyed to Cozumel on a sacred pilgrimage to pay homage to Ix-Chel and pray for fertility and healthy childbirth.
In return for the dozens of shrines and temples that the Mayans constructed, Ix-Chel is said to have gifted the people with the graceful swallow, or Cuzamil, which led the Mayans to give the island its name. Many of the temples for Ix-Chel have survived, including San Gervasio, which can still be visited today.
Meanwhile, on a sheltered sandbar known to the Mayans as “Kankun,” the temples of El Rey were constructed as a ceremonial site and resting place for the society’s nobles. The site is adjacent to a golf course and across the highway from what is now the Hilton Hotel, making it a popular destination for visitors to Cancún who want to experience the Mayan ruins but are not able to get to the more major sites in the region, such as Tulum, Cobá, or Chichén Itzá
Kankun, which means “nest of snakes,” did not have many other sacred sites since it was so narrow and did not have good access to the mainland, though the ocean breezes and proximity to various shallow lagoons did make it a nice place to live for the natives who fished along its shores and harvested food from the mangroves.
During the post-Classical period (a.d. 1000-1500), the areas around Playa del Carmen, Cancún, and Cozumel served as a major trade route and religious center, and the Mayan culture flourished and prospered. At its height, the walled city of Tulum contained splendors beyond belief, and the nearby town of Cobá was a spiritual center of the entire Mayan empire, with a population of nearly fifty thousand. Near the end of this period, the populations dwindled as the natives dispersed due to storms and wars and to seek gentler climates.
Juan de Grijalva, a Spanish explorer, passed close to Playa del Carmen in 1518 and then discovered Cozumel while en route to Cuba, several hundred miles to the east. He didn’t stay for long, but word of his find traveled fast, and his countryman Hernan Cortez returned the following year, bringing Catholicism and not much of an appreciation for the Mayan way of life. Cortez and his men demolished Mayan temples and built a Catholic church, and he also brought something else with him when he landed on Cozumel-smallpox. The disease spread quickly within the island’s close-knit community, and the population was decimated, dropping from 40,000 to less than 200 within 50 years.
The first European settlement in the region was at Xel-Ha, just a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, which had been a Mayan outpost and is now an ecotourism theme park. Over the next two hundred years, the Spanish traveled throughout the Playa del Carmen area and the Yucatán, spreading Catholicism and disease as they went. Many Mayans resisted the new religion, and small communities retained their traditional ways and their sacred cultures. During the 1700s and 1800s, pirates set up shop on the nearly deserted shores of Cozumel, using it as a base for their marauding forays across the channel to Playa del Carmen and elsewhere around the region.
Meanwhile, trade continued in and around Playa del Carmen, given its location midway between the port city of Veracruz to the north and Honduras to the south. Local commodities, including salt and honey, were bartered for goods imported from other regions, giving the area a taste of the diversity, commerce, and-yes-tourism, that would eventually secure its place in the Mexican economy.
John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood passed through the Riviera Maya in 1842 as part of their expedition to the Mayan ruins, which was documented in their excellent book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. In the book, Stephens writes about what they saw and the people they encountered while Catherwood presents exacting drawings of the ruins. The book is incredibly precise and detailed, and it’s still used by scholars, archaeologists, and Mayan enthusiasts today.
In 1848 the Mayans and various Spanish refugees began to resist the Spanish occupation more aggressively, leading to an uprising known as the War of the Castes. During the struggle, a large group of the oppressed set out from the Yucatán town of Valladolid and traveled across the peninsula, settling in Cozumel, which lead to a re-growth of the island’s population. Other natives took cover in the ruins of Tulum, which made a great fortress given its walled perimeter. The town of San Miguel de Cozumel was officially established in 1840, and several years later, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln pondered using the island as a place to send the freed American slaves and even went so far as talking to the Mexican government about purchasing it.
Due to the remote location and its dense, inhospitable jungle environment, Playa del Carmen and the surrounding area kept a low profile for the rest of the 1800s. In 1902 the region was finally granted status as a territory of the country of Mexico, and it was named after Gen. Andreas Quintana Roo, of the Mexican army. Cozumel was used as a base by the U.S. Navy during World War II and was then abandoned again until the 1960s, when scuba adventurer and documentary film producer Jacques Cousteau visited the island with an underwater camera crew and began to show the world the beauties of the Great Mayan Reef (second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef), which runs between Cozumel and Playa del Carmen for hundreds of miles.
The single most important factor in the development of the region came in 1967, when the Bank of Mexico and the country’s tourism development commission identified Cancún as the location for one of its mega-development projects (along with Ixtapa, Los Cabos, Loreto, and Huatulco). In the original government documents, the area was called “Kan Kun,” which quickly morphed into the more Spanish “Can Cun,” and then eventually shortened to just “Cancún.”
Bridges were built, sewer lines were laid, and electrical poles sprung up. The first hotels, opened in the early 1970s, were the Palacio Maya, Playa Blanca, Cancún Caribe, Camino Real, and Club Med. In 1970 a wooden boat dock was built on the central beach in Playa del Carmen, and shortly thereafter, ferry service started to Cozumel. In 1974 Quintana Roo was granted Mexican statehood and the Cancún International Airport opened for business, with a bamboo and palm air-traffic control tower and a single taxi waiting for arriving planes. Two years later, the city’s Pok-Ta-Pok golf course opened with 18 holes, many with views of the ocean and minor Mayan ruins. Over the next 10 years, Cancún grew from a coconut jungle visited only by traveling fishermen and a few loco gringos to a world-class tourist destination. The local population boomed as workers from across the country poured into Ciudad Cancún to find jobs and establish their families.
Cozumel experienced a growth spurt of its own as recreational scuba diving became more popular and affordable and more and more divers came to witness for themselves what they had only been able to see on the Jacques Cousteau television show.
Despite a few bumps along the way, including lack of airline support, the devaluation of the peso, and a series of hurricanes, Cancún and Cozumel continued to grow and prosper. Somehow, though, Playa del Carmen lagged behind, as the city to its north and the island to its east developed more quickly. As the growth went on around it, Playa del Carmen was still known only as the ferry landing for boats traveling back and forth between Cozumel and the Quintana Roo mainland. A handful of fishermen lived in huts on the beach and a few optimistic entrepreneurs sold tacos and handcrafts to the hurrying travelers, but tourists and locals moved quickly through town on their way to the more established locales.
In its hippie heyday, Playa del Carmen’s visitors would while away the day along the beaches south of town. The small cove now occupied by the Gran Porto Real hotel was close enough to the town square to be convenient, but just out of sight of the ferry dock, making it the preferred place for those who liked to sunbathe au natural. At night, tourists returned to the beach for the freewheeling and ultra-casual nightlife under the stars, a refreshingly unpretentious antidote to the pulsating discotheques that were becoming so popular in nearby Cancún. During a full moon, locals and tourists alike congregated on the beach for a ceremonial “lunata” celebration, complete with bonfires, cold Coronas, and skinny dipping-a tradition that must have made the Mayan gods smile (especially Ix-Chel, the goddess of fertility!).
But starting in the early 1980s, little by little, street by street, the tiny fishing village and ferry town began to grow. New shops, restaurants, and even a couple of hotels opened their doors, luring the passing visitors to stay a while. The first hotels were built of bamboo and palm fronds, with slatted wood doors-not to keep out thieves, but to prevent the wild pigs from entering and looking for food.
Disaster struck in September 1988 when Hurricane Gilbert slammed into Cozumel and the Riviera Maya with 170 mph winds, blowing the roofs off hotels, pulling trees out by their roots, smashing windows, and flooding the streets. Inside the storm, the barometric pressure was 26.23 inches, the lowest sea-level pressure ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. The hurricane caused more than $80 million in damage in Cozumel alone, and it changed the face of the region for years.
In the early 1990s, Playa del Carmen became a regular stop for the cruise lines, exposing Playa del Carmen to a new breed of revelers. Soon after, the outdated Cozumel ferry boats were replaced with sleek and modern jet-powered watercraft, which made the trip from the island faster and easier on the stomach and brought in even more visitors.
Guadalajara-based tourism giant Grupo Sidek purchased thousands of acres of land along the shoreline just south of the ferry landing, dubbing the development “Playacar.” First came the Continental Plaza (in 1992, now the Playacar Palace). Later that year, the Diamond Resort (now the Allegro Occidental) was inaugurated, marking the first opening of an all-inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya. A golf course opened in September 1994, and then hotel after hotel rose from the jungle, changing the face of the community forever.
On the other side of the ferry dock, development continued as well, but government-imposed density restrictions kept away large-scale hotel projects, and small, family-run inns dominated the landscape. From 1990 to 1997, the local population grew from 2,000 to 20,000, and 100 new families were moving to town each month, establishing Playa del Carmen as Mexico’s fastest growing city, a title it still holds today.
The main road paralleling the beach, Quinta Avenida, or Fifth Avenue, became the town’s principle street and was lined with restaurants, shops, hotels, and other businesses catering to the tourist trade. Favored by European backpackers and U.S. and Canadian budget travelers, Playa del Carmen began to make a name for itself on the international travel scene. Known as the place where the hippie lifestyle was not only accepted, but celebrated, “Playa,” as the in crowd called it, had arrived.
By the late 1990s, Quinta had extended more than a mile north of the ferry dock, and much of it was closed to vehicular traffic, creating a pedestrian-friendly walkway that developed a unique character unknown in other parts of the world. In the early 2000s, Quinta stretched past Constituyentes Boulevard (between 18th and 20th Streets), and the area was dubbed “La Nueva Quinta,” sometimes called “Little Italy,” “Upper Playa,” or, simply, “The New Playa.” Italian-style cafés stood next to taco stands that stood next to gourmet steakhouses, creating a town with a truly eclectic and international flair. The beach north of Constituyentes also saw some changes. A second ferry dock was built, two Porto Real hotels were constructed, and a couple of beach clubs sprung up, offering food and drink service, palapa and chair rentals, and towel service for the cruise passengers, day-trippers, and guests from hotels that aren’t on the beach.
As the upscale all-inclusive hotels of Playacar introduced the town to more affluent travelers, the tone of the village continued to change. The thatched-roof bus station was rebuilt with electric displays and molded plastic seats. Across the street, McDonald’s opened up, and up and down the coast, more and more resorts were carved from the jungle. Renovations began on Quinta as work crews buried the utility lines and paved the gravel road with cobblestones, giving the road a bit of colonial inspiration to go along with its nouveau chic attitude.
Hurricanes Emily and Wilma, both devastating storms with deceivingly demure names, tested the region’s will in the summer and fall of 2005 when they sliced similar paths across Cozumel, Cancun, and the Riviera Maya. Emily raged with sustained winds of 135 mph, shearing off rooftops, leveling trees and signs, shattering windows, rearranging beaches, and sending sixty thousand tourists scrambling for shelter. Wilma completed the one-two punch by hammering the area three months later with 150 mph winds and a storm surge topping 11 feet in Cancun. Tourists were confined to shelters for days and it took some nearly two weeks after the storm to finally get a flight back home. Hotels in Cancun were hit the hardest, though all along the Riviera Maya there was extensive flooding and wind damage. Some hotels closed for days, others took weeks or even months to re-open. The region bounced back , though as the communities worked together to rebuild and restore the splendor of the area.
By 2006 the Riviera Maya was considered one of the top international tourist destinations in the world. Ex-patriots from 46 countries around the globe call Playa del Carmen home, and the town seems to thrive on the notoriety. And through it all, Playa del Carmen has stayed true to its roots, somehow preserving its almost magical charm and exceptional character. It is still a place where travelers from around the world come together to lounge on the beach, toast the day with a cold beer, sip a cappuccino, and celebrate life. And in a town where backpackers from crowded hostels, newlyweds from fancy all-inclusives, and European trendsetters from chic new condos all cozy up to the same bars, it’s easy to understand why Playa so easily works its way into your heart.
History information courtesy of Joshua Hinsdale author of A Complete Guide: Playa del Carmen, Tulum & The Rivera Maya
Joshua Hinsdale is a professional travel writer specializing in Mexico and Latin America. He has written hundreds of hotel, restaurant and spa reviews and has written descriptions for hundreds of properties for Hotels.com / Expedia.com. He also does marketing consulting and frequently serves as a guide for high-end travelers. Joshua grew up along the Gulf Coast of Texas and currently splits his time between Marina del Rey, California and Galveston, Texas. He travels to Mexico and Latin America as often as possible to keep his information fresh and current.