Playa del Carmen, Mexico Travel Guide
For years Mexico has been a top travel destination for tourists globally and this trend is definitely continuing as we approach 2017. It’s not all that surprising when you consider what Mexico has to offer. Besides being one of the most convenient and affordable exotic locations to get to from the States, it also boasts world-renowned hot-spots.
There is Cancun of course, one of the most classic beach vacation/spring break destinations and a place that is now synonymous with the word “fun” in the American lexicon. Cabo, the west-coast equivalent of Cancun, has a similar draw in the Mexican State of Baja California. But both of these destinations frequently overshadow the hidden gem in the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen.
Playa is the best of all worlds when it comes to travel. Savvy ex-pats, cultured Europeans, adventure seekers, and outdoor enthusiasts have all found an oasis in this small hub, located an hour south of Cancun. Playa has the best beaches in Mexico, Tulum and Chichen Itza within driving distance, Cozumel/scuba diving within ferry distance, a vibrant/funky town full of spirit, incredible mayan cuisine, bars and clubs on every block, the world’s most intricate cenote system and a plethora of adventure options to boot. Playa is a big-time tourist destination with a low-key vibe, making it a paradise for travel.
If you want to do Mexico right, go to Playa. And if you want to do Playa right, read this guide:
How to get there:
While flying into Cozumel is an option and only a 35 minute ferry-ride away from Playa, you’ll find more flight options flying into Cancun International with generally better rates.
Cozumel: 35 minute ferry ride that costs about $25 round-trip. Boats leave roughly every hour from 8AM to 8PM.
Cancun: There are a plethora of options for getting from Cancun International to Playa del Carmen:
- Private Car: A nice way to get down south, just make sure to book in advance. If you try to book a transfer upon arrival at the airport, beware. There are companies at the airport that will offer transfers but pull you into lengthy time-share presentations.
- Taxis/Colectivo: Another easy option for getting to Playa, you can generally find these guys lined up outside of the terminal. Just make sure that you ask the rate (remember you can barter) before hopping in a cab.
- ADO Bus: A great and cheap option to get to Playa. The bus departs outside of Terminal 2 and Terminal 3 and runs every 30 minutes to Playa del Carmen. With a price around 170 pesos, it’s hardly more than $10 per person per direction. The ADO bus will drop you off at 5a Av y Av Benito Juarez by the shore at Playa.
Where to Stay:
Having great accommodations while in Playa is crucial, and fortunately easy to attain. There are many different types of travelers searching for different experiences. If you’re super into luxury and all-inclusive travel a hotel like the Grand Hyatt might be a good call for you, that is, if you want to spend the coin. However, if you’re looking for an all-around great boutique hotel offering delectable food, fantastic service, killer location and authenticity at a great price, look no further than the Aventura Mexicana.
The Aventura Mexicana has some killer perks, and while we could spin you a long yarn about it, we’ll list the pros like bullet points and link their site:
- Oasis-like location, quiet but right in the heart of the action.
- 1-block from La Quinta, 5 minute walk from the beach
- Amazing food at the Mayan Bistro, the hotel’s restaurant
- Charming Boutique styled hotel, offering great service and rates
Where to Eat:
There are so many options in Playa for great and reasonably priced food. Here are a couple locations broken down into categories so you won’t go hungry while you’re down there:
The one and only Don Sirloin will steal your hearts and stomachs…but not your pesos. It’s very easy to get carried away here, with reasonably priced tacos you can eat 10 before even realizing what happened…true story. With great sirloin cooked right of the spit, it lives up to it’s name as the Don. Best part is it’s open late night, so perfect for a snack after hitting up the bars.
Widely acclaimed for having the best tacos in Playa, El Fogon does not disappoint. Like Sirloin, Fogon caters to locals and if it has the approval of Playa locals, tourists should take notice. Make sure to try the Taco Loco when you’re there, a beastly taco filled with al pastor, chicken, beef, chorizo and bacon on top. Word to the wise, this place is usually packed so plan ahead!
La Perla Pixan
This place is a gem. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to taste high quality authentic Mexican cuisine this place is for you. Try the guacamole with crickets, which is as rewarding as it is intimidating. The Mezcal selection is also extensive and impressive…and the food is even better with live musicians playing in-house. Try it.
Another advantage of staying at the Aventura Mexicana is that you’ll have great food in-house. If you’re looking for local flavor with a gourmet flair look no further. Sizzling chicken tacos that can only be described as mouth-watering are the Team SA recommendation, although everything on the menu is great. Best part is, if you stay at the Aventura you can go in your pajamas.
What to Do in Town:
Playa’s greatness rests in its ability to appeal to appeal to everyone. Here are a couple musts for the town itself:
One of the greatest attraction in Playa del Carmen is La Quinta, a cobblestone walking street that is buzzing with activity. La Quinta stretches about 20 blocks and is the major hub in Playa for shops, bars, restaurants, and clubs. This is a great place to go out for a drink, or to shop during the day and it has a convenient location a few blocks from the beach.
Most clubs in Playa are open until 6am allowing you full nights of drinking and dancing. The must-hit clubs are the Blue Parrot, El Pirata, Coco Bongo, Santenera, and Hotel Deseo. The Blue Parrot is a truly classic institution, and they frequently have fire shows and beach dancing…so long as you don’t mind getting too sandy.
What to Do in the Area:
Playa’s prime location offers you a plethora of day trip options, no matter what floats your boat. Check out a couple of the great excursions you can plan below!
This ancient Mayan ruin sits right by the sea, and is an impressive sight to behold. Tulum is located only a 30 minute drive South of Playa and entrance is cheap, although they will charge you extra to bring in Go-Pros and selfie-sticks. And truthfully, this is not a bad thing. Tulum can get packed with tourists, but the nice thing is that it located right on the beach. This means you can check out the ruins and then take a dip in the ocean. Also keep an eye out for iguanas! There is some great wildlife that calls Tulum home.
Another Ancient Mayan ruin and one of the 7 New World Wonders. Chances are you’ve seen images of the Kukulcan Pyramid (also known as El Castillo), as it is one of the most visited archaeological site in the world. Chichen Itza is impressive, but be prepared for hot temperatures and a pilgrimage as it is located about 2.5 hours inland from Playa del Carmen. This place is definitely worth the visit, but it is a full day trip and also gets majorly crowded. Go bright and early if you’d like to get the best experience.
Located just a short ferry-ride away (35 minutes), the journey costs $25 round-trip and is worth a day trip, especially if you’re into scuba. The Great Maya Reef is a large coral system and has some excellent areas for scuba and snorkeling. This is a popular cruise ship pit-stop so be aware that it can be busy sometimes!
Xel-Ha is a massive adventure/eco park, located about 45 minutes south of Playa. The park offers a wide variety of attractions, such as snorkeling, cliff-jumping, swimming with dolphins, lazy rivers and biking. Even though the entry fee is near $100 per person, it is worth it as the day is all-you-can-eat/drink, including alcoholic beverages. Make sure you bring your own biodegradable sunscreen as the park is very environmentally conscious. Purchasing sunscreen at Xel-Ha is more expensive.
The Yucatan peninsula and Riviera Maya have the most extensive cenote system in the world. Pretty cool right? Cenotes are underground caves that connect to the ocean but are located inland. Checking these out is an absolute must and there are plenty of options. Check out Alltournative if you’re looking for a tour company to show you Cenotes. They have a wide-variety of tours and generally couple them with visits to Mayan Ruins.
Playa del Carmen is an amazing destination no matter what sort of traveler you are. It’s one of the coolest places you can go to in Central America and it also happens to be conveniently located and affordable. There’s a reason that we have been running trips here for a few years now, and some of our guests have joined us on multiple vacations here. You’ll enjoy your visit to Playa no matter how you get there, but if you’d like more information on our trip you can check out our page here. Happy adventuring!