Shopping in Playa del Carmen
The Famous 5th Avenue! Or Not!
Shopping can be considered either a sport or an activity in Playa del Carmen depending on what you are shopping for and where you are shopping. So many people ask about what to buy and where to buy it and how to get the best price so I am going to give you all a reality check here to put things into perspective.
Playa del Carmen offers visitors many options for shopping and we will cover here not only shopping for gifts to take home or trinkets but also food shopping for those of you who might want to venture out and buy beer or chips and stuff in quantity for your stay in Playa del Carmen.
Most people talk about the “famous” 5th avenue in Playa del Carmen and maybe one time in its life it was something special but today it is just another street lined with restaurants, bar’s and shops that sell everything from clothing to souvenirs that appear Mexican but were most likely made in China (our personal investigation).
5th Avenue is divided actually in 3 sections which are quite distinct in both what is available and appearance so I will start in the south of 5th Avenue closest to the Playacar section of Playa del Carmen closest to the Ferry dock to Cozumel which today is called “Paseo del Carmen”, a nice name for a lot of nothing. Here in Paseos de Carmen you will find formal stores like Bershka for clothing and Ultra Femme for perfumes and cosmetics which are probably 2 of the most well known stores in Playa del Carmen and most of Mexico. Bershka which is the cheaper version of Zara and Ultra Femme which is known all over Mexico for its duty free and low prices on perfumes and watches. Here in Paseos you will find some old man with a monkey on his shoulder that you can take a photo with for a price and there are places to get sushi or a burger and even a real estate office if you so desire to buy real estate and lets not forget Starbucks.
The second and oldest part of the 5th avenue is the section which starts at the hill down to the pier and extends about a mile to the north where you meet up with Constituyentes Avenue. In the first part there are a bunch of shops like a little market in India with 50 people shouting at you in every language you can imagine to check out their stuff, cheaper than Wal Mart. In this section as well as most of this area you can buy most any crap you want even illegal drugs, some guys sister or wife and much more than you can imagine. Most prominent are the annoying timeshare guru’s that they put out there in disguise as some kind of information center offering reduced rate tours and even free. In todays economy more and more americans and canadians in particular are hooked into their web to save a few bucks on a tour or get something for free. I remember my grandmother from scotland always told me “nothing in life is free” you pay one way or another. In the case of timeshare you pay with your time and humiliation if you don’t pull out that credit card and buy something. It is important to know that there are no travel agents or tour operators who get better rates or discount tickets on anything important like Xcaret, Xel Ha, Swim with Dolphins, or any other popular activity, those operators don’t discount to anyone.
As you continue walking past those areas of locations passing the ADO Bus Station you find the first bank on the right side “Scotiabank” which has 2 ATM machines. In front of the Bank inside the bus terminal there are also 2 additional ATM machines from different banks which are real banks.
Real Banks? You ask, yes, as you walk along the 5th avenue you will see out in the open various ATM machines that say they dispense pesos or dollars and these machines are not affiliated with a bank at all. They are a network of ATM machines set up to make money and at least 2 have been reported as possible responsible for stealing credit card information. These machines although they appear ok to use charge double or triple what you might pay using a bank ATM plus tax and plus what your bank may charge you for foreign withdrawals. Some are attracted by the idea of getting dollars from the machine but in reality there is no better exchange rate than the interbank rate that your bank or credit card company will give you for using your plastic.
Continuing north you will encounter nicer looking shops and restaurants along the way with clothing, jewelry and silver and as you near 8th street you will see the people set up with their tables or walking with boxes of cuban cigars. These people are part of the Zetas and use the cigars and other items as a front to sell drugs. The police pass daily for their cut so nobody is gonna move them, other than the Burger King and La Parrilla Restaurant on the corners there is not much in the area, most restaurants and businesses on 8th street in that area have failed because people are afraid to walk down those streets after dark and.
Calle Corazon used to feature John Grays Kitchen but that also has closed so not much there anymore but keep walking north.
The further north you walk the more restaurants and shops you will pass, everything from bathing suits to nice bars like the Tequila Barrel are in this stretch as well as the new Ultra Jewels and Ultra Femme and in front of that “Liverpool” a small version of the Macy’s style department store chain in the US.
Once you have passed the Ultra Femme and Liverpool stores you start up a small hill towards the end of the original 5th avenue and Constituyentes Avenue where you will find the area very similar to that close to the bus station, seedy shops, lots of people hanging around and in front of the shop along the vacant lot’s fence guys hanging out offering, yes, you guessed it, Drugs…
For a better but more expensive experience you can cross the Avenue and enter what is either called the “New 5th Avenue” or “Little Italy” because of its large italian population. You will find a couple of small hotels in this area as well as during the day beach clubs like “kool” or “Mamitas”, if you are looking for pizza joints this is the area but if you are looking for real italian pizza like in Italy or New York forget it, the pizza here for economic reasons is NOT prepared with Mozzarella Cheese. All pizza joints from Dominios to Pizza Hut and yes even the small mom and pop places use a mix of 3 cheeses none of which are Mozzarella. We even tried Di Gigi’s which was totted to be the best italian restaurant in Playa del Carmen and the pizza although baked in a brick oven was not prepared with Mozzarella Cheese.
Anyway, once you pass the Starbucks area of the “Little Italy” section of 5th Avenue there is only one additional place worth visiting in the evening and that is “La Piola” a small italian restaurant which opened its first restaurant in Treviso Italy in 1986 and continues in that same town in Italy. La Piola offers outside dinning as well as some interior tables and a bar if you so desire. La Piola is located on Calle 38 in a small plaza or group of restaurants and bars called Via 38 almost on the corner of 5th Avenue and 38th street. If I had to say “the best pizza in playa” it would be La Piola.
In grand style typical of the area there is no lack of commercial space for malls and shopping centers even though some are just empty. The first shopping center built in Playa del Carmen was constructed by the same company that built the first in Cancun, Plaza Las Americas in Playa del Carmen is located in the “Ejido” of Playa del Carmen far from tourism areas accessible from Playa del Carmen hotels and tourist areas only by Taxi. Plaza Las Americas is nothing like the “Malls” that you will find in cities like Mexico City, Miami, Dallas or San Antonio but between Cancun and Tulum it is the most complete and functional. Oddly enough like the Plaza Las Americas in Cancun the first anchor store for the mall was a food store called Chedraui which is a good priced place to buy everything as if it were a Walmart. Plaza Las Americas features a small food court, shops, a TOKS restaurant to eat at similar to VIP’s or El Porton but other than the Chedraui the biggest draw to Plaza Las Americas is the Cinema “Cinepolis” with their multiple salons, cafe and excellent selection of movies.
Sears is now open at the Plaza Las Americas in Playa del Carmen which will draw visitors to the mall since the closest other department store is in Cancun about 45 minutes away by car.
Centro Maya was Playa del Carmen’s second attempt to build a mall to at the other end of Playa del Carmen almost in front of Sam’s and Playacar but seems to have failed horrible. The anchor store for Centro Maya is a Soriana Supermarket which is like Walmart and Chedraui but higher costs all across the board. While the mall at one time had 50 small stores and a movie theatre as well nothing of the quality of Cinepolis or Plaza Las Americas y far more difficult for locals to arrive to. The food court has only 2 places to eat, the rest have closed and the mall itself is 80% empty.
Today Centro Maya consists of the Cinema, Office Max, Soriana and Coppell (an appliance store), 4 Banks and Tel Cel’s Customer Service Center. At one end of the parking lot there is a City Club (small version of Sam’s) and at the other end a never finished bowling alley and car wash. A place definitely not worth a visit from a tourists perspective but if you need to do banking or cellular phone service you can get it done here.
More Shopping Centers
Oddly enough while Plaza Las Americas is “surviving” the other malls like Centro Maya are failing but people are still building commercial space in the most obscure places in Playa del Carmen. Obviously I believe that if you build for the local market and cater to the local market and not tourism you have a greater chance of survival since tourists do like to eat and shop where the locals do. But when prime spaces like Centro Maya and locations along 5th and 10th avenue remain vacant and failing on a weekly basis there is no logic to continue to build malls and shopping centers.
Playa del Carmen Supermarkets
When I first began working and consulting in tourism in Mexico some 17 years ago Playa del Carmen was a dust bowl with small hotels that didn’t even have hot water most of the time and there were 2 supermarkets to buy groceries. The Chedraui that continues operating on the northbound side of the highway at the south end of Playa del Carmen just past Juarez and a place called San Francisco de Asis which was located on 30th Avenue one block from Constituyentes. Even in 2005 the Chedraui (the best option for grocery shopping) was disgusting, dirty, smelly. After the hurricanes came and cleaned up Playa and forced some changes Walmart opened their first supermarket almost next to the old San Francisco behind the municipal complex. By 2007 Playa del Carmen had 5 Supermarkets to choose from and the original chedraui although not remodeled seems to have cleaned up a bit to compete with Soriano, Wal Mart and the newly opened “Mega Comerical” which opened 2 blocks from the Wal Mart on 30th and Constituyentes.
In 2011 Wal Mart opened their second store almost in front of the Chedraui located in the Plaza Las Americas in the Ejido with a Super Center type of facility to cater to the people living in the Ejido where most of the public transportation at least passes or stops and walking distance for some of the neighborhoods bringing the total to 6 supermarket options to do your grocery shopping in Playa del Carmen.
Chedraui: Northbound Highway South of Ave. Juarez Playa del Carmen
Soriana: Southbound Highway South of Ave. Juarez Playa del Carmen Centro Maya
WalMart: 30th Avenue & 8th Street. Playa del Carmen Center
Mega Comerical: 30th Avenue & Constituyentes Playa del Carmen Center.
Chedraui: Plaza Las Americas Ejido Playa del Carmen
WalMart: Edijo Playa del Carmen almost in front of Las Americas.
There are of course other little places to buy groceries as well like what used to be the San Francisco de Asis is now something else and still situated between WalMart and Mega Comerical and on the 30th Avenue passing Constituyentes there is a Soriana Market which is a miniature version of the high priced store at Centro Maya.