Playa del Carmen used to be a little fishing town whose only distinction was being on the mainland side of the ferry service to Cozumel.
Now it's the tourist hub of the Mayan Riviera, a 130-km stretch of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula that vies with Varadero, Cuba, and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, as the winter favourite of Canadians.
Twenty years ago, Playa's streets weren't paved and there were maybe six resorts on its outskirts.
Now its population is 160,000, thanks to explosive growth along the Mayan Riviera, where the number of resorts now stands at 381.
Playa gets so many visitors that one thoroughfare, Fifth Avenue, is a pedestrian mall. And it's surfaced in interlocking brick.
A grid system -- avenues run parallel to the nearby beach, streets the other way -- makes it easy to navigate, and hotels have guidebooks with maps.
If you cab it in from your resort, have the driver drop you off around Fifth and 14th street. That puts you near one end of the section of Fifth that's pedestrian-only 24 hours a day. (The rest becomes vehicle-free from 5 p.m. 'til midnight.)
Fifth is chock-a-block with restaurants, bars, chain retail stores and vendors who will given you a massage (about $30 for an hour), paint your nails (sorry, I didn't get the price), or sell you the sort of gaudy sombrero that could -- or should -- only tempt someone who's downed way too many Happy Hour margaritas ($15 gets you a nifty number with tassels and sequins).
Some of the sales pitches are a hoot.
Take the guy running fishing charters.
"You look like a fisherman," he called out to me. "Or maybe a Republican senator. Or maybe George Bush."
Tucked between the Starbucks and the Haagen-Dazs are tranquil oases of green with boutiques, cafes and small hotels catering to independent travellers who are either passing through or who dislike the gated community feel of an all-inclusive resort.
I wandered into one, Hotel Jungla Caribe, down tiled steps to a courtyard with towering trees and flowering shrubs.
Barbara Albrecht's husband, Rolf, built the place 20 years ago and decorated it with his own art work. The rooms were full but she showed me a suite with king-size bed, bathroom with bidet and hair dryer, sitting area with sofa and refrigerator, safe, TV, and a terrace with a garden view. The high season rate is $157 US a night. Rooms start at $86. Visit jungla-caribe.com/rooms.htm.
Meals are inexpensive. A sports bar called Fah advertised a "Mexican plate" -- burritos, enchiladas etc. -- plus a "free tequila" for 130 pesos (about $10). Breakfast of eggs, juice, toast and coffee at Mi Pueblo, next to the Jungla Caribe, was 80 pesos ($6 or so). A server there handed me a card good for a "welcome drink" if I returned for lunch or dinner.
That put me in the mood for a beer. One of Playa's most popular hangouts -- Fusion -- was a block away. I settled in with a cold Pacifico ($3) while regulars arrived to play backgammon, nibble on nachos or claim one of the chaise lounges on the beach in front.
Music was playing softly, a cute little girl was feeding leftovers to the Fusion's mascot, a large white mutt, and out on the blue Caribbean, windsurfers were skittering about.
And the temperature, I kept reminding myself, was about 25 degrees higher than back home
Travel tip: Although U.S. dollars are widely accepted in Playa, you're better off using Mexican pesos. A cab ride from my resort to Playa was a flat $10 US or 100 pesos. At current exchange rates, 100 pesos is about $7.50 US. So on a round trip you'd pay about $5 US too much by using dollars.
This isn't much different than what American visitors face when they use their dollars at some outlets in Canada.