Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Battle of the Mexican Caribbean Destinations

OK, so you know you want to go on vacation, and the turquoise blue waters and white sand beaches of the Mexican Caribbean are calling, but should you go to Playa del Carmen or Cancun? Although they are very close to each other, these two world-class vacation destinations are very different. Aquaworld is here to help you make this important decision, because where you stay does make a difference as far as your overall experience. Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun… which will it be?

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun

So, first things first, where is Cancun and where is Playa del Carmen? Cancun is located on the Yucatan Peninsula on the eastern coast of Mexico, and so is Playa del Carmen, or “Playa”, as it as referred to by locals, about a one-hour drive south along the coast from Cancun.

Cancun is a planned tourism destination. The Mexican government examined the entire country and decided that this small “island”, which is surrounded by water, Nichupte Lagoon on one side and the spectacular Caribbean Sea on the other, was the perfect location for a vacation destination. Playa del Carmen developed more organically and was originally a coastal fishing village and the place to catch the ferry to Cozumel. Of course when tourists, many of which were staying in Cancun, visited the small, charming, bohemian town, they fell in love with it, so more hotels, restaurants, and tourism services began to open along the pedestrian street one block from the ocean, 5th Avenue.

Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer very different vibes, Cancun’s Hotel Zone has a more modern city feel, while Playa del Carmen, although it has grown immensely, feels more like a town.

Let’s examine Cancun and Playa del Carmen more closely.


Where to Stay in Cancun

Cancun can basically be broken into two areas, the Hotel Zone and downtown, where most locals live. Both areas offer hotels and vacation rental properties. Most of the hotels or resorts in the Hotel Zone are all-inclusive, meaning they offer everything, including restaurants and entertainment, on site. These services are included in the price of your stay. However, many visitors still enjoy leaving the resort to take tours or go shopping. More about that later.

For those that want to explore local restaurants and beaches, there are many vacation rentals available both downtown and in the Hotel Zone. Rentals may include a kitchen and swimming pool and/or beach access. There are also hostals available in both the Hotel Zone and downtown, which are excellent for travelers who are on a budget and want to meet other like-minded travelers.

Where to Stay in Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen consists of a few different areas, including Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue), the rest of downtown and Playacar. The hotels located along 5th Avenue are generally smaller and unique. They’re perfect for those who want to be right in the middle of the action and steps from the beach. Some may offer a rooftop pool or a small kitchen. The rest of downtown offers similar smaller hotels farther from the beach that may offer a swimming pool and a little bit more peace and quiet, and vacation rentals.

Playacar is a gated community south of 5th Avenue that is home to all-inclusive resorts, large luxury homes, and vacation rentals. It’s a beautiful area because it’s quiet, yet within walking distance of all the action in downtown Playa del Carmen.


Cancun Attractions

One of Cancun’s main attractions are its beaches, many of which are Blue Flag beaches. The Hotel Zone is shaped like the number seven. The beaches on the top portion are calmer, as they face Isla Mujeres, while the beaches on the lower portion face the open ocean and have bigger waves. Just a few of the best beaches in Cancun include Playa Delfines (Dolphin Beach) or El Mirador (The Lookout) at km 20, Playa Forum, located behind Plaza Forum in the Party Center, and Playa Ballenas, located at km 14.

Cancun’s Hotel Zone also offers various places to hop on the Isla Mujeres ferry. In 20 minutes visitors can be on the island and visit Playa Norte (North Beach), which is considered to be one of the best beaches in the world.

Playa del Carmen Attractions

Playa del Carmen also offers miles of beaches, lined with beach clubs, which are less common in Cancun. Beach clubs offer umbrellas and lounge chairs, food and cocktails, music, and sometimes swimming pools and other unique services… everything you need for the perfect day at the beach.

One of the best things about Playa del Carmen is the large numbers of cenotes that are within close proximity. Cenotes are breathtaking natural sinkholes that can be open, like a small lake, or completely covered, in a cave. There is nothing like swimming in a cool cenote on a sweltering tropical day and exploring its rock formations. Some cenotes offer snorkeling, diving, ziplines, and other activities.


Things to do in Cancun

Aquaworld offers endless outdoor activities for visitors, including the best Cancun snorkeling. During our Jungle Tour, you will drive your own motorboat to Punta Nizuc for snorkeling, where you will see marine life and coral reefs. The Isla Mujeres Day Trip is an unforgettable day at sea and on a tropical island, Discover Scuba in MUSA allows beginning divers to practice in the pool and then dive at the breathtaking Cancun Underwater Art Museum. If you want to do many activities in one day, Aquaworld’s AquaFUNtastic Day Pass allows you do to up to 10 activities for only $129 usd.

Things to do in Playa del Carmen

Aquaworld also offers Cozumel snorkeling, diving and cenote diving in Playa del Carmen. Explore Cozumel’s 3 best reefs, Palancar, Columbia & El Cielo with the Snorkel in Cozumel tour. If you’re an experienced diver, the Dive in Cozumel experience is a two-tank dive with expert guides, followed by lunch at an authentic Mexican restaurant. If it’s true adventure you seek, the Scuba Dive in Cenote Dos Ojos will be a once in a lifetime experience exploring the Yucatan Peninsula’s underground cave system.

¡ You might also be interested in: The Best Things to do in Playa del Carmen (tips from a local) !


Cancun Nightlife

Cancun has always been known for its glamorous nightlife, with huge nightclubs like Coco Bongo, Dady’O, Palazzo, and The City, which feature shows and dancing. Smaller bar-like clubs include Mandala, La Vaquita and Congo. There are bar/club-hopping tours available, but visitors generally choose one spot and hunker down for the night. Bar-restaurants like Senor Frogs and Carlos & Charlie’s are also popular, since families can visit in the late afternoon or early evening with their children, before things get too crazy.

Playa del Carmen Nightlife

Just like the city itself, Playa del Carmen is more eclectic as far at its nightlife goes, offering many smaller bars on and off 5th Avenue, like Kitxen and La Bodeguita del Medio, some with live music, and both small and larger nightclubs like Coco Bongo, Mandala and Palazzo. Downtown Playa del Carmen is an ideal place to bar/club hop, since most nightspots are within walking distance.

Just like in most cities around the world, in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen the busiest nights are Friday and Saturday.


Cancun Shopping

Cancun offers shopping for all budgets. From its high-end malls, like Luxury Avenue and La Isla’s Fashion Harbour in the Hotel Zone, to downtown’s Market 28, with its handicrafts and souvenirs. The best shopping mall in Cancun is Malecon Americas/Plaza Las Americas, because it is indoors and offers the most stores, services and restaurants. Cancun’s newest mall is Puerto Cancun Marina Town Center, an open-air facility located very close to downtown near the entrance to the Hotel Zone. For those who don’t want to venture far from their hotel but want to visit a market, Coral Negro is located in the Party Zone.

Playa del Carmen Shopping

Playa del Carmen does offer a couple malls, like Plaza las Americas and Centro Maya, but open-air malls, like Quinta Alegria, Paseo del Carmen and Plaza Playacar are more common. The best place to shop in Playa del Carmen is Quinta Avenida, where both chain and independent stores, shops and boutiques sell clothing and footwear, swimwear and souvenirs like art, tequila and silver. Shoppers can find anything their heart desires on Quinta Avenida and take a coffee break at a funky cafe and people-watch.

So there you have it, Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun. The truth is, it would be almost impossible to have a bad vacation in either of these world-renowned destinations, because both offer varied accommodations, attractions, activities, nightlife and shopping, but we hope this insight and information will help you to choose the option that best fits your wants and needs. Once you book, before you travel, make sure to reserve at least one of Aquaworld’s tours in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.