Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Which One Is Best for an Amazing Vacation in Mexico?

Want to find out which between Cancun vs Playa Del Carmen is best? You’ve come to the right place!

When planning a vacation to the Mexican Caribbean, deciding which destination to pick is a very difficult task.

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 lived in Playa del Carmen for the 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.

Four years later, I went back to Mexico to live in Cancun, and 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 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 than Cancun.

To give you a better perspective, I rented an apartment in Playa del Carmen when my parents came and saw me, even if I lived in Cancun.

It was easier for them to move around and go to the beach, the supermarket, or stroll along the Quinta Avenida in the evenings.

They would have had to stay in their big resort or walk in a mall in Cancun. 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 like

Cancun vs Cabo
Cancun vs Tulum
Cancun vs Cozumel
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum
Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun
Playa del Carmen vs Tulum
Cabo vs Tulum
Tulum vs Puerto Vallarta

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Two Worlds Apart

The main difference between the two destinations lies 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 grow 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 has a completely different vibe from that perspective. The town, which is actually now a city, revolves around the popular Quinta Avenida (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 restaurants, it’s still a pleasant place to stroll in the evening while looking for a nice restaurant, do some shopping, get ice cream, or enjoy the laidback vibes.

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

Playa del Carmen sunrise

5th Avenue and the closest surroundings in Playa del Carmen are basically where everything happens and where you will find the best 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 within 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 within walking distance or a short taxi ride.

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

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: The Beach

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

Both Playa del Carmen and Cancun have some of the best beaches in Mexico, I admit.

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 is of every shade of 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, 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 it’s often quite murky by the center of town.

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 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-minute distance.

Playa delfines in Cancun

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: The Cenotes

I am sure you know that the Yucatan Peninsula itinerary is dotted with spectacular Mayan Cenotes and natural sinkholes that were sacred to the Mayan Civilization.

But also to us, where you can enjoy the refreshing water and do all the shenanigans, like jumping and diving.

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

If you are in Playa del Carmen, though, you have at least 5 cenotes at only a 20-minute 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

Remember that Playa del Carmen and Cancun, although very different from one another, 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, and Uxmal, there is not much difference in time and distance.

However, while Cancun is only a 20-minute ferry ride from Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen is only a 20-minute ferry from Cozumel, two different islands and 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 easy walking distance, whereas in Cancun, everything is spread out, and you will need a taxi to reach your destination every time.

Do I need travel insurance in Mexico? Yes, you do! I can never stress enough what a lifesaver it can be in unexpected situations. Although I hope I never need it, it gives me peace of mind to know that whatever happens, I am covered. I have been using  Safety Wing, and I find it quite fair, covering a lot for its pricing level. Depending on your needs or you can compare different insurance companies on this useful site, TRAVEL INSURANCE MASTER. Make sure you read carefully what’s included before making the purchase. If you are undecided yet, you can read my post on the best travel insurance for Mexico for more clarity.

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)

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Restaurants and Cafes

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 within walking distance 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 various 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

Frequently Asked Questions: Cancun vs Playa del Carmen

Is Playa del Carmen Quieter Than Cancun?

In my experience, Playa Del Carmen tends to be slightly quieter than Cancun. While both offer vibrant atmospheres, Playa Del Carmen feels more laid-back and relaxed, making it an excellent choice for those seeking a quieter getaway.

Is Cancun or Playa del Carmen Better for Families?

I would lean towards Playa Del Carmen. With its calmer vibe, Playa Del Carmen offers a more family-oriented atmosphere, a variety of kid-friendly activities, and a charming pedestrian area.

Which Is Safer Cancun or Playa del Carmen?

Both Cancun and Playa Del Carmen are popular tourist destinations with well-established security measures. I felt equally safe in both cities, as long as I followed basic travel precautions and stayed aware of my surroundings.

Is Playa del Carmen Less Touristy Than Cancun?

Yes, while Playa del Carmen welcomes plenty of tourists every year, it is still less touristy than Cancun. The former is a small beach town while the latter is a bigger city.

Is Playa del Carmen Worth Seeing?

Yes, Playa del Carmen is worth the visit! Although it is relatively smaller than other destinations in Mexico, it is brimming with places to see and activities to try.

Its beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, amazing jungles, and thriving nightlife make Playa del Carmen a must-visit in Mexico!

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 also has a strategic location much closer to everything, while from Cancun, it takes longer to reach the main tourist destinations.

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. 🙂

Before You Go…

Here are some useful posts that you may be interested in…