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Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Which to Choose?

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Which to Choose?

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When it comes to booking a trip to the Riviera Maya there is always one question that is asked. Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun?

I have explored each city; both have many amazing qualities and differences.  Each city has beautiful beaches, fantastic restaurants, popping nightlife, shopping, culture and much more.  It just depends on the style of traveler you are and what better suits your needs. 

The two cities are very close to each other. There is approximately a one-hour drive between the two cities depending on traffic.

Of course, having a car rental makes the transport between the two cities the easiest. Local transportation is very effective, fast, and cost-friendly as well.

If you are visiting the Riviera Maya and can’t decide between either location you can easily spend a few days in both cities and come up with your own opinions on Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun.

Remember that these are just my personal opinions on the two cities built from my time spent in each.

Don’t have time to travel between the two cities? Check out this guide for an abundance of information on the Riviera Maya to help you make your decision between Playa del Carmen or Cancun.

Playa del Carmen or Cancun at a Glance

Quick information on each city’s qualities.

Playa del Carmen

  • You will find tourists of all ages 
  • Many Expats have recently moved here creating a great scene of Canadians, Americans, and people from the United Kingdom 
  • Clean beaches with great clean water
  • Trendy 5th Avenue with many restaurants and shopping. 
  • Many beach clubs and rooftop pools 
  • Smaller in comparison to Cancun and easy to get around via walking or Bicycle 
  • In the center, you will find many boutique hotels varying in price and style
  • Bigger resorts and all-inclusive hotels are found on the outskirts of the city 
  • Playa del Carmen has great nightlife and a live music scene 
  • Closer in proximity to other amazing beaches such as Akumal, Xpu-ha, and Tulum



  • Cancun has many grand all-inclusive resorts offering different atmospheres
  • There are a lot of activities to do in Cancun
  • Cancun beaches tend to be cleaner and they are wider than the ones in Playa del Carmen offering a larger area to relax on the sand 
  • The water in Cancun boasts more colors of incredible blues and turquoise 
  • Isla Mujeres is very easily accessible from Cancun 
  • Cancun has fabulous shopping for a variety of budgets from expensive brand name  stores to local markets
  • Great nightlife scene with large-scale fancy restaurants and nightclubs 
  • There is a beautiful lagoon in Cancun with a fantastic shopping complex and views of the lagoon
  • Very close to the underwater museum excursion 

Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun: Beaches 

On the subject of the Caribbean Sea, you can always expect stunning shades of blue and turquoise. Warm and calm water surrounds both of the cities and you find powdery soft sand on the shores.  One location happens to be nicer, and in my opinion, that is Cancun. 

In Cancun, you will find the Hotel Zone which is a huge stretch of beachfront land. As its name suggests this area is full of large, beautiful, grand-scale all-inclusive resorts.

It reminds me of the Las Vegas Strip. Just replace the lights and casinos with palm trees and pools. Hotel after hotel occupies the strip as well as restaurants and shopping.  

The beachfront in the hotel zone is very wide so there is an excellent amount of space to enjoy. The hotels also have their own cleaning teams that remove garbage and seaweed from the beaches daily.  Due to this, you have impeccably clean, white powdery soft sand, and very clear water. 

Given the number of hotels, it might be a bit difficult to access the beach but there are many public entrances between hotels and restaurants. 

Playa Tortugas is great because it has fantastic calm swimming and also is a good location for water sports.  Nearby there are tons of restaurants and spots for refreshments. Just look for the public entrance next to Fat Tuesdays.

At some beaches in Cancun, you will need to take caution because there can sometimes be strong and dangerous currents. For your safety be sure to keep an eye out for the flag markings at the beach you choose. 

The beaches in Playa del Carmen are great as well, they are just not as wide when compared to Cancun, especially in the Centro area.

A great perk is that the beaches in this area are extremely easy to access when walking off the street with entrances at every city block.

You will still find amazing spots to chill out for the day at the PlayaCar beach and the local Beach Playa Punta Esmerelda. 

A great location is the beach at the end of Avenida CTM.  The water is nice and calm with a great clean sandy area. Still displaying many colors of brilliant blues there is a small coral reef not too far out to sea.

You can easily swim out 7 meters and see some small fish and corals. Remember to bring along a safety marker (ie Bouy) so boats and other swimmers can spot you. 

aerial shot of playa del carmen beaches

Playa del Carmen beaches.

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Restaurants

When it comes to deciding on who has the best restaurants between Playa del Carmen or Cancun, the answer is difficult.  You will have to be the judge of that.

Both cities have an enormous selection of fantastic restaurants for every taste bud and every budget. 

In Playa del Carmen, you will find many restaurants of all cuisines along the famous 5th avenue. Classic Mexican, Seafood,  American, Thai, Sushi, Italian, Argentinian, Greek, and the list goes on. 

Most of the restaurants in Playa del Carmen are locally or family-owned offering delicious meals and inviting atmospheres.

Something that Cancun has that Playa del Carmen does not offer are large lavish dinner-club style restaurants. 

These restaurants are normally quite large and can hold a lot of guests. The décor will be extravagant and people will dress to impress. Exquisite menu selections for both food and drink, crafted and displayed with an artsy edge that both look and taste divine. 

It goes without a doubt that these restaurants will dazzle you with entertainment value as well. Whether it be sparkler bottle champagne service, smoking beverages, artistic dinner plates, live singers, dancers, or fascinating acrobats, a captivating show will be displayed for you. 

Make a stop at Chambao and be seduced by their tender melt-in-your-mouth steak, fire-lit drinks, and romantic guitar and acrobatic performance. 

Certainly, Cancun has budget-friendly restaurants as well, from local taco shops to famous chains such as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Senior Frogs, Dominos, and Hooters. 

playa del carmen main street

One of the main streets in Playa del Carmen for restaurants, shopping, and great bars!

Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun: Things to Do

In this category I would personally say that Playa del Carmen is the winner of “Things to Do” and the reason for that is because of its central location. 

Playa del Carmen is located right in the middle of the Rivera Maya between Cancun and Tulum and is located so close to many fascinating attractions and excursions. 

You will find exciting parks such as Xcaret, Xel Ha, Xplore, Rio Secreto, and Yal- Ku lagoon all within a 30-minute drive. Also, a handful of the best-known cenotes in the Riviera Maya are located within this radius making for easy exploration day trips. 

All of the above can be reached from Cancun by car or by public transit, but the commute is much quicker from Playa del Carmen.   

You will definitely want to check out some Cenotes while visiting the Mayan Riviera. Geographically in the world, you will only find them here. Cenotes offer beauty, tranquility, history, and mystery that you might not have ever experienced before.

Playa del Carmen is also much closer to beautiful surrounding beaches such as Xph- Ha, Akumal, and even Tulum. 

On the other hand, Canun is closer to “La Ruta de Los Cenotes ” translated to the route of the Cenotes. An eco touristic route with over 57 different Cenotes to stop by and enjoy.

hotels in cancun vs playa del carmen with pools and turquoise waters

Resorts in Cancun.

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Water Sports

You can’t visit Playa del Carmen or Cancun without taking a dip in the sea. Both cities are located right on the beach and have access to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

Playa del Carmen is closer to Cozumel offering world-class scuba diving known for stunning lively reefs. 

Cancun is closer to Isla Mujeres, offering protected snorkeling areas, great dive sites, and the ever-popular underwater museum. 

Playa del Carmen has a season where you can scuba dive with friendly bull sharks directly off the downtown shore. 

Cancun is closer in distance to the location in the sea where the whale sharks migrate for plankton feeding. All snorkeling trips for this activity leave from Cancun or Isla Mujeres. 

Playa del Carmen offers windsurfing whereas Cancun has wave surfing. 

Of course, both locations have jet ski rentals, banana boat rides, and paddle boards, but when it comes to the underwater world my personal choice would be Playa del Carmen. 

I am a bit biased in this argument due to the fact that Cozumel Island is just a short 45-minute ferry ride away from Play del Carmen.

Yes, Isla Mujeres is only a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun and has many amazing things to offer as well. When it comes to island vibe enjoyment Cozumel has absolutely won my heart. 

hotel pool with sunset in the background

Hotels in Playa del Carmen vs Cancun.

Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun: Nightlife

Depending on the style of nightlife you are looking for might sway you towards one location over the other. 

Cancun is widely known as a spring break hot spot but Playa del Carmen also has its fair share of wild parties. 

Both cities have nightclubs such as Coco Bongo, Mandala, and La Vaquita. The difference is that the clubs are allowed to stay open in Playa del Carmen until 3 am rather than the closing time of 1 am in Cancun. 

Playa del Carmen has the famous 5th Avenue which is a walking street with many restaurants, pubs, and bars. This street comes alive in the evening with live music playing in the venues and artists busking on the street. 

If you are a person who likes to mix culture and tradition with new and happening places you will find this on 5th Avenue which is in Playa del Carmen.  

What’s great about Playa del Carmen is that from each nightlife destination to another is a very easy walk. Everything in the center is within very close vicinity. In Cancun, nightclubs and restaurants are more spread out, where you will most likely want to take a taxi to each different location. 

Playa del Carmen has its famous 12th street where you will find multiple nightclubs for dancing, drinks, and just a good old party. 

But, as I mentioned earlier, Cancun has fancy dinner clubs which offer a totally different sophisticated, party-style experience. 

hotel zone aerial shot of cancun

Cancun Hotel Zone.

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Hotels and Accommodations

This topic will have to be debated based on what style of vacation or travel experience you are looking for. 

Cancun is known for its mega-resorts boasting grand properties with lush rooms, beautiful pools, and pristine oceanfront lounging. 

Usually, the resorts are all-inclusive style vacations where you eat and drink solely on the resort. 

The resorts will have everything to keep you entertained for your time away.  Such as poolside activities, water sports, activities for kids, Spanish lessons, and entertainment in the evenings. A lot of resorts even have a nightclub on location. 

The perfect vacation to totally relax, unwind and not worry about what you are doing from day to day. 

You don’t even have to leave the resort at all. But if you would like to, your hotel concierge service will be more than happy to help you book excursions and tours.  

These types of stays normally cost $1,500 USD per person per week depending on the hotel or resort. Of course, the food, drink, pool, and room quality will be reflected in the price. 

Playa del Carmen works a little differently. You will find all-inclusive resorts on the outskirts of the city, but the downtown centro in Playa del Carmen is packed with many different lodging options. 

You will find cute trendy boutique hotels, large-scale hotels such as the Hilton and the Hyatt, Air BnB options, and hostels. 

Prices will vary for the type of room to meet your expectations. 

Hostel beds can be as low as $7 USD a night, whereas your luxury hotels will cost you an average of $200 USD each night. These luxury hotels even have all-inclusive options for an additional fee.  

Of course, you can easily find a standard hotel room with a mid-range budget of anywhere between $80-150 USD per night. With this type of accommodation, you will need to venture out into the city for meals and entertainment. 

No need to worry as Playa del Carmen is packed with fantastic restaurants, bakeries, smoothie spots, bars, nightlife, entertainment, beaches, beach clubs, rooftop pool lounges, shopping, and much more. 

beach with palm trees and golden sand

Playa del carmen beaches.

Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun: Shopping

When it comes to shopping in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, personally I prefer Cancun. 

Cancun has an abundance of shopping malls and locations with stores of all styles. That is mostly due to the difference in size. Cancun is much larger than Playa del Carmen and therefore has a much larger demand for stores of all types.

In Cancun, you will find luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton, YSL, and Dolce&Gabbana. There are also a lot of shopping malls with stores like Zara, Lefties, MAC cosmetics, and H&M. 

My favorite part about the shopping in Cancun that Playa del Carmen doesn’t offer is classic mercado shopping. 

Head over to Mercado 28 to find any souvenir you can imagine. You will also find beautiful bags, clothing, hammocks, ceramics, tequila, and more. Naturally, because it’s a market you can try and negotiate the price a little. 

Learning some basic Spanish might help you with this trick with phrases such as “cuanto cuesta,” which means how much? 

My favorite market is Mercado 23. This market is more geared towards home goods. You will find places selling tortillas, fruits and vegetables, fresh Mexican cheeses, meats, seafood, flowers, wicker baskets, kitchen utensils, glasses, plates, religious statues, and the list goes on.

It is a smaller more traditional market. There is a little food section where different restaurants are offering classic Mexican foods. A great way to explore the traditional foods of Mexico. 

Playa del Carmen has great shopping as well but with a totally different style. Boutique, market, and brand name shopping can be found on 5th Avenue with extensive options.  

You can find beautiful handmade bikinis, decorative fashionable hats, and beachy clothing articles. There are even two small shopping malls located on 5th Avenue with brands such as Forever 21, Tommy Hilfiger, Sephora, and American Eagle. 

The market-style shopping in Playa del Carmen is small-scale compared to the markets in Cancun. 

I personally love market shopping and have found some of my coolest and funkiest possessions at markets.  For me, this is the major reason why Cancun wins in this category of shopping.

If you want to know the best souvenirs to get from this region of Mexico, check out our guide to Mexican souvenir shopping here.

aerial photo of beach in cancun

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen, which should you choose?

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: The Final Decision

You can’t go wrong in deciding between Playa del Carmen or Cancun as each city has many wonderful things to explore. 

Do you want a completely relaxing vacation on a tranquil yet exciting all-inclusive resort, or do you want city-style exploring with beaches within arm’s reach?

Personally, I would choose Playa de Carmen because I love trying something new and exploring every day. For travelers with young families, the grand resorts of Cancun might sound like a better option. 

It really all comes down to your personal travel style and expectations.  The Riviera Maya is so rich in tourism with an adventure for everyone. Hotel concierges, tour guides, restaurant servers, and entertainment staff, all do their very best to ensure your trip to the Caribbean is one to be remembered forever.