Despite being on the same coasts, in the same state and region, Playa del Carmen and Cancun often go head-to-head vying for the Caribbean’s best, however, what sets them apart are the varied charms that appeal to travelers. Cancun is the animated, Americanized sister, while Playa del Carmen is more laid-back and authentic. As always, the choice is yours.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is yet another one of Yucatan’s prime jewels, and one of Mexico’s entries to the list of must-visit destinations in the Caribbean, and ultimately the entire world. The smaller than Cancun’s beach town is riddled with authentic flavors and a more intimate look at the charms of Mexican tropical beach life.
Named after the patron of Cancun, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, appointed by the victorious Spanish conquistadores, after defeating the native Mayan, Playa del Carmen has become synonymous with “best beach town there is”. Pulling draws from its exquisite turquoise blue waters, fewer crowds, a more authentic vibe, and of course cheaper rates than that of Cancun, Playa del Carmen is hard to miss in Mexico.
What Makes Playa del Carmen Unique?
Resident Cenotes and the Rio Secreto
The magic of the Yucatan Peninsula exudes from its assortment of bewitching natural structures borne from the intricate dance of the elements of the earth … and the occasional heavenly body. Ancient cenotes and underground rivers are some of these fantastical features. Explore one such place whose mystique will draw you into its uncanny depths; a place adoringly called “Secret River.”
Cenotes that are easily accessible from the heart of the city include the Cenote Azul, Cenote Cristalino, and Cenote El Jardin, which all can be accessed via hired tours, public transportation, or rental cars. Rio Secreto, on the other hand, one of the Yucatan’s best-kept secrets, is an underground river and a collection of caves characteristic of bright turquoise waters and rock formations that can be explored by swimming through the river.
The Small City Charms
With its delights in rather simpler proportions compared to big Cancun, Playa del Carmen is often considered as a smaller sister city in the Yucatan, but a prized jewel nonetheless, among several others. What Playa del Carmen has that Cancun doesn’t, or at least lost in the haze of its development is the authenticity of a Mexican seaside city.
Cancun sports big, fun, and touristy things that are often what most tourists are looking for, but the Playa (as it is lovingly called) is best reserved for those who shy away from the noisy crowds, and the cosmopolitan flair of big resort cities.
The Quinta Avenida or the 5th Avenue is the beating heart of the city, filled with energy and all things of curiosity. The main avenue is also where the best shopping, food scene, and nightlife is found, but even then, these animated delights are quaint and somehow less commercial, and more, Mexican seaside chic.
Another one of Play del Carmen’s draws is its proximity to other Yucatan treasures like the historically rich Tulum, Xcaret Park, Akumal, Cozumel, and all its underwater wonders, and of course Cancun up north. If you’re one to want to have a more laid-back stay in the Yucatan, you can always make the Playa your home base and explore all these other places nearby from there.
Playa del Carmen has a plethora of tour companies, transport rentals, and accommodations such as resorts, hotels, and affordable stays that can cater to different kinds of travelers, whether they’re opting for a shorter stay or slower travel.
Being in the most traveled regions in Mexico, Playa del Carmen, despite being neighbored by other tourism giants, stands out as one of the Mexican Caribbean’s biggest players. If you want to experience coastal Mexico in a perfect balance of tourism, and authenticity, then Playa del Carmen is one to check out.
One of Mexico’s crown jewels, Cancun is a rich interweaving of past and present. It is not simply a destination for the infamous party scenes and indulgence, but rather, it contains an enduring heritage from its Mayan ancestry. These truths, among many others, reinforce the fact that Cancun is a mainstay on the top of every avid traveler’s bucket list.
With its wide span of attractions — whether cultural, historical, culinary, or sporty — activities abound both within Cancun and in the neighboring countryside. If you haven’t mapped things out before your trip, you’re likely to be overwhelmed. But that should not stop you from enjoying Cancun at a leisurely pace …
You can always come back for more!
What Makes Cancun Unique?
The Biggest Nightlife Scene in the Caribbean
Cancun’s nightlife is so profound that it can carry the place by itself to the top 10 Mexican contemporary destinations without much effort. Its nightlife is debatably synonymous with spring break such that it triggers a reflexive switch in the minds of spring breakers as the go-to escapade.
But it’s not just all about the spring breakers, Cancun is for every kind of merrymaker out there seeking the best in entertainment and satisfaction for the senses —
Do you want a pirate-themed show on a veritable pirate ship? Done;
How about a sophisticated circus experience? Watch a show at the Cirque Du Soleil nearby;
What about adventure and a festival all rolled into one? Go to Xoximilco and traverse the Mayan jungle through its maze of canals on a festively decorated gondola. It’ll be your own slice of a fabulous Mexican fiesta;
All that said, there is simply a ceaseless supply of merrymaking to be had in Cancun when the sun goes down. So don’t miss them!
Footprints of the Mayans
Remnants of ancient civilizations grace the fertile lands in and around Cancun. The most prominent civilization in the area is that of the Maya, which some argue is decently represented in flicks like “Apocalypto.” And like in said movie, Cancun has a lot of towering structures that give you a sense of the grandeur and superstition of the time.
Grab the opportunity to scale these monuments, they won’t last forever. Though some ruins can be quite a distance from Cancun, they are pretty good day-trip material, mostly thanks to nearby magnificent bodies of water where you can soothe your tired legs in after a long day of sightseeing.
Plan at least one of your day trips in the following hotspots: Tulum, Cobá, Ek Balam, and Muyil. You can’t go wrong with making sure to select tours that arrange for a refreshing dip at a cenote, lagoon, or beach close by.
Aquatic Delights Beyond Beaches
It’s a given that the first thing that probably comes to your mind when hearing Cancun being uttered is its beaches. If you’re sick from having been to one too many beaches — the same old glorious sun and aqua waves rushing the shores furnished with fine white sand — Cancun has got a remedy for even the most fanatical of beach bums —
Cancun has got the Nichupté Lagoon whose lush mangrove-flanked channels can be navigated through your choice of watercraft. If you have a need for speed, drive the speedboats that can be availed in jungle tours.
If you want to get all adventurous with a hint of spirituality, waterlogged sinkholes (aka cenotes), are for you. Swim, snorkel, and plunge to explore the depths of these natural formations that are so uniquely special that the ancients affirmed them as sacrosanct.
A Gastronomic Invitation
With the over 100 hotels in Cancun, it can only be natural that they are staffed with acclaimed chefs from all over the world who are not afraid to uniquely express the traditional and varied fare of humble Mexican dishes, and of course, showcase their country of origin’s cuisine as well.
Japanese, Argentinian, Italian, Brazilian, Colombian, Mediterranean, Thai — these cuisines are but a small sample of what you can savor in Cancun.
Not only are there gobs of great food, but the vibe is also varied as well —
Stretch out and slack off in a hammock on the inevitable beachfront bistro, Sacbé Beach Shack;
Dine in the lap of luxury at La Buena Barra’s open-area dining that overlooks its very own wharf;
Or if you want to play it safe, partake of the tried-and-true burger and wings while watching your favorite game at Champions Sports Bar Cancun.
Which Is Better – Cancun or Playa Del Carmen?
Pitting Cancun and Playa del Carmen against each other will end up in difficulty and flat-out confusion, as both places are some of the most interesting places in Caribbean Mexico, making the Yucatan a place worth visiting. However, the best answers can only be made by seasoned travelers who are looking for a certain type of experience or experience.
Cancun is synonymous with high spirits, and all that fabled talk about Mexico’s holiday highs. Think, gorgeous beaches, loud parties at night, and a city lined with nothing but resorts and hotels. This big old resort city is made for those looking to have fun while having the beauty of nature at their disposal at the same time.
Is Playa Del Carmen Safer Than Cancun?
Truth be told, in Mexico, despite its infamous issues regarding gang violence, and drug cartels, Riviera Maya still has its sights on the country’s tourism sector, winning coveted lists, and international reception for its numerous tourist destinations, that speckled its coasts, and islands. Cancun and Playa del Carmen rank as some of Mexico’s best.
A festive bustle of a resort city like Cancun is like a beacon for criminal activity of any scale but despite the country’s continued grapple against the gang and drug crime, Cancun still sees the light of day, with only petty crimes to get away with. Falling on the safer side, there is no cause for fear and panic when you’re visiting, but caution is still encouraged, just like you would in any other city in the world.
Playa del Carmen ranks high when it comes to safety, not because of its smaller name compared to big sister Cancun, but rather to its simpler vibe, which attracts nothing but visitors who prefer a much calmer, and more authentic Mexican coastal city experience, and one in the Caribbean at that. Just like one would in Cancun, to err on the side of caution is still the best way to get you out of petty crime’s way.
In terms of uncontrolled threats, among your few potential concerns, the weather is one to look out for. But with Riviera Maya, a hurricane rarely directly hits both cities so it’s nothing to worry about, despite the region having a definite hurricane season. It’s best to check the weather forecasts before coming or opt to schedule your trip outside the summer or the hurricane season.
Is Cancun or Playa Del Carmen Better for Families?
Riviera Maya is perfect for many things, apart from its sunny days and seemingly perfect conditions for that fabled sunny holiday in the Mexican Caribbean, well-traveled families can’t help but soak and visit.
Cancun is best known for all types of travelers and tourists, including families. Its many resorts and hotels along its main arteries and beaches are better suited for families complete with family-friendly facilities and activities, and tourists haven’t reported any safety issues in the city. Wild part scenes aside, Cancun has shaped itself to be a well-rounded destination for different types of travelers.
Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, while it has fewer crowds, less animation, and more authenticity, isn’t ideal for families with smaller children. Despite staying faithful to an authentic Mexican seaside city flavor, the city is fit for slow travelers, expats, couples, friend groups, and families with young adult kids. The Playa is perfect for anyone looking to have a seaside city experience that is more than just parties, activities, and the beach.
Playa Del Carmen vs. Cancun for Singles
Let’s face it, there isn’t a place in Mexico that singles can’t look for an interesting place to stay, and enjoy. Cancun and Playa del Carmen are both ideal places for singles to enjoy being happily alone, or meet equally interesting singles, and have all that proverbial Mexican resort city fun.
But don’t get it wrong, both cities are as welcoming to singles as they do with couples, it’s just that Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer different flavors for everyone. If you’re looking for a more animated place, where you can have both the parties, the beach, and meet people in between, Cancun is the better fit for a more dynamic experience.
Playa offers something other than just booze, and the beach, as it is better fitted for people looking to take it slow, chill, and more culturally authentic. If you’re looking for a more tamed vibe, and a more laid-back and intimate travel experience, Playa del Carmen awaits.
Playa Del Carmen vs. Cancun – Nightlife
Riviera Maya and all its seaside jewels are collectively the most animated parts of Mexico, thanks to its premier nightlife, and knack for parties, fun, and a seemingly endless flow of booze. However, when we’re talking about nightlife, Playa del Carmen might want to take a back seat as Cancun remains to be the undisputed king or queen of the Mexican nightlife and even the Caribbean for that matter.
Playa del Carmen still sports a smaller nightlife scene, complete with less-rowdy clubs that regularly host internationally renowned events, bars that are more chill and musical, and less wild and crowded. Whenever in the Playa consider visiting Coco Bongo, Mandala, and the Palazzo Disco.
As for Cancun, the resort city still holds the helm for the most epic nightlife and party scene in the Riviera Maya, if not for the entire country and the Caribbean Sea. After the city’s developments that started from its exquisite beaches, the city has taken up another mantle in the form of a party capital.
If not for its beaches, and history lessons, Cancun is undoubtedly known for its nightlife, explore the famous Punta Cana, also known as the Party Zone, and drown in all the after-dark fun the city offers. Make sure to experience the high life in places such as The City, Coco Bongo Fiesta, Palazzo Nightclub, Dady’O, and Mandala Beach Club.
Playa Del Carmen vs. Cancun – Honeymoon
It’s a tough call when you pit Cancun and Playa del Camren against each other for the more ideal place for a honeymooning couple. Both cities have strong draws that can offer the best honeymoon experience, from resort qualities and city culture to natural beauty, their ties are a dozen.
Playa del Carmen is ideal for couples who want a more intimate time in the city, as the Playa offers a more authentic atmosphere than Cancun’s Americanized scene. The best honeymoon resorts in Playa del Carmen are situated a bit further from the city center, but transportation is good, and the city itself is a grid that is easily walkable, plus, the beaches are nothing short of wonderful.
Cancun, on the other hand, is ideal for couples looking for a more high-spirited time in a resort city, with lots of activities all day long, the beach during the day, and flirty parties at night. Cancun is best known for its rich combination of natural beauty and activities thanks to its proximity to a rich ancient history and natural sights that are enriching for different kinds of travelers. Not to mention that coveted nightlife that everybody is talking about.
Are the Beaches Better in Cancun or Playa Del Carmen?
The thing with Cancun and Playa del Carmen, despite being several miles from each other, sits on the same rich and beautiful coast that is the Riviera Maya. So, you can expect both cities to have beautiful stretches of white sand beaches, all brushed by the same gorgeous turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean. However, what will set them apart is the resort scene and the development or lack thereof that highlights their differences.
Cancun boasts clear blue waters, miles, and miles of a well-equipped stretch of white sand that are almost all fronted by hotels, but the beach is public. However, you’ll likely spend money on things such as food, and drinks, even beach chairs. Riviera Maya’s sargassum attacks are kept in check in Cancun because hotels tend to maintain the beaches’ blue beauty.
Playa del Carmen doesn’t have its public beaches right next to lined hotels, so expect a less developed and less-equipped scene on the Playa’s shores, so expect a more rugged experience, and the occasional vendor appearances. Despite the less developed appeal, the Playa’s beaches are exquisite, thanks to its more tropical vibe, with fewer high-rise buildings and more palm trees.
Playa Del Carmen Resorts vs. Cancun Resorts
If you’re looking for top-rated stays in the Riviera Maya, that are just at the right price, both cities offer a wide range of accommodation that can offer you that fabled experience in the Mexican Caribbean.
Cancun for one is home to over 140+ hotels that are lined up right at the white sand stretches fronting the sea, while some of the more affordable ones are right at the heart of the famed city. With that many options, and that many things to check out, Cancun will always be at the top of the list, boasting five-start accommodations, all-inclusive resorts, and cheaper hotels, together with a convenient transportation system that gets you anywhere fast.
If you’re looking for a more intimate, tropical, and authentic vibe during your stay, Playa del Carmen takes the top spot in the Riviera Maya. While Cancun is busy with all its development and high-rise waterfront hotels, Playa del Carmen is more chilled and more mid-rise. Not to mention, most of the Playa’s are cheaper than Cancun’s as demand dictates. However, resorts outside the main areas are situated further away from where the action is, you’ll have to travel to the city proper.
Is It Better to Stay in Cancun or Playa Del Carmen?
While the two sister cities are constantly pitted against each other when vying for the top spot in Riviera Maya’s best, it is clear that the match will always fall depending on the kind of flavor different travelers would opt for.
Cancun is the most dynamic, and animated of the two and is thus perfect for travelers looking for the constant highs of a fabled seaside Mexican vacation. From inland and aquatic activities, history tours, to epic nightlife and parties, Cancun isn’t meant for people looking to laze away their time in one of the most exciting places on the planet.
Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, is ideal for those looking to have a bit of fun, while having a more authentic vibe, more tropical, laid-back, and intimate. The Playa’s quintessential Mexican seaside experience, above all, is its best feature. The subtleties in the atmosphere it offers are ideal for people who want more than just the beach and the booze.