Sometimes you just want an easy trip.
You know, the type that’s usually on the short side and doesn’t require much of an agenda. For most travelers, a classic beach-style vacation is what comes to mind. In truth, it could be any destination where you don’t need maps or guide books. There’s no plan to seek out the “best” restaurants. Nor are you expecting life-changing discoveries.
The only goal each day is to wake up, smile, and enjoy the day. Seriously.
For me, this was Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. (It also didn’t hurt that I could use my Southwest Rapid Rewards Points and my Companion Pass to fly my sister and me for just pennies.)
Playa del Carmen is between Cancun and Tulum and a short ferry ride to Cozumel. It’s become super popular very quickly and it’s easy to see why. The area has beautiful beaches, water sports, Mayan ruins, adventure parks, and a pedestrian-friendly avenue for shopping and dining.
Be as adventurous or as nonactive as you want to be. Either way, Playa del Carmen makes for a perfect Yucatan base.
8 Things to Do in Playa del Carmen…(Or Not)
1. Relax at the beach.
Whether you prefer a quieter spot like Playacar or the main stretches of beach lined with beach clubs, there’s no shortage of sand and sea. All beaches in Playa del Carmen are public which is different than Cancun where many beach-fronts are for resort guests only. I’m hardly a beach connoisseur but the Playacar beaches are touted as “nicer.” On the other hand, the beach clubs offer lounge chairs, umbrellas, and waiter service with food and drinks for order.
If you venture away from the hustle of Playa, the beaches of Akumal and Tulum are easy to reach and on the quieter side.
2. Get active with watersports.
Is there an adventurous pull taking you out of your lounge chair? If getting out on, in, or above the water to play is your thing, there’s enough to satisfy you for days. Jet skiing, boating, parasailing, scuba diving, snorkeling…take your pick! Equipment is available for rent along the beach and 5th Avenue. Guided day tours are just as easily booked.
3. Spend the day on Cozumel.
Ferries to Cozumel run directly from the piers in Playa del Carmen. If your hotel is in walking distance to the beach, the ferries are in walking distance, too. Several companies sell tickets along the 5th Avenue pedestrian zone. Mexico Waterjets was the best price I found at 75 MX per person ($4USD), but be sure to shop around for the best price. The ride lasts about 35 minutes and day tours and vehicle rentals are available to book before, on, and after the ferry.
I highly recommend renting a Vespa to have the freedom to explore the island’s beaches and snorkeling spots at your own pace. Snorkel gear is easily rented or can be cheaply purchased in Playa if you plan on snorkeling a lot.
4. Explore Mayan ruins.
The Mayans were the Yucatan’s first inhabitants before being conquered by Spanish explorers. Their presence and influence are rooted in the region’s culture, food, beliefs, and architecture. Luckily, ruins from Mayan civilizations past survive and can be visited today. Chichen Itza is a full day trip away from Playa and is arguably the most well-known of the ruins.
Tulum is just an hour from Playa del Carmen and is a stunning display of ruins set against the turquoise blue ocean waters. Colectivos, or local buses, run from Playa to the Tulum ruins. But, you’re best off renting a car, even for the day, if you’re interested in visiting a nearby cenote or other ruins.
Tulum’s ruins get crowded as the day goes on so go earlier in the morning if you can. Make your way through the theme park-like maze of shops and vendors to the entrance of the archaeological zone to buy a ticket for 70MX per person ($3.75 USD).
The ruins complex is well-kept and simply gorgeous. Signs are in Spanish and English. You can also book a guide beforehand to go deeper into the history on your visit.
By car from Tulum, you can also visit the lesser known (but rising in interest) Coba ruins. Coba is a vast complex of former Mayan pathways, roads, and ceremonial structures. Nohoch Mul Pyramid is the tallest temple, and as of March 2017, could still be climbed via the 120+ steep, uneven steps.
The view overlooks the dense, green Yucatan jungle and makes you wonder what the Mayans thought as they gazed upon similar views.
The Coba Archaeological Park charges 70 MX per person. Bikes and bike taxis are available to rent. I recommend taking advantage of this as the distance is long from the entrance to the main temple. Our taxi driver even shared his knowledge of the ruins along the way and the surrounding jungle.
5. Swim in a Cenote.
These natural sinkholes and caves are all over the Yucatan Peninsula and reveal pure groundwater underneath. The Mayans thought of them as sacred and used them for ceremonial rituals. Today, they’re popular for snorkeling, swimming, free jumping (where permitted), and scuba diving. Azul, Jardin del Eden, and Cristalino are closest to Playa, while Gran Cenote and Ik Kil are among the most popular.
6. Eat papas bravas and paella.
And wash it all down with margaritas because everyone knows the tequila burns off all the calories. 😉 We loved El Tapas & Company on Calle 10 Norte between 15th and 20th Avenues.
7. Visit an adventure park.
Hoping to zip line or swim in underground rivers? How about spelunking or rafting? Xplor is just outside of Playa and has a day packed with one thrill after another. Not to be confused with Xcaret, which if you’re an animal lover, should be avoided. See below about captive dolphins.
Rio Secreto is only accessed with a guide. Explore dark caves as you wade through underground pools of water. Go for the adventure and be amazed by the intricately formed stalactites.
8. Shop, eat and be merry on 5th Avenue.
After you’ve spent the day at the beach, in the water, or exploring ancient ruins, stroll along 5th Avenue. Hundreds of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs line this pedestrian zone. Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly place to eat, local clothing, mini-sombreros for your dog (really!), or a swanky bar or nightclub, you’ll find it on 5th Avenue. Yes, it’s totally touristy, but it still makes for a fun night out in Playa.
What Didn’t Make the List?
Regardless of whether you want to relax on the beach or jet ski your days away, here are 2 wild animal experiences to keep off your Playa to-do list.
Visitors can no longer swim with the wild turtles at Akumal. New regulations prohibit this because tourists were disturbing the turtles and their habitat.
In addition, avoid any activity including the exploitation of animals, like swimming with dolphins. Ask yourself how this wild animal experience is possible at a particular attraction when the same experience could not be replicated in the wild. In the case of swimming with dolphins, they are often taken from the wild, forced to live in captivity, and not fed unless they “perform.”
How to Get to Playa del Carmen
The closest major airport is Cancun International Airport, about an hour’s drive away. Arrange transportation to your hotel before arrival, take a standard taxi with a fixed rate, rent a car, or take the ADO bus from the airport to Playa del Carmen.
We took the ADO bus. It was easy and cheap. Purchase your tickets at the airport just after getting your luggage and passing through border control and customs. A single one-way ticket costs 178 MX or about $10 USD. The bus leaves you in Playa along 5th Avenue where you can walk or take a local taxi to your accommodation.
Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen
I used cashback rewards to pay for a stay at La Pasion Boutique Hotel by Bunik. The hotel has pretty grounds which includes a rooftop pool, a bar, and a lounge area. The staff was very friendly and the rooms comfortable with great AC. Free water and breakfast were included in the rate.
The hotel is just 3-4 blocks from the beach and 5th Avenue. We were close enough to everything but could sleep peacefully at night. There was also a Walmart just a couple blocks from the hotel, as well as the bus station for our return trip to the airport. Check latest prices.
How to Get Around In and Around Playa del Carmen
The beach, 5th Avenue, and many of the main tourist areas are entirely walkable. For points further off in town, taxis are widely available. There should be flat rates between 25-100 MX for downtown and in town destinations, so agree to a price before getting in the car.
Renting a car will give you the freedom to explore and avoid bigger bus tours. You can easily rent a car for as short as a day or for the length of your trip depending on your plans. Driving is easy between Playa and its nearby cities and attractions. The main roads are paved and well-marked. You will need pesos or US dollars at gas stations.
Colectivos are small, local taxi vans that can drop you off any place along their route for no more than $2. Check with your hotel about where the van you need leaves from in Playa.
So what do you think? Would you like to visit Playa del Carmen? Which things to do in Playa del Carmen are on your list (or not)? 😉
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