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You likely know of the Riviera Maya from Instagram photos, travel magazines, and the picture perfect image of a tropical beach that you dream of escaping to during winter. I’m here to tell you, it is indeed, just as good in real life! I’ve been living in the Riviera Maya for the past 10 months, and I never get sick of staring at the turquoise water, or basking in the beautiful, warm sunshine! But of all the dreamy spots to choose from in the Riviera Maya, where did I pick? Playa del Carmen of course!
Playa del Carmen (or Playa, to locals) sits right in the heart of Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Just 40 minutes from either Tulum or Cancun, Playa’s location makes it the ideal base for exploring the entire region. The city, which has quadrupled in size from 45,000 to nearly 200,000 people over the last 20 years, sprawls along the coast of the Caribbean sea.
Playa offers big city amenities in the form of world-class resorts, high-end restaurants, golf courses, and shopping malls, but the vibe is definitively that of a beach town. Ultimately, you have plenty of options and can choose the types of experiences that best suit your travel style!
If you want to soak up the sun or drink beer under a palapa, you’ve got it! If you prefer to lay by the pool at an all-inclusive resort, or charter a private yacht to cruise you around, you can do that too! Whatever your idea of fun, there is plenty to be had in Playa! I’ve been living here for nearly a year now, and I feel like my To Do list of adventures is growing, rather than shrinking.
Following are some of my favorite things to do in Playa del Carmen! Plus, tons of bonus advice about where to eat, drink, and how to even get there in the first place!
What To Know Before You Go
Though it may have originated as a sleepy fishing village, Playa del Carmen is ultimately a resort town, which means there are always plenty of tourists. It has a thriving expat and digital nomad community comprised of people of all ages.
Because it’s such a touristic spot, many people speak at least a little bit of English, but knowing some Spanish is always an advantage. On that note, people come from all over Mexico and Latin America to work in the tourism industry, which means you’re bound to be exposed to a whole range of different types of Spanish.
I felt pretty confident in my Mexican Spanish when I arrived but was completely thrown for a loop when I realized most of the people I was interacting with were from Argentina and pronounced everything differently!
Overall, Playa is easy to navigate, even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish. It’s a friendly city and offers a range experiences for travelers at any level of budget. If you’re not yet an experienced traveler, this is a great destination. It’s easy to get around, and it’s quite safe (though, you should always use common sense).
What To Pack
For detailed suggestions of what to pack, check out my packing list for the Riviera Maya! In general, though, the weather is typically hot and humid, so plan accordingly. Here are a few additional things to note:
- In the spring and summer (April – August), expect rain showers. They don’t last long (maybe 20 minutes), but they are intense. Bring quick-dry clothes and even a rain shell to keep yourself (and your camera) dry. I recommend this one.
- In the winter (November – January), temperatures can dip into the mid-60s, especially at night. Bring a pair of pants and a sweater just in case! I was glad to have my Patagonia fleece this winter!
- Another thing you should be sure to bring is sunscreen. I use a combo of a face stick (for my nose) and regular sun lotion. I love the HeadHunter brand because it seems to stay on for long periods of time in the water, AND you can get a tinted one so your skin doesn’t look pasty white after applying the lotion! I use this one for my face and this one for everywhere else.
It’s always best to be beach-ready in the Riviera Maya!
Best Things To Do In Playa del Carmen
People Watch On La Quinta Avenida
La Quinta Avenida (or, 5th avenue) is the touristic hub of Playa del Carmen. It’s a pedestrian street that extends from Calle 1 through to Calle 110. The most active sections, though, are between 1st and Calle 38.
Start at Parque Fundadores at the south end of La Quinta. Here you can catch a performance of the Danza de los Voladores. An ancient mesoamerican dance ritual, which involves flyers (voladores) hanging from their ankles while performing a dance! It’s quite a spectacle!
One of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen is to wander along La Quinta and people-watch. You’ll see a fascinating and eclectic blend of different types of travelers, vacationers, and expats from all around the world.
The colorful street is lined with restaurants, bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, and even shopping malls. It’s without a doubt the best place to pick up souvenirs from your trip, and there are tons of fun restaurants and bars to try out.
Sunbathe On The White Sand Beaches
There is plenty to do in Playa, but when in doubt, head to the beach! After all, you were likely drawn to the area by the promise of beautiful white sand beaches and turquoise waters of the Caribbean! The water is never too cold, and the sand is never too hot!
One of my favorite things about Playa del Carmen is that the city is situated right next to the coastline. This means that wherever you are, there is liable to be a beautiful beach nearby, just waiting for your enjoyment.
Mamitas Beach is renowned for the beach club where you can rent lounge chairs, and order cocktails right from the sand. During high season (December – March) this area can be a bit of a party spot, with loud music and thick crowds, so it’s always good to have backup options.
My favorite beach in Playa del Carmen is Playacar beach. It’s a bit of a hike (only 10 minutes, but it feels like more in the heat!), south of the ferry dock on Calle 1 Sur. Cut through the Señor Frogs restaurant and follow the beach until you reach an appealing patch of sand! There are no services on this stretch of beach. Therefore it’s usually only occupied by locals or the people staying in the beachfront homes!
Scout For Street Art
A few years ago, Playa del Carmen hosted a street art festival in an attempt to beautify the city and create “a sense of belonging.”
Because of the rapid (and ongoing) growth, Playa’s aesthetic can look a little rough around the edges. There is construction on literally every corner, which means there are piles of bricks, building materials, and rebar poking out of the tops of structures. The street art definitely helps distract from this!
There are some really incredible murals to be found throughout the city. I’m sure some of them were commissioned and some of them… were not. I sometimes go for walks just to look for new murals! The best time to explore is early in the morning or in the evening when the sun isn’t so bright, and the air is cooler.
Calle 4 and Calle 2 were the two the art project was focused, and you will find some great art there, but there is plenty more scattered throughout the city. Wherever you happen to be based, just take a walk around! Your Instagram account will thank you!
Cool Off In A Cenote
One of my favorite things to do in all of the Riviera Maya is to swim in cenotes. In case you’re unfamiliar, cenotes are basically sinkholes that are formed when the porous limestone bedrock (which comprises the majority of the land in this area) gives way to expose an underground river.
The Maya people believed that cenotes were a portal to the underworld and a way for them to connect with Chaak, the rain god.
There’s something so intriguing about these mysterious swimming holes that just draws me in! I find them equally eerie and alluring. Maybe because “portal to the underworld” sounds like something from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or perhaps it’s because exploring them with my mask and snorkel makes me feel like a female Jacques Cousteau! Either way, I think they’re delightful!
Note: Because they are fed with groundwater, the water temperature in cenotes is quite…refreshing. Though shocking at first, this is ultimately a good thing because the air temp is usually quite hot!
Some cenotes are only a couple of feet deep, while others go down hundreds of feet. Some are directly exposed to the sky, and others are just partly exposed, appearing more like caves than pools.
There are thousands of cenotes all over the Yucatán peninsula, and that’s only counting the ones that have been discovered! There are dozens of popular cenotes throughout the Riviera Maya, and I highly recommend taking a day trip to one of them. You can snorkel to see the underwater rock formations, which are sure to blow your mind!
If you’re a diver, some of the cenotes have options to do cave diving. I haven’t done this, but I bet it’s fascinating. If this is something you’re interested in, I recommend inquiring at a local dive shop (I share my favorite shop in the next section).
Curious to learn more about which cenotes to explore? Check out this article (which I contributed to) on the 7 best cenotes in Mexico!
Explore Under The Sea On A Diving or Snorkeling Tour
Fans of water-based activities will definitely want to go on a diving or snorkeling tour. This area is home to one of the most impressive coral reefs on earth, the Palancar Reef, which lies off the coast of Cozumel Island. It’s a massive, diverse coral reef, and is home to a myriad of fascinating sea creatures.
If you’ve ever wanted to feel like you’re living out a real life version of A Little Mermaid (minus the evil octopus-woman who steals your voice of course!), you NEED to check out one of these tours! You can see fish, coral, sharks (friendly ones!), rays, turtles, anemones, and more!
You can even snorkel with whale sharks (if you’re visiting between May and September).
There are seemingly endless options for dive and snorkel companies in Playa del Carmen, but I recommend going with Phantom Divers as I can personally vouch for their high quality of service.
Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
There are so many things to do in Playa del Carmen that you could easily spend your entire vacation within the city, but sometimes it’s fun to explore a little further. There are tons of exciting day trips that you can take from Playa. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Tulum Ruins – You’ll likely recognize this small, beachside archaeological site as the subject of many of the photos from this region. It’s located about 1 hour from Playa del Carmen, outside the city of Tulum. Spend the morning at the ruins and the afternoon on the beaches of Tulum!
- Chichén Itzá – One of the New 7 Wonders of the World, Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. It is located about 2.5 hours from Playa and was the former center of the Maya civilization. If you’re interested in archaeology and/or Mesoamerican history, it is DEFINITELY worth the trek. For more details on Chichén Itzá, click here!
- Akumal – Just 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen lies the dreamiest beach in all of the Riviera Maya (at least in my opinion). If you’re interested in snorkeling with turtles, this is the place to do it. Check out my detailed guide on how to make it happen!
- Puerto Morelos – This small, seaside village is just 30 minutes north of Playa del Carmen, and the epitome of sleepy beach town. It’s the perfect place for a relaxing beach day, a snorkel tour, or just a change of scenery! For more on what to do in Puerto Morelos click here.
- Adventure Parks – There are numerous adventure parks in the area, including Xcaret, Xenses, and Xplor. They offer everything from cenote swimming to zip lining, to presentations of Mexican culture. I haven’t made the time to visit any of these parks, but my boyfriend (Héctor) credits seeing the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular evening show as the reason he decided to become a musician.
Where to Eat
I’ll be honest with you, as someone who has lived and traveled extensively throughout Mexico, I find the food in Playa del Carmen to be a little disappointing. (Actually, if I’m being totally sincere, it’s DEEPLY frustrating, since tacos are my lifeblood 😩.)
That’s not to say there isn’t good food, because there definitely is. It’s just that, if you’re accustomed to the traditional Mexican food of other regions, meaning diverse, spicy salsas, antojitos, and mouthwatering tacos, you are likely to be underwhelmed by what you find in Playa.
That said, there are plenty of tasty restaurants to be found. Due to the touristic nature of the area, there is a wide range of different culinary styles to choose from. You can find everything from sushi, to Brazilian barbecue, to Italian, and everything in between. You definitely can’t miss stopping at one of the hundreds of pizza stands either! Here are a few of my favorite spots:
Chez Céline – Quinta Avenida and Calle 34 This is a cute little French-inspired brunch or lunch spot. They serve delicious sandwiches and their pastry selection should not be overlooked. I like to sit in the garden, and people watch while I enjoy my meal. They usually have a happy hour in the afternoon where they promo cocktails AND pastries, so definitely check it out!
Don Sirloin – numerous locations; I recommend the one on 25 Avenida and Constituyentes Don Sirloin serves the best tacos in Playa del Carmen. I know… it’s a bold claim, and probably everything else you’ve read says you’ll find them at El Fogón, but I respectfully disagree. It’s easy to do a side by side comparison though because they’re located right next door to El Fogón!
For Date Night
Como Como Osteria Mediterranea – 10 Avenida, between Calle 12 and 14 This is a higher end (at $15 USD per plate) Italian restaurant right in the heart of Playa. They have a diverse menu featuring everything from pasta to seafood, and a romantic garden setting, which I love. Beware though, a friendly raccoon lives in the hedge, and will likely ask to share your breadsticks. If you’re put off by this skip the garden and sit inside (or order an extra glass of wine, whatever works!).
For more restaurant suggestions check out this post by fellow Playense travel blogger, Amanda Blizzard. She’s an actual chef, so she knows what’s up!
Playa del Carmen Nightlife: Where to Drink
Playa del Carmen is without a doubt a popular party spot, particularly for spring breakers. While I am steadfast that my clubbing days are FAR behind me, I have been to exactly one nightclub in Playa since moving here, so I can’t say I didn’t try! Thankfully, Playa has plenty of more relaxed bars for those of us who have left our clubbing days in the past.
- Kitxen – Quinta Avenida Nte between Constituyentes and Calle 20 If you’re a fan of live music, this is the place to be. Kitxen (pronounced “kitchen”) is owned by the lead singer of a famous Mexican rock band, Caifanes, and this spot reliably gives a stage to some of Playa’s best musical acts. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the drinks are reasonably priced.
- Club de la Cerveza – Quinta Avenida Nte between Calle 34 and 38 In case the name hasn’t already convinced you, allow me! This is a laid-back bar right on La Quinta Avenida. They have a menu that features over 70 different beers, including a selection from local breweries! It’s the perfect spot for a chill night out!
- Cero Uno – Calle 8 Norte and Quinta Avenida The one nightclub I’ve actually visited! This is a multi-level club, which features a rooftop complete with twinkly lights. If they didn’t also serve beer, I’d say the rooftop was the only draw — unless you like electronic music, in which case this is probably the perfect place for you!
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
I’m not going to make hotel recommendations for Playa del Carmen, since, as a local, I haven’t stayed anywhere! However, I can recommend the best areas, which I think is probably more helpful anyway. I know how frustrating it is to plan a trip when you don’t know what any of the neighborhoods are like!
Unless you’re staying at an all-inclusive, or have booked a rental car for the duration of your stay, your best bet is to stay inside the pink rectangle on this map.
That’s not to say that you can’t find suitable safe, and affordable places to stay outside of this area (you definitely can). I just think it’s a lot easier to remain centric because you will be able to walk anywhere you need or want to go.
When I first moved to Playa, I figured it would be okay to live further from the beach to save a bit of money on rent. I immediately regretted the decision. It was such a hassle trying to catch/coordinate public transportation or taxis. It’s soooo much nicer to be able to go wherever I want just by walking out the door! It only took me 2 weeks to realize my mistake and ditch the apartment in the suburbs and move downtown.
Chances are, you’re visiting the Riviera Maya because you wanted a beach vacation, so stay near the beach!
If you stay inside that rectangle, you’ll be within easy walking distance of the beach, and anywhere else you may want to go.
How to Get to Playa del Carmen
If you’re arriving to the Riviera Maya by plane, you will fly into the Cancún airport, which is about 40 minutes from Playa del Carmen. Upon clearing baggage claim, you will be inundated with a plethora of transportation options that will take you anywhere you need to go. Let’s break them down:
- Rental Car – I’ve used almost every car rental company at this point and highly recommend Hertz for their superior customer service. Rates across all companies are usually similar and vary depending on the demand. Keep in mind, Mexico requires that you purchase an insurance policy with your rental or pay a massive deposit (up to $2000 USD). In my experience, you should expect to pay around $50 USD per day for a rental car. You can compare prices here!
- Shuttle Van – There are a few different shuttle companies that offer service from the airport. Typically they operate a large passenger van and will take passengers directly at their destination. In my experience, these shuttles cost about $30 USD per person.
- ADO Bus – ADO is basically Mexico’s version of a Greyhound bus… only way nicer and way cheaper. This is by far my preferred option for getting to Playa del Carmen from the airport. The bus will drop you at the ADO station on Avenida Benito Juárez and La Quinta Avenida in downtown Playa del Carmen. Tickets cost about $10 USD.
Pro Tip: The first ADO bus doesn’t leave the Cancun airport until 9 AM. Keep that in mind if your flight happens to arrive really early in the morning!
I hope this was helpful in your adventure planning process!
If you have any questions about visiting Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya, or even Mexico in general don’t hesitate to leave me a comment or ask me via social media (I’m always on Instagram!). I’m always happy to help out and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours!
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