Playa del Carmen is located about an hour’s drive south of Cancun on the azure Caribbean Sea, smack in the middle of the Riviera Maya. Once a quiet fishing village, “Playa”, as it is referred to by locals, is a bustling city that hasn’t lost its bohemian appeal thanks to the charming pedestrian street “La Quinta Avenida”, aka 5th Avenue, and the many beach clubs where visitors and locals drink, eat, swim and work on their tropical tans. Playa del Carmen also offers many attractions, from ancient Mayan history and mysterious cenotes to parks, tours, nightlife, dining, and shopping.
There are so many things to do in Playa del Carmen. Read on to learn all about the best Playa del Carmen activities.
What to do in Playa del Carmen
My name is Kristin Busse and I am an American ex-pat who arrived in Cancun almost 19 years ago when Playa was still a very small town. Pretty much the only thing to do back then was going to the beach. Now there are so many things to do in Playa del Carmen that you can be as busy as you want to be.
Here are my favorite recommendations for what to do in Playa del Carmen…
Free Things to do in Playa del Carmen
A day at the beach is still one of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen. Technically all beaches in Mexico are public, so you can actually go to any beach you want, although gaining access to certain beaches can be tricky.
Although Playacar is a gated community and is private, the beach is public. Just find parking nearby and walk a few minutes South from the Cozumel Ferry pier. Please note that there are no services here, so you’ll need to bring food, drinks, and anything else you’ll need, with you.
If you don’t mind spending some money, there are many beach clubs to choose from in Playa, including Mamita’s, Zenzi, Lido, El Taj, Coralina, Kool and many more. Beach Clubs are nice because they offer loungers and/or beach beds and umbrellas, food and drinks so you don’t have to lug everything to the beach yourself. Most also offer music, and sometimes even activities.
Tip: remember to use reef-safe sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun without damaging coral reefs!
Mayan Ruins in Playacar
Since I mentioned Playacar, another very interesting option to see in Playa del Carmen (and for free) is the archaeological zone of Xaman Ha, which is literally inside the development. If you come with enough time (and money) I would recommend you to visit some of the largest and most impressive archeological sites near Playa del Carmen, such as Tulum, Coba (my favorite) or even Chichen Itza.
However, if you are on a tight schedule, I definitely recommend you make time to visit at least the Playacar site. It is much smaller in comparison to the others, but it has the unique characteristic of having been the home of Geronimo de Aguilar, a Spaniard who after being shipwrecked in 1511 (eight years before Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico) was captured by the Mayans of the region; for eight years he lived with them, learning their language, until in 1519 he joined the expedition of none other than Hernan Cortes, serving as an interpreter of the Mayan language and thus being a key piece of the conquest of Mexico.
Even today you can see masonry residences and platforms for houses that were the home of these people so many years ago. Another interesting fact about this site is that Structure C-1, which is the largest on the site, preserves fragments of mural painting that include one of the later known calendar dates in the Maya region.
Tip: Entrance to the site is free of charge, but since INAH does not have permanent staff at the site, a visit must be requested at least five days in advance from the INAH Quintana Roo Center. For this, you can call tel. 01 (983) 837 24 11 and 837 0796, ext. 318002 and 318003. You can also send an email to email@example.com
One of the best and most classic options to do in Playa del Carmen for free is to go for an evening stroll through Fundadores Park. Parque Fundadores is located outside of the ADO Bus Station on 5th Avenue next to the Cozumel Ferry Pier. There is a beautiful little church, the fantastic Portal Maya statue, a playground, and lots of stands that offer traditional Mexican street food and snacks.
Sometimes there are performances. Best of all is the spectacle of the “Voladores de Papantla” or the Papantla Flyers. This ancient Mexican ritual involves men dressed in colorful clothing hanging upside down from a 30-meter (98 feet) pole. They spin and slowly descend to the ground while one remains on top of the pole, playing a flute and drum.
Stroll Down 5th Avenue
I could write an entire article talking only about the best restaurants, cafes, boutiques and charming little corners you can find on Fifth Avenue (if you’d like to read that, tell me in the comments!). This famous pedestrian street in Playa del Carmen is so dynamic that every time I go I find something that captures my attention and no matter how many times I’ve been there, I always see something new.
You may want to spend money in the many cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, and boutiques, but strolling down 5th Avenue is completely free. It’s especially enjoyable in the evenings when it’s not as warm and twinkling lights and live music welcome you. You’ll also come across various types of free street performances, including fire shows and breakdancers.
Riviera Maya Jazz Festival
The Riviera Maya Jazz Festival takes place every fall and welcomes some well-known artists. The public brings blankets, chairs, food, and drinks to the beach to enjoy the shows. It’s best to arrive as early as possible since the festival is very popular.
Still haven’t decided where to go on vacation? We help you discover which is the ideal destination for you: Playa del Carmen vs Cancun
Romantic Things to do in Playa del Carmen
Have Dinner on the Beach
What is more romantic than dinner on the beach? The waves lapping the shore, twinkling lights, soft music… many beach clubs aren’t only open for breakfast and lunch, but also for dinner, including Indigo, Zenzi, Fusion, Inti, and others.
Tip: Stay for cocktails, as some also offer live music and dancing.
Watch the Sunrise
Yeah, sure, this may sound kind of pedestrian compared to other options but have you watched the sun as it rises over the Caribbean? Whether you stay up late after a night of partying or you rise up with the sun, I assure you that witnessing the beginning of a new day in Playa del Carmen is something to remember. Get up early, grab some coffee, take a stroll on the beach and watch the tequila sunrise. Afterward, head to a beach club or café on 5th Avenue for a delicious breakfast.
Get a Couples Massage
There are inexpensive massages available up and down the beach, but masseuses may or may not be well-trained. Another option is to head to a spa. Highly rated and centrally located spas include Bric Spa, Prana Spa, SPAzul and Veronica’s Massage Gold.
Dine at Alux
Does dining in a restaurant that is located in an underground cavern that is thousands of years old sound appealing? Maybe usually you would say flat out “no” but wait until you hear about Alux. The contemporary international author’s cuisine is delicious, and its unique and romantic ambiance cannot be beaten; complete with stalactites, chandeliers, candles and cool jazz, this is the place you’ve been looking for for that special date night.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen with Kids
Visit the 3D Museum of Wonders
If you want to go home with some really good vacation photos, the 3D Museum of Wonders won’t disappoint. The First 3D illusion art museum in the Americas, kids of all ages enjoy themselves here. Become part of the art and by taking photos and discovering that the 2-dimensional visuals you are seeing are actually 3-dimensional.
L’Aquarium is home to over 200 species of marine life, displayed in 45 exhibitions on 3 floors, including tropical fish, jellyfish, octopus, sharks and other creatures. Visitors will also learn about the importance of coral reefs. This reasonably priced attraction is just the right size.
Go to a Grupo Xcaret Park
Grupo Xcaret has been around for years because they offer a quality product. Xcaret Park is an eco-archaeological park that offers Mexican and Mayan flavor, color, music, nature and culture, plus, a section called Children’s World. This is an all-day adventure, while right next door, Xenses offers a half-day that will challenge the whole family’s senses.
Swim in Cenotes
There is nothing like exploring a cool, fresh water cenote on a hot tropical day. Ways to explore include swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving. Cenotes are natural sinkholes with beautiful underwater rock formations and were a very important part of the ancient Mayan civilization’s culture. Favorite cenotes include Dos Ojos, Tajma Ha, Chikin Ha, Azul, Garden of Eden, and Gran Cenote.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen when it Rains
Go to the Mall
Besides the many adorable (and unique) boutique shops you’ll find along the 5th Avenue, there’s also two open-air ‘malls’: Quinta Alegría and Paseo del Carmen. Though technically they are both open-air, both malls have canopies that shelter from the weather, more so Quinta Alegría than Paseo del Carmen, so they are very nice options of things to do in Playa del Carmen when it rains.
Quinta Avenida is quite new and, even if you’re not planning on shopping on the trendy stores you can find in its three levels, it’s a charming place to stop and take a coffee or ice cream, thanks to its picturesque design with an interior garden; you can find this mall right at the intersection of 5th Avenue pedestrian street and Constituyentes Avenue.
Paseo Del Carmen is located right at the beginning of the 5th Avenue (on its southernmost end). Though it is indeed a mall, once you’re there it feels more like you’ve entered into a quaint Mediterranean corner with cobblestone paths and clean white buildings.
Now, if the light weather protection of the canopies is not enough for you, there are two indoor malls in Playa del Carmen: Plaza las Americas and Centro Maya. These are directed more towards the locals, which is why you will find them away from 5th Avenue (Playa del Carmen’s main touristic area). Plaza Las Americas is home to a couple of department stores and other shops. There is also a food court and a gaming area for kids. There is a movie theater as well. Be advised that, while most adult movies are in English with subtitles, most kids’ movies are dubbed over in Spanish. Centro Maya also offers department stores, shops, a food court, a gaming area and a movie theater.
Go to Museo Frida Kahlo
If you haven’t been able to visit “La Casa Azul”, Frida’s home in Mexico City, you can explore her life in Mexico and importance in the art world through the museum’s conceptual exhibits. Each area has a guide. This is a delightful, colorful 2-hour experience.
Take the Kids out for Fast Food
Need a taste of home? Head to the Burger King on Calle 15 and Juarez or on 20th Avenida, or the McDonalds on Calle 1 Sur near the Chedraui grocery store for a fast food meal. Most importantly, all offer an indoor play area.
Tip: The previously mentioned 3D Museum of Wonders and L’Aquarium are also great on a rainy day.
Things to do near Playa del Carmen
Aquaworld offers many activities in the Playa del Carmen area, with or without transportation included, depending on your needs. Most take place in Cancun, where the marina and dive center is located; however, there are several other activities in or near Playa del Carmen. One standout is the bull shark diving, an unforgettable experience that takes place from November to February when groups of pregnant bull shark females arrive near the coast of Playa del Carmen. This activity is available only for certified divers with experience, so if you happen to be one, seize the opportunity to check this amazing experience off your bucket list.
Like I mentioned before, Aquaworld’s headquarters are located in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, just an hour’s drive from Playa del Carmen. We offer various diving tours to the best sites in Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Don’t feel like scuba diving? Our BOB (breathing observation bubble) Adventure allows you to stay underwater and explore, just like diving does. If you don’t feel like getting wet, the Subsee Explorer will work for the entire family. You can also fly high while parasailing with our SkyRider or go for a wild ride on the Aquatwister. Want to do it all? Book our AquaFUNtastic day pass, which also includes Aquabounce, Jungle Tour, Paradise Snorkel, Kayaks, Catamarans, Waverunner and Flowrider.
The ferry to Cozumel is conveniently located right in Playa del Carmen. Cozumel offers some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. With Aquaworld’s Snorkel in Cozumel tour, you’ll visit three sites in one day. If you prefer to dive, our Dive in Cozumel tour will take you on an unforgettable two tank dive.
Tulum is an hour’s drive down the coast from Playa del Carmen. If you’re ready for the adventure of a lifetime, Aquaworld can take you cavern diving in Dos Ojos or Tajma Ha cenotes. If you’d prefer to explore the Caribbean, choose our Reef Dive in the Riviera Maya.
Even after living here for almost 19 years, I haven’t managed to do all of these activities, so you won’t be able to do them all during your vacation, but I hope that this guide gives you a good idea of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen. Enjoy!