Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two of Mexico’s preferred tourist destinations. Both in the state of Quintana Roo, both part of the Riviera Maya, both near the Mesoamerican Coral Reef System, in 2022, the two attracted more than 45 Million visitors.
Cancun, known for its luxurious resorts and nightlife, is a top destination for those looking for a lively and exciting experience. With a wide range of activities such as water sports, golfing, shopping, and cultural tours, Cancun is perfect for all types of travelers. Additionally, its location on the Caribbean Sea allows visitors to enjoy the beautiful turquoise waters and white sand beaches that are perfect for sunbathing, swimming, or simply relaxing.
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen offers a more laid-back and bohemian vibe, making it ideal for those looking for a more authentic and relaxed vacation. The city is known for its charming downtown area, where visitors can find a wide range of local shops, restaurants, and bars. Playa del Carmen is also a great starting point for exploring nearby attractions such as the Mayan ruins of Tulum or the natural beauty of Xcaret Eco Park.
If you wish to visit the beautiful Riviera Maya, do not forget that travelers to the state of Quintana Roo have to pay their own Visitax – the tourism tax mandatory for all the foreigner tourists.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen if brief
Northeastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
Playa del Carmen
Southwestern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
|Size||Larger city with a population of around 750,000||Smaller coastal town with a population of around 300,000|
|Main Tourist Area||Hotel Zone, a narrow strip of land along the coast||Fifth Avenue, a pedestrian street in the city center|
|Beaches||Wide, sandy beaches with calm turquoise waters||Beautiful beaches with more waves and a more natural feel|
|Nightlife||Large variety of clubs, bars, and restaurants catering to tourists||More laid-back nightlife with a focus on live music and cultural events|
|Attractions||Large shopping malls, water parks, and amusement parks||Mayan ruins, cenotes, and eco-parks|
|Accommodation||Large selection of luxury resorts and all-inclusive hotels||Smaller, boutique hotels and vacation rentals|
|Accessibility||International airport with direct flights from many major cities||Smaller airport with fewer direct flights|
|Overall Vibe||Lively and bustling with a focus on entertainment||Relaxed and more laid-back with a focus on natural beauty|
Get there from Mexico City
Approximately 1,525 km
Playa del Carmen
Approximately 1,305 km
|Travel time by car||Approximately 20 hours||Approximately 17 hours|
|Travel time by bus||Approximately 24-25 hours||Approximately 20-21 hours|
|Nearest airport||Cancun International Airport||Cancun International Airport|
|Distance from airport to city center||Approximately 20 km||Approximately 68 km|
|Travel time from airport to city center||Approximately 25-30 minutes by car||Approximately 50-60 minutes by car|
|Bus station||Cancun Bus Station||Playa del Carmen Bus Station|
|Distance from bus station to city center||Approximately 2.5 km||Approximately 2 km|
|Travel time from bus station to city center||Approximately 10-15 minutes by car||Approximately 5-10 minutes by car|
Wide, sandy beaches with calm turquoise waters, some with water sports such as jet skis and parasailing
Playa del Carmen
Beautiful beaches with more waves, some with snorkeling opportunities
|Water Parks||Several large water parks, such as Wet’n Wild and Ventura Park||Xel-Ha, a natural eco-park with snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, and other water activities|
|Theme Parks||Xcaret, a natural eco-park with cultural shows, underground rivers, and wildlife encounters||Xplor, an adventure park with ziplines, underground rivers, and ATV rides|
|Mayan Ruins||Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Tulum, both within a few hours’ drive from Cancun||Tulum, a coastal Mayan ruin site, located just a short distance from Playa del Carmen|
|Family-Friendly Attractions||Interactive Aquarium, Museo Maya de Cancun, and El Rey archaeological site||Cenote Chaak Tun, a natural underground river and cave system with guided tours, and Cirque du Soleil’s JOYÀ show|
|Dining||Wide variety of international and local cuisine options, including kid-friendly chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King||Local street food options, such as elote (grilled corn on the cob) and churros, and casual dining options with a focus on fresh seafood and Mexican cuisine|
Main Shopping Areas
Luxury Avenue, Kukulcan Plaza, La Isla Shopping Village, Plaza Las Americas
Playa del Carmen
Fifth Avenue, Paseo del Carmen, Quinta Alegría Shopping Mall
|Type of Stores||Luxury brands, high-end fashion boutiques, souvenir shops, and malls||Boutiques, souvenir shops, artisan markets, and local shops|
|Specialty Stores||Duty-free shops, jewelry stores, and electronics stores||Local artisan shops, handmade crafts, and traditional Mayan handicrafts|
|Night Markets||Noche Mexicana at Kukulcan Plaza, which offers live music, dancing, and vendors selling local handicrafts and souvenirs||The Paseo del Carmen Night Market, which offers a variety of artisanal products and handicrafts|
|Other Shopping Opportunities||Local markets such as Mercado 28 and Mercado Coral Negro, which offer a wide variety of souvenirs and handicrafts||Local markets such as the Cozumel Market and the Tulum Artisan Market, which offer a variety of local goods and souvenirs|
|Main Nightlife Areas|
Hotel Zone, which is a strip of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, with many large clubs such as Coco Bongo and The City
Playa del Carmen
Fifth Avenue, which is a pedestrian street with a variety of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, as well as live music and cultural events
|Type of Nightlife||Large, high-energy nightclubs with DJs and shows, as well as a variety of bars and restaurants with live music||More laid-back bars and clubs, with a focus on live music and cultural events, as well as a variety of restaurants and beach clubs|
|Crowd||Generally younger, with many college students and party-goers||A mix of ages, including younger travelers, families, and couples|
|Safety||While Cancun is generally safe, visitors should take precautions when visiting the nightclubs and bars in the Hotel Zone||Playa del Carmen is generally considered safe, but visitors should still exercise caution and avoid walking alone at night|
|Other Nightlife Options||Nighttime boat tours, such as the Pirate Show Cancun, which offers a family-friendly dinner cruise with a pirate-themed show||Beach parties, such as Coco Maya Beach Club, which offers a mix of live music and DJs, as well as food and drinks on the beach|
The city of Cancun is divided into two main areas: the Hotel Zone – a narrow 25 kilometers long and 400 meters wide strip of land, connected to the Yucatan Peninsula by two bridges, that runs along the coast and is home to many of the city’s resorts, shopping centers, restaurants, and nightlife, and the Downtown area – located inland and home to local businesses, schools, street markets, and residential neighborhoods.
Why visit Cancun?
- Cancun has an excellent climate with average temperature of 27° C and around 240 sunny days per year.
- Vibrant nightlife with a party atmosphere in nightclubs, bars and restaurants throughout the beach area. Coco Bongo, La Vaquita Cancun, Mandala Beach, Señor Ranas and Party Zone are among the most visited places.
- Shopping in modern, large and well-stocked shopping centers, where visitors can find big international and local brands as well as handicrafts and souvenirs. At Tulum Avenue tourists will find ceramics, textiles, goldsmithing with jade and amber.
- High quality cuisine – from street food to gourmet restaurants, the Tikin-Xic, or the cochinita pibil, the many ways of cooking local seafood or all the variety of tacos you will see, one is guaranteed, the quality of the food is superb and the taste – unforgettable.
- Spectacular beaches expanded at 22 kilometers along the coast, Cancun’s sandy beaches are famous for their crystal waters. Among the most popular are Playa Delfines, Playa de las Tortugas, Playa Ballenas, Playa Caracol, Las Perlas, Chac mool, Marlín and Playa Langosta.
- Diving – a significant part of the tourists coming to Cancun are divers attracted by the coral reef, the translucent sea and the exotic marine flora and fauna. Here you will find all needed to practice the sport – from certified schools and instructors to equipment rental or sale, divers feel at home here.
- Other water sports like surfing, flyboarding, jet skis, kayaking and canoeing, Jetpack and Paddle board are also very popular. Some of them can be practiced not only in the sea but also in nearby cenotes and mangrove forests.
- Other tourists’ spots:
- Scenic Tower, a 110 meters high tower from offering a stunning 360° view on the island,
- Palapas Park;
- Kabah Ecological Park.
- Museums as different and the Tequila and the Mayan Museums, where tourists will learn about two of the core symbols of this part of Mexico.
- Those interested in archaeology can visit the Miguelito, the archaeological zone of El Rey and also the Mayan remains of Yamil Lu’um.
- Golf at Pok-ta-pok with 18 holes, surrounded by the beautiful Nichupté lagoon and the Caribbean Sea and at Iberostar Golf Club Cancun –18 holes golf course designed by famous Japanese golfer Isao Aoki.
There are different types of accommodation for all tastes and budgets. From the cheaper B&B, hostels and motels to the most sophisticated luxury hotels like the 5 starred The Ritz-Carlton Cancun Hotel, Hilton Cancun, an All-Inclusive Resort and Waldorf Astoria Cancun, Hyatt Zilara Cancun, and Kempinski Hotel Cancún.
Cancun hosts the most important international tourist airport in Mexico – the main entrance for tourists to the Riviera Maya. Cancun can also be reached on cruise ships linking the city with the south part of the country.
A user-friendly network of urban transportation together with taxis, including Uber, help the tourists move around the city.
Various excursions from Cancun to other sites on the Mayan riviera and deeper in Quintana Roo are ed in Cancun are welcomed by those interested in local history and culture, and by those fascinated by the wild nature. The deposits of Tulum, the ruins of Chichén Itzá, Isla Mujeres, Isla Contoy, the famous cenotes or the theme parks of Xcaret, Xplor, Xel-Ha, are among the most preferred.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is smaller and calmer than Cancun. Despite this, it is one of the main cities in this part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Located in the Riviera Maya, it is the capital of the municipality Solidaridad, in the state of Quintana Roo.
Close to Playa del Carmen is another famous tourist destination – the island of Cozumel. Although not as visited as Cancun, each year these sites gain more and more tourists who prefer to pass their vacation there and not in Cancun.
Why visit Playa del Carmen?
Being less popular, this destination offers better price in terms of accommodation. The hotels and tourist bureaus here are further lowering the price of the hotel rooms by offering packages with various excursions and/or flights.
- The climate is magnificent even in winter. The average temperature is 27°C and with almost 240 days of sunshine during the year.
- A vibrant nightlife and winter festival. Playa del Carmen’s most famous nightclub is Coco Bongo Show & Disco. In addition, on Fifth Avenue, a pedestrian street that runs parallel to the beach, there are a large number of nightclubs, restaurants, and bars. At the end of January, for those who wish to have even more fun, the Carnival occurs with its characteristic parades and shows.
- Shopping – mainly at 5th Avenue. Plaza Playacar, Venta S Basar, Casa Partagas offer original cigars. Sin Pecado sells Mexican crafts and souvenirs like local paintings and ceramics.
- The quality of its gastronomy is unbeatable, in addition, you will eat exquisite and cheap. The best places are: El Fogón, is very popular with everyone who wants grilled food and drink delicious fruit juices and Mu. Burgerhouse, is characterized by providing very rich, abundant and cheap dishes, the menu is varied. Their burgers of 180 grams of meat are the best in the city and the beer is artisanal.
- The beaches, surrounded by palm trees, are beautiful and peaceful, preserving their pure nature. Among the best are:
- Punta Esmeralda with its cenotes of unforgettable nature;
- Playa Xcalacoco is a public beach with a family, silent and quiet atmosphere;
- Playa Paraíso, Tulum with calm waters and white sand; is one of the most beautiful in the Riviera Maya, is located 2.4 kilometers from the Archaeological Zone of Tulum;
- Playacar is surrounded by hotels, which makes it very frequented;
- and finally the Public Beach 88, which has Blue Flag certificate, is ideal for swimming for its serene and crystalline waters.
- The experience with diving in the waters of Playa del Carmen is spectacular. You will be able to interact with turtles, dolphins and sharks. Explore one of the most impressive and best preserved coral reefs in the world. In addition, there are dive shops that organize excursions, teach courses and provide all the implements, plus specialized personnel that will guide the experience of tourists in the depths.
- Those interested in water sports can live the experience of practicing in its waters: Mayan water complex, surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, jetpack, flyboard and stand-up paddleboarding.
There are several sites not to miss in Playa del Carmen:
- In the first place, what gives it more fame, its cenotes, very attractive for tourism, immersing yourself in its waters is a spectacular experience, there are so many that it is thought that there are still some to discover;
- the Aviary Xaman-Ha, is a bird sanctuary, dedicated to the care and breeding of more than fifty Mexican species;
- Los Fundadores Park, where you can contemplate sculptures and witness performances.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two incredible tourist destinations attracting millions of tourists every year.
No matter which city you choose to visit, both Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer unique experiences that are sure to leave a lasting impression on any traveler. Whether you’re looking for adventure, relaxation, or a mix of both, these two destinations are definitely worth adding to your travel bucket list.