Playa del Carmen, or “Playa,” is a coastal resort town in Mexico that is a popular destination for visitors in the Caribbean, often in combination with a trip to Belize. Located about 70 kilometers south of Cancún and not far from Tulum, Playa del Carmen is the center of the Mayan Riviera in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. South of downtown Playa is an area known as Playacar, a development of resort hotels, private residences, and vacation rentals.
Playa’s closest large airport is Cancún International Airport (CUN); nearby Cozumel (20 kilometers away) also has an airport, and visitors landing here can take a ferry to Playa. Visitors can also reach Playa by bus, private transfer, or rental car. Upon arriving in Playa, transportation is usually done on foot, local bus, or bicycle. The layout of Playa is a rectangular grid, so it is relatively easy to navigate.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
Similar to the amount of food, drink, and activity options in Playa del Carmen, there are tons of accommodation choices as well. From luxury hotels and vacation rentals to mid-range bed and breakfasts and budget backpacker hostels, take your pick from the list of alternatives in Playa.
Activities in Playa del Carmen
The main tourist strip in Playa is Quinta Avenida, or “Fifth Avenue” in English. This cobblestone street spans 20 blocks and contains many restaurants, bars, dance clubs, shops, and cafes. Shops are usually open until about 10pm, whereas most nightclubs are open until 6 am. Since the beach is a mere couple of blocks away from Quinta Avenida, many dining and dancing spots are located beachside.
For those looking to experience the Yucatan’s wildlife, there are two nearby nature reserves that are easily accessible. The closest is Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, located an hour’s drive from Playa. As one of the Mexico’s largest protected nature areas, this reserve is ideal for both birdwatching and snorkeling. There’s also a chance to spot a manatee or jaguar; both rare in the area, but possible to see!
North of Playa is the Ria Lagartos reserve, located near a charming fishing town where crocodiles and thousands of birds (including flamingos) can be spotted. Ria Lagartos is a two and a half drive one-way from Playa, so an all day trip or even overnight stay is recommended.
Another option just a half an hour away from Playa is a botanical garden near Puerto Morelos. Here, visitors can check out lots of local birds in their native habitats, as well as a colony of Spider Monkeys.
Close Encounters with Sea Creatures
Within Playa, there are many standard snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities available both close to shore and a little further away at the offshore reef that is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest coral reef. There are also diving opportunities in nearby Cozumel and Puerto Morelos. Deep sea fishing is also popular, and many charter boats are available throughout Playa.
For unique experiences, there are also eco tours that cater exclusively to interacting with sea creatures in their natural habitats. Bull shark diving during the months of November to March is a popular local option that is relatively safe, yet definitely for the brave at heart.
The waters off of Isla Mujeres are a paradise for gentle whale sharks and manta rays that flock to the area in the summer, and sailfish in the winter. Many tours offer chances to see and even swim with the gentle giants, which can get up to 9 meters (27 feet) in length. Isla Mujeres is an hour boat ride from Cancún.
A half hour south of Playa in the Bay of Akumal (Turtle Bay) is a popular place for green sea turtles to congregate. Eco tours offer chances to swim or snorkel with the sea turtles in their natural environments. Summertime is nesting season for turtles, and there many chances to volunteer with locals to help the turtles lay their eggs.
Another unique, natural feature of Playa is the cenote, a freshwater sinkhole that is common in the Yucatan peninsula. Many cenotes offer exceptional water clarity and are at least partially exposed, allowing for swimming and diving. Some cenotes are partially underground in caves that can run for miles underground. Many cenotes in the area are open to the public and tours are available.
Food and Drink in Playa
There are over 75 restaurants in Playa, so there is definitely no shortage of places to eat. Food types range from traditional Mexican street foods to Western food like pizza and baked potatoes. Many bars and nightclubs are also located within the same areas as the restaurants in Playa. For travelers on a budget, there are also grocery stores and even a Wal-Mart in town where essential food and drink items can be purchased.