Playa del Carmen, or just “Playa” as it is also commonly referred to by locals, is a coastal resort town in Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Approximately 70 km south of Cancun (around 50 min driving), 20 km west of Cozumel, and 65 km from Tulum (around 45 min), it is at the center of the Mayan Riviera and offers a more relaxed atmosphere, smaller boutique lodgings, and a distinct European flavor.
The closest airport to Playa is the Cancún International Airport (CUN). The ride from there is 45 minutes to 1 hour. One can also fly into Cozumel International Airport and take a ferry across to Playa del Carmen. Cancun has the cheapest flights, but occasionally deals to Cozumel can be better.
The main bus station is at 5a Av & Av Benito Juarez near the shore, in the center of town. The other is an “alternate” and newer bus station further away from the center along Av 20a Norte y Calle 12a Norte. The bus to airport leaves from the main terminal in the center of town and they also have a stop at the newer alternate terminal while bus to Chetumal and Chiapas stop into the alternate terminal.
The buses run every 30 minutes. At the airport the stop is in the parking lot next to the domestic arrivals (llegadas nacionales) doors at Terminal 2. Come out go out 200m to the right, to the furthest row from the building in the parking lot. From international arrivals at Terminal 2 turn right and go to the other side, past the building to the bus parking lot. At Terminal 3 the bus stop is in the parking lot, past the ‘Air Margaritaville’ bar (in a hut) to the right when coming out of the doors. In both locations there’s an attendant at an ‘ADO’ podium in front of the stall to buy the tickets from.
The buses from the airport to Playa del Carmen do not stop along the highway between the airport and Playa. So the next best thing is to take the bus down to Playa and transfer to a Mayab bus going back up towards Cancun and get off where you need to get off or a bus up from the airport to Cancun and a Mayab bus going back down towards Playa or point further south of Playa. Price for the bus from the airport to downtown Playa: 208 pesos.
• Grupo ado (Autobuses del Oriente)
• There are taxis and ‘colectivo’ vans lined up along Av Juarez next to the bus station for onward travel other parts of town and surrounding areas. It will be much cheaper to take bus down here from the airport and take a taxi from here than a direct taxi (or private shuttle) from the airport.
Private Transfers are a convenient way to get from Cancún’ International Airport to your Hotel, condo, or beachfront home in Playa Del Carmen or Playacar. Consider that access to your hotel door might be restricted due to its location (ex. Hotels in 5th Avenue), if that’s the case, you will be dropped off at the nearest available point from walking distance to your hotel door. You can book online in advance from well known companies such as:
• Cancun Airport Transportation.
• Cancun Cheap Transfers.
• Translufra S.A. de C.V.
• Playa Vacation
• Discovery Mundo
• Cancun Transportations
• Transfers USA
• Famar Travel & Adventures
• Lomas Travel
• Yellow Transfers
• Olympus Tours
• Playa del Carmen Transportation
Highway 307 is the only highway that passes by Playa. As you approach Playa from Cancún, the highway divides: to turn left to Playa, keep to the inside lanes heading south. The first east-west artery to Playa is Avenida Constituyentes, which works well for destinations in northern Playa; the second is Avenida Juárez, which leads to the town’s main square. If you stay in the outside lanes, you will need to continue past Playa until you get to the turnaround, then double back, staying to your right.
The Federal government recently built an elevated portion of Highway 307 through Playa Del Carmen. It provides an express highway for those going south past Playa del Carmen. It certainly helps alleviate the congestion through this main thoroughfare. This is the same concept they deployed in Puerto Morelos, which works out great.
There are two bus stations in Playa Del Carmen. One is on 5th Avenue and Juarez Avenue. The other bus station is located on 20th Avenue and 12th street. Both stations sell tickets to every destination but buses going father tend to eave from the 20th Avenue station. Check which station your bus leaves from when you buy your ticket. Bus travel is relatively inexpensive, you can either travel second class, or first class, which is sometimes also called ‘Express’ although it is not notably any faster at all. First class buses cost around 40% more and will have toilets and TVs on them, but both classes have air conditioning. A second class ticket to Chetumal on the Belizean border costs $116 (US$11) and takes around 4 1/2 hours.
There are a lot of so called “Travel Agencies” on the 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Please be careful because most of them are Time Share offices. One reliable Travel Agency in Playa is Solatino Tours & Travel. The owners of the Agency have made a fine quality selection of Day Excursions covering the whole area.
Also you can find Travel Agencies in your hotel such a Best Day. Lomas Travel, Amstard, the good thing is that they are serius and well known Travel Agencies, the bad thing is they are a little bit expensive.
There are two competing companies that will ship you across to Cozumel for around US$24 return. The dock is on the south end of the city, just south of the plaza. Boats leave roughly every hour, from 8AM to 8PM, and the ride itself is 30 minutes.
Because the layout of downtown Playa is a rectangular grid, getting around is very easy. The main east-west street, Avenida Juárez, connects Highway 307 with the town square, El Zócalo, near the beach. As it does so, it crosses several numbered north-south avenues that run parallel to the beach, all of which, interestingly enough, are multiples of five. Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), the closest to the beach, is closed to traffic from the Zócalo to Calle 6 (and some blocks beyond, in the evening).
Almost the entire town is north and west of the town square, El Zócalo. The east-west streets parallel to Avenida Juárez are numbered Calle, with even numbers to the north of Juárez and odd numbers to the south. The other main east-west street Avenida Constituyentes is located where you would expect to find Calle 18.
To the south of the downtown is “Playacar” a golf-course development of private residences and a dozen resort hotels.
Playa is pedestrian friendly town and you can basically walk to everything. The main north-south pedestrianized street, 5th Ave, does not allow cars except in the early morning hours for deliveries. On 5th Avenue are many hotels, restaurants, and small shops. The north- south thoroughfare Avenida 30, five blocks west of 5th Ave, is where the large stores are located. To walk from the town square, El Zócalo, and Avenida Juarez to Avenida Constituyentes takes only about 10 minutes.
A bike is a fun alternative to walking; there are a number of bike rental shops at the north end of 5th Ave. Playa del Carmen also offers a network of bicycle paths, along Avenida 10 and along Highway 307 to Xcaret.
Car rentals are readily available at a number of locations at the north end of 5th Ave. Large companies, Eurocar, National, Hertz, etc. are convenient, as well as local agencies, which are generally less expensive. Beware the obligatory Mexican third-party insurance, which they usually do not include in the initial price! It may easily raise your rental price by $15-20.
5th Ave. (‘Quinta Avenida’ or ‘5ta Av.’) is a pedestrianized street and taxis are available at various intersections along its length. A taxi taken from a ‘sitio’ (place where taxis park) will cost about 5 pesos more but often Taxi drivers charge what ever they can. It costs about US$5 (70 pesos) to get to Playacar, and about 25-40 pesos in the rest of central Playa Del Carmen. There are no meters but there is an official price map based on zones. This however is not used closely by some drivers so you should familiarize yourself with it if you are going to be taking a lot of taxis.
Scheduled bus service to destinations in the region (e.g. Xcaret, Xel-ha, Tulum, Cancun airport, Cancun, etc.) and beyond depart from Playa bus station at southern end of 5ta Avenida and Avenida Juárez, which is near the Ferry terminal to Cozumel.
First class ADO bus departs hourly or so for tourist destination of Xcaret, Xel-ha and Tulum – fares are in US$4 range. The ADO Bus goes directly to the entrances of Xcaret and Xel-ha. ADO also runs direct service to Cancun airport from Playa Del Carmen for approximately $10.
Second class local Mayab buses also leave from Fifth Avenue station. Mayab buses stop more frequently en route and drop off alongside the highway to Tulum, requiring walking from the highway to the entrances of Xcaret or Xel-ha.
An alternative to the buses is to catch a “colectivo” van. These leave/return at Playa from a location on Calle 2 between Av 10 and Av 15. Colectivos are cheap, government regulated, air-conditioned vans which transport people on Hwy. 307, which runs north/south along the coast between Tulum and Cancun. Pick-up times for these collectivos vary, roughly every 10 minutes, and pick-up/drop-off is simply along the freeway; but one can get you a ride near to any destination between Tulum and Cancun for as little as US$3. There are also vans either ran by individuals or tour vans returning empty from a drop off that will pick you up along side Hwy 307. The easiest way to catch one is to wait at a bus stop and extend your hand out (like a handshake). Sometimes a van will flash their lights which is asking if you want them to stop. Prices vary, but can be as cheap as $3. They pickup up and down the entire length of the highway. Most all speak English. They drop you off ONLY along the highway at your choice. No door to door service.
Organized bus tours are also available from a variety of companies that cross the Riviera Maya & Yucatan (Tulum, Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Costa Maya, Ek Balam, Celestun, Rio Lagartos, Merida, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Coba, Sian Ka’an, Xcaret, Xelha, etc.).
Things to do
There is something for everyone in Playa del Carmen whether adventurous or relaxing. There is natural and adventure parks like Xcaret, Xplor and Xel ha. You can either get to them by public transportation, which leaves you on the side of the highway only a few steps away from each park’s private transportation or hired them as a tour online or on any tour provider which comes with private transportation.
Playa as the locals call it also has a great variety of beach clubs from relaxing and live music like Zenzi to more of day high-end party scene like Coralina. You can walk down the beach and find the beach club that best fits your vibe.
As mentioned before you also have the Mayan ruins with Chichen Itza; one of the wonders of the world, Tulum; a Mayan port to Cozumel, and Coba; with the only ruin still available to climb to the top.
Sailing, fishing and yachting adventures in this area is also a big thing with so many different species of fish to catch and with its growing fishing tournament each year, more and more boats keep adding up to this area. From Luxury Yachts for private charter to small fishing boats to choose from.
Playa del Carmen, as you may know, does not have rivers but rather underground cave systems which are rivers of crystal clear water where people swim, snorkel and even scuba in. Next, to the Mayan ruins, Cenotes are one of the most unique attractions in this area.
Quinta Avenida, also referred to in English as 5th Avenue, is the main tourist thoroughfare in Playa. It is a pedestrian only, cobblestone lined street that spans from Av. Benito Juarez to 50th Street and beyond. Along 5th Ave. you will find a variety of restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping opportunities and various services. In Playa, nearly everything starts from this street.
A recent “beach reclamation” project, completed in 2010, has restored width to the beach South of the pier at Constituyentes.
You came this far so don’t miss out on all the natural beauty this region has to offer! If you like nature and animals, Playa del Carmen is the right spot to set up a day trip to the close by natural attractions.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is around one hour drive from town and it is one of the biggest protected areas of Mexico. It offers great bird watching, world-class snorkeling and a chance to get know the mangrove forests and maybe even spot a manatee. The reserve is famous for still having a healthy population of Jaguars, but you need to be extremely lucky to see one of those.
Ria Lagartos is another Special Biosphere Reserve at the North side of the Yucatan peninsula. This is further from Playa, so an overnight stay is advised. You can stay in one of the most relaxed fishing towns and see crocodiles and thousands of birds, including the famous American Flamingos.
Summertime close to Isla Mujeres around an hour boat ride from Cancun you have the chance to swim with Whale Sharks and Manta Rays. Getting a meter close to a gigantic 9 meter long (27 feet) completely harmless fish is truly a one in a lifetime experience. Winter time around the same spot you have the chance to snorkel with huge groups of Sailfish chasing Sardines.
Less than half an hour away from Playa, just before Puerto Morelos you find a very nice botanical garden. Good birding, and a big colony of Spider Monkeys will make sure you have a great time. Bring a guide to help you learn from the local wildlife!
For the brave ones (and certified divers) from November until March a must is the very famous Bull Shark Diving. If you have some doubts take the official PADI Bull Shark Specialty course to learn about these awesome creatures before getting real close to them. (at the moment only one instructor is teaching this PADI course – ask around for Barna.)
Turtles of Akumal: half an hour south from Playa del Carmen is the Bay of Akumal (some call it Turtle Bay) where you can snorkel with green sea turtles just meters from the shore. This is their natural habitat, they are not closed in any ways, so be extra careful around them. No touching or teasing the turtles if you want them to stick around in the future as well. Summer season is the nesting season for turtles. Not many know about it, but it is possible to organize night walks with the volunteers to look for the turtles on the beach digging their nests and laying eggs. It is an unforgettable experience, as the moment when the little turtles make their way first time to the ocean – a few months after the eggs were laid.
You may see many boats on the beach in Playa del Carmen waiting for a deep sea fishing charter. Most of these boats are unlicensed and provide the bare necessities. They are generally small “pangas” which may or may not even offer shade. The equipment is generally sub-par.
The professional charter fleet is in Puerto Aventuras which is about 10km south of Playa. Puerto Aventuras is the oldest and nicest marina on the Riviera Maya. The protection is so good that the Cozumel Ferries park there in bad weather.
There are numerous charter boats available from 29′ to 47′. For not much extra money (if any) you can upgrade to a private boat. Just walk past the charter boats and you will find private boats. These boats are privately owned by affluent owners who maintain them with an open check book. Some of them offer their boats for occasional charter. The extra effort is well worth it.
As far as bringing your own fish to the restaurant to be cooked goes, there is hardly any restaurant that isn’t quite happy to cook up your fish for you along with all the amenities. There are several restaurants surrounding the marina which will happily cook your fish for small money.
Beach clubs can be found along the shoreline, offering loungers and beds available to use for a small fee. Some clubs even have freshwater pools available for patrons. Wait service, including food and drink, is available at such clubs.
The farther North you stroll, you will find the vibe growing more and more European. Beach clubs like Mamitas or Kool are popular for their clear entries into the water and their selection of trendy music. Live DJs are often a part of the music scene at Mamitas.
While topless sunbathing is technically illegal in Mexico, it is generally tolerated by the police. Locals do not particularly endorse it, so it is recommended that ladies wear a top on Sundays when many of the locals enjoy their beaches.
Nightlife is definitely happening in Playa del Carmen, but is not as wild as its neighbor to the north, Cancun. Typically, Playa’s shops and restaurants close around 10PM, but nearly all of the clubs stay open until 6am. A number of the best nightclubs are located on the beach. If you are interested in nightlife (dancing, drinks late until the evening/morning), then be sure to visit Blue Parrot, El Pirata, Coco Bongo, Santenera, and Hotel Deseo. The Blue Parrot has an intense and spectacular nightly fire show at 11PM and offers beach dancing, swings at the bar, and plenty of dancing. Deseo also has a roof deck bar, but it comes with beds. Very relaxing and beautiful. Most of the nightlife is based around 12th St. between 10th Avenue and the beach.
Scuba diving and Snorkeling
There are many scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities around Playa, although the reefs are off the shore and are only accessible by boat. The offshore reef is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef system in the world. All hotels have a dive shop, though many can be found on 5th Ave. Better open-water scuba diving can generally be found in Cozumel so if this is the focus of your trip it is best to stay there. Excellent snorkeling is located at Puerto Morelos, located roughly halfway between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, and in the lagoon at Akumal, on the way to Tulum. Several dive shops in Playa del Carmen do offer cenote diving south of town.
• Abyss Dive Center and Training Facility
• Scuba Diving
• Scuba Diving and Marina Services
• Water Sports
• DM Diving
• Beyond Diving
• Koox Diving Playa Del Carmen
There are many internet cafes in Playa del Carmen, most of which also offer international phone service. Prices start at around US$1 an hour.
Cenotes are cavernous freshwater sinkholes which are found all over the Yucatan peninsula. Many of them are open to the public for swimming, diving, and exploration. Many are open, however some of them are partially underground and the caves associated with these cenotes can run for miles underground. Cenotes also vary in size with openings as little as a foot wide to as large as a small lake. The water clarity in these cenotes is often unsurpassed, often exceeding 200 feet, and makes for exceptionally good swimming. Some of the bigger cenotes are available as tourist destinations, many are locally owned, and many more still are either undiscovered or undeveloped. Entrance to the commercial cenotes is correlated to the amount of development (i.e. if there are washrooms, restaurants, showers, etc.) with fees ranging from US$1-20.
• Cenote Dive Center
• Cultural Cenote Tours
• Playa del Carmen Spanish Institute
• International House Maya Riviera
• Academia Columbus
• Sprachcaffe Languages Plus Playa del Carmen
• TAAN Spanish School
The touristy part of Playa is laden with shops selling ‘artesanias’. These basically sell the same products – shirts, bracelets, and souvenirs, but for varying prices depending on the mood of the shopkeeper and your haggling/seduction skills. Haggling is accepted in the less formal shops in Playa, as is the rest of the Yucatan, though it is worth remembering that if you are able to afford an international vacation your income is many times higher than the storekeeper’s (most of whom struggle just to pay the very high rents). It is possible to buy both Mexican and Cuban cigars here, but Cuban cigar prices are not particularly cheap. Counterfeits are commonplace in Mexico, so due diligence in the selection of cigars is advisable. If you are young or have long hair, many shop keepers are likely to also offer you marijuana. Marijuana is illegal in Mexico, though its use is widespread amongst tourists.
There are three large supermarkets in Playa del Carmen: Wal-Mart (30 Ave and Calle 8), Comercial Mexicana MEGA (30 Ave. and Constituyentes), Chedraui (Highway 307 between Playa del Carmen and Playacar). There is also a Sam’s Club (Highway 307 in front of Playacar).
There are two large shopping centers on the outskirts of town: Centro Maya (on the right of Highway 307 heading towards Tulum – opposite Playacar) and Plaza Las Americas (entrance is on the right side of Highway 307 as you head to Cancún, by the large traffic circle with statue at the entrance of Playa del Carmen). Both shopping centers have multiscreen cinemas and large supermarkets (Soriana and Chedraui, respectively).