26 Ultimate Things to Do in Playa del Carmen

  • 26 Ultimate Things to Do in Playa del Carmen

    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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

    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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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