When planning a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, one of the most common questions that come up is whether to base yourself in Playa del Carmen or Cancun. Each destination has its fans, with different pros and cons, which means it really depends on what you’re looking for in a getaway.
One of the biggest differences between the two places is their size, with Playa del Carmen home to around 305,000 and Cancun home to closer to 900,000. Cancun was built in the 1970s along the sand, aimed at tourists with one hotel after another constructed, ultimately becoming what’s called the hotel zone.
The locals generally live downtown, with both areas rather far apart. Other than the upscale mall, there isn’t an area to walk among restaurants and shops, rather they’re scattered about.
For those who like to enjoy laid-back streets for pleasant strolls, dining out and browsing shops, Playa del Carmen revolves around Quinta Avenida just a block from the beach. It’s where everything’s at, from the bus station to cafes, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops. Despite its growth in recent years, it still has a small-town feel, with everything easily reach on foot.
Taking a deeper dive, there are advantages and disadvantages to both so you’ll want to choose according to your priorities.
If the beach is your primary reason for coming, Cancun might be your best choice. The sands are pristine, strikingly white and as soft as powdered sugar.
The color of the water is surreal, in every shade of blue and green. In Playa del Carmen, it’s not as brilliant, in fact it often has more of a brown hue with the exception of Playacar heading south toward Tulum. Near the center of town, it tends to be murky.
In Cancun, the beaches are less crowded in the resorts than the public beaches in Playa del Carmen as they’re easily accessible. But it can be difficult to enjoy the best stretches in Cancun if you aren’t staying at one of the resorts.
Those who are planning on a resort stay that includes soaking up the sun and the sand most days have an easier choice to make with Cancun the no-brainer here. Just be sure to reserve a room at one on a swimmable beach if you want to spend time in the water as the water can be too rough in some areas.
Some of the best include Hyatt Ziva Cancun, Hard Rock Hotel, Ritz-Carlton Cancun, Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach, and InterContinental Presidente.
Both Playa del Carmen and Cancun are excellent for diving, but from Cancun you can dive down to the Underwater Museum.
You don’t even have to be certified as the water is shallow. One of the world’s largest underwater art attractions, over 450 sculptures were placed at depths from 13- to 30-feet, created from a cement mix that’s known to facilitate reef growth.
From Playa del Carmen, however, you can easily reach one of the world’s best places to dive, Cozumel, by catching the ferry. There are no ferries from Cancun to Cozumel.
You might be surprised to learn that Cancun is a great place to learn to surf, in fact, some say it’s the best in the world with waves that are ideal for beginners to intermediates.
There’s an all sand bottom and the water is warm and crystal clear. You won’t need a wetsuit, so you’ll have more flexibility too. You’ll need to go between June and November, with the best surfing beaches on the northern side of the hotel zone.
If you’re more advanced, Playa Delfines is the best spot and you’ll be able to enjoy the waves practically all to yourself because most visitors don’t swim here due to the strong current.
Playa Marlin is good for beginners on most days but if it’s windy it can provide a challenge for the more experienced. Playa Ballenas is recommended for all levels but if you’re new to the sport don’t go when the waves get too big.
The most popular Mayan ruins are Chichen Itza, which are two hours from Cancun and 2.5 from Playa del Carmen, but the Tulum ruins are just 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen and 80 minutes from Cancun.
They can easily be visited in a half-day if you don’t want to spend to much time away from your resort or the beach.
You’ll be perfectly positioned from Playa del Carmen, and you can even jump into the turquoise waters right behind the ruins, not to mention the fabulous photo-ops.
If you’re looking for upscale shopping and aren’t concerned about buying local items, Cancun offers high-end malls, including La Isla’s Fashion Harbour in the Hotel Zone and the open-air Puerto Cancun Marina Town Center. Market 28 downtown does have souvenirs and handicrafts, but you’ll find more of that in Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen does have a couple of standard shopping malls, but along Quinta Avenida you’ll find independent stores, shops and boutiques alongside some chain retailers for buying everything from silver and art to tequila and clothing. There are fun cafes for coffee breaks and people watching too.
The open-air malls are fun to wander through too, including Plaza Playacar, Paseo del Carmen, and Quinta Alegria.
In Cancun most visitors eat at their resorts throughout their trip, or at least most of it. Those who head elsewhere will find most of the restaurants in the tourist area are the same chains they have back home as the area caters to tourists.
If you want to eat food that you’re familiar with, Cancun is the better of the two cities with Mexican, American, and many options like Italian and French.
Playa del Carmen is the best option for those who want fresh fish and authentic Mexican cuisine. The further from the town center you are, the more local eateries you’ll find. Dining out is also less expensive here and there are lots of fantastic street foods as well.
Whether you choose Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you’ll have lively nightlife options, but Cancun is a favorite among younger tourists and spring breakers, surpassing Playa del Carmen in that regard.
The party doesn’t stop until dawn with lines at some clubs like Mandala, The City, and Coco Bongo drawing long lines, but for most it’s worth the wait. At many venues you can buy an open bar bracelet and pay one prince to enter and drink all night.
Senor Frog’s is here too, starting out as a family-friendly restaurant but after around 9 p.m. it becomes a wild nightclub with foam parties, glow parties, reggae nights, and all sorts of craziness.
The upside for Playa del Carmen is that all the restaurants and clubs are within easy walking distance of each other while Cancun’s venues are spread out, requiring a taxi to get to and from your destination.
There is a Coco Bongo here too, one of the favorites where you can watch acrobatic shows, artist impressions, and other performances. In between the shows, all types of music genres are played and people dance throughout the place, complete with confetti and balloons.