Playa del Carmen Mexico is a stunningly vibrant part of the Riviera Maya, located on the pristine Caribbean coast of Mexico. Playa, as it is affectionately known, is the perfect base from which to explore the fascinating sites along the Cancun-Tulum Corridor. Blessed with miles of unspoiled white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, coming here makes for an unforgettable time.
Having evolved from a small village of Mayan pilgrims, into a lively, cosmopolitan city with the highest urban growth in the country, Playa’s natural features, beauty, enviable geographical location and blend of sea and jungle make this destination on the Mexican Caribbean a magnet for both Mexicans and international visitors alike – you’ll never be left without ideas of what to do in Playa del Carmen
When the sun sets in Playa the fiesta begins! The evening offers a huge variety of options; every conceivable taste is catered for, from quick and cheap to five star fine-dining. The night clubs and bars open early and close late. The city is made for you to lose yourself in the balmy Caribbean nights and fill your senses with the sights, sounds, food and music that make up this tropical paradise!
Despite Playa’s joys, however, the city can also be relatively difficult to navigate if you’re visiting for the first time. Not to fear, as we’ve compiled a guide of our 15 survival tips for visiting Playa del Carmen.
1. When to go
The best time to visit Playa del Carmen is between April and May, when there are fewer people along the shore. Day temperatures always seem to hover between 70 and 80 degrees fahrenheit (21 and 27 degrees celsius), only dropping slightly in the evenings. From October to March, the climate is generally dry and slightly warm. Summer days and nights tend to offer higher temperatures and humidity. Hurricane season lasts from June to September, so check weather forecasts and hurricane warnings before booking your trip.
2. Entry and exit requirements
You’ll need a passport to visit Mexico, plus a tourism card (or FMM) that can be issued at any Mexican consulate, border-crossing point, Mexican tourism office or directly from your airline. FMMs are usually issued free of charge upon arrival (and if not, the price is absorbed into the cost of your plane ticket). Be sure to hold onto this card for the duration of your trip, as you will need to present it upon departing the country. It’s also a good idea to leave your passport and FMM in a secure location and carry photocopies of both documents with you at all times. For additional information, you can visit the U.S. State Department’s website.
3. Going through customs
Customs can be a whirlwind experience, be patient. But take note that you can get through faster by following these simple guidelines.
• You need the original prescription of your medication for proof.
• You can bring a pair of binoculars, one telescope, two cameras or video cameras.
• You’re allowed to have three cell phones, a GPS, a PDA, and one computer.
• You’re able to bring two items of personal sporting equipment, three surfboards (with or without a sail), a tent, and up to four fishing rods and accessories.
• If you’re bringing your kids, you can have up to five toys (in case of a set, every individual toy is considered an item) and one games console with five games.
• If you’re handicapped or elderly, you can bring items with you that reduce your disability (crutches, wheelchair, and so on.)
• If you’re 18 or older, you can have up to 10 packs of cigarettes, 25 cigars, or half a pound (200 grams) of tobacco. You can also bring six liters of wine and three liters of alcohol.
4. Getting oriented
Playa del Carmen is bordered by the Puerto Aventuras in the south and Puerto Morelos in the north. And because of its convenient location, you can easily access the town by sea, and by air – via the Cancun International Airport. A popular itinerary in the city is the ferry boat ride to Cozumel Island, more than 10 miles (16 kilometres) towards the east.
Elsewhere, city limits are dominated by tropical jungle. The area also boasts lagoons, mangroves, and inlets that are dispersed throughout. The city also used to be a focal point in Mayan history, and served as an important element in their ancient culture. Well-renowned Mayan ruins, like Tulum and Coba, are easily accessible.
One of the unique features of the city’s surrounding subtropical forest is the presence of many cenotes, which are also called sinkholes. These geographical features are iconic to the region, were central to ancient Mayan settlements and the development of their civilization.
5. Getting Around
Playa del Carmen is easily navigable on foot or by bike, as most of the best things to do in the center of town are located right off the beach.
The local ADO bus line runs comfortable, air-conditioned buses from Playa del Carmen north to Cancun and south to Akumal, Tulum and beyond to cities further away on the Yucatan Peninsula like Valladolid and Merida. The ADO bus company has two easily accessible locations in the center of town.
Most hotels are connected to taxi companies. They offer standard rates, so there’s no need for haggling on prices as they remain fixed within a specified distance. Hotels commonly post the rates at the front desk. Always pay using the local currency.
Rental agencies are plentiful on the north end of La Quinta as well as in and around the town center. Mexican insurance is required for all vehicles, including rental vehicles. When you arrive to pick up your rental you’ll be in for serious sticker shock. Mandatory personal liability and Mexican-based insurance could triple the original price. Driving in a rented car requires a valid license plus registration and insurance papers. Be sure to have all of them at all times, there are a lot of checkpoints especially on the federal highway of Tulum to Cancun. The town’s grid layout is pretty easy to understand and drive through, but unless you’re planning on exploring beyond the main Playa area, a car isn’t necessary.
From the airport, you’ll need to find a way to get to your hotel. You can either pay a taxi company or schedule an airport transfer service beforehand. Some hotels offer their own shuttle services as a benefit of your stay. Whether you go through your hotel or a third party, we strongly recommend booking a transfer beforehand and skipping the taxis.
Ferries to Cozumel Island
There are now two companies that service the crossing. Both ferry companies have kiosks near the ferry pier. Most people just show up and take whatever boat is leaving next. You can buy one way or round trip tickets. We recommend just getting a one way ticket and then buy a ticket when you are ready to come back. The ride is pretty smooth and most of the time there is clear sailing.
6. Where To Sleep
Playacar Hotel Zone
Playacar is directly south of Playa del Carmen. It could be considered a subdivision. There are several resorts that line the beach in Playacar and behind them is a pedestrian friendly road to use to get into downtown PDC or bike or walk around. Playacar is divided up into two phases, Phase 1 and Phase 2. Phase 1 is smaller and features mainly residential houses with only a few small hotels. Phase 2 is the larger section and includes a golf course, houses, condos, small shopping area and several all-inclusive hotels. The main entrances to both Phase 1 and Phase 2 are on the south end of 10th Avenue.
The beaches in front of Phase 1 and 2 are very nice because they are wide and not too crowded. They do have hotel guests on them from the all inclusive resorts, but don’t get many locals because it is more distant from public access.
There are no stores in Phase 1. In Phase 2 there is a tourist shopping plaza that even has a Starbucks. It is only for tourists though and has the typical souvenir items for sale. You can find many of the same things downtown and possibly find them a little cheaper, but it does come in handy if you are not wanting to walk around downtown.
Downtown Playa del Carmen
Most visitors want to be close to the action. This means walking out of your hotel to the beach or 5th Avenue. Downtown is very walkable and makes it possible not to have a car. Hotel choices range from boutique hotels to larger all inclusives. Many prefer the area from Juarez Avenue to Constituyentes Avenue and from 30th Avenue to the Highway. This area is where people mainly stay in more upscale condos and rentals. It is quieter than the center of Playa del Carmen yet walkable to 5th Avenue, restaurants and shops.
This is a good area to stay in if you want to take advantage of what Playa del Carmen has to offer. If you want to go out to restaurants or enjoy the nightlife, this area offers it all!
7. Where To Eat
What can we say – El Fogon is famous in Playa del Carmen. Not only has it been a favourite of tourists and locals for years, but it was even recently mentioned in the TV Series Master Of None as a ‘must try’ taco place in Playa del Carmen. And we agree – you must try it, especially the “al pastor” tacos and the “alambre” mix.
Cueva Del Chango
The setting alone will enchant you, encapsulated by lush tropical gardens. Here, the culinary concept is natural Mexican food. And they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. All the juices are made with fresh fruit and there’s a bar with an ample assortment of premium brands. The wines are Mexican, thus offering an ample selection.
If intimate restaurants and exquisitely prepared, international-inspired food are your thing, then Oh Lala is the place for you. Whatever you order, with options ranging from tuna steaks and lobster to spicy madras curries, every dish is as beautifully presented as you would expect and can be paired with a variety of wines to ensure you have a really top-quality dining experience. Booking in advance is essential, as the restaurant has a limited capacity.
8. Where To Shop
Great shops just off 5th Avenue
Many people don’t walk off of 5th Avenue, and it is a shame. Here, you can find handmade jewelry, locally produced art, and high quality crafts.
Calle Corazon Shopping Plaza
Right between 12th and 14th Street you’ll find a more high end shopping center. Here, you can find Lacoste, Michael Kors, and Swarovski.
Quinta Alegria Shopping Mall
This is a three story shopping mall. It is semi-enclosed with air conditioning. You can find clothing stores, a wine and spirits store and a Mexican department store called Sanborns. Boasting affordable options and entertainment at night, Quinta Alegria can be a great place to stop and watch some street performers.
Shopping at Plaza Playacar
If you are staying in Playacar you might not want to go all the way into town to grab some quick souvenirs. This is the place to go shopping for you.
Plaza Las Americas Mall
This is the larger of the two malls in Playa del Carmen. Plaza Las Americas Mall has a movie theater, food court, grocery store, one large department store and smaller boutiques.
Centro Maya Mall
This shopping mall is the smaller of the two. It has one grocery store, a food court, movie theater, shops and a popular City Club big box store.
This is probably the most iconic beach in Playa del Carmen. Simply walk down Juarez Avenue until you reach 5th Avenue, and you will see the gigantic ‘Playa del Carmen Arch’ right in front of you. As it’s so well known, this area can get pretty busy and a little noisy. However, as this beach is the widest in Playa del Carmen, it can fit all those extra beach towels and loungers, while still allowing for quiet spaces to relax.
Calle 10 Beach
There isn’t really anything special about the sand or the sea in this area of Playa del Carmen, but it’s the bountiful beach clubs that make it so special here. You’ll be absolutely spoilt for choice on Calle 10 beach.
You may not want to head to Mamitas if you’re looking for a nice, tranquil beach experience, but if you’re looking for energy, alcohol and electronic music, then this is your mecca. Between Kool and Mamitas, this beach is definitely party central. The DJs play all day long, the drinks flow freely, and there are plenty of sun loungers to go around. Both Mamitas and Kool have swimming pools in which to cool down.
As this stretch of brilliant white sand forms part of the protected confines of Playacar, it is generally better managed than some of the other public beaches in Playa. Seaweed is rarely a problem, as the homeowner’s association in Playacar usually have it cleaned up before you’ve even laid out your beach towel. It’s part of a residential area, so it’s quiet and clean, and there are no sneaky rocks under the waves waiting to stub your feet.
Coco Reef is the only beach in Playa del Carmen that can be described as secluded. There are no restaurants, no beach clubs, and no bars. Just the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, and the birds singing in the nearby jungle. Coco Reef is also the best place to snorkel in Playa. So be sure to bring your snorkel and fins!
Here are some tips to enjoy the beach the best when you are in Playa del Carmen.
• On the beach you will notice flags that work like traffic lights. Green means it is safe to swim. Yellow means proceed with caution. With a yellow flag, some water activities such as catamarans and kayaks will be suspended. Red means no swimming and all water sports will be canceled. There are not always lifeguards on the beach even in the all inclusive resorts. The currents can be quite strong and can change quickly. Please stay safe and pay attention to the flags.
• You need sunscreen. Even if it’s cloudy and you don’t feel like you need to slap it on, make sure you do – this way you’ll avoid the nasty side effects and won’t be stuck at the hotel cowering indoors and nursing your burnt skin for the duration of your stay.
• The temperatures can go off the scale, so staying hydrated is vital to keep you healthy while you’re away. Most restaurants supply bottled water, so you can get it easily wherever you go in the city – no excuses!
10. The Tours Are Incredible
The most exciting part about Playa is the variety on offer. You can go on a range of incredible tours in the area – from exhilarating adventures involving scuba diving, exploring the local Mayan ruins to unforgettable Playa del Carmen catamaran tours across the cerulean Caribbean waters.
The Amazing Secret River Tour essentially explores the Riviera Maya’s unique natural-crystal museum. In this surreal locale near Playa, you can observe natural history dating back millions of years as you hike and swim through a half a mile (0.8 kilometers) route full of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. You’ll experience true silence among some of the most dramatic mineral formations in the world.
The Turtle Snorkeling & Cenote Swim Tour will see you traveling into the subtropical rainforest of the Yucatan Peninsula and discover the incomparable beauty of some of the best cenotes in Playa del Carmen hidden deep within its impenetrable jungle. You will have the opportunity to swim in the crystal clear fresh water of these cenotes and admire the thousands of spectacular stalactites and stalagmites that line their fossil-filled walls and ceilings, and enjoy the unique opportunity of snorkeling with turtles in a nearby bay.
The Whale Shark Snorkeling Tour will see you snorkeling alongside these magnificent creatures, an experience not to be missed. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in our oceans and visit the region from mid June through mid September.
The Jet Surf Adventure forms part of the latest global aquatic craze among outdoor enthusiasts, sports junkies and beach lovers alike. Imagine a surfboard powered by motors engineered with Formula 1 technology. From beginner’s classes to pro-racing titanium boards that reach speeds of up to 40 mph (64 kmh), here there is something for everyone. Get out, get wet and get your adrenaline pumping as you Jet Surf on the turquoise blue waters of the Mexican Caribbean.
The Chichen Itza Ruins & Cenote Swim Tour will have you journeying into the Yucatan Peninsula to the ancient city of Chichen Itza, once a major focal point in the Northern Mayan Lowlands from AD 600 through to AD 1200. Now one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World it is a “bucket list” place to see. Together with delicious traditional food prepared by local Mayans and a refreshing swim in one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s spectacular cenotes, this is an experience not to be missed!
The Coba Ruins & Mayan Village Cultural Tour will have you experiencing ancient history and the modern Maya in transition all in one day. It all starts with the ruins of the ancient city of Coba, hidden deep within the jungles of the southern Yucatan, where the splendor of a bygone era is still clearly visible. Then on to visit two off-the-beaten-track villages to interact with local Maya, to learn how they try to create a sustainable work environment, to swim in their beautiful cenotes and to enjoy a delicious traditional meal prepared by the village people.
11. Local Customs and Culture
OHL Mayakoba Classic
The OHL Golf Classic at Mayakoba made golf history in 2007 when it became the first PGA tour event to ever be contested outside of the United States or Canada. Today it remains Mexico’s only PGA tour event and is regarded as one of the finest by professionals, sponsors and spectators alike. The OHL Classic at Mayakoba is building a strong tradition and a proud history. Legendary golfers and an outstanding course come together each year to create dramatic and exciting results.
Day of the Dead
Xcaret park honours this tradition that was declared a World Heritage by UNESCO in 2003. Each year the park holds the “Festival de Tradiciones de Vida y Muerte” on October 30th, 31st and November 1st and 2nd. During this celebration you can enjoy the traditional gastronomy of the region, typical sweets, Hanal Pixán rituals, workshops, crafts, offerings, theatre, dance and concerts. Visit Xcaret Park during this festivity and enjoy the Mayan world dedicated to the dearly departed.
Mexican Independence Day
Mexicans celebrate their country’s Independence Day with fireworks, parties (fiestas), food, dance and music on September 16th. Flags, flowers and decorations in the colors of the Mexican flag – red, white and green – are seen in public areas in cities and towns in Mexico. Whistles and horns are blown and confetti is thrown to celebrate this festive occasion. “Viva Mexico” or “Viva la Independencia” is shouted amidst the crowds on this day in Playa del Carmen.
The Jazz Festival
Jazz musicians are invited to play on the beach every November. Enjoy the sand between your toes as you relax and listen to the sultry sounds of great jazz against a backdrop of the glorious Mexican Caribbean.
12. Speak a Little Spanish
You’re less likely to look like a tourist, and get a better deal, if you negotiate prices or give taxi directions in Spanish (even if your Spanish is a little rusty). Many restaurants even have a separate, cheaper menu printed in Spanish.
The residents here also love to chat, particularly those in a working environment such as restaurants and bars. And don’t worry about making mistakes.
Here’s your go-to cheat sheet.
Good morning – Buenos días
Good afternoon – Buenas tardes
Good evening – Buenas noches
Hello – Hola
How are you? – ¿Cómo está?
Please – Por favor
Thank you – Gracias
Do you speak English? – ¿Habla inglés?.
Paying in Mexican Pesos can help you avoid high exchange rates in shops, and even get you a better price. There are bank machines all around the city that will let you take out money in USD or pesos.
The Mexican Peso is the national currency, although US dollars and Euros are widely accepted in most local businesses. Your best bet is to use Mexican Pesos instead of other currencies to pay for your shopping, dining out and other purchases as local business exchange rates are usually not good. Alternatively, you can pay with your credit card and be charged your bank’s exchange rate.
Peso bills come in 1000 (rare), 500, 200, 100, 50 and 20 denominations. Coins come in 10, 5, 2 and 1 denominations. Please note that although smaller denomination coins do exist, they are rarely used.
Most tourist destinations will accept your US dollars, but you will likely be paying a premium for the convenience. If you change your money into pesos, you will be getting a better deal. The exchange rates are not regulated, so each retail outlet will be setting their own rate if you pay in dollars.
Also, you will be less likely to be targeted for scams and shortchanging. Besides, you will be getting all of your change in pesos anyway, so using pesos means that you will only need to worry about one currency. The best way to get a cheap rate is to get some pesos from your local bank before you go to Cancun – most banks will do this for free and will give you the best available exchange rate.
Most stores and shops have set prices. You can do some friendly haggling in some arts and crafts markets, but don’t get carried away – most of the artisans are just trying to make a living. Some hotels are willing to negotiate rates with walk-ins, especially during low season.
14. Medical Services
Considered to be the best hospital in Playa del Carmen, Hospiten also happens to be the largest and has the most advanced care center in all of Playa. With that being said, you will also be paying high rates. English is well spoken here and this hospital is used to treating tourists and foreigners living in the city. Services and specialties include: emergency room, general surgery, pediatrics and pediatric surgery, dermatology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, diagnostic imaging, radiology, gynecology, internal medicine, trauma surgery, orthopedic surgery, urology and general medicine.
Another clinic that is very popular and offers locations in the Riviera Maya and Cozumel, the Costamed group offers excellent medical care at competitive prices. An advantage of this facility is that it provides bilingual medical consultations. Whether you require a general check-up, laboratory work or any aesthetic or dental procedure, this place is ideal as all of their clinics are centrally located.
Dentaris is a high quality dental clinic boasts more than 30 years of operations in Cancun and the Riviera Maya and the only GCR Awarded dental clinic Mexico for 2 consecutive years in 2016 and 2017. Offers a level of experience, specialized understanding and ability within niche dental fields such as complex oral rehabilitations, restorations and implant dentistry combined with honest, transparent treatments, explanations and pricing that very few dental clinics can match.
15. Things To Avoid
• When out and about, be careful with traffic. Although pedestrians have the right of way drivers and cyclists often do not take this into account.
• Like any other major town or city throughout the world, don’t travel alone at night and stick with at least one other person or a group.
• Avoid tap water where possible. Good hotels usually filter their water. Buy bottled water every time, although it may not be cheap.