Playa del Carmen is mostly known for its beaches, parties and giant resorts. But there’s the whole other side of the city. It’s a great hub for independent travelers with many things to do in and around. As I’ve lived in Playa del Carmen for almost 2 years, I got to know the city and surrounding areas quite well.
This is my ultimate Playa del Carmen Mexico Guide for 2020. Here’s everything you need to know, but if you have any more questions post the comment and I’ll try to answer as soon as possible.
The Complete Playa del Carmen Travel Guide (2020)
by a Former Expat
- Where is Playa del Carmen, Mexico?
- How to Get to Playa del Carmen
- Is Playa del Carmen Safe?
- Weather in Riviera Maya
- Is Playa del Carmen Expensive?
- Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
- How to Get Around Playa del Carmen
- Best Beaches in Playa del Carmen
- Best Restaurants in Playa del Carmen
- Things to do in Playa del Carmen
- Nightlife in Playa del Carmen
- Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
Where is Playa del Carmen, Mexico?
Playa del Carmen is located in the Riviera Maya area on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. While it’s located on the Yucatan Peninsula, it actually belongs to the province of Quintana Roo. Playa del Carmen lies exactly between Cancun and Tulum, around 60 km (37 miles) away from both places. It’s also the fastest-growing city in Latin America.
How to Get to Playa del Carmen?
Playa del Carmen doesn’t have an airport. You can choose to fly to either Cancun (45 minutes by car) or Cozumel (40 minutes by ferry). I always recommend using Skyscanner to check both airports.
If you’re flying into Cozumel, you can simply take a taxi to the ferry terminal and take a ferry to Playa del Carmen. There’s no need of pre-booking anything in advance.
If you’re flying into Cancun, then you have a lot of options. I personally don’t recommend renting a car at the airport, as it’s way more expensive than if you rent one once you get to “Playa” as it’s called by locals. The best way to get to Playa del Carmen is by the ADO bus. Don’t worry – it’s not a chicken bus. It has AC and broadcasts movies on the way.
Once you leave the customs area at the airport, there will be an ADO bus company booth to purchase tickets. Buses run every 40 minutes. You can pay in either Pesos or Dollars (177 pesos or 9 USD).
Once you arrive, there will be many taxis available that can take you to your hotel. It should cost you around 60-100 pesos from the station to anywhere in Playa.
It might be slightly confusing to find the area where the bus stops, and you might be surrounded by taxi drivers trying to offer you a deal, but just pass through them.
Remember that there is NO free Wifi at Cancun Airport, so don’t count on finding your hotel reservation upon arrival.
Is Playa del Carmen Safe?
Riviera Maya is probably the safest area in Mexico and Playa del Carmen itself is a relatively safe place. You don’t have to be afraid of walking alone at night or getting robbed on the street.
While there have been some incidents that you may or may not have heard of, tourists and locals were never the targets. It was all happening between cartel members. Yes, I was there when it was all happening.
Weather in Riviera Maya
Many visitors ask about the weather in Playa del Carmen and expect it to be hot and sunny every day. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly true. While Playa del Carmen is generally warm, the weather changes quickly and rapidly.
There’s one rule if you’re coming to Playa del Carmen: don’t trust the forecast and dig deeper! Forecasts will only give you a day estimate. Always check the amount and percentage of rain and the hours of sunshine.
You can even check more detailed forecasts which will give you the weather by the hour. It might be stormy in the morning and sunny during lunchtime. You never know.
Unless you’re visiting during the summer (June-September), bring a sweater. You’ll be sunbathing during the day, but it gets chilly during the night. Unless you’re from a very cold country such as Finland, you will be cold. I always am.
Is Playa del Carmen Expensive?
How much money should you have for visiting Playa del Carmen or any nearby city? Playa del Carmen can be very expensive, or very cheap, depending on what you want to do.
For instance, if you eat at tourist restaurants on 5th Av, go to nightclubs like Coco Bongo and buy massages then you might end up needing at least $300 a day excluding the hotel.
If you eat where locals eat, your dinner should cost you no more than $5-7 and a cocktail for $3-8. If you’re planning some backpacking you can definitely survive on $50 a day.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen?
There are many places to stay in Playa del Carmen and many more are being built every month. You can choose from all-inclusive resorts, fancy hotels, private villas, small guesthouses or hostels.
Best Areas to Stay in Playa del Carmen
There’s no bad area to stay, but it all depends on what you’re looking for. The downtown tourist area lies between Avenida Benito Juarez (Calle 1) up to Avenida CTM (Calle 46).
The best way to give directions in Playa del Carmen is to use the streets and Avenues – they only go every 5, so you’ll have Avenida 5, Avenida 10, 15, etc.
If you’re looking for a quiet place to stay with children you might consider staying in Playacar area. If you’re a party animal the closer to Calle 12th you are, the happier you’ll be.
Best Hotels in Playa del Carmen
I had a chance to stay at different hotels around the city. Here are my recommendations depending on your budget, expectations, and location preference.
I stayed at all of these properties (even lived at Sabbia apartments for a whole year), so can tell you everything about them.
Best Hostels in Playa del Carmen
Best Apartments in Playa del Carmen
Croc Condos – Check Prices On: AirBnB
Best Mid-Range Hotels in Playa del Carmen
Best Luxury Hotels in Playa del Carmen
How to Get Around Playa del Carmen?
If you’re staying in the downtown Playa del Carmen, then you can walk to most places. The city is easily walkable, with pedestrian paths everywhere. If you don’t want to walk you can either take a taxi or rent a bike.
Taxis in Playa del Carmen
Taxis are everywhere in Playa del Carmen, and they’re all white which makes them easy to spot. They’re also safe. The fares within Playa Centro (downtown) are supposed to be fixed at 25 pesos no matter what, but taxi drivers are always trying to take advantage of tourists and charge them 50, or even 100 pesos for a ride.
If you speak good Spanish you can argue. Another option is just telling the direction to the driver without asking for a price, giving them 25 pesos at the end.
If you’re traveling from anywhere in downtown to Playacar the price will be 100 pesos.
Renting a Car in Playa del Carmen
Don’t be afraid of renting a car in Mexico. The roads are wide and easy to navigate, especially with modern technology like Google Maps. Just watch out for wild drivers.
By renting a car you can avoid being on a giant tourist bus, and go to places in the area that aren’t easily accessible. You also don’t need an international driver’s license.
While online prices will show you cars for as little as $1 a day, this doesn’t mean that it’s actually a dollar. When booking online, you don’t pay anything until you pick up the car and no fee to cancel.
However, once you arrive at the rental office they’ll charge you extra for insurance, taxes and other hidden fees.
From my experience, it’s better to actually pre-book in advance, as you can discuss a special rate. I usually rent cars from MEX Rent A Car on 5th Av.
These guys are reliable, honest and won’t surprise you with some hidden fee to be paid later. For $28 per day, including full insurance, taxes, and second driver option.
A car is great if you’re planning a road trip around the Yucatan, so I suggest you should at least consider this option. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Be careful at gas stations as there’s no self-service. There have been many reports of attendants not resetting the machines between cars and charging you for your gas without actually putting it in. Honest staff will show you zeros on the machine, so make sure you always look.
If you pay in cash, say aloud the amount you are handing over, as some attendants will try to convince you it was a smaller denomination than it really was. A common scam against tourists.
Colectivos in Playa del Carmen MX
If you’re planning on getting around Playa del Carmen you can join the locals and hop on colectivo – public taxi vans. They can get a bit cramped sometimes, but they’re super cheap, like $1-2 a ride (depending on how far you’re traveling).
They can drop you off anywhere along their set routes. For instance, at Akumal or any cenote between Playa and Tulum.
Not quite as convenient as your own car though, and often not a lot of room for luggage/gear. But if you want to experience something local, a trip on a colectivo is definitely recommended.
They all leave from in front of the post office (Correos de Mexico) on Calle 2.
Best Beaches in Playa del Carmen
- Parque Fundadores
- Calle 2
- Punta Esmeralda
All beaches in Playa del Carmen are easily accessible and free, unlike in Cancun or Tulum where they’re often closed for resort guests only. However, since 2018 there’s not much beach left as the ocean took a huge chunk of it.
However, truth to be told these days getting into the water in the ocean is pretty much impossible, because of the seaweed. It’s absolutely disgusting in the water and it piles up on beaches. (google ‘seaweed Playa del Carmen’ to see for yourself).
There are many things to do on the beach in Playa. You can get a massage, go jet skiing, parasailing, or even take a catamaran cruise. If you’re into beach clubs you can also find many of them in Playa del Carmen, such as Mamitas Beach Club.
On the south side of the large pier off Consituyentes is where Playacar starts and the beaches in this area of town are nicer and generally more clean and quiet.
If you want to mingle with the locals, try Punta Esmeralda. You won’t find the tourist crowd there, but local kids hanging out with their parents and people selling freshly grilled shrimp on the stick.
My favorite beach, however, is Xcacel. It’s actually closer to Akumal then Playa, but since it’s only 20 minutes away I’d still recommend it. It’s not free, you need to pay 20 pesos ($1.5) to enter, but it’s empty and even has a cenote in the area.
Best Restaurants in Playa del Carmen
El Fogon and Don Sirloin
The list would not be complete without a nod to some genuine Mexican taquerias with several branches around town. Some people prefer El Fogon, others Don Sirloin. I think they’re both good.
I recommend the tacos al pastor with cheese, delicious shavings of spit-roasted pork topped with a slice of pineapple, served on the best corn tortillas.
If you’re into seafood, Los Aguachiles has you covered. It serves tostadas topped with fresh fish, as well as fried coconut shrimp and even unusual tacos. My favorite is actually a Popeye taco with creamy spinach, cheese and shrimp.
Hijos de la Tostada
Hijos de la Tostada, as the name indicates, serves tostadas. Similar to Los Aguachiles, it focuses mostly on seafood. You can get them traditional with raw seafood, or more western style with a fried ingredient on top.
Ask the bartender for a Chapulin cocktail – you won’t regret it!
If you’re a fan of fresh ceviche for lunch, there’s no better place to go than El Pirata. The place can give you a giant ceviche for just 90-120 pesos. Even with two people, you might struggle to finish it!
You can’t find a more local place than Dona Mary. This small corner spot is home to simple, but delicious chicken tostadas. No English menu, no cutlery available, but plastic chairs only. Definitely recommended, but prepare to get your face and hands dirty!
La Cueva del Chango
La Cueva del Chango is a great place for any occasion, due to its amazing setting. Set in a lush garden, this is a great place to have a nice, relaxing, and tropical breakfast. They even have the turtle pond in the middle! My favorite brunch dish there are crepes poblanos with cheese & mushrooms.
Chez Céline is one of the rare places on the 5th Av where locals go to quite often. It serves incredible French food and pastries for any time of the day. You must try the white chocolate raspberry cupcake!
Nativos has several branches throughout Playa del Carmen. This local chain serves up good, mostly healthy food and a wide selection of giant smoothies. Good prices and great service. I recommend chilaquiles verdes with eggs for breakfast.
There are a lot of Italians and Argentinians in Playa del Carmen. Some of them opened Papa Charly creating one of the best restaurants in Playa. The place serves great pasta with a huge variety of sauces to choose from. My favorite though is the mushroom lasagne.
Don Chendo is a Chicago style pizza place that gets everything right. The sauce is well-spiced, toppings are quality and abundant, and the owner and his staff are as friendly and caring as you’ll find anywhere.
If you like simple Venezuelan food that’s a place you should visit. There are only 4 choices on the menu, but they’re all delicious. f you want a break from taco life, try some corn pancakes there.
Things to Do in Playa del Carmen
People Watching on 5th Avenue
5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) is the place to see and be seen in Playa. It has the feel of a touristy beach resort during the day with trinket shops and overpriced restaurants, which changes to a pretty thriving night scene as the day wears off. It’s great for people watching and trust me, you can see some interesting characters walking around at night.
Tour Rio Secreto
Rio Secreto is a natural underwater park of secret portals located just 3 miles south of downtown Playa del Carmen. You can only visit it with an experienced guide as it’s pitch black inside.
But with a helmet equipped with great light, you’ll see some incredible stalagmites and other formations. Read more about my experience here.
Experience One of the Adventure Parks
There are many adventure parks spread across the entire Riviera Maya. With the most popular being Xcaret with shows and beaches, there is also an adventure park called Xplor, or a calm Xel-Ha where you can see some colorful fish.
Personally, I’d probably skip Xel-Ha and Xcaret unless you have kids (or unless you visit for the Day of the Dead). Xplor was fun as an adult though!
Eat at Alux Restaurant
I decided to put Alux in things to do in Playa del Carmen, as it’s way more than just a restaurant. It’s an unusual restaurant in a cave that serves picturesque dishes.
They even have the very traditional Mexican escamoles (worm eggs) and chapulines (fried grasshopper). After you eat you can explore the entire space which is huge and full of secret tables in caves.
Have a Drink at the Rooftop Bar
Several places around the city offer free use of the rooftop pool when having food or drink. You can see some stunning sunsets while stuffing yourself with delicious stuff. My favorite rooftop would be Be Playa, as they have good sushi.
Playa del Carmen is definitely a party place. There are plenty of bars and clubs to choose from. Most of the nightclubs are located on Calle 12, along with some bars on Calle 10. I recommend popping into La Vaquita – a club with a dancing cow!
While Coco Bongo is still being promoted as one of the most fun places in the area, I’m not a fan. It’s a nightclub with an open bar and many shows, but as fun as it sounds, in reality, is way too cheesy unless you’re wasted and over 40. Plus, I’m not a fan of having constant confetti coming from the ceiling straight into my drink.
Swim in Cenotes
There are many cenotes in the area for you to enjoy. Some are underground, others have some zip lines, some offer incredible diving and snorkeling adventures. You can visit my guide to cenotes here.
As Playa del Carmen is a coastal town you cannot forget about a large variety of watersports available. You can rent a jetski, learn to kite-surf or take a sailing trip.
If you’re interested in diving you could also take a short ferry to Cozumel and discover the best of the underwater world.
For more activities and organized tours check Viator here.
Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
Visit Chichen Itza
If you’re an ancient history buff, a visit to a Mayan archaeological site is a must. And in the area there are many ruins to choose from. The most famous, Chichen Itza is just 3 hours away.
It’s one of the new 7 World Wonders, therefore it gets busy and I recommend heading there early. It costs 250 pesos to enter and opens from 8 am to 4:30 pm.
Visit Coba Ruins
Coba ruins are way coolers than Chichen Itza in my opinion, mostly due to a fact that you can STILL climb the highest pyramid. Although, it’s said that it’s about to change soon.
Coba is also way bigger and less crowded and you can rent a bike or a bike cab to get around the jungle where it’s located. See more about Coba here.
Swim with Turtles in Akumal
Swimming with turtles is one of the most fun activities you can imagine in Playa. Turtles live in their natural environment, so you can swim around them! Read more about Akumal’s turtles here.
Experience the Pink Lake of Las Coloradas
Many people think that the pink lake only exists in Australia, but Mexico has them too. In fact, in Las Coloradas there is more than one lake but plenty of them. You can also spot some flamingos there during the winter. Read more about the pink lake here.
Snorkel in Cozumel
Take a day trip to the island of Cozumel and experience some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world. The area is full of colorful fish, coral reefs, and friendly bull sharks during the winter.
You can rent a scooter or dune buggy and drive around the island. Don’t forget to stop at Punta Sur to spot some crocodiles and greet some of the endangered pygmy raccoons. They’re incredibly cute!
2-Day Trips from Playa del Carmen
Relax on Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox is one of the most beautiful places in the area. There’s not much to do there apart from relaxing in a hammock on the beach, but that’s exactly the point of this place.
You’ll find only small hotels there, no cars (golf carts are used as taxis) and plenty of flamingos.
See the Hidden Lagoon of Bacalar
If you ever dreamed of visiting the overwater bungalows in the Maldives or Bora Bora and thought it’s too far or too expensive, I have a perfect alternative for you. Bacalar Lagoon offers blue waters that look just like in the Pacific. Pictures are worth more than a thousand words here!
Bacalar is approximately 3 hours south of Playa by car, so it’s too far for a day trip. I recommend spending the night as the sunrise is gorgeous!
Explore the Ruins of Calakmul in the Jungle
Feeling like an Indiana Jones? Head to Calakmul ruins! The ruins are 100 km into the jungle, very close to Guatemalan border, so there’s barely anyone there. You can climb every pyramid and they’re huge!
You should spend a night at the camping spot nearby and wake up to screams of howler monkeys to fully experience the jungle.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE
Don’t forget to arrange health insure before heading to Mexico. The easiest and the most reliable travel insurance is World Nomads Travel Insurance. Get it before your trip to skip unnecessary troubles that might ruin your holidays!
Want to read more about Mexico? Check out my facts about Mexico! If you have any specific questions join my Mexico Travel Tips community group on Facebook.
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Did I miss something? Do you want to ask me anything about Playa del Carmen, Mexico?