Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Which is better for a beach vacation in 2023?
Situated on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Playa del Carmen and Cancun are two of the most popular beach destinations in Mexico.
Known for being overly touristy, both are beautiful beach destinations best suited for a tropical getaway over cultural immersion. But which one is better for a beach vacation?
That’s where I’m here to help! I’m a travel blogger that lives in Playa del Carmen and have visited Cancun many times so I’m very familiar with what each town is like.
In this ultimate Playa del Carmen vs Cancun comparison guide, I’m sharing my honest perspective of Playa del Carmen and Cancun as travel destinations in 2023 to help you decide which Mexican beach town is best for you.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Overview
Playa del Carmen and Cancun are only a one-hour drive apart, yet they have very distinct vibes.
If you’re limited on time and are trying to decide where to spend your vacation days, here’s a quick overview of each destination:
About Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, Mexico is a laid-back beach destination located on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula just 1 hour south of Cancun.
Originally a small fishing village, the town has grown rapidly to a population of about 300,000 people with a large expat and digital nomad community.
Even with its growing population and busy touristy areas, Playa del Carmen (known simply as “Playa” to locals) still feels like a small Mexican beach town.
It’s known for its stunning turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and lively main street known as Fifth Avenue (“La Quinta Avenida” in Spanish).
You won’t find any high rises in Playa del Carmen as all structures must adhere to a maximum height limit.
There are also many restaurants, bars, and shops located in downtown Playa del Carmen and within short walking distance of the beach, making it a great place to explore and relax.
Originally founded in 1970, Cancun has a long history of welcoming tourists, honeymooners, and spring breakers from all over the world to its beautiful beaches, clear blue waters, and all-inclusive resorts.
Nowadays, the town’s population has grown to almost 1 million people and you’ll find a bustling beach town with high-rise hotels and condominiums, chain restaurants, and modern shopping malls.
There are two distinct areas in Cancun: Downtown (“El Centro”) and the Hotel Zone (“Zona Hotelera”).
The Hotel Zone is a long and narrow strip of beachfront where the majority of hotels, shops, restaurants, and nightlife are located.
This area is much more developed and touristy, while the downtown area is more local and traditional.
As Cancun is more developed, it is more spread out and not very walkable. If you want to venture around town, you’ll need to take a taxi and be prepared for lots of traffic!
🏝 Related Reading: Is Cancun in the Caribbean?
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Who are they suited for?
Here’s an overview of the types of travelers each beach town is best suited for:
Who is Cancun suited for?
If you’re simply looking for a place to relax and soak up the sun, Cancun will be perfect for you.
The city’s beaches are world-renowned for their soft sand and clear turquoise waters, and there are plenty of restaurants and nightlife to keep you entertained.
As Cancun is known for its famed Hotel Zone, it is best suited for travelers who want an all-inclusive booking option and don’t plan to leave the resort.
The city offers a wide range of all-inclusive resorts that cater to every type of traveler, from families to couples to groups of friends.
Cancun is also a great choice for travelers who value ease of travel over planning a detailed itinerary.
The city is located just minutes away from the Cancun Airport, making it easy to get off the plane and onto the beach at your resort without much time or hassle.
Who is Playa del Carmen suited for?
As compared to Cancun, Playa del Carmen has a much more laid-back vibe and while still touristy, feels less commercialized and more like a small beach town.
It’s best suited for travelers looking for walkability and easy access to restaurants, beaches, and nightlife.
Its wide variety of accommodations appeal to a range of travelers whether you’re looking for something luxurious or more budget-friendly.
Playa del Carmen is also a great central hub for exploring other parts of Mexico, which makes it a great destination for solo travelers and digital nomads.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Pros and Cons
Next, let’s take a look at some of the Cancun Playa del Carmen pros and cons that I’ll discuss further in this post:
Pros of Cancun
- Beautiful beaches
- Easy airport access
- Better shopping
- High-end restaurants
Cons of Cancun
- Lots of traffic
- High rise hotels
- Not walkable
- More populated
Pros of Playa del Carmen
- More types of accommodations
- Extremely walkable
- Easy beach access
- More laid back, small beach town vibe
Cons of Playa del Carmen
- Less beautiful beaches
- Further from Cancun Airport
- Fewer options for shopping and restaurants
- Less modern
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Safety Comparison
With the increased crime rates throughout Mexico widely broadcast across international news channels, you might be wondering – are Playa del Carmen and Cancun safe?
In 2023, both Playa del Carmen and Cancun have the same safety advisory level.
The U.S. Department of State maintains a travel advisory of “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” for both towns due to the high levels of crime and violence in the state of Quintana Roo.
The Mexico travel advisory states that criminal activity and violent crime may occur in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
It’s recommended that travelers maintain a high level of situational awareness at all times when visiting and avoid any areas where illicit activities are occurring.
From my experience living in Playa del Carmen as a solo female traveler, I do feel relatively safe living here.
Yes, drug-related crime does exist in Playa del Carmen just as it does in Cancun but since the town is usually pretty busy, it feels safe to be out and about during the day and at night.
I live pretty cautiously because I’ve learned what to avoid and how to stay safe in Playa del Carmen.
Safety is never guaranteed but if you take precautions and avoid trouble, most tourists will not have any safety issues while visiting Playa del Carmen or Cancun.
Of course, it is always important to be cautious when traveling to any new destination. Be sure to avoid illegal drug activity, stay in well-lit areas at night, keep your belongings close to you, and don’t flash your cash around.
🚨 Do you need travel insurance for Mexico? Yes! Most insurance plans in your home country will not cover incidents abroad. I recommend using Travel Insurance Master, which is a handy travel insurance marketplace where you can compare policies. Get a FREE quote by clicking here!
Cancun versus Playa del Carmen: Cost Comparison
Cancun and Playa del Carmen are both highly commercialized and traveling to these destinations will be more expensive than other towns in Mexico.
Costs for hotels, transportation, and food are pretty comparable in both Playa del Carmen and Cancun.
However, staying in Cancun tends to be more expensive since it is mainly geared towards all-inclusive stays and you’ll pay more upfront for this convenience.
In addition, Cancun is less walkable so while you’ll pay less for airport transportation, you’ll likely pay more for taxis around town if you choose to leave the resort.
In Playa del Carmen, you’ll still be able to find all inclusive resorts, but if you’re on a budget, you’ll be able to find cheaper accommodations, vacation rentals, and a range of more affordable restaurants.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Beaches Comparison
The beaches in Cancun are typically better than the beaches in downtown Playa del Carmen as they are more widespread and the water is brighter turquoise in color.
However, the currents at Cancun beaches are generally stronger and the waves are not always calm for swimming.
It’s also important to keep in mind that both destinations can suffer dramatically from seaweed invasion at various times throughout the year.
All beaches in Mexico are technically open to the public but in Cancun, you’ll find that public beach access is harder to come by in the Hotel Zone that is dominated by all-inclusive beachfront hotels and private properties that may restrict access.
Playa del Carmen beaches are also nice but the beachfront area can be more congested with tourists and vendors, and the water is not as clear as in Cancun.
However, the beaches in Playa del Carmen are easier to access whether you want to stay at a beachfront hotel, visit one of the many beach clubs, or simply lay down your own beach blanket.
Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Hotels Comparison
Probably the most noticeable difference between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is the hotel accommodations.
What are the hotels like in Cancun?
If you’re looking for a luxury all-inclusive beachfront resort in Cancun, you won’t have any trouble finding one.
Cancun’s Hotel Zone pretty much dominates the entire stretch of beachfront in Cancun and is full of high-rise hotels and resorts overlooking the ocean.
However, if you’re on a budget or looking for a more unique accommodation, you might be out of luck.
There are very few boutique hotels or hostels in Cancun, which can be limiting if you’re on a budget and don’t want to splurge on an all-inclusive resort.
What are the hotels like in Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya?
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen and the surrounding Riviera Maya region offer a wide variety of accommodations for every budget.
You can find all inclusive resorts, beachfront hotels, boutique properties, hostels, and vacation rentals and apartments.
The best Playa del Carmen hotels offer something for everyone whether you want to stay downtown for easy access to restaurants and nightlife or stay at a Riviera Maya resort further away for better beaches, expansive pools, and landscaped grounds.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Transportation Comparison
Ease of access and cost of transportation should also be considered when comparing Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
One of the biggest benefits of staying in Cancun is its close proximity to the Cancun Airport.
The Hotel Zone is located just 25 minutes away from the airport making it quick, easy, and inexpensive to get from the airport to your hotel.
On the other hand, getting from Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen will take about an hour and be much more costly.
Current airport transfer rates are as follows:
- Cost of Private Airport Transfer to Cancun Hotel Zone: $39 USD each way
- Cost of Private Airport Transfer to Playa del Carmen: $70 USD each way
Taxis are abundantly available and can be hailed easily in both Playa del Carmen and Cancun and prices are comparable in both towns. Resorts can also assist with calling taxis and arranging transportation for guests.
In both destinations, it’s always best to confirm the price of the taxi upfront before getting in to avoid getting overcharged.
Playa del Carmen and Cancun pretty much offer the same public transportation options including colectivos (shared vans), the ADO Bus, as well as the Playa Express (shuttle service between Cancun and Playa del Carmen).
Related Reading: How to Get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Activities Comparison
Both Playa del Carmen and Cancun offer a wide variety of activities, which visitors to both destinations can enjoy for day trips and excursions.
There are limitless things to do in Riviera Maya, such as snorkeling, scuba diving, catamaran sails, Mayan Ruins, cenotes, and adventure parks.
It ultimately comes down to the distance and travel time to get to these activities and excursions. Here are some activity highlights you’ll find closer to each destination:
Activities Closer to Cancun:
- Isla Mujeres: A tiny island just 15 minutes off the coast of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is known for its stunning beaches, snorkeling excursions, catamaran sails, and private yacht charters.
- MUSA Underwater Museum: Located near Isla Mujeres, the MUSA Underwater Museum offers visitors the chance to snorkel and scuba dive at a man-made underwater sculpture park.
- Isla Contoy: Located just a few miles off the coast of Cancun, Isla Contoy is an uninhabited tropical island that only allows 200 visitors each day for a totally exclusive deserted island experience.
- Isla Blanca: A long and sandy peninsula just north of Cancun, Isla Blanca is a remote beach destination offering untouched beaches and simple beach clubs to escape the hustle and bustle of Cancun.
- Xavage Adventure Park: As Xcaret’s newest adventure park, Xavage Park offers a variety of intense and adrenaline pumping activities such as a ropes course, ziplining, monster trucks, high speed jet boat, and white water rafting.
- Xoximilco: Another Xcaret experience, visitors to Xoximilco can float down man-made canals on a colorful barge drinking tequila and listening to live Mariachi, a recreation of the original attraction in Mexico City.
Activities Closer to Playa del Carmen:
- Tulum Ruins: The only beachfront Mayan Ruins in the state of Quintana Roo, the Tulum Ruins offer visitors a glimpse into the region’s ancient history and spectacular seaside views.
- Cozumel: Located just 35 minutes from Playa del Carmen by ferry, Cozumel Island offers many amazing things to do from beach clubs and adventure activities to spectacular snorkeling and scuba diving at the island’s world renowned coral reefs.
- Cenotes: While cenotes (natural swimming holes) can be found all over the region, there are many beautiful cenotes near Playa del Carmen and Tulum that are worth visiting.
- Xcaret Parks: Many of the Xcaret adventure parks can be found just south of Playa del Carmen including Xcaret, Xplor, Xel-Ha, and Xenses, offering a variety of adventure and water activities.
For those interested in seeing the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are almost equal distances (about 2.5 hours) from the archaeological site.
Ultimately, the decision of which destination to choose will come down to personal preference and what activities you are most interested in doing during your visit to Mexico.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Food and Restaurant Comparison
Overall, the restaurant scene is Cancun and Playa del Carmen feels very different. You can find a range of restaurants in both destinations but Cancun feels more touristy.
Catering more towards American tourists, there is a heavy presence of chain restaurants in Cancun such as Hooter’s, Pizza Hut, Subway, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.
But at the same time, you’ll also find much higher end fine dining restaurants such as RosaNegra, Puerto Madero, and Porfirio’s with upscale atmospheres and waterfront locations.
In Cancun, there are far more outstanding waterfront dining options than in Playa del Carmen.
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen has a wider selection of restaurants whether you’re looking for a quick bite or a luxurious meal.
The town offers a wide variety of restaurants, from cheap taco joints to authentic Mexican food to upscale international cuisine.
There are fine dining restaurants in Playa del Carmen too but not as many as you’ll find in Cancun.
Most restaurants in Playa del Carmen offer al fresco seating areas but there aren’t that many nice dinner restaurants located directly on the beach.
But the best part is that pretty much all of the restaurants in Playa del Carmen are within easy walking distance.
If you’re staying downtown, you won’t have to take a taxi to get to dinner and you’ll be in the heart of the town’s entertainment and nightlife on 5th Avenue.
Playa del Carmen vs Cancun Nightlife Comparison
Cancun and Playa del Carmen both offer a wide variety of nightlife options, from lively clubs and bars to more laid-back lounges and restaurants.
Which one is right for you depends on what kind of nightlife scene you’re looking for.
Cancun is known for its spring break party scene, with a number of large clubs that stay open until the early hours of the morning.
Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, has the same type of nightclub scene but on a slightly smaller scale and with more relaxed bars.
Both destinations offer popular nightclubs and bars like Coco Bongo, Mandala, La Vaquita, and Senor Frog’s.
In addition, Cancun offers more beachfront party spots like Coco Bongo Beach Club and Mandala Beach Club.
Overall, both destinations have something to offer visitors looking to experience the best of Mexican nightlife.
FAQs about Playa del Carmen vs Cancun
Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun:
The beaches in Cancun are better than the beaches in downtown Playa del Carmen as they are generally more widespread and the water is brighter turquoise in color.
However, both destinations can suffer from seaweed invasion at various times throughout the year.
Cancun and Playa del Carmen have pretty comparable costs for hotels, transportation, and food.
However, staying in Cancun tends to be more expensive since it is mainly geared towards all-inclusive stays and you’ll pay more upfront for this convenience.
Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen have the same “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” travel advisory as issued by the U.S. Department of State.
Drug related crime exists in both destinations but if you take precautions and avoid illegal activity, tourists are rarely involved.
Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum each have very different vibes and attract different kinds of travelers.
Cancun is best for all inclusive stays, Tulum is best for upscale boutique hotels, and Playa del Carmen is a happy medium with a wide variety of accommodations.
Final Thoughts: Is Playa del Carmen better than Cancun?
I hope this Playa del Carmen vs Cancun comparison guide was helpful in choosing which Mexican beach destination is best for you.
It’s not a secret that I prefer to live in Playa del Carmen over Cancun just for its laid back vibe, walkability, and small beach town feel.
But if I was planning a vacation, I would definitely consider Cancun for its superior beaches and beachfront relaxation.
If you’re still trying to decide between Playa del Carmen or Cancun in 2023, here’s my take:
- What Playa del Carmen has going for it is that it’s extremely walkable, has a much more laid-back vibe, and appeals to a wider variety of travelers.
- What Cancun has going for it is its superior beaches, hassle-free all-inclusive hotels, and easy access to the airport.
But no matter which destination you choose, you’ll still be treated to Caribbean beaches, a vibrant culture, and many fun things to do that you are sure to have an incredible time!
Traveling to Mexico soon?
These are the Mexico travel resources I use and recommend:
🏨 Hotels: I always find the best deals for Mexico hotels and resorts on Booking.com. If you prefer a vacation rental, check VRBO as they are often cheaper than AirBnB’s added fees!
✈️ Flights: I recommend using Skyscanner for the best Mexico flight deals. Be sure to sign up for their price alerts for your preferred travel dates.
🚗 Rental Cars: I like to use Discover Cars because you can compare multiple car rental companies and see detailed ratings for overall value, ease of pick-up, efficiency of agents, car condition, and overall time spent.
🚙 Cancun Airport Transportation: I recommend booking a private transfer with Cancun Airport Transportation for the quickest and most hassle-free option!
🤿 Tours & Activities: I always use Viator or GetYourGuide for booking tours and activities in Mexico. You can cancel up to 24 hours before the tour for a full refund, plus they have excellent customer service if you were to have any issues.
🚨 Travel Insurance: After my Dad broke his hand in a taxi accident in Playa del Carmen, I always recommend buying travel insurance before your trip for added peace of mind! I recommend Travel Insurance Master for short trips or Safety Wing for digital nomads.
☀️ Biodegradable Sunscreen: Don’t forget to add biodegradable sunscreen to your Mexico packing list! Regular sunscreen is prohibited when swimming in the ocean and cenotes in Mexico, so you’ll need to pack some biodegradable sunscreen for sun protection. I recommend Sun Bum Sunscreen, which is reef-friendly, vegan, and cruelty-free.