Although I travel to Playa del Carmen often and stay a few weeks at a time, none of my family has ever been. At Christmas I asked my mother if she’d like to come as she loves the beach and Mexican food so it would be the best time ever.
My Aunt Margaret decided she wanted to join for the last week. And so I was excited but also realized I would be the default tour guide for them as neither had been to Mexico – and let’s face it the news (unnecessarily) makes Mexico seem like a scary place.
But it was also a great opportunity because they had so many questions. They were seeing the city for the first time and noticing things I take for granted.
So even though I was the tour guide, I made them work a little and share everything they noticed and what they thought travel to Playa del Carmen would be like vs the reality. Their three big takeaways:
- It felt much safer than they expected, like other tourist towns.
- Vendors calling out on 5th Avenue can be tiring after a while.
- Streets are easy to navigate with numbers.
I wanted to write this Playa del Carmen travel guide for people to see it’s such an easy destination.
Why Travel to Playa del Carmen
Canadians love the Mayan Riviera, it is our top sun holiday destination. Playa del Carmen gets a whopping 300 days of sun each year. The average temperature is 27C/80F.
When it rains it’s not long before the sun comes out. Hurricane season is September and that’s when you see the most rain. There are lots of flights in the winter season and they are pretty cheap.
Most people travel to Playa del Carmen thinking it is an all-inclusive destination. Or they don’t choose Playa because they would prefer not to stay on a resort for a week.
The good news is that Playa is so much more than just an all-inclusive resort town. If my mother, aunt and I had stayed at a resort for a week it could have been a costly week. Instead I wanted to show them we could stay in a beautiful place and enjoy the city.
Why Not Cancun or Tulum?
I have spent quite a bit of time in the Maya Rivera, even in Felipe Carrillo Puerto, where no one visits.
The three major tourist towns are Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum:
- Cancun has more of a spring break vibe, many people want to stay on the resort to drink as much as they can to get their money’s worth. Resorts are located in a hotel zone where tourists are segregated from the city. I prefer resorts where there’s no barrier to explore local culture.
- Tulum was once a hippie village. There is a large Italian community and foreign investment. It’s very instagrammable and lots of people from Los Angeles visit. Some say it’s like the Bali of Mexico as everything has been created for an instagram photo. Here’s what Midnight Blue Elephant had to say about visiting Tulum.
- Playa del Carmen is still a tourist beach town but I think its the best mix of the three. You can stay on a resort at the beach and never leave. Or you can walk a block and go to Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue) where everyone speaks English, restaurants have English menus and you can shop for souvenirs or buy beachwear. If you want to explore farther out, it’s still safe. The main supermarkets, Walmart and great Mexican restaurants are just a few blocks away on 30th.
Playa Del Carmen’s Culture is a Bit Different
If you have been to other cities in Mexico you should know that this region is not like the others. In most Mexico cities like Colima, Campeche or Mazatlan there is a historic area of the city, a main square everyone gathers around and a main market with little market stalls you can eat at.
Playa del Carmen has none of this.
Almost all of the development has been in the last 30-40 years. It was once a jungle with a beach front. Major development started on 5th avenue and it’s been growing like crazy ever since.
Many of the restaurants aren’t from the region but instead international, and Mexican restaurants often indicate that they serve food from the Sinaloa, Michoacan, Veracruz etc and many people who work in the resorts and restaurants are from other regions.
Is it Safe to Go to Playa del Carmen?
Canadians seem less afraid than Americans to visit Mexico. But still many travelers for their first time worry if Mexico is safe.
I’m not going to sugar coat my opinions on this. I don’t believe every country is safe. Crime in Belize City is out of control and I didn’t feel safe in many cities in Honduras.
But I do feel safe in Mexico. I would never let my family travel to Playa del Carmen if I thought there was the slightest chance something would happen.
I completely understand why travelers are hesitant because the news reports lots of murders in Cancun and Playa del Carmen. And they do happen.
But what they don’t say is that it is at 4am, far outside the tourist zone and people who were involved with the cartel. People are murdered every week in this region, but the chances of you being within kilometers of it are rare.
I really like the diagram above because my response to people is that if you are involved in drugs, prostitution, illegal gambling etc you are probably going to encounter people who work for the cartel. If you are a regular tourist minding their business you won’t.
There are LOTS of police on the streets in Playa del Carmen, especially on weekends and holidays. The worst thing that could happen to the region is that something happens to tourists and it becomes like Acapulco.
Mom and Margaret were initially taken aback by the police in full-on gear with their faces covered as you do not see that in Canada. But there is no need to worry. Often times police are just there to maintain a presence and discourage petty thieves.
The cartel makes money from tourism, it needs tourists to stay safe in Playa. And while I’ve heard that people are approached on 5th avenue to see if they want marijuana or cocaine, no one has asked me.
I guess I don’t look like that kind of person.
But maybe a group of guys in college – sure they are going to ask because tourists buy it. Drug dealers don’t waste their time, if no one was buying they wouldn’t be on fifth avenue. If you politely say no they aren’t going to try to convince you. They’ll move onto the next potential customer.
I don’t have an issue with people doing drugs but I don’t think you should do it in Mexico. It’s not worth the hassle. Weed is legal now in Canada and many US States, just wait until you get home.
Common Scams in Playa del Carmen
Whenever I go somewhere new I ask the front desk to let me know of common scams or ways people are robbed in a city.
Petty thieves are not innovative, they tend to use the same tricks on trusting tourists. Years ago I avoided getting robbed in Nicaragua because I knew of a very common scam. As the thieves were attempting to engage me I was prepared and just walked away.
For what it’s worth I have been robbed in Saigon (with my passport), robbed in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua (my fault for being on the beach at night) and my sister was robbed in Ecuador the first day she visited me!
But even she said it wasn’t that bad. It happened quickly. Most people who will rob you won’t hurt you. They know if they take your iPhone you’ll just buy another one so it’s almost victimless…except for all those photos you forgot to back up to the cloud.
This list is not to scare you. But to prepare you if you’re in this situation.
This is one of the most common scams from Rio to Rome, someone points out that you have ketchup or mustard on your clothing and helps you clean it off. While they do that someone else is pickpocketing you. Sometimes they will not help but point you to the washroom. There people are waiting to rob you.
If you have a condiment on your clothes for any reason other than you’re eating do not allow anyone to help you. Do not go to the washroom. Walk away and clean it later.
Tourists are far too trusting. Locals ALWAYS count their change. It’s very common not to get enough change back, even if it’s five pesos. You are not offending someone by counting in front of them.
This usually happens at the gas station. You give 500 pesos for gas and he quickly switches the bill to a 50 as it has a similar colour and tells you it’s more.
At the gas station or anywhere else try to give proper change. I always change my 500s at supermarkets or the local OXXOs when they aren’t busy.
Grab and Go
This is not a scam but something that more people are reporting. Tourists travel to Playa del Carmen and think it’s great to rent a bike for the day. They put all their belongings in their basket and someone comes along on a scooter and takes it all out.
If you MUST put things in your basket, make sure you tie it all down to the basket so that no one can grab and go.
I See Your iPhone
We are a culture that always puts our phone down to eat by our plate. On Avenida Quinta there is A LOT going on. Mariachi bands, fire dancers, crazy breakdancers. Some people have reported that there was a ruckus on the street while children were selling bracelets. They turned their head to see what was going on and when they looked back the children were gone along with their phone.
Also don’t put your purse on the back of the chair. You are inviting someone to take it.
Insurance Makes it Easy to Travel to Playa del Carmen
As I mentioned I have been robbed more than a couple times and I do recommend getting travel insurance. In Saigon they took everything from my passport to my DSLR camera within hours of arriving.
Insurance isn’t as expensive as you think, you can check rates here:
Because I had insurance I knew I was covered, bought a new camera the next day and had a fantastic holiday.
And while many people think insurance is for robbery or high-risk activities like kite surfing. It’s possible to trip on a pebble and break your arm.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
I find the first two questions people ask is:
- Is Mexico safe?
- Where is the best place to stay?
Most people travel to Playa del Carmen and stay in a resort. They feel comfortable with the all-inclusive knowing they may spend a couple thousand dollars but that’s it.
But Playa del Carmen isn’t like Cancun, which has a hotel zone so far away from the city that most people never visit the actual city of Cancun.
Playa del Carmen is a different vibe, many of the hotels are in the city on the beach. Other resorts have hourly shuttles to travel to Playa del Carmen for the day because people want to go.
But you don’t need to do a resort at all.
I have stayed at resorts, independent hotels, hostels and AirBNBs. For my mother and aunt I wanted them to actually experience Playa del Carmen. All of the beaches are public so we didn’t need to stay at a resort.
Instead I reached out to partner with BRIC rentals, which has over 150 vacation rentals over the city including this cute hotel room. We had an amazing two bedroom condo, with a rooftop pool, barbecue and view of the ocean.
This was our condo rental, called Kuxal 501. Here’s what we loved about this condo:
- Two bedrooms with balconies
- Four bathrooms (one for each room, one in the main room and one on the rooftop)
- Complete kitchen stocked with plates, stemware, cooking vessels
- Satellite television
- Wifi (not strong enough for streaming but good enough for email/ social media)
- Wine fridge (needed for sunset drinks on the rooftop)
- Rooftop with plunge pool, charcoal bbq, dining area, washer and dryer
- Full cleaning mid-week
It was on Avenida Quinta (5th Avenue) so we were close to everything. In the mornings Margaret would head down to the beach for a morning walk (yes it’s safe!) and we were only a few blocks from where I wanted to eat on Avenida 30.
Normally I don’t recommend staying on 5th Avenue because it is the main tourist drag. It can be VERY loud. It’s also overwhelming if you’re staying there for a while, after a few days the people constantly asking you to come into their store/restaurant or if you’d like a tour can be draining.
However, we stayed at 5th and 40th which is a very quiet end of the drag. If I wasn’t with Mom and Margaret they felt comfortable walking down 5th Avenue because almost everyone speaks English and they even popped into Las Hijas de la Tostada (the only place I will eat on 5th Avenue) on their own. They had no problem getting drinks and food without me.
When we wanted to go somewhere we just popped up a block and avoided all the noise. But it was still central, a block away from a 7/11 for snacks and wine for evenings on the rooftop.
Each rental has an “Ambassador” who basically just ensures that you have everything you need. One day our microwave didn’t work, when we returned from the beach it was fixed. Our Ambassador Ricardo checked in daily to make sure we have everything we needed.
What to Pack for Mexico
In addition to your regular sun holiday packing you should consider the following:
- Reef-safe sunscreen. Playa is across the water from Cozumel, the second largest barrier reef in the world (next to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). This one is also waterproof.
- Mosquito-repellent if you plan to go to cenotes early morning or visit restaurants near the water in the evening.
- A light long sleeve shirt. It’s hot in the day but cools down at night.
- Re-useable water bottle. To minimize single-use plastic I bought this LifeStraw water bottle, which can filter 1000 gallons or 4000 litres of water.
- Sun hat. I cannot emphasize how strong the sun is in Playa del Carmen. Freckles aren’t cute, they are sun damage. Sunhats can be expensive in Playa because everyone realizes they need one. If you do get caught a woman walks the beach selling the same hats the store sells at 1/4 price. The Panama Hat is trendy now and only $15 here.
How to Get to Playa del Carmen
You can either fly into Cozumel island or Cancun. In general Cancun is cheaper (but not always) and has better flight options.
I have flown into Cancun airport many times and I always take the ADO bus into Playa del Carmen. The current price is 218 pesos ($11.50 USD) and it’s just over an hour to reach the main terminal.
However, BRIC Rentals organized with Travel Yucatan that we take a shuttle to our rental. It was the first time I’ve done this and it was a far better way to start a vacation.
We met our driver at the ground transportation exit and we first stopped at a convenience store so we could pick up drinks for our hour-long ride to the rental.
Note: Airports in Mexico (annoyingly) do not have free wifi other than airport lounges. So don’t forget to download where you’re staying (you’ll need the address for immigration) as well as any contact information and instructions you need for accommodation.
I still take the bus when I travel to Playa del Carmen because I’m not on vacation. It’s definitely not as fun and when I arrive I need to schlep my bag from the bus station to my rental (which is often 24 blocks away, or a 30 minute walk).
To go back we did take the bus and it was less eventful than our shuttle. If I need to travel in the middle of the night I get a cab. Recently I used Playafast, you can book on Facebook or Whatsapp (+52 1 984 139 4008). When you book tell Miguel I sent you and he should give me a free ride 😉
Things to Do in Playa del Carmen
Although most people spend most of their time on the beach in Playa del Carmen there are a few things I think people should do in Quintana Roo (Playa del Carmen).
Cozumel Chef Food Tour
I met Emily years ago while traveling with journalists taking a food tour in Cozumel. I saw that even the touristy island had so much to offer.
Other people must agree because she’s expanded to Playa del Carmen and now has staff. I booked the tour for my mother’s second day in Playa del Carmen. I like taking food tours right away because it helps orient you in the city and I like to monopolize the guide’s time by asking for more suggestions on where to eat.
Xantal was an amazing guide and took us to four places I love and recommend and two I did not know about. You could go to all of these places on your own but Xantal knows the backstory for each place, how things are made and points out little things you wouldn’t notice.
We also went to one of the best markets for local ingredients where Xantal shared the different kinds of dried peppers and other local fruit and vegetables.
It was a great way for my mother to become comfortable walking outside the main tourist zone of the city and try some traditional dishes. She loved it so much she was sad my aunt wasn’t there for it.
You can book the tour here. It includes far more food and drink than you can consume. If you can only do one thing I would do this tour and I would do it early as possible on holiday.
Playa del Carmen Dining Experience
We wanted to do something fun and different in Playa del Carmen. The Dining Experience offered two complimentary tickets for free and 20% off the third ticket.
It is an interactive communal dinner that started as a puerta cerrada in Buenos Aires and has now locations all over the world.
If you’re staying on a resort it’s a great way to get out and have a fun evening. You make a cocktail in the beginning and learn about local spirits like pox. It was great that my mother and aunt were able to try more local food like cochinita pibil and mezcal.
I wouldn’t rave about the experience as we thought our host would be more interactive in keeping guests talking but after the cocktails he usually left between courses. We were lucky in that we had great people sitting around us so we kept the conversation going.
I think with the right host it could be really fun. You can book a tour in either Tulum or Playa del Carmen here.
Cenotes are basically sink holes that exist all over the Yucatan Peninsula. They were worshipped by the Mayan who performed sacrifices in some of them. Today they are used as swimming and diving areas.
There are about 6000 cenotes in the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Some of them have been developed for tourists and locals to easily visit with ladders, stairs and walkways. There are entrance fees for these cenotes and they are usually run by the local Mayan community (yes Mayans still exist, they were not killed off like the Inca or Aztecs).
Other cenotes are random spots all over the region. I’ve been to some that neighbours have put up a ladder for people to enter and exit but otherwise it’s at your own risk.
As it was the first time to travel to Playa del Carmen I wanted to go to the easiest and closest cenote – which is Cenote Azul. It’s one of the easiest to enter for people of varying abilities.
It’s only 15 minutes from Playa del Carmen, it’s not in a cave and has platforms to walk everywhere. There is a shallow end which is great for kids and it’s also possible to jump off a small cliff. Entrance is $120 pesos $6.30 USD).
There are washrooms, a changing room and a small snack bar.
Get here early as it is very popular and becomes crowded. There are tours but we took a colectivo for $1.50 USD each way. You do have to cross the highway to go back but colectivos keep an eye out for people leaving and will stop and wait for you to play frogger across the highway.
Playa del Carmen Beach Clubs
If you want to spend the day sipping cocktails on a lounger at the beach then it’s a good idea to hit a beach club. They usually have a minimum charge that is consumable. For example we visited Lido Beach Club, which has a 250 peso ($13 USD) minimum per person. But that’s easy after a couple cocktails in the sun with shrimp tacos.
Prices and vibe vary, some are more expensive and others are more of a party. You can check out the other beach clubs here.
Playa del Carmen Day Trips
Also known by locals as Chunyaxché, this Mayan ruin is one of the oldest (350 BC) and longest inhabited sites in the Yucatan.
Muyil (moo-yil) is located at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. It’s just over 9 miles (15 km) south of Felipe Carillo Puerto and not far from the Coba ruins. It’s an easy afternoon trip to visit the ruins, which are overlooked by many tourists and therefore not crowded. Those who have been to Tikal in Guatemala will notice a similar structured pyramid with stairs to the top.
You can combine the trip with a visit to the Sian Ka’an Lagoon, one of the most unique experiences I have encountered. A boat takes you through a stunning mangrove, where you jump out wearing a lifejacket and the flow of the canal will take you on a leisurely ride. Few people know about this and soon it will be a must-visit experience in the Riviera Maya.
Sian Ka’an Mangrove Tour
This biosphere reserve is on the back of Muyil, you just need to walk 10 minutes to get to the mangrove area. I first visited two years ago when the entrance fee was $20 USD. The fee has increased to $40 USD but completely worth it.
Thirty years ago it became a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the largest conservation areas in Mexico. It is also completely run by the local Mayan community so all fees go directly to them.
One of the most unique tours I’ve ever been on my Mother and Aunt didn’t know what to expect but trusted me. You take a boat ride through the mangroves, the region was once the pathway from the mainland to the sea and has paths just big enough for boats to pass through.
At the end you get out, put your life vest on as a diaper and jump in the water. The current allows you to float down the river, through the mangrove for 45 minutes as your guide points out animals and plants.
This is something you can only do in the Maya Rivera.
The easiest way is to take a day tour from Playa del Carmen. Sian Ka’an Mangrove tours that begin at $150 USD and include the Muyil Ruins, you could probably negotiate to $100 USD. As I’m familiar with getting around we took a colectivo out toward Tulum, which let us off at the entrance. To leave I flagged down a bus.
I was a bit nervous that I’d have a hard time getting back. I didn’t want my family to wait in the hot sun but a bus stopped immediately.
You could take a rental car but we didn’t want to worry about getting lost.
Hands down one of the most beautiful places in the Rivera Maya, this trip is a bit far and may require an overnight visit.
Bacalar is on the way to the Belize Border. Lake Bacalar is called the Lagoon of Seven Colours because of its striking hues that change as you pass from the shore over sinkholes.
There is no beach here, which means you tend not to get a lot of big bus tours here. It is possible to get a day tour from Playa del Carmen or take an ADO bus.
Restaurants and hotels are very reasonably priced as they often serve Mexicans rather than international tourists.
Chacchoben Mayan Ruins
It’s name means place of the red corn, and this Mayan site is very popular with cruise ships but it’s easily visited independently. If you get there early you’ll miss all the tourists.
Structures dating back to 700AD, the site is located in the jungle and features three restored pyramids and a number of partial ruins. You can climb the Gran Basamento to reach two of the temples. Many of the ruins are still untouched or in the process of excavation.
Mahahual also known as Majahual
One of my favourite towns, many people say that Mahahual is what Tulum used to be before tourism took over and it became a bohemian haven for tourists from Los Angeles.
The town is changing rapidly as there is a new cruise ship dock and so masses of tourists flood the town at one time. While there are many shops and restaurants that have been built specifically for the passengers it’s still possible to avoid these tourist traps.
Food and accommodation remain reasonable, especially when the ships aren’t in port. Locals selling jet ski and quad bike rides can be aggressive at times, but it’s much quieter as you head south.
Not my favourite city in the region, as it’s flooded with tourists but it is one of the most popular things to do in Mexico. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as I do like Playa del Carmen, I just don’t vibe with the town.
That said, it’s worth visiting to decide for yourself. It has beautiful beaches and ruins that overlook the turquoise waters. I found the Tulum ruins to be underwhelming, but that’s just me. There are also a number of cenotes nearby and opportunities for cave dining. As well you’re close to the Coba and Muyil ruins.
Valladolid is three hours away but there are no crowds. If you’re looking for a traditional Mexican town with a main square, market and history this is the best day trip from Playa del Carmen.
Built by the Spanish it’s an interesting mix of colonial architecture with a strong Maya influence.
It’s becoming more popular with independent travellers as it’s a great hub for a number of cenotes along with Chichen Itza and tour prices are generally cheaper than Playa del Carmen. If you have your heart set on Chichen Itza it’s best to stay here overnight, otherwise you’re on the bus for 6 hours (3 hours to Chichen Itza and 3 hours to travel to Playa del Carmen).
Most people stay the night and move on but I think Valladolid is worth a few days.
Most people just call them the pink lakes and many people will try to sell you a tour. While you can reach the area on your own, you cannot enter without a tour guide.
The pink colour is caused by local shrimp. The water is highly salinated so when they enter they die and release a bacteria that changes the colour. It is a great spot to catch Caribbean flamingos during the early morning and evening feasting on these shrimp.
The trick is that you need to go on a very sunny day. If it is raining the lakes won’t be pink so check the weather!
Favourite Playa del Carmen Restaurants
I have written TONS about Mexican food so it’s best to check out these posts
- Playa del Carmen Vegetarian and vegan restaurants ( I swear omnivores like them too!)
- Antojitos – Mexican snacks you can find in Playa del Carmen
I am also currently updating this post on Playa del Carmen restaurants but here is where I took my family:
- Las Hijas de la Tostada – the ONLY place I’ll eat on 5th Avenue
- El Pirata
- Taco park (taco trucks at Avenida 15 and Benito Juarez)
- Ah Cacao (coffee and tea)
- Tacos y Birria
- Taqueria Viva Mexico
- Don Sirloin
- La Florestra for shrimp tacos
- La Purpecha for paletas (Mexican popsicles)
- Pozoleria Mi Abuelita for pozole
Tipping in Playa del Carmen
It is illegal in Mexico to add anything to the price of the menu at a restaurant. Taxes are always included in the menu price. At times an itemized bill may break it out to show you what you paid in taxes but taxes cannot be additional.
Remember, always check your bill. Locals do.
The photos above outline diner’s rights. I included it in English and Spanish if you want to download them on your phone. All restaurants are aware of this. However, even big established restaurants on 5th will add it. When I look at the bill I point and ask if the charge is the propina , or the tip and they will nod sheepishly. Normally its only 15% so I just pay.
However, many tourists don’t inspect the bill and tip on top of the tip.
At all inclusive hotels you can use USD for tips. It is pretty common to tip bag handlers, room service and housekeepers in dollars.
Tipping at bars is much smaller then you might expect back home. But 10-20 pesos a drink for cocktails is good. For beer, no tip is necessary unless you drink several.
Playa del Carmen FAQ
As my Mother and Margaret sent questions I kept tabs knowing these would be common. Here’s what you need to know to travel to Playa del Carmen.
Will my phone charger work?
Mexico uses the same outlet and power as the United States and Canada.
Do I need special immunizations?
Check with your doctor. However, in general you should be up to date with Hep A and B shots (also known as Twinrix), tetanus, typhoid and rabies. My aunt also got the “travelers diarrhea” pill. My mother did not. None of us got sick.
However, I do always travel with Pepto-Bismol. They were once an amazing sponsor of some of the content on my site (such as How to Avoid Delhi Belly When You Want to Eat Everything) and even though they are no longer a sponsor I still ALWAYS have it on me. If you forget it don’t fear, you can buy it in Mexico.
Can I drink the water in Playa del Carmen?
Can I use my phone in Mexico?
Likely yes. But you may have crazy roaming charges. Call your carrier to find out if they have a flat rate for being in Mexico. I use Koodo and it costs me $12/day (Canadian) to use my data while in another country.
There is wifi everywhere in Playa del Carmen so unless you need to use your phone it’s a good idea just to vacation with wifi. You won’t be able to host an Instagram live from the cenote but you’ll have a much better time.
Can I pay in US Dollars or Canadian Dollars?
There are signs posted everywhere with a USD exchange rate. You won’t get a good rate so it’s up to you.
You do not have to bring Mexican pesos with you. There are ATMs everywhere. Do not use the random ones on the street as they are often compromised, but go to a bank. HSBC, Scotiabank and various Mexican banks will take your debit card and dispense pesos for you at a better exchange rate. Just be aware of fees and take out more than you think you need.
Can I use my credit cards?
Stores on 5th Avenue, 711, Oxxo convenience store, Wal-mart, supermarkets, pharmacies and larger stores do take credit cards if you have a PIN.
Visa is more widely accepted than Mastercard and American Express.
Some stores like H&M, Old Navy etc ask that you show your passport or a piece of ID. I don’t like to walk around with my passport so I take a photo of my passport show it on my phone. A drivers license also works.