This post was written by Emily Becker, a Mexico-based freelance writer for BMTM.
Thousands of visitors from all over the world make their way to the shores of Playa del Carmen and Cancún each year, hoping to bask in the warm sun and dip their toes in the bright blue Caribbean Sea. The area that encompasses these two cities is called the Riviera Maya and stretches all the way down the coast, just past Tulum. This stunning slice of paradise not only has impressive beaches but also thick jungles, Mayan ruins, and freshwater cenotes galore.
If you’re intrigued about visiting the Riviera Maya but not sure if you should spend your time in Playa del Carmen or Cancún, you’re not alone. Making the choice can be tough if you’ve never been before, so this guide has everything you need to know to make your decision.
Highlights of Playa del Carmen
The first brownie point for Playa del Carmen is how accessible the surrounding cenotes (limestone sinkholes full of fresh water) are. Cenote Azul is one of them, and it’s just 20 minutes from downtown Playa, easily accessible via public transportation.
It’s an open cenote and one of the largest I’ve ever visited, with several different pools to choose from. The biggest one has a rocky ledge that is a blast to jump into the water from. It’s also one of the most popular cenotes near Playa del Carmen, so get there early to enjoy the peace and quiet before the afternoon crowds arrive.
There are plenty of cenotes near Cancún, but most of them require a rental car to access. The ones near Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, are a bit closer to the center of town and are accessible via public transportation and/or taxi. Because of that, I’d say that Playa is a better choice over Cancún if you’re especially excited about visiting cenotes.
This adventurous and outdoorsy theme park is unlike any other. It features underwater caves, jungle zip-lines, epic water slides, and more. Sure, there are plenty of theme parks in Cancún, but none of them compare to Xcaret in my opinion.
Xcaret is just south of Playa del Carmen, making Playa the obvious choice if you are planning to spend a substantial amount of time at the park. It’s still easily accessible from Cancún, but you will have to tack on an extra 30-40 minutes each way to get there. If you don’t want to miss out on the epic night shows at the park, driving all the way back to Cancún at night isn’t ideal.
Opinions seem to be split about which city has better beaches, but I’m on Playa del Carmen’s side on this one. Although the main beaches right off Quinta Avenida (the main shopping street) in Playa get just as crowded as Cancún’s public beaches, there are plenty that remain uncrowded and serene. In Cancún that is very difficult to find, especially if you aren’t staying at a big resort with a private beach.
Playa Esmeralda is one of those lesser-known beaches that is just breathtaking. Here you’ll see a large cenote that opens up to the sea, creating a gorgeous contrast of blue hues against the white sand. If you want to get the most out of it, visit in the morning on a weekday, when there are fewer people there.
Day trips to Cozumel and Tulum
Playa del Carmen is the closest place to get a ferry over to Cozumel, a tropical island that has the world’s second-largest coral reef off its coast. Taking a day trip there is an absolute must if you have time to do it while in Playa. The beaches are gorgeous, there’s some incredible snorkeling and diving there, and it’s much more quiet and low-key than the mainland.
You can also get to Tulum from Playa del Carmen in just under an hour, making it an excellent day trip. Especially if you’re turned off by the crowds and overall vibe of Tulum and don’t want to actually stay there, consider staying in Playa and just visiting for the day to check out the beach, cenotes, and ruins. Plus, Gran Cenote is also close to Tulum, and it’s one of the best attractions on the Riviera Maya.
Find more ideas for what to do in Playa del Carmen here.
Highlights of Cancún
Sure, you can book a whale shark excursion from Playa del Carmen, but the best ones are in Cancún, Isla Mujeres, and Isla Holbox, since these gentle giants typically hang out further north, closer to Cancún. If you book a tour from Playa del Carmen, chances are you’ll have to travel to Cancún anyways to leave shore. So the benefit of Cancún is cutting down on that transportation time and also having more options for different tour companies.
Peak whale shark season in and around Cancún is April to May and July to August, so plan your trip accordingly if this is a big priority for you.
Especially if you visit the Riviera Maya during the rainy season (from July to November), you’ll want to have a few ideas for things to do besides going to the beach and cenotes. Cancún definitely has a leg up in this regard, because of the abundance of indoor attractions. After all, Cancún is a bigger city and more developed than Playa del Carmen.
One of the best rainy-day activities is checking out the Museo Maya de Cancún, where you can learn about Mayan culture, especially art and architecture. Here you’ll find ancient sculptures, paintings, and artifacts from the Mayan empire where modern-day Cancún stands.
Other ideas include hanging out at La Isla, which is a huge shopping center with a movie theater and many restaurants. There’s also the Interactive Aquarium Cancún which is in the same shopping center.
Cancún Underwater Museum (MUSA)
Seeing the underwater sculptures at the Cancún Underwater Museum is truly a surreal experience. Featuring the works of artists from Mexico and all around the world, this trippy collection includes many human forms and even a life-size VW beetle that sits on the ocean floor. There are two different distinct areas: Punta Nizuc and Manchones. They have a different collection of sculptures, so check out both if you can.
Day trips to Isla Blanca and Isla Mujeres
The best part of Cancún is its proximity to so many magical places. Isla Blanca is one of my favorites, and it’s just a one-hour drive north of Cancún. This paradise isn’t actually an island but rather an isthmus, with a shallow lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other. The lagoon is home to large groups of flamingos, stingrays, and other marine life. It’s also rarely crowded, making it the perfect beach getaway from the crowded shores of Cancún.
Isla Mujeres is also easy to get to from Cancún via a 30-minute ferry. This charming island has gorgeous beaches and even a neat historical site at the southern end. Sure, you can access Isla Mujeres from Playa del Carmen, but the trip is much longer and not as feasible as a day trip.
Playa del Carmen vs. Cancún: Costs
When it comes to budgeting a trip to either Cancún or Playa del Carmen, there are ample options on either end of the spectrum. The Riviera Maya is still a popular area for backpackers, who often fly into Cancún and start their journey there. Although costs have increased over the years in this area, it’s still possible to do Cancún and Playa del Carmen on a shoestring budget.
On the other hand, you probably already know that Cancún and Playa del Carmen are hotbeds for huge, luxurious resorts, so that’s certainly an option.
So what’s the difference in cost? The answer is that it depends. On one hand, Cancún has more options for every kind of accommodation due to its size, but any budget accommodations you’ll find there are likely going to be in the downtown area of the city, far from the beach. It is nearly impossible to have a beachside vacation in Cancún on a budget. In Playa del Carmen you can find very cheap accommodations just blocks from the beach, so some would say that it’s a much more budget-friendly destination.
Costs for food and activities is about the same in both cities, so the only big difference comes down to accommodations, which is conveniently the next point on the list:
Playa del Carmen vs. Cancún: Places to Stay
From the hotel zone in Cancún all along the coast through Playa del Carmen and down to Tulum, there are massive resorts that range in luxury and price. If staying at a resort isn’t your thing, Cancún and Playa both have plenty of options. Cancún has a lot more large hotels in and outside of the hotel zone, where the beaches are, like Casa Nona Azul in the city center. Like I said, finding budget accommodation in Cancún anywhere near the beach is almost impossible.
Playa del Carmen is smaller, yet still has a great selection of hotels and Airbnbs that are within walking distance of the beach. For example, Balkón Boutique Hotel is just 500 meters from the water. I have found that Playa has many more backpacker hostels and cheap Airbnbs as well.
If you are looking to splurge on accommodation, perhaps Cancún would be a better choice. But if you want to save money, Playa del Carmen is the way to go.
Playa del Carmen vs. Cancún: Safety
This is another element that is nearly the same for both Playa del Carmen and Cancún. There are safety risks anywhere you go in Mexico or otherwise. If you’re curious about staying safe in this area, check out this Playa del Carmen safety guide. All the same rules apply in Cancún, with special attention to nighttime activities.
Cancún may have a leg up on safety because of the isolated hotel zone, where most of the attractions, bars, and big hotels are. There is low crime in this area, because it’s almost entirely tourists who visit. Playa del Carmen doesn’t have its big nightclubs isolated on an isthmus like Cancún does, so thieves and other assailants have an easier escape.
My pick would be Playa del Carmen, because of how much easier it is to visit on a budget. This might not be the case for other travelers who are looking for something different, so the final verdict really depends on what you hope to do and how much you are looking to spend on your vacation. I hope this guide gives you some insight to be able to choose one over the other.
Because Cancún’s airport will likely be your entry point into the Riviera Maya, spend a couple days there at least to check it out, even if you want to spend most of your time in Playa del Carmen. On the other hand, if you decide to stay in Cancún, it’s definitely worth it to stop in Playa del Carmen for a change of scenery.
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Now that you have a full breakdown of Playa del Carmen vs. Cancún, which one will you choose?