Cancun Vs Playa del Carmen

White Line

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen - Which One is Better for You?

Table of Contents

Deciding which destination to choose among Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum when planning a vacation to the Mexican Caribbean can be a challenging task. 

While Cancun and Playa del Carmen share breathtaking beaches and plenty of attractions, the two popular beach resorts on Mexico’s Caribbean coast are very different.

After taking visiting Cancun and Playa del Carmen for 7 years, I can confidently help provide you with a better understanding of the similarities and differences between Playa del Carmen and Cancun.


🇲🇽 Mexico Travel Resources We Use:


Read Next:

But before we dive deeper into the comparison let’s take a quick look at some of the similarities and differences of the two popular destinations:


Playa del Carmen





Airport with International Flights



Wide beaches



Crowded Beaches



Active Nightlife and party scene



Restaurant and Food Options



Budget-friendly options






Close to Cenotes



Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: The Vibe

The key distinction between the two locations is their atmosphere. Cancun’s Hotel Zone was constructed in the 1970s on what was previously just a strip of beach, with hotels quickly popping up one after the other.

Downtown, on the other hand, has grown alongside the development of the hotel zone and tourist industry and is where the locals reside. Even though both are situated far apart, there isn’t a single location to take a leisurely stroll past all the restaurants and shops, which are dispersed throughout the area.

If you want a beach town with a colonial atmosphere, Cancun is not the place for you. However, there is one exception – Plaza la Isla, a stylish mall in the hotel zone with a view of the lagoon. You can enjoy strolling, admiring the sunset or dining at one of the high-class restaurants there.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a town with beach vibes and a lively atmosphere, Playa del Carmen would be a better fit. It’s a city centered around Quinta Avenida, a popular street that runs parallel to the beach for 10 km, only a block away.

While it may be touristy with many shops and restaurants, taking an evening stroll is still a pleasant experience in this area. You can even find a nice restaurant, go shopping, or enjoy some ice cream while soaking up the laidback vibes. If you’re a jogger, you can take advantage of the deserted Quinta Avenida between 6-8 am in the morning for a peaceful run.

The area around 5th avenue in Playa del Carmen is the hub of activity with a wide array of options for restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shops, and cafes. Additionally, the ADO bus station is conveniently located nearby, with one terminal on 5th avenue and the other just 2 blocks away.

In Playa del Carmen, you can easily walk to everything you need, and even though it has grown a lot in the past year, it still maintains a small-town vibe. However, in Cancun, you’ll need to take a taxi or rent a car every time you want to go somewhere.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: The Beaches

Playa del Carmen and Cancun both have some great beaches in Mexico. But hands down Cancun’s beaches are the most beautiful in the area and superior to Playa del Carmen’s. The beach in Cancun is wider and cleaner, and the color of the sea ranges from shades of blue to turquoise. Playa del Carmen’s beach, on the other hand, is usually brownish in color, although there are exceptions.

Playacar beach is an exception to the rule. It is located in the residential area to the south of Playa that leads to Tulum. If you head southwards from the Ferry pier in Playa del Carmen, you will discover the amazing turquoise sea which is mostly swimmable.

Cancun Beach has an issue with strong currents that make it difficult and dangerous to swim. However, there are some beaches where the water is calm and safe for swimming, mainly from Punta Cancun towards downtown.

In my post on the best beaches in Cancun, I mentioned that the water from Coco Bongo to Playa Delfines in the south can be rough with strong currents. Meanwhile, in Playa del Carmen, the water is generally calm, although it may appear murky in the center of town.

It is easier to find beach clubs or free beach access in Playa del Carmen compared to Cancun, where most of the beach area is taken up by large hotels. Moreover, Playa del Carmen is conveniently located near the top beaches of Riviera Maya, including Xpu-ha and Akumal, which are just a 30-minute drive away.

If you want to relax on the beach in Playa, here are some tips to help you find a spot:

  1. Arrive early to secure a spot
  2. Go on a weekday, as the beach is more crowded on weekends when locals are off work.
  3. Explore the beaches to the north of Playa, which are less popular and have a smaller stretch of sand.

However, this doesn’t mean that you will have a completely secluded beach to yourself in Cancun. What it does mean is that there are larger stretches of sand and a wider variety of beach options for visitors to enjoy.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Things to Do

Visitors to Playa del Carmen and Cancun can enjoy a wide range of activities available in the Riviera Maya, including snorkeling, scuba diving, catamaran sails, Mayan Ruins, cenotes, and adventure parks as day trips or excursions. The decision ultimately depends on the distance and travel time required to reach these activities. Here are some activity highlights available closer to each destination:

Activities near Cancun:

  • Isla Mujeres: Isla Mujeres, which is only a 15-minute boat ride away from Cancun, is a small island famous for its beautiful beaches, opportunities for snorkeling, catamaran rides, and private yacht rentals.
  • Isla Contoy: Isla Contoy is a tropical island near Cancun that permits only 200 visitors daily. This allows for an exclusive, deserted island experience.
  • MUSA Underwater Museum: The MUSA Underwater Museum is a man-made sculpture park near Isla Mujeres that allows visitors to snorkel and scuba dive.
  • Xavage Adventure Park: Xavage Park is a newly opened adventure park at Xcaret. It features thrilling activities like a ropes course, ziplining, monster trucks, high-speed jet boat, and white-water rafting to give you an exhilarating experience.
  • Xoximilco: Visitors at Xoximilco can enjoy a similar experience to Xcaret. They can ride on vibrant boats along man-made canals, enjoy tequila, and listen to live Mariachi music. This is a recreation of the original attraction in Mexico City.

Read Next:

Activities Closer to Playa del Carmen:

  • Tulum Ruins: The Tulum Ruins are the only Mayan Ruins in the state of Quintana Roo that are located on the beachfront. They provide visitors with an opportunity to explore the area’s ancient history while enjoying stunning views of the sea.
  • Cenotes: There are numerous exquisite cenotes in the vicinity of Playa del Carmen and Tulum that are worth exploring although cenotes (natural swimming holes) are dispersed throughout the region.
  • Cozumel: Cozumel Island, which is only a 35-minute ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen, has a variety of fantastic activities to offer, including beach clubs, thrilling adventures, and breathtaking snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities at the island’s famous coral reefs.
  • Xcaret Parks: You can find multiple Xcaret adventure parks located south of Playa del Carmen such as Xcaret, Xplor, Xel-Ha, and Xenses. These parks provide a range of water and adventure activities.

If you want to visit the Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins, both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are about the same distance away (around 2.5 hours) from the site. Your choice of destination will depend on your personal preferences and what you plan on doing during your trip to Mexico.

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Safety

Are Playa del Carmen and Cancun safe considering the widespread news coverage of increased crime rates in Mexico in 2023? Both places have the same safety advisory level.

The state of Quintana Roo has high levels of crime and violence, which is why both towns have a travel advisory of “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” maintained by the U.S. Department of State.

According to the Mexico travel advisory, Cancun and Playa del Carmen may experience criminal activity and violent crime. It is suggested that travelers stay vigilant and avoid places where illegal activities are taking place.

Read Next:

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Which one is more expensive

Because of its affordable lodging and dining options situated near the beach and attractions, budget travelers often choose to go to Playa del Carmen. However, if you need to stay in Cancun without breaking the bank, it is achievable.

If you’re in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, be prepared to pay higher prices for everything, similar to the prices in tourist cities in the US. However, you can still enjoy Cancun without spending too much. Downtown Cancun offers $3 lunches and dinners with large portions that can even serve for two or three meals. There are affordable stores like Walmart and other groceries where you can buy snacks and water. Moreover, accommodations in downtown Cancun cost much less than those in the Hotel Zone.

Read Next:

Staying in downtown Cancun has its drawbacks such as the absence of a beach, below-average safety, and limited tourist attractions. It’s worth noting that there is no beach available in this area.

Traveling to Cancun and Playa del Carmen can be costly due to their high commercialization compared to other towns in Mexico. Though both destinations have similar costs for hotels, transportation, and food, staying in Cancun may be more expensive as it mainly caters to all-inclusive stays, which require higher upfront payment for convenience.

Furthermore, Cancun has limited walkability. Therefore, although you may spend less on airport transportation, you will probably incur greater expenses on taxi fares within the town if you decide to venture out of your resort. On the contrary, in Playa del Carmen, you can still discover all-inclusive resorts. However, if you are cost-conscious, you can find less expensive lodging options such as vacation rentals, and a variety of affordable dining establishments.

Playa del Carmen vs Cancun: Day Trips

If you’re visiting the Hotel Zone in Cancun, you’ll encounter several signs and people from tour agencies advertising day trips. However, Playa del Carmen is also an excellent destination for day trips. By opting to stay in Playa del Carmen, you’ll be closer to a variety of popular and lesser-known yet stunning day trips such as Cozumel, Chichen Itza, Tulum, and Akumal.

Just like in In Cancun and Playa del Carmen, there are many tour agencies trying to get tourists’ attention with signs and salespeople. It is also possible to save money and have more control over your time by taking local transportation in these areas. You can visit these destinations as day trips from Cancun. If you like Playa’s vibe better but are worried about taking day trips, I can help you overcome those concerns.

Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: The Majestic Cenotes

You may already be aware that the Yucatan Peninsula has many beautiful Mayan Cenotes, which are natural sinkholes that were revered by the Mayan Civilization and are now popular with visitors. These cenotes offer refreshing water for swimming and opportunities to jump and dive.

If you’re staying in Cancun and want to visit cenotes, the nearest ones are located in Puerto Morelos and it takes about 40 minutes to get there. Check out my guide to the Cancun Cenotes for more information. However, if you’re in Playa del Carmen, you have the advantage of having at least 5 cenotes at a 20-minute drive, including the stunning Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino, which are among the best cenotes in Riviera Maya.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Food and Restaurants

Cancun has many great restaurants with excellent quality and a variety of cuisines available at different price ranges, though they are scattered throughout the city. On the other hand, Playa del Carmen also has a diverse selection of restaurants, offering local, Italian, Brazilian, and other cuisines. The best part about Playa del Carmen’s restaurants is that they are all within walking distance.

In addition, Playa del Carmen offers numerous vegan restaurants and charming cafes that are easily accessible on foot, unlike Cancun.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Parties and Nightlife

Cancun has the most active and wild party scene in the Caribean. The city hosts upscale parties, but the definition of “best” parties differs from person to person. Playa del Carmen is also a popular party destination, but with a focus on backpacker-type travelers. It has fewer options compared to Cancun.

Playa del Carmen has its own renowned entertainment spot called Coco Bongo Playa del Carmen just like Cancun. Furthermore, there are a few locations of Senor Frogs in Playa del Carmen. Senor Frogs is a chain of restaurants and bars that can be found in Cancun, as well as in many other parts of the world.

In Playa, similar to Cancun, there is a lively party atmosphere every night. Visitors usually gather on the pedestrian 5th Avenue which has numerous open clubs and bars till the late hours of the night. If you’re looking for relaxation, it’s better to choose an accommodation away from 5th Avenue as the loud music and drunk crowds might disturb your sleep during the night.

Both destinations have a lively nightlife, but the main difference is the accessibility of restaurants and nightclubs. In Playa del Carmen, these establishments are within walking distance, while in Cancun, you need to take a taxi to get to them.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Accommodation Options

It is easy to see that there are luxury hotels in Cancun by just looking at its skyline. Cancun is mainly known for its large all-inclusive hotels and has only a limited number of hostels and boutique hotels available on the beach.

Although Cancun offers many luxurious resorts, this doesn’t mean that Playa del Carmen doesn’t have its share of luxurious accommodations. Playa del Carmen is popular among backpackers when compared to Cancun, but it still has some excellent hotels and resorts. And when you visit Playa del Carmen, you will find a wide range of amazing lodging options including charming boutique hotels, all-inclusive resorts, convenient apartments, and several hostels. The best part is that all these places are situated within walking distance of everything.

If you’re looking for a quiet vacation away from the party noise in downtown, you can find luxurious options in the gated Playacar district. However, if you prefer to be closer to the action, Playacar Palace is a great choice because it’s located by the ferry port and outside the gated area. You can quickly get to downtown with a cab ride or a long walk from there.

However, it should be noted that Cancun does have several hostels available.

Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: Snorkeling, Diving and watersports

Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer superb diving opportunities with fantastic sites. In Cancun, even if you are not certified, you can explore the Underwater Museum MUSA located in shallow waters. Playa del Carmen boasts incredible shark watching experiences and proximity to the world-renowned Cozumel reef. Cancun is ideal for surfers, while Playa del Carmen (or El Cuyo, of course) offers the best beaches for kitesurfers.

Bottom Line: Playa del Carmen Vs Cancun

In summary, Playa del Carmen feels more like a beach town and is located closer to surrounding tourist destinations. Cancun feels more like a city and takes longer to reach those destinations. If you plan on staying at an all-inclusive hotel, the location won’t matter as much and you should choose based on your preference for the hotel. Let me know which one you decide on.

FAQ: Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun

Is Cancun or Playa del Carmen better for a longer stay?

In my opinion, Playa del Carmen is a better option for a long-term stay, but I understand that everyone has their own preferences. Both places have essential amenities like banks, Wi-Fi, gyms, and parks for long-term living.

Which one is better Cancun, Tulum or Playa del Carmen?

Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen have distinct atmospheres that cater to different types of visitors. If you’re looking for all-inclusive stays, Cancun is your go-to destination. Upscale boutique hotels are more common in Tulum. Playa del Carmen offers a diverse range of lodging options, making it an ideal choice for those who want something in-between.

Does Playa del Carmen or Cancun have the best beaches?

In my opinion, the beaches in Cancun are superior to those in Playa del Carmen because they are wider and longer. Additionally, I find the sand in Cancun to be whiter and softer than the sand in Playa del Carmen.

How can you get from Playa del Carmen and Cancun?

To travel between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, you have the options of driving yourself, taking a locally operated van called “colectivo,” or taking an ADO bus that is modern, massive, and air-conditioned.

How far is Playa del Carmen from Cancun?

The average travel time from Playa del Carmen to Cancun is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. However, the actual travel duration may vary depending on your location in Cancun, traffic conditions, and road construction. Please note that there is a significant amount of road construction.

Where is the bus station in Cancun?

The bus station in Cancun is situated downtown, rather than in the tourist center known as the Hotel Zone. The area surrounding the Cancun bus station offers many economical dining options. Additionally, you can take a short walk to Parque de las Palapas, a park that is definitely worth visiting. It boasts various cultural activities and snack stands.

Where is the bus station in Playa del Carmen within?

The ADO bus station is on 5th Avenue, which is a pedestrian street in Playa del Carmen’s central area. To avoid getting off at the wrong station, look for the “touristica” station. If you do accidentally get off at the other station, it’s only a 10-minute walk to 5th Avenue. Most buses from Cancun go directly to the “touristica” station, so it’s not a big concern.

Traveling to 🇲🇽 Mexico soon?

I recommend these travel resources for Mexico that I personally use:

🏨 Hotels: I have found that Expedia and consistently have the best deals on hotels and resorts in Mexico. If you prefer to stay at a vacation rental, check VRBO that is usually cheaper than AirBnB’s added fees!

✈️ Flights: To find the best flight deals to Mexico, I always use Kayak. Remember to subscribe to their price alerts for the travel dates you want. Another great alternative for flight deals is Expedia.

🚗 Rental Cars: I always use and highly recommend Discover Cars because it allows me to compare several car rental companies and view ratings on various factors such as overall value, pick-up procedure, agent efficiency, car condition, and total time taken.

🚙 Cancun Airport Transportation: For the fastest and easiest way to travel, I suggest arranging a private transfer with Cancun Airport Transportation. Honestly, no better way to travel from the airport to your hotel or resort.

🤿 Tours & Activities: For tours and activities in Mexico, I highly recommend using either Viator or GetYourGuide. These websites offer a full refund if you cancel your booking 24 hours before the start of the tour, and they also provide excellent customer service in case of any issues.

🚨 Travel Insurance: I always suggest purchasing travel insurance as a precaution before traveling, especially after a recent accident in a taxi in Mexico. For short trips, I recommend Travel Insurance Master, whereas for digital nomads, Safety Wing is a better option.

📷 Best Camera for your trip: I always carry with me a GoPro, It’s light, compact, takes great video and pictures, and most importantly, it’s waterproof! You just can’t go wrong with one. If you are interested in higher quality video and photography, I always carry with me on my trips and highly recommend the Sony A7IV which I think is the best travel DSLR Camera out there.

☀️ Biodegradable Sunscreen: Remember to include a good sunscreen to protect yourself from the summer sun. I always use and suggest Sun Bum Sunscreen, which is vegan, reef-friendly, and cruelty-free.