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Visit Playa del Carmen

History and Culture Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is nestled into the coast about 40km south of Cancun and is the centre of the Mayan Riviera. With its striking crystal clear blue sea and golden sand, set off by the dazzling sunshine, it is a world of picture perfect postcard scenery. But don't be fooled by this carefree, chilled out paradise into thinking it just simply appeared out of nowhere one day, as if a happy ending in a fairy tale. This is a town with an interesting history and culture waiting to be discovered whilst you are studying Spanish in Mexico.

The Mayans and "Xaman-Ha"


The first recorded Mayan visitors came to what we now know as Playa del Carmen between A.D. 300 and A.D. 600, then known as “Xaman-Ha” which means 'waters of the North' in the Mayan language.
Playa del Carmen owes a lot of its story so far to the island of Cancun to the north and the island of Cozumel to the south, both of high importance and significance during the time of the Mayan civilisation. Cozumel, nowadays a popular cruise liner stop off, was then believed to be a sacred place to Ix Chel, the Mayan moon and fertility goddess. The many temples built in the area were the destinations for thousands of Mayan women, particularly those seeking to have children.
Cancun in the North, on the other hand, was home to a ceremonial site and burial ground of the nobility of the era, again attracting many visitors and pilgrimages, coming in the other direction.
So, Playa del Carmen became the natural stop off point in preparation for the final stretch of these pilgrimages across the straits to Cozumel. Imagine the buzzing restaurants, terraces, bars and sandy beaches that you will see before you today were once bustling with a very different type of civilisation.

During the Post-Classical period (A.D. 1000 – 1500), at the height of the Mayan Empire, due to the large volume of traffic for both trade and religious reasons, Xaman-Ha and the surrounding area developed and flourished. However, wars and storms were to press pause on this period of growth, as many Mayans moved away in search of new lands and calmer weather.

Enter the Spaniards


In 1518 a Spanish explorer from Segovia, Juan de Grijalva, discovered Cozumel on his way to Cuba and shortly after this along came Hernan Corts, the Spanish conquistador. He was on a mission to bring Catholicism to the Americas and upon arrival in Cozumel destroyed a lot of the carefully built Mayan temples, bringing with him at the same time the disease of small pox. This wiped out a significant amount of the Mayan people on Cozumel Island and it was to be a long time before it would fully recover. A pair of explorers, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, from America and England respectively, also came across the island, en route to study the Mayan ruins. They give detailed descriptions of the area in their travel log, which is still used by many scholars today.

The Spanish colonists traveled throughout the Yucatan and Playa del Carmen del Carmen area, bringing with them the Catholic faith. The first European settlement was at at Xel-Ha, which is just a few miles south of Playa del Carmen. This was a time when the area experienced a major boost in commerce. These preachings and the general colonisation of the area was not well received by all and some Mayan natives and Spanish refugees began to take objection, resulting in uprisings and the 'War of Castes'. The outcome of this was that many Mayans from the Yucatan population of Valladolid resettled in Cozumel, helping the area to repopulate. Back on land in Playa del Carmen, all was relatively quiet, and the area managed to keep quite a low profile during the 1800's. In 1902 the area was finally recognised as a Mexican territory and named Quintana Roo after a General in the Mexican army.

Modern Playa del Carmen

During World War II Cozumel was used briefly as a U.S. naval base, but the main event responsible for the transformation of the area and of Play del Carmen in particular all stems from the Mexican Government's decision in 1967 to develop the areas of Cancun, Los Cabos, Huatelco and Ixtapa as tourist destinations. A huge amount of money was invested and Cancun transformed from a jungle-esque remote spot to a tourist paradise, with new sewer systems, electricity and water system upgrades and the construction of many luxurious hotels. Cozumel too attracted tourists with an increase in the popularity of scuba diving, for which the island is a particularly fascinating spot.


In the midst of all this, Playa del Carmen got somewhat left behind. Despite the popular ferry leaving passengers to Cozumel, Playa del Carmen remained little more than a stop off and a sleepy fishing village, popular mostly with a few hippy sorts. Its day was to come however, and in the 1980's, slowly but surely, the streets around what is now Avenida Quinta began to sprout restaurants, bars, shops and hotels, encouraging what were normally passing visitors to set up camp and stay for a while. In the 1990s Playa became a fashionable stop off for many of the Caribbean cruise liners and the ferry boats found themselves updated to sleek speed boat models, making the journey to and from Cozumel a lot more pleasant. The company Grupo Sidek in Mexico began a development called 'Playacar' which stepped up the construction of hotels and the restructuring of certain buildings, centres and transport stations. However, Government restrictions ensured that in many parts of Playa del Carmen, there is still a rustic and rural feel, with the grand, luxury hotels fading into small, family-run inns.

Playa has been subject to numerous devastating hurricanes over the years,but it always manages to bounce back. Locals work hard to quickly undo any damage done and the city continues to develop and attract tourists and travelers from the world over. It is a place that manages to successfully combine a taste of traditional Mexico with a distinctly modern and European twist. It is one of the few places in Mexico where you will be able to try both specialty coastal dishes and seafood alongside more hearty inland cuisine. One thing is for sure that if you feel you would maybe like to carry out your Spanish studies at a Spanish school in paradise, then surely this can't be far off the mark.