Playa del Carmen travel guide

🌱December 30, 2023.
Last tended January 1, 2024.
seedling 🌱
1 minute read ⏱

Getting to Playa del Carmen (PDC)

PDC is about an hour drive south of the Cancun airport (CUN). If you are planning to stay in PDC the entire trip, it’s probably cheaper and easier to book a taxi ahead of time. If you wait until you arrive, the taxi rates are about 2x higher. Additionally, the airport taxi service is a cartel; for a taxi provider to offer pickup at the airport they must be licensed and participate in price fixing. This means they are all safe, but they are also all expensive.

If you are not planning to stay in PDC the entire trip, I recommend renting a car. The cost of a cheap rental car for two weeks is about the same as the cost of the round-trip taxi booked ahead of time. The rental car will need parking and gas, but if you want to leave PDC to visit the ruins in Tulum, cenotés, any of the Xcaret parks, etc. it will be less hassle to have a rental car than figuring out taxis/shuttles.

Where to stay in Playa del Carmen

I really enjoy staying near 5th Ave. It’s a touristy, multiple-mile-long pedestrian street jam-packed with restaurants, shops, cafés, street performers, and more. It’s a lot of fun, extremely walkable, and has easy access to just about everything you will want. It’s also only a few blocks from the beach for soaking up the sun and enjoying the ocean.

There are many options for airbnbs and hotels - generally I prefer staying at a small local hotel if the prices are comparable. I find that hotels consistently have much better hospitality and get the basics right, without any “gotchas” at checkout like on AirBnB.

Regardless of the place, if you stay near 5th ave you will have easy access to many of my favorite things to do in the area!

My favorite activities near Playa del Carmen

Hanging out on the beach is always a great option in Playa, but if you’re looking for more options the city has you covered!

SCUBA diving in Playa del Carmen

One of the biggest motivators for me to visit Playa del Carmen is the amazing SCUBA diving in the area. There is some good diving just off shore, only a few minutes away by boat. My dive operator of choice in Playa del Carmen is Tank-Ha, and they offer almost all of my favorite dives in the area.

If you’re willing to make a bit more of a trip out of it, you can take the Ultramar ferry to the island of Cozumel. Cozumel has some of the most pristine and impressive coral reef in the world, and I love the island so much I have a whole separate Cozumel travel guide!

Twice per year, Playa is also a popular destination for migrating sea life! In November and December, bull sharks pass through Playa just a few minutes off shore on their way south to bring in the next generation. The bull sharks are 5-7 feet long and not aggressive; the pregnant moms aren’t looking to start a fight.

In July and August, Whale sharks - the largest fish on Earth - migrate off the coast of Isla Mujeres. This is a lot further away, but well worth the trip if you’re in the area. Whale sharks beautiful and despite the name are not at all dangerous - they are filter feeders. The whale sharks feed at the surface and are a snorkeling-only event, no SCUBA training needed. As this isn’t a dive, you’ll need to use another operator for it. Beware of the Mexican Summer sun though; without sun protection it can burn you in as little as 5 minutes. Be sure to bring a UV shirt, hat, and reef-safe sunscreen.

If sunburn has you worried, I’ve got you covered! In addition the amazing reefs and migratory events, the area also has two of the four longest cave systems in the world, and many other caves to boot. Some of them have amazing and “impossible” things, such as underwater stalactites and stalagmites. These caves, called “Cenotes” in the area, are often in the jungle and out of the sun. Cenotes can vary wildly and each has its own unique character. Some of my favorites are:

  • Angelita cenote is a deep cave with a white cloud of hydrogen sulfide at the bottom, starting around 80ft deep
  • Casa cenote is a shallow, open cenote with a mangrove forest and halocline (where freshwater & saltwater meet). It also has swimming, kayaking, and other activities for non-divers
  • Kin-ha has a few stunning displays of stalactites and can be enjoyed as a diver or by swimming and ziplining and enjoying the jungle cave

Exploring the cenotes

In addition to SCUBA diving in the cenotes, they can be experienced for basic swimming and on ecotours. They are a beautiful natural phenomenon unique to the area, and absolutely worth a visit. They also offer a respite from the heat, as they are often much cooler than the rest of the region.

Aside from SCUBA diving, there are two great ways to see the cenotes: on your own, and on a tour. If you opt to go on your own, you have the flexibility to pick your schedule and cenotes, but have to figure out the logistics on your own. I recommend this approach if and only if you have a rental car.

If you don’t have a rental car, go for a guided tour instead. There are a variety of options, but it’s also easy to get scammed. If you’re willing to pay a premium for a well-run, legitimate operation, I recommend doing the xenotes tour from Xcaret. The tour includes four cenotes - one of each kind - and you get to experience them in a variety of ways including ziplining, swimming, and kayaking.

Ecoparks by Xcaret

Xcaret is a huge organization in the region, and with good reason! They have two top-notch all-inclusive-resorts and a variety of parks to explore. I really enjoy the parks and think they are very well executed experiences. Here’s a quick overview of them:

Name What to expect Tips
Xcaret park Mexican cultural experiences, an amazing topiary, and a variety of nature Book the cultural show in advance; it showcases cultural elements from across Mexico.
Xel-Há Water park with ziplines, swimming, and snorkeling The sun is brutal; be sure to stay covered to avoid a burn.
Xplor Zipline above the jungle canopy and drive along the jungle floor. Go before sunset, zipline around sunset, then enjoy the Xplor Fuego experience.
Xavage A high-adventure park with jet boats, rafting, and a rope course. Book the Xoximilco experience for dinner - it’s a Mexican party boat inside Xavage park.
Xoximilco A Mexican party boat experience with humorous guides and new friends. Make sure your social battery is charged up; this is communal dining with strangers.
Xenses Illusions that confuse and delight your senses. Don’t miss the Xpa experience and sensory tour!

If you decide to go to an Xcaret park and aren’t staying at an Xcaret hotel, book directly with Xcaret to avoid getting scammed. I suggest planning on spending a full day for all of these except Xoximilco (~3 hours) and Xenses (~5 hours).

Where to eat, drink, and be merry

Playa has a fantastic food scene, so I’ve done my best to cut this down to the few spots I go to over and over again:

Place Notes
Ictio Fish House Delicious spot with live music around 7pm. Don’t go too late, the neighbors are obnoxious
Aldea Corazón Unassuming from the street, the back of the restaurant is a cenote! Dine in a jungle cave
Moshe Cube The best Kosher restaurant I’ve found; everything is delicious!
Captain Sandwich Get the hot cakes and share them. They are huge and amazing.
Que Huevos A great casual breakfast spot.
Peace & Bowl Refreshing and delicious smoothie bowl spot with a cool cowork/backpacker sort of vibe. Stay for lunch or the whole afternoon.

Other miscellany

I really enjoy getting nice local art works to commemorate my trips, and in Playa that spot is always Sol Jaguar. They have the most beautiful alebrije I’ve ever seen, and carry a growing selection of gorgeous hand-embroidered textiles.