Decide whether or not traveling to Playa del Carmen, Mexico is a good idea with the help of the following list of pros and cons.
(In-)Accurate Preconceptions of Playa del Carmen
We didn’t have high hopes for Playa del Carmen before going. In our minds, it was an over-developed beach town overflowing with neon-tank-top-wearing, sun-burned Americans buzzing on cheap Mexican booze. An extension of Cancun, in other words.
We weren’t wrong… but we weren’t totally right either.
Playa del Carmen had all the negative aspects we suspected, but it also had some redeeming features that surprised us. Traveling to Playa del Carmen ended up being a good choice for us (for a couple days, at least).
Is Playa del Carmen a good choice for you too?
That depends. These pros and cons of traveling to Playa del Carmen will help you decide.
The Pros and Cons of Traveling to Playa del Carmen
✓ Pro: Playa del Carmen is Close to Cancun’s International Airport
Playa del Carmen is only about a fifty-five-minute bus ride from Cancun’s international airport. That’s only about twenty-five minutes farther than Cancun’s own hotel zone.
✗ Con: Finding the Cancun to Playa del Carmen Bus Can Be a Nightmare
When we arrived at Cancun’s airport at around 9 p.m. everyone lied to us, saying there were no more buses until the next morning.
Taxi and minivan drivers purposefully misled us and a security guard blocked us from going the right way. One airport employee even walkie-talkied over to his friend to “check” if the buses were still running and confirmed they weren’t. They were all lying to try to get us to hire a private car. We ended up finding the bus, but it took one-and-a-half extremely frustrating hours.
Lesson: Research how you’re going to get to Playa del Carmen before your flight because you can’t trust anyone at the airport.
✓ Pro: Playa del Carmen’s Beach is Always Close and Easily Accessible
Playa del Carmen stretches along the beach and there plenty of public access points. Even when you’re deep in “local” Playa del Carmen you’ll never be more than fifteen minutes walk from the beach
You can’t say the same about Tulum, for example. There, most beach access is blocked by resorts and it would take an hour to walk from the town to the beach.
✗ Con: The Beach Ain’t Great
Our friend Karla, who lives in Playa del Carmen, told us that Playa del Carmen’s beaches were paradise ten years ago. But now, she says, the water’s so polluted by untreated runoff from the hotels that she and her friends won’t even swim in it.
Despite Karla’s warnings, we swam in the water. We didn’t get sick or emerge with toilet paper in our hair, but we weren’t frolicking with dolphins, starfish, and stingrays either. The water’s murky and the beaches are small and crowded, even in offseason months like May, when we went.
✓ Pro: Playa del Carmen Is Fun for Everyone
Playa del Carmen is not a debaucherous adult playground like New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. But it’s not designed for kids like Disney World either. It’s got a nice balance of both that allowed everyone we saw—college-aged partiers, Mexican families with young kids, middle-aged couples, you name it—to have a good time.
And, even in the offseason, it’s pleasantly buzzing with activity. This makes it for good people watching or socializing, whichever you prefer.
✗ Con: There is Zero Cultural Appeal
Put it this way: The featured items at Playa del Carmen’s souvenir shops were “Mayan” masks with NFL football team logos on them.
All semblance of historical Mayan and modern Mexican culture has been painted over with a garish American brush. It’s the Mexico of stereotypes, full of tequila, nachos, Corona merchandise, and Señor Frogs.
Even if you venture further inland into the local part of town it’s one strip mall after another.
✓ Pro (Mostly): English Is Widely Spoken
If you want to learn Spanish, Playa del Carmen’s not the place to go to. But if you want to relax without the hassle of language barriers, it’s ideal. Just about everyone speaks English, and often very well.
Even the greeter at Walmart spoke fluent English.
✗ Con: Everyone’s Trying to Sell You Stuff
The downside of the fact that everyone in Playa del Carmen speaks English is they can (and will) use it to try to extract money from you.
Every corner in Playa del Carmen has hustlers trying to sell you something you don’t want. I got so annoyed by the constant pestering that I considered recording myself saying “No, Gracias” on my phone and playing it on loop as I walked along the street.
✓ Pro: Everything’s in One Place
Unlike Tulum, where all the high-end restaurants and hotels are far from the lower-budget town, everything’s within walking distance in Playa del Carmen.
Speaking of which…
✓ Pro: It’s Walkable
A car may be handy for exploring other parts of the Yucatan, but you don’t need one to get around town. You don’t even need a bike or to take taxis. Playa del Carmen is compact, its main strip, La Quinta, is pedestrian-only, and the other streets have minimal traffic. This makes it a pleasant town to walk around.
✗ Con: There Are No Good Exercise Options
If you’re traveling to Playa del Carmen on holiday, exercise might be the last thing on your priority list and this won’t matter to you.
But this will matter if you like to exercise even when on holiday—and especially if you’re like us and enjoy getting outside and using sometimes unconventional tactics to stay fit.
We had a hard time finding opportunities to put these tactics to work in Playa del Carmen. It was impossible to work out on Playa del Carmen’s cramped beach without kicking sand onto a poor sunbather’s face, and the only gyms we saw were of the soulless air-conditioned treadmill and machine variety.
✓ Pro: There’s a Good Selection of Mexican Restaurants
Though most of the restaurants along the main strip of La Quinta were overpriced and over-touristy, we were pleasantly surprised to find that Playa del Carmen had plenty of authentic, good-value places nearby too.
Here are the ones we ate at:
- Nativo – They serve enormous (1 liter) and excellent smoothies for only 40 pesos.
- Calmar de las 10 – We stumbled on this place by chance and stumbled out happy campers. It’s a can’t miss if they’re still running their ceviche promotion of 1 kg for 110 pesos.
- Doña Paula’s – This tip from Sarah Somewhere was a good one. Though it’s only a couple blocks from La Quinta’s tourism vortex, Doña Paula doesn’t seem to care about catering to or attracting tourists. There’s no sign out front and it’s not on TripAdvisor. Doña Paula is content to stick to making delicious traditional food for the same low prices as always.
Bueno, Pero no Fantastico:
- Madrez Cafe – It’s the type of place that we’d recommend if it were located back home in Vancouver at the same prices. The food’s and service is good, but for Mexico is a bit too expensive for what it is.
- El Fogon – El Madrez’s owner, our hotel manager, and a couple other local insiders all recommended El Fogon. So does everyone else apparently; on TripAdvisor and Google is has almost three times as many reviews as any other Playa del Carmen restaurant. We didn’t get what all the fuss was about. The prices were ok compared to elsewhere in Playa, but even compared to Tulum town they were high, and nothing we ate was memorable.
- El Ñero – If you’re interested in unusual meats like tongue and tripe, and aren’t going elsewhere in Mexico it’s a decent choice. But if you’re going to stick with chorizo or pastor tacos, El Fogon’s were tastier and a better bang for your buck.
✓ Pro: There’s a Great Place to Stay
The place we stayed at, The Hotel Colorado, was exactly what we wanted. It was well-located but peacefully quiet, the German guy and his daughter who managed it were helpful and friendly, the room was spacious and had AC, the beds were comfortable enough, and they provided free drinking water. For the price we negotiated—only 400 pesos (about 20 USD) a night—it was a great deal.
If we were to visit Playa del Carmen again we’d stay there again without a second thought.
Note that if you book through those links you’ll reward us with a small commission of about 3% (at no extra cost to yourself).
The Final Verdict on Traveling to Playa del Carmen
For us, traveling to Playa del Carmen was perfect… at least for the one day we were there. Two would’ve been too many. We enjoyed it more than we thought we would, but it’s definitely not an “Unconventional Route” type of spot.
Depending on what type of trip you’re looking for, your conclusions may differ. Whatever the case may be, hopefully, these pros and cons of traveling to Playa del Carmen will help you make the right choice.
And if you’re considering spending some time further down the Yucatan Peninsula in trendy Tulum, check out our unstylish (but practical and helpful) travel guide.
This Tulum travel guide is for “unhipsters” who want to eat real Mexican food, be active, not pay American prices, and explore beyond the top attractions.