Playa del Carmen is one of the most underrated destinations in Mexico.
It’s a small city on the coastline that’s always buzzing with activity during the day and night, yet has plenty of quiet corners and serene beaches to escape to.
Playa del Carmen was not originally somewhere I had planned to visit, but after a day trip to see a friend, I packed up my bags in Tulum and ended up spending almost two weeks here.
Plus, it’s way more affordable than Cancun – the more popular destination just down the road.
That ended up being one of the best and most surprising decisions I made on my big Mexico trip.
I’m going to show you all of the best things to do, day trips to take, where to eat and drink – and even stay – with this Playa del Carmen itinerary.
Whether you’re only in the area for 3 days, or you can stretch to 7, we’re going to make this itinerary super easy to follow.
We’ll start with some need-to-know basics, before jumping into the good stuff.
Where is Playa del Carmen?
Playa del Carmen is situated on the northeast coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and sits in between the popular holiday destinations: Cancun and Tulum.
Both are around an hour away and easily reachable by bus or car.
Or, scooter if you’re brave enough to travel on major roads this way.
Playa del Carmen itinerary
Day 1: Getting to know the area: Museums, Fifth Avenue & Mayan Ruins
Breakfast at Choux Choux Cafe
To kick off your Playa del Carmen itinerary you’re going to head to breakfast at one of the best spots in the city – Choux Choux Cafe.
With swing chairs, incredible murals on the walls and even better food, it’s easily one of my favourite spots in the city that you’ll no doubt love as well.
You’ll notice that there is a strong focus on French-style food, however, they do also serve some classic all-rounders like eggs benedict, which I highly recommend!
If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to experience a band of some sort playing beside your table as you eat.
La Quinta Avenida (5th Av)
La Quinta Avenida is also known as Fifth Avenue and it’s the main street which runs through the city.
It’s where all the action is – no matter what the time of day – and it’s a great place to wander down to get your bearings, since most things branch off from here.
You’ll find that there are plenty of boutique gift shops, charming little markets to explore, and tonnes of incredible places to eat and drink.
You’ll be spending plenty of time around this area over the course of this itinerary, so this morning is more to familiarise yourself with the area and see what it has to offer.
I’d recommend starting at Costelao Playa del Carmen Restaurant which is situated on the quieter end of Fifth Aven and working your way up towards the Frida Kahlo Museum – as this is where you’re heading next.
Frida Kahlo Museum
The Frida Kahlo Museum is an essential stop on your trip – particularly if you haven’t been to the most famous one in Mexico City.
Although it’s not overly big, it’s an interesting and engaging place to visit whilst you’re in the city that definitely shouldn’t be skipped.
Plus, when I was visiting they gave me a free Frida Kahlo tote bag which was a nice bonus!
Upon arrival, you’ll be given a brief overview of Frida Kahlo’s life, as well as an explanation as to why she is so important in Mexican history.
You’ll then be offered a guided tour of the museum which will allow you to gain a better insight into her world, or you’ll simply follow the self-guided route.
If you opt for the self-guided route, it will only take you around 30 minutes to complete everything the museum has to offer – which includes tonnes of artwork, a video room and displays from her house.
Tickets: you don’t need to book ahead for this one – just rock up and you should be able to get in straight away.
Portal Maya (Mayan Gateway)
Next up is the Portal Maya – also known as the Mayan Gateway.
This is one of the most impressive sculptures in the city and provides an excellent opportunity for photos since it frames the beach perfectly.
There are plenty of things going on here, so whether you’re looking to take a quick break, grab an ice cream or tuck into some churros, here’s a great place to do it.
Lunch at Lara & Luca
Then, it’s time for lunch and you’ll be heading to the incredible Lara & Luca.
They serve a variety of seafood, meats and vegetarian meals, each cooked to absolute perfection.
They’re conveniently located just 10 minutes away from the Portal Maya, making it the perfect place to head to before visiting the nearby Playacar Mayan Ruins.
Playacar Mayan Ruins & Beach
The Playacar Mayan Ruins are some of the only free ruins in the Quintana Roo region.
They’re just a 10-minute walk from Lara & Luca so it makes sense to swing by this freebie while you’re nearby.
They’re by no means the most impressive ruins in the region and unfortunately, there is little information to explain the history of the sight. Yet, they’re still an impressive hidden gem that you’ll almost certainly have to yourself.
Plus, they’re situated extremely close to the beach in a neighbourhood filled with stunning houses.
Once you’re done exploring the ruins, head down to Playacar Beach and enjoy the rest of the afternoon relaxing or swimming in the warm Caribbean waters.
Dinner at Porfirio’s
To wrap up your first day in Playa del Carmen, you’ll be heading to Porfirio’s and wow is it an experience!
And finally, your first proper experience with some Mexican food!
But, not only is the food unreal but the setting and entertainment is even better.
The restaurant puts on a real show, with musicians and dancers in between the tables, with plenty of people gathering around outside to also take a peek.
I’d highly recommend booking ahead for this one, as it is one fo the best and most popular restaurants in the city.
Day 2: Beach clubs, hidden beaches and nightlife
Breakfast at Chez Waffle
On the second day of your itinerary you’re going to kick off with breakfast at Chez Waffle and let me tell you, it’s freaking awesome.
They serve waffles with all kinds of stuff that I would never have considered pairing with a waffle, such as chips, eggs and chorizo, but trust me, you won’t be mad about it.
If you’re really hell-bent on having some Mexican food, then they do also serve some things like nachos, but personally, I would recommend the apple crumble waffle.
Sure, you’re going to get one hell of a sugar crash afterwards, but hey, you’re on a trip and you’ve got to treat yourself sometimes.
Beach clubs or Esmerelda Beach
After a scrumptious breakfast, it’s time to get the swimmers on and either head to a beach club or the hidden local gem that is Esmerelda Beach.
You’ll have plenty of choice when it comes to a beach club, but you can’t go wrong with the crowd favourite – Lido Beach Club.
It’s just a moment’s walk from Fifth Avenue and just 10-minute walk from Chez Waffle, meaning you can practically roll there.
You can stay there all day and rent a sun lounger for around 500 Mexican pesos which is approximately $30, which you’ll then get to use as credits for food and drink.
They’re usually open until 8:30 pm, but if you happen to visit on a Wednesday then you’ll benefit from the later time of 10:30 pm.
Either way, you’ll be getting a lot of bang for your buck here.
If this place doesn’t sound like your vibe, then here are a few more beach clubs worth checking out:
- Mamitas Beach Club
- Zenzi Beach
- MVNGATA Beach Club & Rooftop
- INTI Beach
If beach clubs aren’t your vibe or they’re out of your budget, then heading to Esmerelda Beach is a must.
This hidden gem was recommended by a local and what a great recommendation it was.
It has to be one of the most stunning beaches that you can reach from Playa del Carmen due to its unique estuary that splits the beach in half.
And of course, there are stunning crystal clear waters that meet the white sands.
You won’t find too many tourists here, but it is popular among the locals.
As you step foot onto the beach from the long dusty road that leads from the car park, you’ll have a few paid sunloungers and chairs to your left, with little place to lay if you’re just looking to sit on the beach for free.
However, if you head to your right, you’ll find tonnes of space and it’s arguably more beautiful here, as this is where the estuary is.
The downside will be that it can be a little more noisy, as more children are playing in the shallow waters on this side.
There is also an area where you can rent boats & paddleboards which I highly recommend!
I also don’t recommend heading beyond the estuary, as the waters become murkier and there seems to be an odd smell – but this may have just been the case on the day I was visiting.
Dinner at Mandarina’s Cafe
Mandarina’s Cafe is such a stunning venue for dinner, with a hut-style roof, fairy lights draped on the walls and fancy seating that will make you feel like you’re a king or queen.
Oh, and the food is great – obviously!
As with most places around the city, you’ll find live music playing in the evening.
After a nice and relaxing day on the beach, you should be feeling energised enough to experience some of the best of Playa del Carmen’s nightlife – Coco Bongo.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly smaller than the best-known spot in Cancun, it puts on one hell of a show.
With acrobats, dancers and tunes pumping, the atmosphere is nothing short of incredible.
You’ll be able to purchase standing tickets or for an extra price, get VIP treatment in the seating area.
If you have the budget, then the VIP seating area is definitely something I’d recommend as it gets a little cramped and chaotic in the standing area.
Although you can purchase food here, it’s not great – hence the recommendation of Mandarina Cafe before heading on a bonkers night out here.
Day 3: A day at Cenote Azul
Breakfast at Madrez Cafe
This morning you’re going to head to an authentic little spot in the city to eat some local – and pretty cheap – breakfast.
Madrez Cafe is a small and unassuming place that’s a popular spot among the locals.
This no-frills restaurant is well-known for stripping things back to basics but doing each meal well.
You’ll find everything from waffles to burritos – nothing is fancy, but it all tastes great.
Whilst most people in Playa del Carmen are extremely nice, the staff here bring it to a whole new level, which only makes dining here even more enjoyable!
One of the best and most affordable cenotes near Playa del Carmen is Cenote Azul and it has to be one of my favourite things to include on this Playa del Carmen itinerary.
It’s just a 25-minute drive away and it’s honestly one of the most beautiful and tranquil spots to spend the entire day snorkelling, diving, and relaxing in freshwater surrounded by the jungle.
It costs around $10 to enter and you’ll be able to hire snorkelling equipment when you arrive if you wish.
How to get there
The small local busses in Mexico and across most of Latin America are called Colectivos.
These are mini-van style busses which leave from certain locations when they are full.
It will be heading to a specific location, but you’ll be able to tell the driver to stop at any location along the way and it will be insanely cheap.
If you’d prefer to take a taxi, then simply flag one down on the street and tell the driver where to head to.
Uber doesn’t yet exist in Playa del Carmen, but having taken a few taxis whilst in the area, I can say that they felt pretty safe.
It’s likely to cost you around $10 to get to Cenote Azul and for the return journey, you’ll need to ask the man or woman of reception at the Cenote to order you a taxi.
I had a car for most of my trip to Playa del Carmen and as someone from the UK who is used to driving on the other side of the road, I can say that it’s super easy to get to.
It’s essentially one main road between Playa del Carmen and Tulum and Cenote Azul is in the middle.
It’s not particularly well signposted and it’s quite a sudden swing into the layby to park.
But, if you keep your eyes peeled and ensure you’re paying good attention to the map, you’ll find soon it.
It’s also worth noting that I was told not to leave any valuables in the car, as apparently, cenotes are a popular spot for thieves.
That being said, I never had any problems.
What to expect
Once you arrive at Cenote Azul you’ll be asked to take a shower to ensure that any sun cream is washed off.
They’re super strict in Mexico about protecting nature, fish and other sea creatures, but don’t worry, it’s mostly shaded here so you’re unlikely to get burnt.
You’ll then head down the jungle path where you’ll stumble across two stunning little cenotes.
These are great for kids as well as capturing photos without crowds, since they’re shallow and quiet.
If you go down the path a little further, then you’ll land at the main attraction.
It’s a popular attraction so it will likely be busy, with people snorkelling and launching themselves off the rocks above to dive deep into the waters.
This sounds a little chaotic, but it’s a nice atmosphere with people cheering and encouraging each other to be brave enough to take the jump.
If you head towards the left-hand side of the cenote, you’ll find some quieter corners with fewer people if you are looking for a more relaxed atmosphere.
Things to pack
Before heading to Cenote Azul, here is everything I’d recommend packing to take with you:
- Waterproof phone case: I highly recommend packing one of these. You can pick them up for cheap in the centre and you’ll be able to get some great shots without having to worry about the salt water damaging your phone.
- Towel: these aren’t provided, so you’ll need one.
- Water shoes: this is the one thing I wish I had here. The rocks in the Cenote are slippery and sometimes sharp and so I would 100% recommend taking some to wear. You can get these from the centre for cheap.
- Food & drinks: if you’re planning to spend the entire day here then you’ll need to take plenty of food and water since there is nowhere to buy it on-site and no shops nearby.
- Swimwear: I guess this one is obvious, but I’ll include it just in case!
Day 4: Cozumel day trip
A day trip to the incredible island of Cozumel is another absolute must while you’re visiting Playa del Carmen.
Along with Cenote Azul, spending the day at Cozumel is certainly one of the highlights of my time in Playa del Carmen – if not in the whole of Mexico – so I’d recommend making this one a priority.
There are tonnes of things you can do on the island and there are two ways in which you can explore.
You’ll need to head to the ferry station which is conveniently located off of Fifth Avenue, and once you arrive, take a bunch of taxis to each location or rent a car for the day.
The island is mainly made up of beaches, some Mayan ruins and a colourful centre with restaurants, shops and bars.
If you want to explore independently, the best option is to rent a car and simply drive around the island whilst stopping at all of the most popular spots.
If you were to drive around the island without stopping, it would take about an hour, so adding in some places to visit will easily take up the whole day.
Here are the places you’ll want to add to your list:
- Punta Sur Eco Beach Park
- Playa Mia Grand Beach Park
- Zona Arqueológica San Gervasio
- The Mayan Cocoa Company
- Discover Mexico Park
- Mr Sanchos Beach Club
Take a tour
The next and – in my opinion – the best option, is to take a tour.
This is because although Cozumel is great to explore, one of the most incredible things to do whilst you are here is take a boat trip to El Cielo Beach.
El Cielo Beach is known for its huge starfish, tonnes of manta rays and sometimes sea turtles which swim around its shallow crystal clear waters.
Regardless of which tour provider you book through, a trip to El Cielo will usually include the following:
- Snorkelling in the deep sea reefs (where you may see whale sharks)
- El Cielo Beach for giant starfish
- Food prepared and served on a paddle board in the middle of the sea!
This tour usually lasts around 3-4 hours and there are multiple times throughout the day that you can do it, however, I’d recommend an early evening tour as you’ll get incredible sunset views.
If you do opt for this, just be sure to pack extra clothes for the return journey on the boat, as it gets a little cold when you’re out at sea once the sun sets.
During the tour, you’ll also have a photographer which you’ll be expected to pay additional money for.
Initially, I wasn’t too keen on this idea, as I’d bought an underwater phone case so I could take pictures myself.
But, after quickly realising I wasn’t getting the same quality or style of images he was getting, I caved in and bartered a price that I was happy to pay.
So, my advice here is not to bother spending money on an underwater phone case as you almost certainly won’t use it – just budget around $30 extra for incredible photos of your experience.
Check prices: Cozumel Snorkelling Tour
Day 5: Swimming with turtles & museums
Light Breakfast at Ah Cacao
Ah Cacao is a renowned cafe in the city for – no surprises – its cacao goods.
Since you’ll only want something light before heading off on our next – very exciting – activity, I’d recommend grabbing a little something light.
Or, even just a drink.
The cold chocolate is a crowd-pleaser for sure.
There are multiple sites around the city, so whichever one is closest to your accommodation is fine.
As a side note, this is also a good location to get some work done if you need to.
Akumel is a small beach town around 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen and it’s best known as being a good location to swim with turtles.
Like most places, you can head here independently or through a tour.
And, whilst I do love to explore independently a lot of the time, this is one of those times where it just makes more sense to book a tour.
The reason for this is because the turtles are usually found in specific locations and the tour guides know these like the back of their hand.
You’ll also need snorkelling equipment, so unless you’ve packed some for your trip or you’re willing to purchase some, taking a tour means you’ll also have free access to this.
Although tours run throughout the day, you’ll want to be up early and take the first tour which usually starts at around 8 am.
This might sound painful, but it will give you the best chance to see the turtles in clear water, as later in the day, the waters become a little murky.
It also means that you’ll be back in Playa del Carmen for brunch as the tour is relatively short.
Check prices: Akumal Snorkeling with Sea Turtles Tour
Brunch at: Green & Fit
After a morning of hopefully swimming with some sea turtles, you should be just about ready for some refuelling food at Green & Fit.
This was my go-to place because it’s healthy, tastes incredible, you get loads and it’s a good price.
The winning combination.
There’s a variety of things on the menu, but the best bit is that you can build your own.
Whether you’re looking for a salad, wrap or sandwich, the choice is yours.
3D Museum of Wonders
After some downtime back at your accommodation, this afternoon, you’ll be heading 3D Museum of Wonders.
This is easily one of the coolest museums I’ve seen, with not only incredible portraits and paintings but also visual perspective tricks that will allow you to capture some excellent pictures.
The only thing I would say is that whilst it is worth it – and also a nice break from the sun – it’s quite pricey.
But, if day 5 of your itinerary happens to be on a Sunday, then this attraction will be half the price.
Alternatively, you could shuffle the itinerary days around a bit if you need to.
Check prices: 3D Museum of Wonders
Dinner at Señor Frog
Señor Frogs is another super fun and upbeat way to enjoy an evening with some food and drink.
They serve things like burgers, chips and nachos and whilst you’re munching away they’ll be playing games such as guess the song and you’ll get a free shot.
It’s certainly an energetic night here with a great atmosphere.
There are actually a few locations dotted around the city and any of them are great.
Day 6: Day trip to Puerto Moreles
Breakfast at Amate 38
Amate 38 offers all the jungle vibes and it’s a must-visit breakfast spot in my opinion.
This little hidden gem of a restaurant is tucked away in the woodland area and serves the most delicious food with plenty of choice for vegetarians and vegans.
The service here is always great and you can expect a nice and relaxing atmosphere.
Puerto Morelos was another recommendation from a local.
It’s a sweet little fishing village that’s just over 30 minutes from Playa del Carmen.
You’ll find incredible blue waters and plenty of opportunity for snorkelling right from the shores here, so if you’re looking for a chilled day, this is the place to head to.
You have two options for snorkelling here in Puerto Morelos and the first is to book a tour.
This will take you around 500 meters from the shore and you’ll have excellent opportunities to see ample fish and other sea life since there are great reefs in this area.
Check prices: Puerto Morelos Snorkelling Tour
If a tour is out of your budget, then no problem, as like I mentioned earlier, you’re able to snorkel right from the shore.
The best place to do this is to head to the area between Hotel Amar Inn and Day & Night Beach Club.
If you need to take a bus, then there are only 2 per day so you’ll need to check the schedule on the ADO bus website and plan carefully.
Of course, you could also take a taxi or drive to have more flexibility.
Whilst you’re in Puerto Moreles you’ll need to grab some lunch and you can’t go wrong with Punta Corcho.
You’ll find plenty of seafood on the menu and the octopus is meant to be incredible.
Since I do not like seafood, the pizza had to suffice – which was also great.
Day 7: Day trip to Xcaret
Xcaret is technically a theme/water park.
However, it’s unique due to the fact it’s completely natural and as such, classed as an ecotourism development.
Inside of Xcaret you’ll find everything from lazy rivers to spectacular shows and even have the opportunity to swim with dolphins.
The park itself is absolutely gigantic, with over 200 acres of land – which kind of makes it impossible to explore all of it in one day.
As such, you’ll want to make sure you really take the time to plan your trip here.
You can check out the map to help you do this, however, I recommend focusing on 1-3 areas and really enjoying those rather than spending the day walking between the different parts.
Unlike a lot of the other (much smaller) parks in the area, you’ll notice that there a lot of the activities come at an additional cost to the entrance price.
That’s kind of a bummer, but it really is one of the best parks, so you should factor in a good budget to fully enjoy it if you can.
You’ll want to spend as much time as possible inside Xcaret in order to get the most value for money, so I’d recommend planning to have all your meals here.
Check prices: XCaret Park Entry Ticket
If you think you’d also like to check out some of the other parks, then this combo ticket is a great option.
Where to stay in Playa del Camen
Without a doubt, the best place to stay in Playa del Carmen is downtown.
This is where Fifth Avenue is located and since a lot of this Playa del Camen itinerary is focused around this area, it makes sense to stay there.
Below are some hotel recommendations to consider:
- Budget: Quinta Margarita – Boho Chic Hotel
- Mid-range: Riviera Maya Suites
- Luxury: Mahekal Beach Front Resort & Spa
The best time to visit
The best time to visit Playa del Carmen is during the dry season which is December to April.
You’ll find plenty of days filled with blue sky and sunshine, with the odd rain shower here and there.
But, as always, with good weather conditions comes high crowds and as such, higher prices.
If you prefer to avoid the crowds and score some great deals, the shoulder seasons of May to June and September to November are the best months to visit Playa del Carmen.
You should be aware though, that during this time of the year, there’s more risk of rain.
I was here during October and experienced gorgeous weather most days (albeit quite humid) with the occasional big downpour for around 30 minutes.
How to get to Playa del Carmen from the airport
The bus network across Mexico is pretty good – particularly here in the south.
You’ll most likely have flown into Cancun and so you’ll see a whole fleet of ADO buses as you come out of the airport on the right.
As you exit the security, you’ll be able to purchase a ticket for the bus at the desk straight in front.
However, I queued for ages to get a ticket the first time I visited Cancun.
I’d actually recommend booking a ticket ahead of time on Busbud if you can.
By rental car
Alternatively, you can also rent a car which is surprisingly cheap and the roads are really easy to navigate.
Both search for all of the best deals on the market to ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck.
However, I recommend checking both platforms as sometimes one pulls up a few more options depending on the country.
How to travel around Playa del Carmen
Once you’re in Playa del Carmen, most things are pretty walkable since it’s not a huge city.
However, if you do need to get around, then hopping in a local taxi is safe here.
Or, for the budget traveller, a Colectivo is super cheap.
You’ll find two stops: one on Avenida 20, between Calle 12 and 14 and the oher is on Avenida Juarez corner Fifth Avenue.
Explore beyond Playa del Carmen
And thats a wrap on my Playa del Carmen itinerary of 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 days!
No matter how long you have been here, you’re bound to enjoy yourself.
It’s a fun city with plenty of well-rounded activities for everyone.
If you are thinking of heading to Cabo San Lucas, then I also have an list of best Cabo beach clubs to check out.
Stay Wild Travels.
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