It’s the strangest sensation, not quite believing your eyes. I’m standing knee-deep in the Caribbean Sea, but I feel like I’ve tripped and fallen into a desktop screensaver. You know the kind I mean. Ahead of me is nothing but endless, glittering ocean and cloudless blue skies; behind me, on a long stretch of white sandy beach, palm trees are swaying in the breeze. Real life – in my experience, at least – does not look like this.
Yet real life it very much is. This picture-postcard vision is Playa del Carmen, on south-eastern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. As recently as the Eighties, this thriving beach town was little more than a sleepy fishing village, relatively ignored by travellers in favour of its bigger, bolder neighbours on the Riviera Maya. Cancun, the site of Playa’s nearest international airport, is 50 minutes’ drive away, while scuba destination Cozumel island (cozumel.travel) is just a £5 ferry ride from the coast. But with the booming popularity of Tulum - the eco-luxe beachside town less than an hour from Playa del Carmen that’s a favourite of Cara Delevingne, Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz - the world has woken up to the gorgeous natural scenery and fascinating history that this part of the world has to offer.
The transformation from hidden gem to holiday hotspot in a relatively short space of time means that Playa does occasionally feel acutely designed to appeal to tourists. You won’t need to spend much time on Quinta Avenida, the town’s wide, palm-lined main strip, unless you want to stock up on delightfully kitsch souvenirs (no judgement here: I come home with no less than six sparkly Frida Kahlo fridge magnets). Instead, daytime is best spent basking on that breath-taking beach and swimming in the jewel-like Caribbean Sea. Make sure to slather on the SPF: southern Mexico has a particularly high UV index, meaning you’ll burn much faster than on a European beach.
Once that scorching tropical sun goes down, Playa really comes alive. While not as much of a wild-child party destination as Cancun, this is a town where the sultry, coconut-scented night air crackles with the possibility of a Seriously Good Time.
Steer clear of the neon-lit nightclubs and instead opt for cocktails and people-watching at Patio 8 (facebook.com/patio8). Or head to the unabashedly glamorous Catch (catchplayadelcarmen.com), a dazzlingly ritzy bar and restaurant on the 30,000-square foot roof deck of the 92-room Thompson Hotel, for dinner and dancing. Catch’s views across the ocean and star-strewn night sky are heart-stopping, as is the bar’s selection of mescal. Like tequila, this Mexican spirit is made from agave, but its oaky, smoky, fiery taste is entirely its own. “Many love stories in Playa start with mescal,” winks Johnny, the hotel’s resident drinks expert. I can believe it, especially if, like me, you’re able to retire to the intimate beachfront Thompson Beach House, the 27-room sister property five minutes’ stroll from Catch, after your mescal indulgence.
It would be silly to come to Playa and not venture further afield, so once our mescal hangovers have cleared we head to the Mayan ruins at Tulum (tulumruins.net), some 50 minutes’ drive down the coast. As we wander through the lush mangrove forest surrounding the ancient site, we spot everything from leathery-faced iguanas and yellow-beaked Yucatan jays to cute coatis, a type of South American racoon. The ruins themselves are surprisingly small – think abandoned country cottages, rather than towering temples – but no less fascinating for it.
From Tulum, it’s an easy drive to Le Gran Cenote (grancenote.com). Cenotes, or natural swimming pools, were once used by the Mayans as a site for sacrificial offerings – although today, snorkelling or scuba-diving are considered more acceptable activities. Surrounded by humid jungle, Le Gran Cenote is clear and deep and populated by myriad shoals of silver fish – some the size of a fingernail, others as big as an iPhone 5. Swimming here is a meditative, magical experience, and I climb out of the cool water feeling clear-headed and energised.
There’s more lush scenery to be found at Xcaret (xcaret.com), a 200-acre ‘eco-archaeological park’ a short drive from Playa. (A return cab costs about £20.) At around £60 a ticket, it’s not cheap, but the sheer volume of things to see and do make it worth the cost of entry. Explore a recreated Mayan village, raft down a jungle-flanked river and wait until it gets dark to visit the brilliantly bonkers Mexican Cemetery, where brightly-painted miniature churches – the size of dolls’ houses – stand in for every gravestone.
Finally, it’s worth saving a day to visit Tankah Beach on Soliman Bay, a 40-minute drive south of Playa. Tucked away at the end of a dusty lane lined with pink and yellow stucco villas, this crescent moon of white seashell-studded sand is the ‘undiscovered’ beach of all my chilled-out holiday fantasies. Chamicos, the endearingly low-key beachfront café, serves me one of the best meals I’ve ever had (a dazzlingly zingy plate of ceviche, fresh fish cured in lime juice and chilli), and I spend a blissful couple of hours snoozing in a hammock strung between two palms.
Playa del Carmen may no longer be a niche travel destination, but some things – like Friends, Coca-Cola and The Beatles – are popular for a reason. If you’re looking for a holiday where sun, sea, awe-inspiring natural beauty and man-made luxury collide, you couldn’t really ask for more.
Rooms at Thompson Playa del Carmen Quinta Avenida start at £159, while rooms at Thompson Playa del Carmen Beach House start at £364. thompsonhotels.com