Playa del Carmen is one of those fun little hidden gems along the Mexican Riviera. It is an hour away from Cancun and a 30-minute ferry ride to the island of Cozumel. Playa del Carmen is a perfect location for those wanting to explore ancient Aztec ruins, wild jungles, white sand beaches, and a bustling nightlife.
We flew into Cancun International Airport from San Diego for a round trip price of $300. Upon arriving in Cancun, you will find that you are bombarded by tons of people offering taxi services, bus services for private shuttles from the airport, uber, etc. It is very easy to get overwhelmed especially for first time travelers. It is my recommendation that upon leaving the terminal, take the immediate right and walk past the margarita stand towards the bus terminal. The bus is substantially cheaper than taking any other shuttle or taxi service and it also drops you into the middle of downtown playa del Carmen.
From there we stayed at Sayab Hostel which cost us $22 a night for a private two bedroom room with ensuite bathroom. The hostel is great because it was close to downtown and also included tours through the front desk.
After dropping our bags off at the hostel we went in search of food. 5th avenue has a lot of restaurants but it also has a lot of overpriced restaurants and thinking we were being clever, we went one street over and found a Brazilian steakhouse. It was $35 for an all-you-can-eat buffet which isn’t bad but it is still very expensive for Mexico the food was phenomenal so we definitely did not regret it. After dinner we went to have gelato at the Aldo’s gelato shop (which is a chain that you can find all the way up and down fifth avenue). We ended the night with a nighttime dip in the pool before going to bed.
The next morning we grabbed a quick breakfast at the hostel before heading out for the day. After renting bikes at a small shop off of 5th avenue, we started exploring the city. We started are morning at Ah Cacao chocolate shop, sampling mexican chocolate as well as their Frozen mochas.
After biking around the city for a little bit, we went to the Frida Kahlo museum. This tiny museum featured many of her famous pieces as well as a timeline of her very troubled and interesting life. You can either go with a Spanish or English speaking tour guide or just do a self-guided tour, as everything is written and not only Spanish but also in English. It was super interesting to learn about such a complicated an amazing artist. After the museum, we biked around some more doing a little bit of shopping and taking pictures of street art.
On the third day, we took our bikes onto the ferry to Cozumel and rode around the island. We spent most of the day stopping and snorkeling in random beaches and enjoyed some tacos at a small restaurant near the beach. Cozumel is a relatively flat island so biking is super easy and the best way to see the island other than by moped.
After coming back from Cozumel, we found out how very unprepared we were when it came to just how hot Mexico can get. We went in October and it was extremely hot. We ended up going to Walmart (which is a few streets up from fifth avenue in the local side of the city) and there we bought sunscreen and empanadas from a small stand outside the front door. We continue exploring the city and ended up finding a local taco shop where the tacos were 7 pesos each. Also, we indulged yourself with Starbucks before watching a sunset acrobatic show near the beach.
We woke up bright and early the next morning for my favorite part of the trip, Xcaret. Xcaret is described by many as the Disneyland of Mexico. It is an ecological, architectural and cultural heritage site with wild animals and the performers. We booked our tour through viator.com and that included transportation and a lunch at any of the buffets at the park.
We started our day at the park by doing the underwater cave ride. With our admission we got access to special lockers and changing rooms but you can also check your personal items in at the counter and they will put it in a duffel bag and take it to the end of the river. We grabbed our life jackets, fins, and waterproof phone cases and headed into the icy water. The trip is a few miles long and goes underground as well as through the jungle. There are three separate Rivers that you can take and each of them are definitely worth exploring. The longest one drops you off right near the beach where you can hang out in a hammock or continue exploring the park.
After the river ride, we started exploring the animal exhibits at the park. We started at the butterfly exhibit, and I could have honestly stayed here the whole day. it is a giant indoor butterfly sanctuary and the butterflies are so incredibly tame they will land on your head or shoulder as you’re walking through. You’re not allowed to touch any of the butterflies but they will touch you. It was one of my favorite parts of our entire trip.
From there we went on to the aviary, saw the sea turtles, and checked out the ancient ruins scattered throughout the park. There is so much to see Xcaret you can honestly plan a few days trip just to see it all. We tried to hit as much as we could before lunch and then after lunch we spent time revisiting some of our favorite spots like the River Ride.
Our last event of the night was watching the performance in the grand hall. It is a cultural show depicting the history of Mexico as well as the many states. There are hundreds of dancers in beautifully designed costumes as well as pyrotechnics and giant floats and props. It is definitely something that cannot be missed when visiting Xcaret.
We started our last full day in Mexico with a quick breakfast at the hostel before heading off on our bikes in search of cenotes. We got a tip from our bike rental guy, that 30 minutes outside of the city there’s a beautiful cenote and beach that is only used by locals. So naturally, we jumped on our bikes and went have there. We swam around in the pristine blue waters and did some sunbathing before heading back to the city.
After lunch we decided it was still too hot and went in search of a pool bar. All over Playa del Carmen you can find hotels and Beach clubs offering admission to their pool bars or rooftop pools. We found one that for 400 pesos ($20) you can enter and enjoy. (The premise is that you have to spend at least 400 pesos on food or drinks). So naturally, we ordered ceviche, cocktails, chicken tenders (for me) and enjoyed the reggaeton music and a nearly private pool.
Last Day/ Final Thoughts:
On our last day we woke up and grabbed an American style breakfast at Sabor A Mar before dropping off our bikes and heading for the bus back to the airport.
Overall, Playa Del Carmen was a wonderful little snapshot of Mexico and definitely worth a second trip. Like any tourist destination, there is the risk of scammers and shady people but as long as you book tours through a reputable company and not a random guy approaching you on the street with a flyer, you’ll be okay. It was super fun haggling with the locals while shopping for souvenirs and everyone was incredibly friendly. Cozumel and Xcaret cannot be missed on your trip to Playa del Carmen. I definitely think Playa del Carmen is a hidden little gem as compared to Cancun or other larger Mexican destinations. It is just small enough to be able to tackle in a few days and just large enough that you will find yourself exploring all the tiny restaurants and shops and hidden beaches.