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Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: which one is best for a phenomenal vacation in Mexico?

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When you are planning a vacation to the Mexican Caribbean having to decide which destination to pick is a very difficult choice. Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum. Which one is best, now? I feel your pain and having lived in the area for quite a while I think I can help. Or at least I’ll try. So read on to learn more.

Although both popular beach resorts are located on the spectacular beaches of the Mexican Caribbean coast and are not short of ways to spoil their visitors, they are indeed two worlds apart.

I hope that this post will offer an accurate description of what your vacation would be like in both locations.

I have lived in Playa del Carmen on my very first time in Mexico when the popular Mexican beach town was indeed a town, 10 times smaller than it is now. Fast forward 10 years I couldn’t believe how it has grown and although I was sorry to see so much development and more concrete buildings I can say Playa del Carmen hasn’t lost its charm.

When I lived in Cancun I spent many weekends in Playa, with my friends and still enjoyed the laid-back vibes of a beach town, something that you definitely don’t find in Cancun.

Cancun beach
Cancun Beach

There is much more traffic and noise than it used to be but still, the fact that you have the city center (the popular Quinta Avenida) right at one block from the beach makes a whole lot of difference. I guess it’s the main and most significant factor that makes Playa del Carmen much more enjoyable.

To give you a better perspective, when my parents came and see me, even if I was living in Cancun I rented an apartment in Playa del Carmen for them, because it would have been easier for them to move around go to the beach, to the supermarket or take a stroll along the Quinta Avenida in the evenings.

In Cancun, they would have had to stay in their big resort or walk in a mall. How sad. They had the time of their life in Playa, by the way!

Anyway, back to us. There are a few things about Cancun that are unbeatable, though and I am going to talk about that as well later on, in this post.

You may also want to check out

Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun: which one is better?
Cancun vs. Tulum: which one to choose?

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: two worlds apart

The main difference between the two destinations lays in their past.

Cancun was built in the 70s on what was before a stretch of sand where one after the other all the hotels were quickly adding up to become what is now the Hotel Zone.

Downtown is where locals live and grew in proportion with the expansion of the hotel zone and all the tourist-related businesses.

Both areas are far apart and there is nowhere to go for a nice walk among shops and restaurants, which are all scattered around.

Cancun beach

The only exception is the fancy Plaza la Isla, a nice mall in the hotel zone facing the lagoon, where you can take a walk, admire a beautiful sunset or have dinner in one of the world-class restaurants.

If you are looking for a town with beach vibes or a colonial feel, forget Cancun.

Playa del Carmen is a completely different vibe, from that perspective. The town, which is actually now a city, revolves around 5th Avenue which stretches along the 10 km beach only one block apart.

Although you may find it a little touristy with lots of shops and touristy restaurants, it’s still a pleasant place to take a stroll in the evening while you are looking for a nice restaurant, do some shopping, get ice cream or just enjoy the laidback vibes.

And if you are a jogger, you will find a deserted Quinta Avenida between 6 to 8 am in the morning when you can easily do your running.

Playa del Carmen sunrise

The 5th avenue and the closest surroundings in Playa del Carmen are basically where everything happens, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, and cafes. Even the ADO bus station is right there. Actually, one terminal is on 5th avenue and one is 2 blocks away.  

So in Playa del Carmen, everything is at an easy walking distance and even if it has expanded immensely in the past year, it still conserves the small town feels because everything you need is still at a walking distance or a short taxi ride.

In Cancun, you will need a taxi every single time you want to go somewhere, or rent a car, of course.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: the beach

Ok now, that I have basically destroyed Cancun, let’s give it some love back.

I am sorry to say but the beach in Cancun is unbeatable and playa del Carmen doesn’t even compare.

In Cancun, the beach is wider, and cleaner and the color of the sea are blue to turquoise, while in Playa del Carmen is usually brown to brownish most of the time, of course, not always.

An exception is Playacar beach, the residential area south of Playa on the way to Tulum. If you walk from the Ferry pier southwards in Playa del Carmen you will find the incredible turquoise sea and even swimmable, for most of the time.

Playa del Carmen beach
Playa del Carmen Beach

The issue with Cancun Beach is that for the most part, it’s difficult to swim because of the strong currents which make it dangerous. There are beaches though where you can enjoy the calm swimmable water, mainly from punta Cancun towards downtown. Whereas from Coco Bongo to Playa Delfines and south the water can be rough with nasty currents. You can read more about it in my post on the best beaches in Cancun.

In Playa del Carmen the water is quite calm for the most part but by the center of town, it’s often quite murky.

However, in Playa del Carmen you can find lots of beach clubs or free access to the beach more easily than in Cancun where most of the beach zone is occupied by the big hotels.

Playa del Carmen is also close to the best beaches of the Riviera Maya such as Xpu-ha and Akumal, both at only 30 minutes’ distance.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: the cenotes

I am sure you know that the Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with the spectacular Mayan Cenotes, natural sinkholes that were sacred to the Mayan Civilization but also to us, when you can enjoy the refreshing water and do all the shenanigans, jumping and diving.

Well, if you are staying in Cancun, the closest cenotes that you can visit are located about 40 minutes from the city, in Puerto Morelos. It’s not bad and I suggest you should check out my guide to the Cancun Cenotes to know more.

If you are in Playa del Carmen, though, you have at least 5 cenotes at only 20 minutes drive. I am talking about the spectacular Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino among the best cenotes of the Riviera Maya.

cenote azul, couple sitting by the pool
Cenote Azul

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: best attractions

Keep in mind that Playa del Carmen and Cancun, although very different from one another, they are only 1-hour drive apart. Therefore they may share the same attractions in the surrounding area. If you are thinking of Chichen Itza, Holbox, Valladolid, El Cuyo, Merida, Uxmal there is not much difference in time and distance.

However, while Cancun is at only 20 minutes ferry ride from Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen is at only 20 minutes ferry from Cozumel, two different islands two different experiences.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Nightlife

Both destinations have a pretty lively nightlife, however, the difference is pretty much the same for anything else. That’s to say in Playa del Carmen you have all the nightclubs and restaurants at an easy walking distance, whereas in Cancun everything is spread out and you will need a taxi to reach your destination, every time.

Cancun by night

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: diving and watersports

Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are great diving destinations with incredible diving sites. From Cancun, you can even get to check out the Underwater Museum MUSA even if you are not certified, thanks to the shallow waters. From Playa del Carmen you have incredible sites to see the sharks, or close to the world-famous reef near Cozumel.

If you love surfing, you must go to Cancun though, whereas kitesurfers find the best beaches in Playa del Carmen (or El Cuyo of course)

cenote pit
Diving in cenote The Pit

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: restaurants and cafe’

Although all scattered around the city you can find amazing restaurants in Cancun with a variety of cuisine and excellent quality and most of all, for any price.

However, Playa del Carmen is not short of restaurants either, with an eclectic choice of all kinds of cuisine including local, Italian, Brazilian and more, and all of them at walking distance, which is what I love the most about Playa del Carmen.

Also in Playa del Carmen, there is a variety of vegan restaurants and cute Cafes that you don’t find in Cancun.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: hotel offer

Just like I mentioned in my Cancun vs Tulum post, Cancun is the kingdom of the big all-inclusive hotels and you won’t find cute boutique hotels and only very few hostels, especially on the beach.

This is not the case with Playa del Carmen where you can find a variety of incredible places, from cute boutique hotels to all-inclusive, hostels and a great variety of incredible and convenient apartments. And the best part is that they are all within walking distance of everything.

Cancun Hotels

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: final thoughts

All in all Playa del Carmen has more of a beach town feel while Cancun of a city. Playa has also a strategic location very much closer to everything while from Cancun, it takes longer to reach the main tourist destinations in the surroundings.

I would definitely choose Playa but if you want to lock yourself in an All-inclusive hotel, it doesn’t make a difference and in this case, I would choose based on the hotel of your liking. Let me know which one you choose. 🙂