Consider this your greatest-hits list of the best Playa del Carmen has to offer.
Swinging yet serene, Playa del Carmen is the not-so-secret antidote to Cancun. The Mayan Riviera is the coast with the most and Playa del Carmen is its most eclectic destination. Combining rich Mayan culture, culinary diversity, year-round warmth, otherworldly subterranean swimming pools, and a gorgeous beach or two, this city might just blow you out of the water.
Previously known as Xaman-Ha or “waters of the north” in Maya, Playa del Carmen was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Cancun’s patron saint. What was once a sleepy fishing village is now a cosmopolitan city in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo where many come to meet the world. To be able to say you’ve visited this Mayan Riviera gem, tick the following scintillating experiences off your list.
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Begin at the Heart of It All
Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) is the beating heart of Playa del Carmen, which is affectionately called “Playa” by locals. Stroll along this pedestrian-only street to take in a conglomeration of tour operators, bustling bars, restaurants, clothing shops, live comic book characters, street performers, and well-stocked tequila stores professing to be museums.
Playa del Carmen is the largest (and fastest-growing) city in the Mayan Riviera but it’s still small enough to delightfully discover on foot. Quinta Avenida (or “La Quinta”) is Playa’s principal street paralleling the beach and a quasi baptism of fire that will get you pumped to start your trip.
Frolic in a Rooftop Pool
Escape to The Fives hotel’s elegant rooftop pool and have an artful mixologist whip you up a cocktail to accompany your sunset while you teeter on the edge of bliss. The Thompson hotel rooftop is similarly smart and is as good a location as any to take in purple and blue sunset hues in a cabana or the ivory in-pool loungers. The Palm at Playa is a hip boutique hotel that hosts pulsating pool parties, yoga classes, and even sound healing workshops at its resplendent rooftop. Over at BeRoof atop the BePlaya hotel, you’ll be swimming in views and the barmen always seem to have just the right music playing.
Go Cenote Hopping
Cenotes are natural limestone sinkholes that ancient Mayans believed to be gateways to the underworld. These highly photogenic freshwater pools are a pleasure to swim in and there are thousands of them in the Yucatan Peninsula (which is comprised of Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Yucatan states).
Each cenote has its own splendor. There are free and paid cenotes, open-air, semi-open and underground, public and private, some with cliffs for jumping, and others permit scuba diving excursions (Blackfin Freediving will help you out with that). Some wonderful cenotes to cool off at include Cenote Azul, Dos Ojos, Tajma Ha, Cristalino, El Jardin del Eden, and the Jurassic Park-esque Siete Bocas. Don’t forget to bring biodegradable sunscreen.
Hit the Beach Clubs
Playa is a tropical party paradise. Whether you’re after decadent day drinking or a slow session on swings, there’s a beach club with your name on it. Coralina Daylight Club attracts Playa’s glitterati and is the most upscale of the bunch. Expect show-stopping spectacles with dancers, boisterous beats, and even golden champagne spray guns. For prices that won’t scare the daylight out of you, choose Encanto Beach which has swings and the possibility of a delicious massage.
INTI Beach wins the award for most zen-like atmosphere given its past life as a holistic center while Zenzi Beach has palm trees with twinkling string lights and live music. Lido Beach Club is pet-friendly and has an utterly tantalizing menu and with a curved pool and pods dotted all around, and Mandarino is the one your Instagram account will thank you for. Martina on its namesake beach is a pool and beach hybrid and a Playa del Carmen icon. Sink into a beachfront day bed or retain a VIP area out back by the pool where the real partying takes place. Though you might want to stay and play till the stars come out, happiness ends there at 8 p.m.
INSIDER TIPNote that many beach clubs and rooftop pools require day passes or have a minimum consumption amount.
Fraternize With Rescued Reptiles, Toucans, Macaws, and Monkeys
Over in Akumal, there is a majestic flamboyance of flamingos and a dazzle of zebras as well as ostriches, wild boars, and a titi monkey couple called Frida and Diego. The Akumal Monkey Sanctuary started with the mission to save Mexico’s native howler and spider monkeys, which are protected and cannot be owned as pets. The sanctuary cares for a variety of animals received from closed zoos, illegal trafficking, and private collections. Bolster your animal kingdom knowledge with bilingual guides and cozy up to rare species like the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin.
If you feel like going for a dip after your experience, fortuitously, there’s a cenote right next door (Cenote Ma’ax) and if you dream of swimming with turtles, Akumal is the place to do it. In Mayan, Akumal means “land of turtles”. Head to oceanfront eatery Lol Ha for lunch and then find these sea beauties as you snorkel in the nearby waters.
Say Yes to Isla Holbox
Overwater hammocks. Sand that feels like crumbled butterscotch biscuits. Tangerine-tinted sunsets. Warm blue-green waters with hundreds of maze-like sand bars. Visiting Isla Holbox is a covetable pinch-me-now experience potentially culminating in a sighting of prancing flamingos at the ethereal Yum Balam biosphere reserve or swimming with whale sharks between May and September.
Holbox (pronounced hol-bosh) is a 26-mile-long island 20 minutes off the Yucatan Peninsula. Holbox means “black hole” in Yucatec Maya but bright days are on the horizon as you feast on the island’s famous lobster pizza, admire bioluminescent phytoplankton, pinch yourself repeatedly, and get around on two wheels or two legs. Besides refuse collection trucks, Holbox is car-free and WiFi is spotty at best. This laid-back paradise beats to its own (quiet) drum.
Dine Alfresco at the Monkey’s Cave
La Cueva del Chango (“the monkey’s cave”) deserves its own spot on this list due to the spectacular breakfast menu and for the chilaquiles. This is a traditional Mexican breakfast dish of tender fried tortillas in a red or green salsa. Have yours plain, with chicken, or gingerly garnished with eggs. Vegan options are aplenty, too. Don’t shortchange yourself by not venturing to the back, an outdoor oasis with quiet ponds streaming across, lush trees, and blowing fans for extra scorching days. As the name suggests, cheeky monkeys are often seen cavorting in the trees.
La Cueva del Chango is situated on 38th Street between Fifth Avenue and the beach, a captivating corner with many restaurants, each clamoring for your adoration and reservations with string lights and snazzy décor.
Take It Easy at Fusion Beach Bar
Playa del Carmen’s most celebrated beach bar offers DJs, live music, a nightly fire show, and the best arrachera burrito that will ever touch your lips. Take a pilgrimage to Fusion for feet-in-the-sand, under-the-stars kind of magic. Once you manage to snag a table, a pleasurable hypnosis will keep you fixed to that spot. Nobody visits Fusion just once. You’ve been warned.
Snorkel and Dive in Cozumel
Cozumel Island is home to the Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, making it one of Mexico’s most prized diving destinations. Serious divers in Cozumel swear by Deep Exposure as the go-to shop for technical diving there. Overtly opulent reefs for snorkeling in Cozumel include Palancar Reef, Columbia Reef, and El Cielo, which means “heaven” in Spanish—a slight giveaway of the underwater magnificence that’s promised.
This handsome island is a mere 40 minutes away by ferry from Playa del Carmen. There are two ferry companies that operate on alternate days, Winjet (which has orange branding) and Ultramar (the yellow and blue one). If you dare, try the love-it-or-loathe-it peanut butter coffee at COZ Coffee Roasting Company before leaving Cozumel. You can also find a bevy of reputable and reliable dive shops within Playa del Carmen such as Dive Point and Pluto Dive.
Day Trip to Chichén Itzá, One of the New Seven Wonders of the World
Mexico’s most visited attraction is only two and a half hours from Playa del Carmen driving. Chichén Itzá is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was named one of the New World Wonders in 2007. El Castillo, the Temple of the Jaguars, and the ball court are some of the monuments at this pre-Hispanic settlement. They grant a deeper understanding of Mayan culture and leave many awestruck.
You can rent a car and journey there independently but it might be worth booking a day tour that includes lunch, roundtrip transportation, fast track tickets, and an English-speaking guide to talk you through Chichén Itzá’s many secrets. Many day tours also include stops at Cenote Saamal and the Yucatecan pueblo magico (“magic town”) of Valladolid.
Taste Jamaica in the City Center
For Jamaican and Asian American couple Marvin and Stephanie, it was love at first sight. After vacationing in Playa two years ago, they returned home to Canada and sold their belongings to move to Playa and feed people. The result is Rockas Jamaican, where food is sourced locally and made fresh daily—nothing is carried over to the next day. You’ll hear deep cries of sorrow when the jerk chicken sells out—and it does. The ingredient-rich rasta pasta is also a firm favorite at this home-style Jamaican cooking spot.
Spot Mayan Ruins Right on the Beach
Where else can you appreciate Mayan ruins on a limestone cliff overlooking the sea? Only in Tulum. Once known as Zamá, Tulum is a popular tourist destination and a short bus, colectivo (public minivan), shuttle, or taxi ride from Playa del Carmen.
Despite its proximity, Tulum is worlds away from Playa in aesthetics and prices. “Tuluminati” is a colloquial term hatched to describe the robust population of moneyed spirituality seekers and boho-chic influencers that frequent the ritzy beach clubs and dining establishments, camera in hand.
INSIDER TIPFor day trips, renting a car is one of the best ways to get around but getting a vehicle on short notice can be difficult. Where possible, make reservations as far in advance as possible.
Explore Xplor and the Various X-Caret Group Parks
There’s fun for all the family at the different adventure parks and reserves owned by X-Caret Group. X-Caret (pronounced ish-ka-ret) is an eco theme park that could be viewed as Mexico’s answer to Disneyland. There are more than 40 attractions including a coral reef aquarium, underground river, archeological site, a beach, and a butterfly pavilion. The crescendo is the outstanding Mexico Espectacular cultural show which is presented each evening. Adventure lovers can rejoice at the X-Plor zip line park, Xel-Ha is a water park while Xenses is a theme park where you can fly, jump, swim, taste, and conduct head-scratching sensorial experiments.
Pose at the Pink Lake
People are surprised to learn that Las Coloradas, the bubblegum pink lake on the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula is, in fact, operated by a salt company called ISYSA. You can’t swim in it either. Many still find the journey worthwhile, however, just to lay eyes on a body of water this colorful. An actual swim is also possible at the nearby white-sand beaches.
INSIDER TIPTo immortalize your visit, bring your phone or most basic camera, as fancy SLRs aren’t allowed.
A trip to Las Coloradas can easily be coupled with a stop at Ek Balam, the Acropolis pyramid with dense jungle all around. Unlike Chichén Itzá, you can actually climb the façade to reveal outstanding views from the summit.
Jam to Bob Marley in Puerto Morelos
Make your way to Puerto Morelos where the barefoot chic Romarley Beach House awaits. Bob Marley’s son Rohan Marley is the proprietor of this waterfront venue that has a live reggae band every Sunday at 3 p.m. Park yourself in a sun lounger, mini beach house, or nest bed and promptly order yourself a passion fruit mezcalita (they make a mean one here). Puerto Morelos is a fishing village halfway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, so one may find hours-fresh seafood to accompany those sweet beats.
Sail the Colorful Caribbean Sea
The Caribbean Sea has long attracted odes from explorers, poets, and water lovers enamored of its deep colors, warmth, and the way of life it invites. Drink in the sunshine on a small boat, catamaran, or yacht and discover the true meaning of paradise. Sail to any of the turquoise destinations in Riviera Maya including Cozumel, Puerto Aventuras, Puerto Morelos, Cancun, or Isla Mujeres. At the latter, there is a blockbuster underwater museum with life-sized sculptures decorating the seafloor.
Sample Seriously Scrumptious Seafood
In Playa, there are a jillion places to eat wonderful seafood and juicy fish tacos dripping with spicy sauces and more guacamole than you know what to do with. Catch at the Thompson hotel rooftop affords scintillating views along with tasty treats of the sea like mahi-mahi wonton tacos, tamarind brown butter scallops, and a heart-stealing crispy shrimp. You can feast on the catch of the day at El Pirata where local fishermen bring in the goods each morning and you can see and choose your preferred fish. Chiltepín on 34th Street is perennially packed. The tuna burger here is excellent as is the mixed ceviche (and pretty much everything else). Dive into a generous gourmet tostada at Quinta’s Las Hijas de la Tostada or sample the mountainous seafood tower at Ojitos Mios, which is also on Fifth Avenue.
Test Your Knowledge on Tuesdays
Playa’s Tuesday evenings unquestionably belong to Laura’s Quiz Night. Visitors, as well as locals, flock to this fun trivia, held weekly from 6:30 p.m. at Buzo’s seafood restaurant where you are implored to sample the cheesy seafood molcajete gratin, served in a piping hot stone bowl. Come with friends or arrive alone and join a team to work your way through the rounds. There are riveting new questions every single week and you’ll never be short of chuckles.
Dance or Sing the Night Away
This wouldn’t be a Playa del Carmen ultimate guide without a nod to the throbbing nightlife because this city certainly knows how to have a good time. Most nightclubs are concentrated around Quinta and Twelfth Street including Coco Bongo which was once voted the best club in the world. Packed with endless performances, Coco Bongo is a Vegas-meets-Mexico music, dance, and light show with sprinkles of confetti thrown in for good measure.
Bar hopping is the way to go in Playa and only a handful of places have a cover charge. Palm-fringed rooftop club Clandestino is one such venue. For your party fix, visit Santino, a two-story club that caters to lovers of reggaeton and electronic music, a seemingly unfathomable combination. Salsa music boogying is available at Baton Rouge and you can burn the midnight oil at La Embajada long after most other places have shut. Tequila Barrel has dancers and entertainment but if you’d rather amuse yourself, belt out karaoke hits at the curiously named Los Olvidados (“the forgotten ones”) and La Cucaracha (“the cockroach”). These low-key Playa stalwarts exist right next to each other on Sixth Street.
Quaff Craft Beer
When you’ve had your fill of Dos Equis, Modelo, and Corona, move onto some quality craft beer courtesy of Mexico’s many breweries. You won’t find a wider selection than at Club de la Cerveza, which has indoor and outdoor seating and walls nostalgically affixed with international beer brand paraphernalia. Chela de Playa is an independent cervecería with a cool location just off Fifth Avenue with a parched cenote at its doorstep. Cervecería Chapultepec appears to have an outpost on every corner of Playa’s centro and its popularity is tied to its genius “everything’s the same rock bottom price” concept.
Embrace Huichol Culture
Forgo the wooden iguanas, charm bracelets, and kitschy miniature sombreros on Quinta and rather opt for meticulously handcrafted Huichol art. Mexico’s Wixáritari people, also known as the Huichol, are one of the most ancient indigenous cultures in the world. Tierra Huichol (Huichol Land) on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street is a visual feast of a gallery and store where you can appreciate and explore colorful Huichol art, symbols, and patterns that all have deep spiritual significance.
Fill up on Street Food
Who knows a city better than the locals? The parking lot by the Mega Soriana supermarket on 30th Avenue and 14th Street North has some mighty cheap and cheerful choices of street food. Investigate which truck has the most people sitting on the makeshift chairs and side stoops and then follow their lead.
Some of the food trucks have names while others simply display menus and promising slogans. Of the titled trucks, La Compa makes a sizzling quesabirria taco, and slightly up the road, the Belgian food truck La Frit serves frikandellen and Dutch bitterballen that are just as delicious as you might enjoy at a stalletje (little food stand) in Holland.
Make a Splash at Punta Esmeralda
Punta Esmeralda stands out among Playa del Carmen’s beaches due to one fun fact: it’s a cenote connected to the Caribbean Sea. The cenote waters flow directly into the sea forming a natural shallow pool. Far off the beaten path, Punta Esmeralda is on the north of Playa del Carmen past 110th Street. The water is warm, access is free, and, on weekdays, it might be all yours.
Paddleboard at Sunrise
For good vibes at sunrise, hotfoot it to Fusion Beach Bar where Aloha Paddle Club convenes to enjoy the sea on paddleboards. There are also morning and sunset sessions if waking up at the cock’s crow doesn’t quite appeal to you. Aloha is one of the top-rated water sports companies in Playa and their smiley, superstar instructors also lead private cenote paddleboard tours, surf classes, and supremely fun SUP yoga classes.
Groove to Live Music
Living la Vida Playa means being regularly serenaded by live music. This can be a gift and a curse depending on the volume of the music and your motivation on any given day. To happily drink up live sounds, check out Caiman or Fah, one of Playa’s first live music bars. If you like rock, La Chancla is your best bet, while Blue Coyote will tickle Cuban salsa lovers. Delight in mood-pleasing music, Mexican wine, and a cheese board at Off the Vine, Playa’s premier wine bar (and a popular date night spot). La Vagabunda’s special sauce is Mexican food with a twist and bringing in brilliant musicians. Both of its locations are worth a visit, if only for the tunes alone.
Timings and schedules for Playa’s live events are best tracked on Mexpats, a community created by local entrepreneur Rodrigo Sagastegui. Mexpats also runs a roving music session that travels to a new unexpected Playa location each month.
Lose Track of Time at Parque Los Fundadores
Coming full circle to where your adventure most likely began, Parque Los Fundadores at the very start of La Quinta is the city’s most recognizable landmark. This seaside park has a towering bronze statue titled Portal Maya which was placed during Playa del Carmen’s celebrations for the end of the Mayan long count calendar. Right by the monument, there are 20-30 minute performances by the Voladores de Papantla, aerial showmen performing a rainfall-invoking ritual hanging upside down from a sizeable pole. Aztec warriors also make an appearance.
Playenses (as Playa del Carmen residents are called) congregate here to let life slow to a crawl, watch the performers, have a nice cold beverage, and give themselves the gift of sunset. You should, too.