Is Playa del Carmen worth visiting? We definitely think so. And apparently so do thousands of other travelers, who flock to this corner of Mexico’s Quintana Roo state for paradise sands, wild cenote caves, and Mayan relics every year…
Mexico has its fair share of beautiful cities to explore and Playa del Carmen is no exception. Situated on the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is plum alongside the sparkling Caribbean Sea. The city was originally a sleepy fishing village, but frequent visits from backpackers and an increase in yearly tourists have encouraged development and expansion in the last few decades.
Playa del Carmen packs a punch when it comes to adventure, boasting tours through lush jungles and ancient archaeological sites, reef-fringed islands and bird-filled lagoons. That’s all balanced out by the serenity of the beaches, along with an infectious party atmosphere that’s fuelled by a truly international crowd. This guide will uncover nine reasons why Playa del Carmen should not be missed when planning your next trip…
The ancient Mayan ruins
Is Playa del Carmen worth visiting if you’re not a full-on beach bum? We think so, and a lot of the reason is down to the historic ruins within reach of the town. There’s a Mexican smorgasbord’s worth of tours available that can take you out to the surrounding Mayan sites of Coba, Tulum, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and Ek Balam. They all reveal a whole other world amid the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, where lichen-covered temples and mighty stepped pyramids rise from the undergrowth. Prepare to be stunned…
If you would like to tick off a visit to one of the seven wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site during your time in Playa del Carmen, then Chichen Itza is a must! We’d say it’s the most impressive of all the Maya sites in the region, and one of the most impressive history sites in the whole of Mexico. When there, be sure to snap a picture of the magnificent El Castillo pyramid, considered to be one of the most ambitious structures ever built in the Mesoamerican world. Also don’t miss the haunting Temple of the Warriors and the surrounding Hall of the Thousand Columns – they’re bound to make the jaw drop!
Playa del Carmen offers interesting sites to see both above and below ground level. For the willing tourist, there is a labyrinth of limestone caves and underground waterways to explore. One of the most popular is the Rio Secreto, a collection of intricate tunnels and cenotes through which visitors can hike and swim. Rio Secreto is 12km long and has been shaped over many centuries by the course of an underground river.
In addition to hiking and swimming in caves, you can also enjoy a three-course meal in the comfort of a 10,000-year-old cavern! The Alux Restaurant offers just that in a wild subterranean world outside of Playa del Carmen itself. The menu is a medley of creative fusion cuisine and there’s also a stylish bar area where you can sip those longballs and wonder at the surroundings.
Swimming in the cenotes
You simply cannot visit Playa del Carmen without experiencing the cenotes! These natural wonders are caves that have collapsed and subsequently become filled with crystal-clear water.
The ancient Mayans often used cenotes to give offerings to their gods. Back then, these strange spots were considered sacred, but nowadays, the locals of Playa del Carmen visit the cenotes for a communal swim and a relaxing day out away from the Caribbean heat. What’s more, cenotes can hide some incredible underwater rock formations that can be explored through scuba diving and snorkeling, so they’re definitely one for the more intrepid traveler…
There are countless cenotes in the Yucatan and the state of Quintana Roo. Some of the best around Playa del Carmen are:
- Cenote Cristalino – A short drive south of Playa del Carmen, this cenote has a bathing house, bathrooms and changing rooms (best for families).
- Cenote Jardin del Eden – A gorgeous and large cenote that’s set in lush jungles (best for adventurers).
- Cenote Azul – A fantastically blue cenote (best for wild swimmers).
- Cenote Ik Kil – A semi-collapsed cave that’s strewn in drooping vines (best for photographers).
To shop and dine on La Quinta
La Quinta is Playa del Carmen’s answer to Fifth Avenue and Main Street. It’s lined with such a variety of bars, restaurants, shops, and street entertainment that you’ll hardly know where to look next. La Quinta runs through the beating heart of Playa del Carmen, parallel to the shoreline and the beaches, offering a number of different sections that specialize in something a little different.
Head to the Paseo del Carmen plaza for all your souvenir needs. For exciting live entertainment featuring Mayan dancers, then Parque Fundadores is the place to be. For restaurants, bars, and clubs visit 12th Street, where street-food vendors sizzle up tacos and there’s usually lots of tequila sloshing about! If you want to shop till you drop, take a look between Constituyentes Avenue and 40th Street for a medley of well-known and high-end brands, as well as traditional Mexican trinkets.
The paradise island of Cozumel
Cozumel is an island just off Playa del Carmen. It’s actually the largest island in the Mexican Caribbean. Cozumel boasts a rich history, beautiful sunsets, Mayan ruins, and jungle landscapes, along with some of the most pristine sections of barrier reef this side of Belize. It’s got a distinctly more relaxed vibe than Playa itself, meaning you can come here to switch off and chillax with a mezcal in hand.
Cozumel is one of the top places for water activities in Mexico. The island offers 40 dive areas where you can snorkel and scuba alongside colorful coral reefs and fascinating marine life. In fact, master divers often cite the isle as one of the very best dive sites in the whole world. You won’t be short on visibility under the H2O!
Regular boats connect Playa itself with the island. They typically take around 40 minutes to make the crossing. Tickets cost in the region of 210 – 290 MXN ($10-15) each way.
The wild nightlife scene
Playa del Carmen is one of the liveliest towns on the Riviera Maya. In fact, we’d say it’s probably the second most hedonistic spot on the whole hedonistic run of coastline, with only the spring breaker mecca of Cancun able to trump it when it comes to after-dark activity. AKA – you’re not going to be short on clubs, bars, pubs, or tequila joints in these parts.
Most nights start down on the aforementioned 5th Avenue (La Quinta). That’s a hubbub of pubs that spill onto the sidewalks under the shade of palm trees and terraces. Our favorite pre-drinking spots there include Kitxen (which often has live music in the early evening) and La Bodeguita Del Medio (a gritty Cubano cantina where the salsa doesn’t stop and rum punch is the order of the day).
Later on, you can hop to a number of the larger clubs. The most iconic is probably Coco Bongo. It’s a super club with twisting dancers on ropes and mist-plumed DJ booths. Then there’s Diablito Cha Cha Cha, with its fantastically oversized dancefloor, and the beach-side Coco Maya, home to some of the biggest acts in town.
The epic ziplining
Is Playa del Carmen worth visiting if you’re after something to get the heart a-thumping? We think so! The good news…Ziplining is considered an essential activity by many travelers when visiting this part of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The pastime – if you can call whizzing over the jungles at god-knows-what speed a pastime – has become something of a rite of passage here, mainly because the region’s rainforests are virtually tailor-made for the pursuit.
There are many zipline circuits and tours around Playa del Carmen. Many include additional activities, including snorkeling in cenotes, off-roading experiences, and jungle tours, so they’re a good way to check off a few lines from the bucket list in one. Xplor Zipline Park touts the most-visited ziplines in the world, with two circuits of seven ziplines, totaling 3.8km in all! Their cables reach 45 meters high and even offer water landings for those who are not afraid of getting wet!
To go snorkeling with turtles
Playa del Carmen could just be the destination for that once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming and snorkeling with sea turtles! Visit the tranquil waters of Akumal Bay and spend time with some of nature’s most beautiful aquatic reptiles. The bay, located about 30 minutes’ driving south of Playa del Carmen, is a hotspot for these elegant animals. The beaches there slope softly into a reef-dashed shoreline where visitors are free to snorkel with their own gear.
There are unofficial tour guides around the area who encourage you to buy their guided snorkeling tours and equipment, but that isn’t necessary. That being said, make sure you’re prepared for snorkeling with suitable stuff, a lifejacket if necessary, and knowledge of the local area so that you can find the best turtle spots for some swimming. As with any interaction with wildlife, there are certain things to keep in mind: Be sure not to crowd the turtles (you’re a visitor in their home, remember!); there are no fins allowed so as not to accidentally hit the turtles; and you should also look into purchasing some marine-safe sunscreen that’s a-okay for use in reefs.
Playa del Carmen sits smack dab in the heart of one of the most-visited parts of Mexico: The Riviera Maya. That’s a whole 120-mile dash of resort towns that offer hotels of all shapes and sizes, to all sorts of travelers, both budget and luxury seekers. That array of accommodations doesn’t end in this city. In fact, it gets positively better, with PdC touting one of the most fantastic bouts of hotels of all.
If we had to pin it down, we’d say that Playa del Carmen excels in mid- to high-range aparthotels and condo hotels. That’s mainly down to the fact that the city attracts a bigger digital nomad crowd than its compadres of Cancun and Tulum (travelers who need somewhere to live, not just stay). On top of that, you get stacks of elegant resorts with pools, and even a few very nice art hotels. Our favorites would include:
- Magic Blue Spa Boutique Hotel Adults Only ($$-$$$) – A short walk off the La Quinta shopping avenue, this stylish spa hotel is a breath of fresh air for adult visitors. It’s got a pool and a wellness center.
- Casa Kaoba Hotel & Suites ($$) – Located on the highway just outside of town, this suite hotel has big rooms that have access to a hot tub and also services like car hire.
So, is Playa del Carmen worth visiting?
Is Playa del Carmen worth visiting? You bet! If you are looking to relax in paradise, devour spicy Mexicana-Caribbean fare, and step back in time to explore ancient Mayan relics and archaeological sites, this could be the perfect place. We’ve only mentioned nine reasons, but there are so many more to discover during a visit to the incredible city of Playa del Carmen on the Quintana Roo coast. It’s not for nothing that it’s risen to become one of Mexico’s best-loved destinations in recent years!
What is the best month to go to Playa del Carmen?
We think February is the best time to visit Playa del Carmen. The weather is generally fantastic (expect 70-80 days with loads of sun) and the Christmas crowds have dipped a little. October can also be good as a shoulder-season option, but be warned that the seaweed season (when lots of seaweed washes up on the beaches here) usually lasts from April to September.
How many days do you need in Playa del Carmen?
A week-long holiday works well in Playa del Carmen. That should give you enough time to see the beaches, explore the riviera, swim in the cenotes, and sample the nightlife. However, some people come here for months on end, as the town has established itself as something of a digital nomad hub a la Canggu and Chiang Mai in recent years.
What is special about Playa del Carmen?
Different travelers like different things about Playa del Carmen. We’d say it’s popular because it strikes a great balance between local life and tourism. You can come here to sample a true, lived-in Mexican town but also enjoy the Caribbean beaches and the ancient Maya history.