Playa del Carmen, located on the Riviera Maya in Mexico, is a town famed for great nightlife and beautiful beaches, but also one overrun with tourists. Unless you come here only hoping to spend all day sunbathing and all night partying, you can run out of ideas for fun activities fast. Read our guide to the top ten things to do in and around Playa and make the most of this spectacular part of the world.
Let’s start the list with an activity that’s hugely popular all along the white, sandy beaches of Playa del Carmen – kite surfing. Anyone familiar with this beautiful town will tell you that the coast is always full of kite surfers and paddle boarders, young and old, pros and newbies. Make the most of your holiday by getting some exercise and picking up a new and impressive hobby to brag about back home. Several companies offer kite surfing and paddle boarding classes (or rental for those already familiar with the sport), but remember to check for qualified instructors before signing up for any extreme sport.
One of three eco-adventure, water based activity parks located towards Cancún (the other two are the similarly named Xplor and Xel-há), Xcaret is a great option for all the family and is about an hour away from central Playa del Carmen. Zip-line between trees, float through underwater caves, cross rope bridges, marvel at rock formations, and above all have a great day out. Any of the three are excellent, albeit pricey options, with the park admission (some activities included) costing approximately $90. Having said that, there are numerous tours, packages, and discounts offered year-round.
Coming back to Playa del Carmen itself, visit Parque Fundadores for a relaxed afternoon out and enjoy the Voladores de Papantla. An ancient ritual still performed today, it involves dance, song, and the climbing of a pole. Four of the five at the top then attach themselves to the pole with rope around their waists before launching themselves off backwards, to elegantly spin towards the ground. The fifth remains atop the pole playing the flute. Parque Fundadores is the perfect place to enjoy an ice cream and watch the ritual take place, located right next to the beach. Don’t forget to donate a few pesos to the park after the performance is over.
Tulum is a relaxed, tiny beach town, which is growing in popularity among travelers for its gorgeous shores and great nightlife. Located an hour or so outside Playa del Carmen, take some time to explore the center if you want, but make sure to enjoy the real draw of the town – the crystalline waters and expansive beaches. Renting bikes is advisable and easy, as the beach and center are separated by the Tulum National Park, meaning taxis are often required to ferry you between the two. However, the bikes will also come in handy if you want to snorkel in the Gran Cenote, located further inland, or any one of the other cenotes that dot the peninsula.
If going farther afield for stunning beaches just isn’t your thing, given that you’re surrounded by them in Playa del Carmen itself, look no further than Playacar. Located farther south than the center, it is widely regarded as one of the better beaches in the area, due to the presence of fewer tourists, which allows more square footage per person than you are likely to get on the beaches with more prime central locations. Relax with a book, overlooking the ocean or take a dip in the safe waters of Playacar.
Another quaint town located outside of Playa del Carmen, Akumal is as popular as it is for its population of sea turtles. More specifically, the chance to snorkel with endangered green sea turtles. Putting aside this awesome activity for a second, Akumal itself is a pretty standard Mexican beach town; laidback and quiet. But coming back to the job at hand, the best part about it is that it doesn’t necessitate the use of a tour company. Simply make your way to Akumal, either in a taxi or on the colectivo buses, rent some snorkel gear, and get in the water. Turtles are abundant in this area, but it’s still best to go in down-season to guarantee a sighting.
We’ve already touched upon the overwhelming abundance of cenotes in the Mexican peninsula, mentioning a few to visit in Tulum, but they really deserve a mention of their own. Those preferring snorkelling options should try out the crystal clear waters of the aptly named Cenote Cristalino, which also has a rock overhang from which brave souls can jump into the waters below. Divers may want to check out Cenote Angelita which has a depth of 200 feet, made up of both salt and fresh water for a strange and mystical experience. As previously mentioned, the tourist favorite is the Gran Cenote just outside Tulum, which has viewing platforms and sometimes shallower waters.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, and very much worth a visit. Despite its location in the state of Yucatán, almost three hours away from Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itzá is a huge Mayan pyramid that is as jaw-dropping in real life as in photos. However it is worth exploring the surrounding smaller pyramids and ruins, even if they don’t live up to the grandeur of the main attraction. Definitely make it here early (the site opens at 8am every day but queues form earlier, especially on Sundays) and get your snaps before the hordes of visitors crowd the base of the pyramid.
Valladolid is a sleepy Mexican town close to the border between Yucatán and Quintana Roo, making it the perfect place for a day trip before traveling on to Chichen Itzá the following day. Aside from its proximity to this major tourist attraction, Valladolid has much to offer, including – you guessed it! – more cenotes. It also has a lovely central plaza, which comes alive in the evenings, selling snacks such as marquesitas, which are crispy rolled up crepes with a Nutella and grated cheese filling. Trust us, they are much nicer than they sound, but you can have them minus the cheese if you wish.
Rounding off our list is Cozumel, an island off the coast of Playa del Carmen. You may have seen this isla described as undeveloped, yet it still comes fully equipped with some upmarket hotel resorts and even its own airport, so perhaps take that description with a grain of salt. Easily accessible for a day trip via the ferry, this is a hotspot for divers and snorkelers due to its world-famous reefs. No need to book in advance, simply wander along the dock after arriving and find a tour group that offers snorkeling or diving trips and sign yourself up. Be careful for scammers, though, and always check the details before agreeing to anything.