Welcome to the jewel of the Mayan Riviera! The beautiful coastal city of Playa del Carmen is among the fastest-growing cities in the world. Its accessible location, stunning scenery and international flavor makes it extremely popular with sun-seeking vacationers and ex-pat retirees alike.
Located across the Yucatan Channel from the island of Cozumel, Playa del Carmen enjoys sheltered beaches with silky white sand and turquoise water. It’s about a 45-minute drive [55 km/34 miles] from the Cancun International Airport.
Known affectionately as “Playa“, this bohemian city is famous for its special events, beach concerts and dance and DJ festivals. Perhaps most famous of all is the pedestrian thoroughfare called 5th Ave, or in Spanish, Quinta Avenida. Lined with shops, bars and restaurants, it stretches over 25 blocks through the heart of Playa.
We have called it home for many years and hope we can be a part of your vacation planning team to make your trip a memorable one.
This travel guide will walk you through your accommodation options in Playa del Carmen and the best things to do in the area, including the nightlife scene and the best beaches to enjoy during the day. It’ll also share with you the best restaurants, how to get around town, and a little Playa history to get you prepared for your visit.
When it comes to accommodations, Playa del Carmen has literally hundreds of choices. The range spans everything from rustic beach hostels to trendy, luxury resorts. Prices vary from low season to high season, ranging from approximately $20 USD to $500 plus per night.
TIP: Low season is an excellent time to visit, as prices are low and availability is high [May – October]. You’ll have your pick of accommodations and be able to enjoy Playa with fewer crowds.
Even though the tourist zone of Playa is fairly small and easy to navigate, choosing the right place to stay can greatly help make the most of your vacation.
Looking for a little peace and quiet for your family? You might be happiest staying in the gated community of Playacar [Phase I and II]. Here you’ll find beachfront villas, small hotels and large all-inclusive resorts. Both phases of Playacar are located on the south end of town, so you’re not at all far from 5th Ave and all that downtown has to offer.
If you’re here for a dance festival or would like to be in the centre of the action, check out places on the north end of town. The trendiest zone is between Cannibal Royale [calle 46 or CTM] and Mamita’s Beach [calle 28]. This is where the young, beautiful people chill out.
TIP: Oceanfront and ocean-view hotels will be more expensive than interior options. There are scores of premium properties just a few minutes’ walk from the beach. If you want to find even more affordable options, look at hotels located between 10th Ave and 30th Ave [moving west or away from the beach].
For more independent travelers, a vacation rental is the way to go! This option affords you a lot more privacy and freedom than a hotel or resort, often at the same price. Plus you can really sample the laidback Caribbean lifestyle in a privately owned real estate property.
The gated community of Playacar offers the widest array of both beachfront villas and modern condos circling an 18-hole golf course. This is an excellent choice if you want to enjoy the finest that Playa del Carmen has to offer and are planning an extended stay! There are walking trails, tennis courts, a bird aviary, coffee shops, gyms, yoga and Pilates studios throughout the manicured grounds.
In downtown Playa you’ll find hundreds of vacation rental options ranging from European-chic apartments to contemporary luxury condos. Several vacation homes have their own swimming pools and rooftop terraces, all in a great location that puts you near all the action.
It’s no wonder vacation rentals are the top option for visitors to Playa del Carmen!
Staying in Playa puts you at the hub of the region, poised to enjoy all the attractions and activities round about. Are you traveling with a group, or extended family? There’s something for everyone, whatever your tastes may be!
What’s your fancy? You can fill your days with heart-pumping excursions or simply lounge with a cool drink on a paradisaic beach. You’ll find gorgeous eco-adventure parks, golf courses, Mayan ruins, pristine beaches, nightclubs, world-class dining and entertainment, as well as excellent fishing, diving and snorkeling; all nearby.
TIP: While you’re staying here, check out a Mayan archaeological site [coastal Tulum is picture-perfect and Chichen Itza is a marvel]. And don’t miss visiting some of the uniquely beautiful eco-parks like Xplor, Xcaret, Xel-Ha or Xenses.
Strolling 5th Ave [called La Quinta] is one of the most popular options in the evening. Here is where you’ll really feel the vibrant energy of this youthful city! There are hundreds of bars and restaurants along the strip, with modern stores and artisan shops interspersed throughout. Stop and have a drink somewhere; the people-watching is fantastic!
A perfect day trip from all location throughout the Riviera Maya and Yucatan Peninsula. Chichen Itza is the most popular Mayan Ruin destination and provides phenomenal photo opportunities and interesting insights to the Mayan culture.
Discover four different types of cenotes in a natural setting, an oasis in the middle of the jungle where you can enjoy nature at its best with a different activity on each Xenote; Kayaking, Rappelling, Snorkel, Zip-lines and Inner Tubes.
Embark on an aquatic adventure. Explore creeks, mangroves, lagoons, natural wells and ancient caves fed by subterranean rivers flowing to Mexico’s beautiful Caribbean Sea. Learn, rest and participate in the world’s most beautiful natural aquarium, Xel-Ha.
Travel back in time at the Maya Village and enjoy the five wading pools straight from the Caribbean. Unique rivers wind through Xcaret’s naturally occurring system of underground rivers. Must visit attraction.
Yal Ku Lagoon is a great snorkeling location in Akumal. It is so attractive because it is protected from rough sea-days and is beautiful. Rental equipment is available at the entrance and makes a great day trip throughout the Riviera Maya.
Everything you need and want is within walking distance in Playa–pharmacies, grocery stores, bars, restaurants, currency exchange booths, banks, car rental agencies, clinics, etc. There’s also a brand new cycling path that circles Playacar community and spans much of 10th Avenue.
If you prefer to give your legs a rest, taxis are plentiful and cheap [typically 30 pesos within the downtown core].
TIP: Taxis in Playa are well-marked. They will often flash their lights or beep repeatedly as they roll by, to advertise that they’re looking for a fare.
The grid is easy to navigate. Avenues run north to south, parallel with the beach. They are counted by 5’s [ie: 5th Ave is the main avenue, followed by 10th Ave, 15th Ave and so on, moving away from the water]. Intersecting streets, called calles [pronounced “kai-yay”] run east to west and are counted by 2’s. As you explore past 5th Avenue, you’ll notice that restaurants get more local in style and shop prices get lower.
Getting to Playa is also very easy, as it’s located right on Federal Highway 307 between Cancun and Tulum. An overpass funnels highway traffic through, with several exits to the downtown core.
Air-conditioned ADO buses regularly traverse the highway between Cancun, the airport and Playa del Carmen. There are two open-air bus stations in Playa, with dozens of destinations offered all over the country.
If you are interested in a simple and affordable private transfer service, we offer the best prices found online at only $75 for up to 8 passengers. Further discounts apply for round trip transfers and when booking a hotel with us.
Playa has its own airstrip; located downtown near the entrance to Playacar. There are also two ferry docks that welcome cruise ship passengers and transport visitors back and forth to the island of Cozumel.
This is essentially a foodie’s dream destination! There are hundreds of excellent restaurants representing a huge variety of cuisine–no exaggeration.
Stretching all along 5th Ave and 10th Ave is the highest concentration of fine dining establishments and trendy rooftop bars. Most are open-air, but you will find some that have air-conditioning as well. There’s nothing like a beachfront dining experience–Playa also has plenty of those! Keep your toes in the sand while you enjoy live music, a delightful cocktail and delicious meal.
What’s on the menu? You’ll find sushi, pizza, hamburgers, Irish pubs, along with top-notch Italian, French, Thai, Mexican and Mayan cuisine. It’s almost overwhelming how many incredible options there are in Playa!
TIP: North of Constituyentes [where La Quinta Alegria Mall is located] the restaurants get really good! Many local favorites are clustered between calle 32 and calle 38. Be sure to check out this trendy section of 5th Ave.
One of the best things about Playa is that all the beaches are open to the public! You are never that far from that gorgeous, sparkling Caribbean Sea. It beckons to you as you stroll La Quinta, and you’ll feel the sea breezes glide through the calles while you shop.
With ocean currents and weather, the beaches shift around from month to month. The next time you visit, your favorite beach may be either expanded or somewhat eroded. But the city tries hard to take special care of its coastline; grooming it daily and cleaning it of seaweed and any debris. After all, it’s the main reason that people visit!
Typically the beaches surrounding the Cozumel ferry dock are the widest [but also the busiest]. South of the ferry dock is the community of Playacar, with wide, tranquil beaches. There are private homes and resorts here, and virtually no public restaurants or shops. Moving north of the ferry dock, you can walk for miles. You’ll find plenty of beachfront restaurants, massage therapy tents, hotels and beach clubs, with lots of activity.
TIP: Small lifeguard towers dot the beaches, and flags proclaim the status of the currents. Do not swim if a black flag is flying, and be extra cautious if a red flag is flying.
As with any modern city, Playa has its fair share of nightlife. The variety of options is pretty cool, though, as you would expect from a beach vacation destination! Everything from tequila joints and sports bars to elegant rooftop bars can be found somewhere on 5th Ave. You don’t have to go far.
When the sun goes down, several beach clubs transform into nightclubs. Partyers can dance out on the sand under the stars. Some, like Mamita’s and Kool Beach Club, host week-long dance / DJ festivals and annual jazz concerts.
If you really want to party the night away, you have to go to calle 12. This is where all the best dance clubs and nightclubs are. The party sometimes spills out into the street, spanning 3 blocks all the way between the beach and 10th avenue. Capping it all off at the corner of calle 12 and 10th ave, Coco Bongo offers a musical show every night that rivals Las Vegas in performance quality!
Unlike Cancun, Playa has retained a warm, free-spirited charm despite massive growth. Buildings are restricted to three storeys, so although the city has sprawled out somewhat (especially across the highway), it has kept is quaintness.
English is widely spoken in downtown Playa. Some European languages are spoken as well, such as German, Italian, French and Dutch. A huge part of Playa’s appeal is its international flavor!
In the tourist zone (centering around 5th Ave), you’ll be able to use American currency as easily as Mexican pesos. Tipping is not customary in much of the country, but it is very much appreciated in this touristy city.
TIP: Avoid using stand-alone ATMs positioned on 5th Ave. They have exorbitant fees and may sometimes eat your card. Choose instead to use bank machines. There are several around the main bus depot, along Benito Juarez before it intersects 5th Ave, and along 10th Ave.
Tourist Police are visible and readily available to help, 24/7. Contrary to rumors, public drinking of alcohol is not permitted on the streets.
The majority of streets are one-way. Drivers traveling on streets must yield at intersections, as avenues have the right-of-way. If you venture past 5th Avenue as a pedestrian, be wary, as traffic laws here may differ greatly from your home country.
There are two bus stations in Playa. The most well-known [and oldest] depot is located on the corner of 5th Avenue and Benito Juarez. This is where you’ll be dropped off if you’re coming from Cancun or the Cancun Airport. The other station is located at the corner of Avenida 20 and Calle 12. Passengers wishing to travel to Belize, Chetumal, or other parts of interior Mexico must go to this station. Both are open-air buildings, with convenience stores, snack stands, pay-bathrooms and coffee shops.
TIP: When shopping on 5th Ave, you might find shopkeepers to be somewhat aggressive in vying for your dollars and your attention. Keeping a lighthearted, laid-back attitude is key to dealing with these guys. Don’t sweat it! Expect some haggling before you make a purchase (if you’re at a local shop with no marked prices).
TIPS & INFORMATION
TRAVELING WITH KIDS
If you’re there during the summer and have kids then this is the perfect place to get your school clothing. You will find all the latest trends here. The Mexicans are right on top of fashion.
For vacationers, many of your questions could probably be answered if you read these pages:
Before Playa was an international tourist hotspot, it was a sleepy little fishing village on a pristine swath of bleached coral sand beach. Still standing today, the first modern buildings were the bus depot, the church by the main square, and the ferry dock to Cozumel. Beyond these were merely some scattered fishermen’s shacks and a few dusty roads leading off into the jungle.
Its location across from the island of Cozumel has made Playa del Carmen an important trade port for hundreds of years. In times past, local products such as salt, chicle gum and honey were traded for items from other regions. In the 1960s, its proximity to Cozumel aided in tourist development, as oceanographer Jacques Costeau explored and publicized the stunningly beautiful Meso-American reef surrounding that island.
Playa also has a rich history as a Mayan settlement. Ruins are still visible in the gated community of Playacar, and are especially prominent in nearby Tulum. Each spring, Mayan men and women would paddle across the channel to Cozumel in a pilgrimage to the moon goddess Ixchel. This tradition continues today, from the Xcaret eco-park bay.
Spanish settlers discovered Playa del Carmen in the 1500s and named the city in honor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the patron saint of Cancun. (The name literally translates to “Carmen’s Beach”.) The stunning beaches, freshwater supply, and variety of valuable products made Playa a frequent stop-over for Caribbean pirates in search of treasures.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Playa’s population grew substantially. Fifth Avenue was paved and further developed. More resorts were attracted to the area and the community of Playacar was established.
Tons of entertainment options. Tons of restaurants. I recommend venturing away from 5th avenue. Prices are better and you don't have to deal with being hassled to shop/spend money every 10 seconds. You must make your way to El Fogon. We ate there three times on our trip. Also, visit the Xplor park. Go early on a weekday to avoid lines and crowds and do the ziplines first as they tend to get crowded. We visited Kool beach club as well which was nice. Check to see if your hotel is affiliated with them for discounted rates.