Ah, the age-old conundrum: Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun?
The two popular beach destinations in Mexico’s Riviera Maya have their unique draws, but how do you choose between them?
You see, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to two of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Mexico: Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
Both cities, located within the sun-soaked state of Quintana Roo, boast picturesque white-sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and a wealth of activities for visitors.
However, each destination offers a distinct atmosphere, attractions, and experiences that cater to different tastes and preferences.
Our team has spent a year living in Mexico (in Playa del Carmen, actually!). So, we have a thing or two to share as we compare these two destinations.
In this guide, we’ll compare beaches, things to do, nightlife, places to eat, places to stay, and average costs in both locations to help you make a decision. Let’s dive in!
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun Infographic
- Cancun: A Quick Overview
- Playa del Carmen: A Quick Overview
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Beaches
- Cancun Beaches
- Playa del Carmen Beaches
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Things to Do
- Playa del Carmen:
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Nightlife
- Cancun Nightlife
- Playa del Carmen Nightlife
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Restaurants
- Places To Eat In Cancun:
- Places To Eat In Playa Del Carmen:
- Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Accommodations
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Cost Comparison
- Average Costs in Cancun: A Budget Breakdown
- Average Costs in Playa del Carmen: A Budget Breakdown
- Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: The Verdict
- FAQ on Playa del Carmen vs Cancun
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun Infographic
If you want a quick overview of each destination, here’s a quick infographic comparing Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
Editor’s Note: Looking for other comparison articles? Check out some of our top guides.
Cancun: A Quick Overview
Cancun is a world-renowned tourist destination that is located on the northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Renowned for its bustling Hotel Zone and vibrant nightlife, Cancun has become synonymous with a lively, fun-filled vacation experience.
The city offers gorgeous beaches, extensive shopping opportunities, and world-class resorts which is why it is a popular choice for travelers seeking a relaxing getaway.
Cancun International Airport (CUN) makes Cancun highly accessible for visitors from around the world. In fact, the second busiest airport in all of Mexico.
Once you arrive at the airport, you can easily reach the city center or the famous Hotel Zone by shuttle, taxi, or rental car. The Hotel Zone, a 14-mile-long strip of resorts, restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues, is the heart of Cancun’s tourist industry.
Visitors seeking both action and relaxation will find a home in this oasis in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
Cancun is one of the most well-known beach resorts in the world. It also offers all-inclusive resorts, stunning Mayan ruins, outstanding gastronomy, and a variety of water activities.
Playa del Carmen: A Quick Overview
In contrast, Playa del Carmen, situated just 40 miles south of Cancun, offers a more laid-back, boho vibe.
Known for its charming pedestrian-friendly streets, boutique hotels, and eclectic dining scene, Playa del Carmen attracts travelers who desire a more relaxed and intimate vacation experience.
Although Playa del Carmen is as touristy as Cancun, it does offer a more laid back vibe, with quiet beaches such as Punta Esmeralda and Xpu Ha Beach.
One of the major differences between these two towns is that Playa del Carmen does not have an airport nearby. From Cancun International Airport to Playa del Carmen it’s around 35 miles (56 km) and takes around 1 hour to an hour and a half in normal traffic.
In this blog post, we’re going to dive into what makes each of these destinations special, comparing their attractions, accommodations, food scene, and overall vibes.
By the end, you’ll have all the info you need to pick your dream Mexican Caribbean escape. So, let’s get started!
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Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Beaches
Cancun and Playa del Carmen provide some of the most beautiful stretches of sand in the world when it comes to beaches.
Both destinations boast miles of pristine, white-sand coastline caressed by crystal-clear, turquoise waters that invite visitors to bask in the sun, take a refreshing dip, or partake in exciting water sports.
While Cancun’s beaches are known for their vibrant atmosphere and sprawling resorts, Playa del Carmen offers a more intimate, laid-back vibe, perfect for couples or those seeking relaxation.
Let’s explore the captivating beaches of these two seaside paradises, and discover which one best suits your dream beach getaway.
Before I go on comparing the beaches of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, it’s essential to be aware of the sargassum seaweed issue affecting the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Sargassum, a type of brown seaweed, has been increasingly washing up on the shores of the Mexican Caribbean coast.
While sargassum is a natural phenomenon, factors like climate change, and ocean currents have increased its production over the years. Checking with your hotel is a must so you won’t be disappointed with your trip.
Cancun’s famed Hotel Zone boasts a stunning 14-mile stretch of powdery white sand and turquoise waters that form the perfect backdrop for a day at the beach.
The lively atmosphere and abundance of amenities make these beaches a top choice for families and fun-seekers alike.
Among the most popular spots are:
- Playa Delfines, with its iconic “Cancun” sign perfect for Instagram-worthy photos.
- Playa Chac Mool, known for its turquoise calm waters and beachfront bars. You can sit back and relax here as it’s further away from the crowds.
- Playa Tortugas, another stunning beach of white sands and clear blue seas. You can also catch a ferry to Isla Mujeres from here.
Playa del Carmen Beaches
For couples, small groups, or those seeking a laid-back experience, Playa del Carmen’s beaches offer a more private ambiance. Although the main beach can get crowded, the great thing about Playa is that you can visit smaller beaches which usually have less people.
- Playa Mamitas is known for its lively ambiance, complete with beach clubs and water sports. It also provides a perfect mix of relaxation and entertainment.
- Playa Xcalacoco and Playa Paamul are hidden gems, featuring smaller stretches of sand, fewer crowds, and a quieter atmosphere.
It’s a good idea to reserve a sunbed or cabana in advance if you plan to spend the day at one of the beach clubs, especially during the busiest months.
Embrace the laid-back vibes of Playa del Carmen’s beaches and enjoy the sun, sand, and sea at these idyllic coastal havens.
Cancun beaches usually provide visitors with more amenities. Therefore, check before visiting beaches in Playa del Carmen to see what you can expect.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Things to Do
When it comes to unforgettable experiences, Cancun and Playa del Carmen have it all.
These vibrant destinations along Mexico’s stunning Yucatan Peninsula offer a treasure trove of activities and attractions for every type of traveler.
In these tropical havens, there are countless options for exploration and adventure. Whether you want to explore the fascinating underwater world, delve into Mayan ruins, or simply laze on a gorgeous beach.
Cancun offers a wealth of attractions and activities, catering to thrill-seekers, history buffs, and sun worshippers alike. Here are some of the top attractions in Cancun that should not be missed:
Archaeological Sites: The nearby Mayan Ruins of Tulum, Coba, and the world-renowned Chichen Itza provide fascinating insights into the ancient Mayan civilization.
Join a guided tour to learn about the history and significance of these impressive ruins while exploring the well-preserved structures.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling: The Great Mesoamerican Reef in Cancun is the second-largest barrier reef in the world! So dive into the crystal-clear waters and explore the vibrant coral gardens teeming with colorful marine life.
The nearby underwater museum in Isla Mujeres, MUSA, offers a unique diving and snorkeling experience amid submerged sculptures.
Cenotes: Discover the natural beauty of the region’s freshwater cenotes. This where you can swim, snorkel, or dive in the crystal-clear waters of these underground caves and sinkholes. Some popular cenotes near Cancun include Dos Ojos, Ik Kil, and Gran Cenote. Check out these cenotes in the Mayan Riviera for a full list.
Isla Mujeres: From Cancun, you can easily hop on a ferry and explore the picturesque island of Isla Mujeres. A few of the best things to do in Isla Mujeres is to rent a golf cart to tour the island and visit the many snorkeling spots. Also, you can eat in the many Isla Mujeres restaurants or relax on the pristine beaches of Playa Norte.
Playa del Carmen:
Playa del Carmen is the perfect base for exploring a plethora of attractions. It caters to adventure seekers, nature lovers, and culture enthusiasts alike.
The following are some of the top Playa del Carmen attractions you shouldn’t miss:
Fifth Avenue (La Quinta Avenida): This bustling pedestrian street is the epicenter of shopping, dining, and nightlife in Playa del Carmen. Stroll along the vibrant avenue, stopping at trendy boutiques, sampling local cuisine, or simply people-watching from a cozy cafe.
Cenotes: The Riviera Maya is renowned for its unique cenotes. It offers visitors the chance to swim, snorkel, or dive in these enchanting natural formations. Some popular cenotes near Playa del Carmen include Cenote Azul, Cenote Cristalino, and Cenote Chaak Tun.
Rio Secreto: Embark on an underground adventure at Rio Secreto, a stunning natural reserve that features a labyrinth of underground rivers and caverns adorned with stalactites and stalagmites. Take a trip to discover this hidden treasure and take in its stunning splendor. Click here to view tickets.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: Sian Ka’an, a protected region that spans numerous habitats including mangroves, wetlands, and coral reefs, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take an eco-tour to see the diverse wildlife of the reserve, which includes dolphins, sea turtles, and several bird species.
Cozumel: Playa del Carmen is only a short ferry ride away from the island of Cozumel. You can enjoy world-class snorkeling and diving in Cozumel while exploring remote beaches. Rent a scooter or bicycle to explore the island’s attractions.
To fully experience the attractions in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen it’s a good idea to book your tours and activities ahead of time, particularly during peak season.
Be prepared with essential items like sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and a reusable water bottle. It ensures to fully enjoy the many adventures that await in this vibrant Riviera Maya destination.
It is quite straightforward to travel from Cancun to Playa del Carmen too if there’s an activity you fancy in Playa del Carmen and you’re staying in Cancun, or vice versa.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Nightlife
In a nutshell, Cancun and Playa del Carmen come alive with a thrilling nightlife scene for those who enjoy a good party!
From pulsating dance clubs, laid-back beach bars, to live music venues and sophisticated lounges, these two tropical hotspots offer a diverse array of options for night owls and social butterflies alike.
Whether you want a wild night of dancing or a peaceful evening drinking cocktails under the stars, Cancun and Playa del Carmen’s nightlife guarantees a fantastic experience that will have you dancing the night away.
Cancun’s electrifying nightlife is renowned worldwide. It offers an exciting array of clubs, bars, and entertainment venues that cater to diverse tastes and preferences.
Here are some recommendations to help you experience the best of Cancun’s nightlife:
Coco Bongo: A renowned fixture of Cancun’s nightlife, is a must-see for its exhilarating performances, lively ambiance, and nonstop dancing. It’s a mix of tacky / awesome rolled into one!
This storied nightclub guarantees a night you won’t soon forget with top-notch DJs, breathtaking gymnastics, and live acts.
Mandala: Known for its unique open-air design and glamorous ambiance. Mandala is a popular spot for party-goers looking to enjoy the night in style. With a mix of international and Latin music, this trendy nightclub offers a dynamic atmosphere perfect for dancing the night away.
La Vaquita: The ideal location if you want a more laid-back and informal night out. This buzzing bar offers a vibrant, no-frills ambiance that ensures a good time with its open-air layout, upbeat music, and helpful staff.
The City: One of the biggest nightclubs in Latin America. It offers a variety of dance floors, bars, and entertainment on different levels. This mega-club promises a night of throbbing sounds and exciting fun with well-known DJs and performers performing on stage.
Playa del Carmen Nightlife
Playa del Carmen’s nightlife offers a distinctive fusion of hip clubs, laid-back bars, and live music venues that appeal to a range of tastes and aesthetic preferences.
Here are some recommendations to help you make the most of your nights out in this lively Riviera Maya destination:
La Vaquita Playa Del Carmen: Similar to its sister venue in Cancun, one of the best clubs in Playa del Carmen is La Vaquita. Expect to have a fun evening dancing the night away in this fun club.
Clandestino Roof Top: If you’re looking for a fun night out, another great option in Playa del Carmen is Clandestino. This rooftop bar offers fun vibes where you can grab a cocktail or two.
Tequila Barrel Casino and Nightclub: If you’re looking for a no-frills bar which has music, good American style pub food as well as a few Mexican staples, head to Tequila Barrel. It is a popular spot for dancing late at night!
The only significant difference between the nightlife in Cancun and Playa del Carmen is that Cancun might occasionally be more pricey.
The clubs in Playa del Carmen are also closer together too if you want to visit a couple of venues in a night. However, Cancun’s clubs tend to be more spread out and would require taking taxis.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Restaurants
Embark on a gastronomic adventure as you explore the diverse food scenes in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
These vibrant destinations serve up an array of flavors and culinary experiences. It caters to foodies, families, and everyone in between.
Savor authentic Mexican cuisine at local taquerias, indulge in fresh seafood at beachfront eateries, or treat your taste buds to a fine dining experience at upscale establishments.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen boast similarities in their offerings, with abundant traditional and international options to suit all palates.
However, Playa del Carmen’s smaller size and more intimate setting lend itself to a slightly more laid-back atmosphere. It’s perfect for leisurely meals and exploring hidden culinary gems.
No matter where your appetite takes you, the food scenes in Cancun and Playa del Carmen promise a memorable journey through taste and tradition.
Places To Eat In Cancun:
Cancun’s vibrant culinary scene is a melting pot of flavors. It has dining options that range from traditional Mexican eateries to upscale international establishments.
Cancun has plenty to tempt your taste buds, whether you’re in the mood for street food, a casual lunch, or a fine dining experience. I do have to say that a lot of the Mexican food is quite westernized compared to the rest of Mexico.
Here are some must-visit spots to satisfy your cravings in Cancun:
Lorenzillo’s: If you’re a seafood lover, Lorenzillo’s is famous for its lobster dishes. Situated on the shores of Nichupté Lagoon, this elegant restaurant offers beautiful waterfront views. It also has an impeccable service, and a wide variety of seafood options, including their renowned live lobster.
Tacos Rigo: If you’re looking for some local food, check out Tacos Rigo. A neighborhood favorite known for its delectable tacos, tortas, and quesadillas, for a casual and affordable supper. With a friendly atmosphere and generous portions, Tacos Rigo is an excellent choice for satisfying your Mexican food cravings without breaking the bank.
Navios: This charming waterfront restaurant serves up Mexican fusion cuisine in a beautiful setting overlooking the lagoon. Navios is the perfect spot for a romantic dinner or a leisurely meal with friends. It features delectable dishes like coconut shrimp, seafood-stuffed poblano peppers, and a tantalizing chocolate volcano dessert.
Street Food: Don’t leave Cancun without sampling some of its incredible street food. Tantalize your taste buds with tacos from a local stand, savor freshly-made tamales, or indulge in a sweet marquesita—a crispy crepe filled with your choice of toppings.
I recommend booking this Foodie taco tour in Cancun to discover the best eats in the area.
Places To Eat In Playa Del Carmen:
Playa del Carmen’s thriving food scene caters to a wide range of tastes, from authentic Mexican food to international delights. You can choose from expensive restaurants to more laid-back street-side eateries. So, you’re sure to find something to suit your palate.
Here are some top spots to indulge in the flavors of Playa del Carmen:
Oh Lala!: For an intimate and romantic dining experience, visit Oh Lala! This small, cozy restaurant is famous for its impeccable service and delectable international dishes, prepared using fresh, local ingredients. The menu changes daily, ensuring a unique culinary adventure each time you dine.
La Cueva del Chango: Nestled within a lush tropical garden, La Cueva del Chango is an enchanting spot to enjoy breakfast or lunch. This lovely restaurant is well known for its excellent chilaquiles, fresh juices, and traditional Mexican fare—the ideal way to start a day in paradise.
Street Food: For a quick, budget-friendly bite, sample some of Playa del Carmen’s incredible street food. Grab a tasty taco, a piping hot empanada, or a refreshing paleta (Mexican ice pop). These foods will be found from one of the numerous street vendors that dot the town.
If you want to see the best eats in the area, check out this Playa del Carmen foodie walking tour!
El Fogon: For an authentic taste of Mexico, head to El Fogon, a local favorite known for its mouthwatering tacos al pastor, sizzling fajitas, and generous portions. There will likely be a queue, but it will be worth it because this bustling restaurant delivers some of the greatest Mexican food in town.
The founders of this blog rave about the tacos el pastor in El Fogon and still dream about it consistently. You can try a variety of different types of Mexican tacos here.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Accommodations
From luxurious all-inclusive resorts and boutique hotels to budget-friendly hostels and vacation rentals, both Cancun and Playa del Carmen have plenty to offer.
Cancun is well-known for its impressive hotel zone. This where you’ll find a plethora of high-end resorts and hotels lining the pristine beaches. These accommodations often provide an all-inclusive experience. It caters to guests with an array of dining options, activities, and entertainment, all within the property grounds.
Some places where you can stay in Cancun:
- Live Aqua Beach Resort Cancun: This adults-only resort offers a luxurious and sophisticated escape. It has an elegant and spacious rooms and suites, multiple dining options, and a beachfront location.
- Nizuc Resort & Spa: Nestled on a secluded peninsula, this luxurious resort offers exquisite dining options, stunning accommodations, and a tranquil spa, making it the perfect destination for relaxation and rejuvenation.
- Le Blanc Spa Resort All Inclusive Adults Only: This luxurious retreat offers unparalleled relaxation and indulgence. It features a world-class spa, gourmet dining options, and elegant accommodations for the ultimate romantic getaway.
If you’re looking for more Airbnbs and Villa options, you can check out our article on the best Airbnbs in Cancun.
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen’s accommodations are more varied in their offerings. It ranges from all-inclusive resorts to charming boutique hotels nestled within the town.
These smaller, more intimate properties often offer a more authentic and immersive experience in the local culture.
Some places where you can stay in Playa del Carmen:
- Mahekal Beach Resort: This charming resort offers comfortable and unique accommodations in a lush garden setting. It has an easy access to both the beach and the vibrant Fifth Avenue shopping and dining district.
- Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort: The resort, which is in the heart of Playa del Carmen, has a beachfront location, a contemporary design, and top-notch amenities like an infinity pool and spa.
- The Fives Downtown Hotel & Residences, Curio Collection by Hilton: With its stylish and modern design, spacious suites, and rooftop pool, this hotel offers a chic and comfortable stay in the heart of Playa del Carmen’s bustling downtown area.
Have a look at our Best Hotels in Playa del Carmen for recommendations on where to stay.
Both destinations share a similarity in the availability of vacation rentals and budget-friendly accommodations, such as hostels and guesthouses. These alternatives cater to travelers seeking a more independent and wallet-friendly experience.
In terms of location, Cancun’s accommodations are generally more spread out.
Playa del Carmen’s options are typically within walking distance of the bustling Fifth Avenue and its many restaurants, shops, and bars.
Whether you’re seeking a lavish resort experience in Cancun or a cozy boutique hotel in Playa del Carmen, both destinations promise a comfortable and memorable stay tailored to your needs and desires.
With a vast array of options to choose from, the only challenge will be deciding where to unpack your suitcase in these picturesque paradises.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Cost Comparison
Generally speaking, Cancun can be more expensive. Particularly, due to its abundance of luxurious, all-inclusive resorts and its popularity as a tourist hotspot.
Playa del Carmen provides a wider range of lodging and dining alternatives. It makes it simpler for travelers on a tight budget to discover wallet-friendly solutions.
However, with careful planning and a keen eye for deals, both destinations can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. It allows you to bask in the bliss of Mexico’s Caribbean coast at a price point that suits your budget.
Average Costs in Cancun: A Budget Breakdown
Cancun, known for its luxurious all-inclusive resorts and vibrant nightlife, can come with a higher price tag compared to some other destinations in Mexico.
However, the cost of visiting this tropical paradise can vary greatly depending on your choice of accommodations, dining preferences, and activities.
Average Cost Breakdown
- All-inclusive resorts range from $150 to $600 USD per night.
- Mid-range hotels and vacation rentals cost between $50 and $150 USD per night.
- Hostels and budget accommodations typically fall under $50 USD.
- Upscale restaurant main course $20 and $40 USD.
- Local eateries are $5 to $10 USD per dish.
Activities and excursions:
- Popular tours can range from $50 to $150 USD per person.
- Adrenaline-fueled activities like zip-lining or ATV tours may set you back $100 to $200 USD.
- Expect to pay cover charges ranging from $30 to $70 USD, and consider purchasing a package deal that includes open bar access to help keep costs in check.
In summary, the average cost of a Cancun vacation can vary significantly depending on your preferences and activities.
By opting for budget-friendly accommodations, dining at local eateries, and being selective with your activities, you can make your Cancun experience more affordable while still enjoying the beauty of this vibrant destination.
Average Costs in Playa del Carmen: A Budget Breakdown
Playa del Carmen offers a more diverse range of accommodations and dining options compared to Cancun. It makes an attractive destination for travelers seeking a tropical vacation without breaking the bank.
Average Cost Breakdown:
- Budget accommodations can be found for as little as $10 to $ 30 USD per night.
- Mid-range hotels and resorts range from $50 to $150 USD per night.
- Upscale restaurants can cost between $20 and $40 USD per main course.
- Local eateries for $5 to $10 USD per dish.
Activities and excursions:
- Popular tours cost around $50 to $100 USD per person.
- Adrenaline-fueled activities like zip-lining or ATV tours may range from $100 to $200 USD.
- Cover charges at nightclubs and bars typically range from $10 to $30 USD.
- Many bars offer drink specials and happy hour deals, making it easy to enjoy a night out without overspending.
Overall, Playa del Carmen offers a more affordable destination than Cancun, making it a popular choice for budget-conscious travelers seeking to enjoy the beauty of Mexico without overspending.
With careful planning and smart choices, you can make the most of your Playa del Carmen vacation while keeping costs under control.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: The Verdict
Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer unique and memorable experiences for travelers seeking a tropical escape.
While Cancun boasts luxury resorts and a bustling hotel zone, Playa del Carmen offers a more varied range of accommodations and dining options in a charming and authentic setting.
In terms of costs, Playa del Carmen tends to be more budget-friendly, while Cancun can be more expensive due to its abundance of high-end options.
Your interests and priorities will eventually determine which of the two places you choose.
Cancun may be preferred by those seeking a more opulent all-inclusive experience, while Playa del Carmen may be chosen by those seeking a more genuine, cost-effective option.
Ultimately, both destinations promise beautiful beaches, delicious food, and an array of activities, ensuring that every traveler can find their perfect paradise along Mexico’s Caribbean coast.
FAQ on Playa del Carmen vs Cancun
Cancun is better for lively nightlife and luxury resorts, while Playa del Carmen offers a more laid-back vibe and charming atmosphere. While choosing between two destinations is a matter of personal preference, we compare both destinations in terms of food, nightlife, beaches, and accommodations.
In general, Playa del Carmen tends to be slightly cheaper than Cancun, but prices can vary depending on your choice of accommodations, dining, and activities.
No, Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two separate cities in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, each with its own unique atmosphere and attractions. Playa del Carmen is around an hour and a half drive away from Cancun.
Yes, Playa del Carmen is generally quieter than Cancun, offering a more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere compared to Cancun’s bustling and energetic vibe.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen are approximately 40 miles (65 kilometers) apart, with a driving time of around 1 hour and a half depending on traffic.