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  • Playa-del-Carmen-Tulum2 - The Mayan ruins of Tulum, south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • portal-maya-playa-carmen-mexico - The Portal Maya was erected in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to mark the end of the Mayan calendar on Dec. 21, 2012. The rings derive from an ancient Mayan ball game.
  • Playa-del-Carmen-Chikin-Ha-Park-zip - Ziplining in Chikin Ha Park near Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • beach-playa-del-carmen-mexico-2 - The beach at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in late afternoon.
  • Playa-del-Carmen-zipline - A zipline tour near Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • beach-playa-del-carmen-mexico - Winter break on the beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
  • Morph-Kiteboarding - A kiteboarder catches some air along the coast of Mexico. Try it or just watch at Morph Kiteboarding in Tulum or El Cuyo, Yucatán.
  • Morph-Kiteboarding-4 - A woman preps for a kitesurfing outing in Mexico. Try it at Morph Kiteboarding in Tulum or El Cuyo, Yucatán.
  • Playa-del-Carmen-Tulum1 - The Mayan ruins of Tulum, south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • Kool-Beach-Club-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Stop by Kool Beach Club in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, for a cool one.
  • Rio-Secreto1-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Rio Secreto is an unusual underground river that you can explore in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • Rio-Secreto2-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Rio Secreto is an unusual underground river that you can explore in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • Rio-Secreto4-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Rio Secreto is an unusual underground river that you can explore in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • maya_tulum_playa_del_carmen_mexico.jpg - Tourists visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum near Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • Chichen-Itza-Castillo.jpg - The Mayan pyramid El Castillo at Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan, Mexico.
  • Chichen-Itza-Centore-Sagrado.jpg - Cenote Sagrado in Chichen Itza, Mexico. It's roughly a two-hour drive from Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen.
  • Chichen-Itza-Warriors.jpg - The Warriors at Chichen Itza, a day trip from Cancun, Mexico.
  • woman-sunbather-mexico.jpg - Soak in the rays on the beaches of Mexico.
  • crab-mexico-beach.jpg - A crab spotted on the beach in Mexico.
  • seashells.jpg - Colorful seashells spotted on the beach.
  • jetski-rider.jpg - A jetski rider makes some waves in the Caribbean.
  • beach-cocktail.jpg - Beach + tropical cocktail = the perfect way to unwind.
  • mexico-wakeboarding.jpg - If you're game, try the sport of wakeboarding and perform some acrobatic maneuvers while trailing a speedboat.
  • Morph-Kiteboarding-7 - A kiteboarder catches some air along the coast of Mexico. Try it or just watch at Morph Kiteboarding in Tulum or El Cuyo, Yucatán.
  • Morph-Kiteboarding-2 - Ever want to try kiteboarding? It's a new extreme sport that combines windsurfing, paragliding and wakeboarding.
  • Morph-Kiteboarding-fish-eye - A kiteboarder waits for her turn on the beach in Mexico.
  • Morph-Kiteboarding-5 - A kiteboarder glides across the surf in Mexico.
  • Playa-del-Carmen-Tulum3 - God of Winds temple in Tulum, Mexico.
  • Indigo-Beach-Club-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Indigo Beach Club in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
  • Kantun-Chi1-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Kantun Chi, south of Playa del Carmen, is an ecological park caves and cenotes located in the heart of Mexico's Riviera Maya.
  • Kantun-Chi3-Playa-del-Carmen.jpg - Kantun Chi, south of Playa del Carmen, is an ecological park caves and cenotes located in the heart of Mexico's Riviera Maya.

Playa del Carmen travel guide: What do do & see

our guide

The vibe

Playa del Carmen, the wild heart of the Riviera Maya, isn’t a port of call for large cruise ships,  but it is a popular day-trip destination for ships docking at Cozumel, 12 miles offshore, and at Calica, a small port five miles south.

Baby boomers who visited in the 1970s or even 1980s will remember Playa as a laid-back, Jimmy Buffet-style destination with lots of palapa bars along the waterfront and a string of simple hotels catering to budget travelers from all over the world. 

It’s a bustling city now, with traffic to match and a European-infused party scene as trendy (or shall we say wild?) as any in Mexico.

But serenity is to be found if you seek it, and along the waterfront, in the colorful neighborhoods, and in the bright bougainvillea that seems to drape every wall. Wherever you go, a crowd-pleasing tropical ambiance prevails.

Cruise ships that call on Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen has a shallow reef so nearly all ships dock at Cozumel and passengers ferry over. See the ships that call on Cozumel.

Top reasons to go

  • Happening beach scene and lively party culture
  • Excellent shopping
  • Jumping-off point for excursions up and down the Riviera Maya

Top things to do & see in Playa del Carmen

Top beaches

You’re “at the beach” the minute you step off the ferry. Public beaches run to the north, private resort beaches to the south.

Party types who like a heavy dose of house music with their sun and sand head for Kool Beach Club on Mamitas Beach. Nearby is the American owned Blue Parrot Hotel and Beach Club, synonymous with the Playa beach experience since 1984 and featuring live music many nights. Many other “beach clubs” are sprinkled along the city’s waterfront. Keep walking to find one that strikes your fancy, and be prepared to pay to rent a chair.

The beach at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in late afternoon.
Jesús Dehesa / Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0The beach at Playa del Carmen, Mexico, in late afternoon.

South of the ferry dock, in the Playacar golf-resort district, beach facilities are reserved for hotel and condo guests, and most restaurants are not open to the public. Your ship may offer an all-inclusive day pass; if this is your cup of tea, be sure to inquire.

Excursions

Cruise passengers have only five or six hours to spend in Playa, so it’s essential to plan accordingly when it comes to excursions. Visits to Maya ruins are heavily marketed, but think twice. The seaside ruins at Tulum, for example, are about an hour away, but your visit will take place during the hottest part of the day. In summer, oppressive  heat and humidity will compromise your fun.

Water sports

Snorkel trips to the natural aquarium at Akumal, 30 minutes south of Playa, or to other nearby destinations, are a rewarding choice. Water clarity is best in winter, but any calm day will offer a great experience. Playa has many options for sailing trips and party cruises, too

3D Museum of Wonders

At the new 3D Museum of Wonders, visitors can figuratively step into the interactive artwork created with 3D illusions as a museum employee guides you through each whimsical display. Snap photos at exactly the right angle to make it look as though you're tightrope-walking across a suspension bridge, descending into a London Underground station alongside Lewis Caroll’s beloved literary characters or playing a game of poker with a brood of smartly dressed pooches.

Theme parks

  • Many natural caverns, lagoons, cenotes (limestone sinkholes) and other natural attractions along the Riviera Maya have been gussied up, theme-park style, to accommodate the tens of thousands of tourists who visit every year. They’re all pricey, but the good news is that developers got it right for the mainstream American market, with high-quality facilities, entertainment and experiences that get enthusiastic ratings overall.
  • Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-ha), a natural aquarium park about 40 minutes south of town, is one such deservedly popular spot. The natural setting is undeniably gorgeous, and many activities are available, from snorkeling and rafting to swimming with dolphins and, of course, eating and drinking the day away.
The Aquarium at Xcaret Park near Playa del Carmen.
Ricardo Espinosa / Courtesy of Mexico Tourism Board The Aquarium at Xcaret Park near Playa del Carmen.
  • Xcaret (eesh-kar-et), billed as an “eco-archaeology” park, is another good choice for families. Think of it (in a good way) as a kind of Mexican Disneyland with entertainment, cultural attractions, animal shows, water activities and more. The adjacent Xplor park, under the same management, features zip-lines, amphibious vehicles and rafting and swimming in an underground river.
  • Visitors who gravitate toward organized adventure will enjoy donning wet suites for a guided hike through Rio Secreto, an underground river that flows through stunning caverns hung with millions of fragile stalactites. (Enjoy and be appalled at the same time: this is something that would never be allowed back home.) 
  • Another popular cenote park is Hidden Worlds Family Cenote Adventure Park, featured in the Imax film “Journey into Amazing Caves.” Among activities offered here are “sky cycle” tours, zip-lining, jungle hikes, guided snorkeling tours, monkey-habitat tours and scuba-diving in a nearby cenote said to be spectacular.

Shopping

Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), also referred to simply as La Quinta, is Playa’s main shopping street, a see-and-be-seen pedestrian promenade where a dedicated shopaholic can spend an entire day cruising the stylish boutiques and jewelry stores and nipping into one trendy restaurant or bar after another. If your budget can stand the temptations, head to Playacar to browse still more up-market treasures. 

Family-friendly options

Just about any option you choose in Playa del Carmen is family-friendly — except the bars and nightclubs, of course.

Don’t miss

Sometimes simple pleasures are the most memorable. Find a beach bar where you can chill under a thatched roof and enjoy a simple meal while wiggling your toes in the sand. If it’s offered, try tikin xic, fish marinated in achiote paste and sour oranges, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in an earthen oven. If not, stick with widely available huachinango al mojo del ajo (red snapper grilled in garlic butter). A cold Corona garnished with lime will complete the idyllic picture.

Best bets for dining

If you’re an adventurous eater dying to try the best of local, Maya-inspired cuisine, head to Yaxche at Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) and 22nd Street North, an easy walk from the ferry dock. The cinematic exterior and faux temple décor are captivating if a bit over the top, but the food is the real deal. To sample a variety of dishes, order the xa’ak hanal sampler, perhaps with a bowl of dark chocolate soup on the side.

There are so many restaurants in Playa that it might be best to let serendipity be your guide. Mexican food is ubiquitous but not all that’s on tap; stroll up La Quinta (the farther you go from the ferry dock, the more the crowds thin out) and look for establishments serving French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Thai, Japanese and other ethic cuisines. If you need an infusion of espresso or locally made chocolate (to eat or buy as gifts), stop into Ah Cacao Chocolate Café, with several locations on 5th Avenue.

Best time to go

July and August, although very hot and humid, are peak months for family travel and also the time when South Americans come to escape the Southern Hemisphere winter. Mid-December to April is peak for other groups.

A kiteboarder catches some air along the coast of Tulum, Mexico.
Courtesy of Morph KiteboardingA kiteboarder catches some air along the coast of Tulum, Mexico.

Fun facts

  • Need to use a computer? You’ll find Internet cafes all over town.
  • Buildings in Playa by law are supposed to be limited to four stories, though a few break the rule.

Where you arrive

Docking information

Playa does not have a deep-water port. Cruise ships dock at Calica, five miles from town, or at Cozumel, an offshore island 12 miles distant. Frequent ferries transport passengers from Cozumel to Playa, and some ships also employ their tenders (i.e., lifeboats) for the 20-minute passage. The ferry dock is conveniently located in the center of town, where passengers debark at the zócalo, or town square.

Getting around

Taxis are quick, easy and relatively inexpensive.

Need to know

Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a passport.

Language: Spanish, although English is spoken and understood in establishments catering to tourists.

Currency: The Mexican peso.

Safety: The U.S. Department of State issues travel warnings for many areas of Mexico, mostly where crime and violence related to drug cartels have increased. Playa del Carmen is not typically one of those places and, like most tourist areas in Mexico, is considered safe.   That said, it's wise to leave jewelry, most cash and most credit cards on the ship, limiting what you take with you into port. Use ATMs only during the day and when friends or family are with you, if possible. In restaurants, remain aware of your belongings and don't hang purses over chairs. To learn more about safety in specific areas, log onto the State Department's web page on Mexico travel warnings

Your take

How about you? Have you been to Playa del Carmen or are you planning to go? I'd love to hear about your experience or see your photos!

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Janet Fullwood
Janet Fullwood is an editor, writer and photographer-at-large specializing in travel and hospitality topics.

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Overheard

“It seems as if every shop on La Quinta Avenida is hawking Cuban cigars at unbelievable prices, but that’s because they’re all fake. Skip the cruise-ship shops and street hawkers and head straight for La Casa del Habano, the only place where you’ll actually be able to find a real Montecristo No. 4 ($15 each).”

New York Magazine 

“Cancun is so 10 years ago; today’s savvy beachgoers choose the cosmopolitan Playa. ...The European and American-influenced nightlife here is one of the best scenes in Mexico.”

U.S. News and World Report

“Playa del Carmen, now the third-largest city in Quintana Roo, is the trendiest spot on all of the Yucatán Peninsula. Sitting coolly on the lee side of Cozumel, the town’s beaches are jammed with superfit Europeans.”

Lonely Planet

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