A sublime magic carpet of sand that lines the Caribbean coast south of Cancun to Tulum , the Riviera Maya is Mexico's fastest-growing tourism hot spot. A slew of palatial - and often pricey - resorts span its 81-mile length, but for real value, head to the heart of the region in Playa del Carmen, a tropical combo plate that offers equally generous servings of both Caribbean and Mexican culture. With a population of around 180,000, Playa is no longer the sleepy little fishing village it once was. Life in the now bustling, casual and cosmopolitan enclave revolves around the beach and Fifth Avenue (Avenida 5), a pedestrianized thoroughfare that runs parallel to the shore a block inland. The town invites exploration on foot: by day on the beach, where bars like Mamita's Beach Club and Zenzi draw a fashionable crowd, and after dark along the restaurant- and shop-lined avenida.
Playa is also a convenient base for exploring the region's sights, such as the Maya ruins of Tulum and Coba, the water parks at Xcaret and Xel-Ha, and the neighboring island of Cozumel - all of which are easily reached by tour bus or ferry. Better still, the hub of the Riviera Maya boasts some of the region's most competitive prices for lodging and dining, even in the winter high season. And with frequent flights into Cancun International Airport, just 30 minutes' drive away, Playa couldn't be much easier to reach.
Smack-dab on the sand, Playa's top beachfront bargain is Playa Maya, a four-story hotel with a cheerful atmosphere. Twenty rooms are simply decorated and include minifridges, safes, flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi. Standard rooms have no view to speak of, but $30 more snags a superior balcony room with a sea vista. The small pool area opens onto the sand next to the hotel's inexpensive restaurant and bar.
Three blocks from the beach, Hotel Playa del Karma is a friendly 17-room inn. Thatch-roof Nativo rooms open into the hotel's interior courtyard and offer air conditioning, a king bed or two twins, an in-room safe and a minibar. Karma rooms cost slightly more, but you'll get upgraded bathroom amenities, hand-painted sinks and cable TV. Outside, a pool designed to evoke one of the region's swimming holes, or cenotes, and a Maya-inspired, hot-rock spa called a temazcal add to the ambience.
Two blocks in from the beach, 51-room La Tortuga Hotel is a stylish three-story inn with standard rooms that are spare but chic, with cable TV, phone, air conditioning and modern tiled bathrooms (some units also have a balcony). Other rooms are larger, and some ground-floor accommodations boast a terrace that opens directly into the pool, which snakes around the lush garden. There's also a hot tub with a sun deck above that's furnished with swank loungers. The hotel's restaurant, El Bistro, serves delicious meals and offers limited room service.
In the heart of Fifth Avenue, charming Hotel Lunata's 10 stylish rooms occupy a four-story hacienda-style tower. Vibrant Mexican decor includes handcrafted furniture, painted tile, pebble-floor showers, and local art and craft displayed in lighted nooks. All rooms have a balcony, a TV, plush mattresses, a minifridge and a wet bar. Note that some rooms face Fifth Avenue, and though street noise generally dies down by midnight, the hotel thoughtfully provides earplugs. There's a peaceful garden in the rear where you can grab a light breakfast.