Less than 45 minutes drive from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, in the Riviera Maya (Yucatan Peninsula), is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico, and one of the best places to spend a few days at the end of your Mexico road trip! Home to fabulous beaches and with easy access to some of the best cenotes in Mexico, the city is perfectly geared to cater to tourists, and you will find a great selection of hotels, restaurants and plenty of shopping opportunities.
If you are planning to spend a few days in Playa del Carmen at the end of your trip, this post is for you! Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Playa del Carmen!
Make sure to also read my posts How To Get From Cancun To Playa Del Carmen, Where To Stay In Playa Del Carmen and Is Playa Del Carmen Safe For Tourists?
The Best Things To Do In Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Browse the stores along Quinta Avenida Norte
Quinta Avenida Norte or “Fifth Avenue” is one of the main thoroughfares in Playa del Carmen, and it’s the town’s busiest street. It’s here that you’ll find a plethora of shops, restaurants, bars, and other amenities. It’s always an interesting place to walk, soak up the atmosphere, and simply engage in a spot of people-watching.
It’s also a great place to go if you want to pick up some souvenirs – there’s a whole selection of stores selling trinkets and various artful objects that make for great gifts. And when you get hungry, simply take your pick from the wealth of eateries along the street.
Kick back at Playa Punta Esmeralda
There is no denying that hanging at the beach is one of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen, and Punta Esmeralda is just the perfect place for that.
This beautiful beach is a hidden gem – the place to come where you can come to enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of the Caribbean Sea away from the crowds. Playa Punta Esmeralda is a white sand beach that’s a favorite with locals, families in particular, thanks to the shallow, calm waters and pristine beach.
It’s also free to enter Playa Punta Esmeralda and usually quite easy to find a spot on the sand to stake out for the day. Easily walkable from Downtown, there’s also a coastal cenote with warm, shallow water that’s perfect for simply lounging around in (and great for children). There are also food vendors for when hunger calls.
Visit the Museo Frida Kahlo Playa Del Carmen
This small museum is dedicated to the life and art of one of Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo. One of the less touristy attractions in Playa del Carmen, the Museo Frida Kahlo explores the work of Frida who was born back in 1907.
Inside, the museum presents her life in chronological order with photographs and illustrations along with the origin stories behind many of her works of masterpieces. Information here, helpfully, is in both Spanish and English. While it’s not cheap for Mexico (admission is $15 USD), it’s perfect for art lovers who want some respite from the beach.
See the sculptures at Parque Los Fundadores
Situated just outside the ADO bus station on Fifth Avenue is the wacky Parque Los Fundadores. Translating to “Founding Fathers Park”, this place features a whole host of colorful, eye-catching sculptures that twist and turn on a backdrop of the sea.
One of the most visited sculptures at Parque Los Fundadores is the Portal Maya – over 50 foot high, this arched sculpture is a meeting place and definitely makes for a striking photo opportunity too.
Just coming to sit in this park, you’ll be entertained by the artful goings on of the sculptures – there are food carts so you can pick up snacks as you take it all in. On Sundays, the nearby church means that the area gets busy with families. In the center of the park, a bandstand plays host to musical performances. There’s also a children’s playground here, which is good to note for families.
Tuck into some local cuisine
Like most places in Mexico, you can’t go far in Playa del Carmen without seeing a food vendor, and there are plenty to try out. Each one sells snacks like empanadas and tacos. You’ll never be far from somewhere selling something mouthwatering, but it’s not always a small vendor – there are many authentic restaurants to try out too.
Among many, one example is Los Aguachiles, a local eatery that serves a wide variety of seafood – specifically delicious are its smoked fish tacos. Foodies should not miss out on local food in Playa del Carmen. For the best tacos, you’ll have to wait in line at El Fogon,
Check out my post What To Eat In Mexico.
Check out the underground river at Rio Secreto
Rio Secreto, as you may be able to tell from its name (literally “Hidden River”), is an underground river. But it’s more than just about the river itself. Here, visitors can explore the incredible subterranean landscape of this limestone cave system which features an array of dazzling stalactites.
Amazingly, it was only discovered in 2004 when a farmer happened upon the caves when an iguana he was chasing ran into the caves’ entrance (true story, apparently). The caves have since been explored by divers and have been a popular eco-tourism destination. While a tourist attraction today, Rio Secreto was once used for various religious rituals by the ancient Maya civilization.
Take a stroll around Parque La Ceiba
When you want a break from the beach and the bustling crowds of Fifth Avenue, one of the best things to do in Playa del Carmen is taking a stroll through Parque La Ceiba. It’s nice and shady for a picnic on a warm day – an ideal spot for those who are on vacation with their children, a colorful place to play and learn about the natural world.
There are even classes for children, in which they can learn about the environment and recycling. While this is going on, grown-ups can enjoy a beverage at the park’s cafe. There are also special events throughout the year, including movie screenings and even yoga classes. Every third Saturday of the month, Parque La Ceiba hosts an artisanal market where Mayan communities sell various crafts.
Cool off in a cenote
Playa del Carmen is perfectly situated for hitting up a cenote or two. There are plenty of these bejeweled sinkholes practically a stone’s throw from the city itself, ranging from open cenotes exposed to the sky, so you can swim in the open air, to underground cenotes where you can explore a cave system and enjoy a subterranean swim.
Close to the city is the very famous Cenote Azul – an open cenote that’s great for families. Close by, there’s another open-air cenote, Cristalino, with its dazzlingly clear turquoise waters. There’s also Cenote Jardin del Eden, a large slice of bright blue water in the middle of lush green jungle. All of these and more are a simple taxi or colectivo ride from Playa del Carmen.
Make sure to read my post The Best Cenotes In Playa Del Carmen.
Swim with turtles at Akumal beach
Akumal beach is about halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It’s easily one of the best beaches in Mexico – with powdery white sand, rimmed with palm trees for shade, and incredibly clear, shallow waters. What’s even better is that a short swim from the shore you’ll be able to spot sea turtles!
To visit the beach and swim with turtles, you can join a guided tour departing from Playa del Carmen, or simply take a colectivo and – unless you have your own – rent snorkeling equipment once at the beach. Guided snorkeling tours departing from the shore are also available.
Read my post The Best Beaches In Playa Del Carmen.
Learn about Maya culture at Playa del Carmen Archaeological Site
The Yucatan Peninsula is renowned for its proliferation of Maya ruins and historic sites, and the area surrounding Playa del Carmen is no different. While you’re here, you should definitely make a point of learning about this ancient civilization at the Playa del Carmen Archaeological Site.
Also known as the Playacar Mayan Ruins, this site may not be ticketed or have much information on it, but it’s still a fascinating insight into Mayan life in Playa del Carmen. The ruins here have a calm atmosphere, and they are surrounded by nature and wildlife. If you don’t have much time for a day trip to a larger Mayan site, this compact complex of crumbling structures is easy to discover.
Take a boat trip to Cozumel
Cozumel is an undeveloped island situated in the Caribbean Sea just opposite Playa del Carmen. The island is easily reached via boat from Playa del Carmen, and there are regular ferries that ply the route taking around 45 minutes each way. Once you’re on the island, there is a whole range of activities to keep you busy for a day of exploration.
Most people actually visit Cozumel from their cruise ships as they pass by, but there’s plenty more to discover than a cruise stopover can allow. There’s the chance to snorkel or scuba dive on part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (the second largest in the world); there are hiking trails to explore the nature here; and there’s also, surprisingly, street art in the form of the Sea Walls project which aims to liven up the urban structures on Cozumel.
There’s also El Cielo, a supremely picturesque beach that needs to be seen to be believed. Along with its white sand and sky-reflecting sea, there are a lot of starfish around this beach, too.
For a snorkeling tour of Cozumel, click here.
Read my post The Best National Parks In Mexico.
Go parasailing across the ocean
For something a little bit different from exploring Playa del Carmen at ground level, how about trying out some parasailing? It’s easily one of the most fun things to do in Playa del Carmen! Water sports are very popular in this part of the Yucatan Peninsula, but with parasailing, you glide above it all through the sky and soak up unparalleled views of the Caribbean Sea.
There is a whole host of companies and tour operators that can provide the parasailing experience – just make sure you go with a reputable company that comes highly reviewed or recommended. You could opt for a simple 10-minute ride in the sky to liven up a day at the beach. Alternatively, you could choose a package that also gives you time at a beach club before you’re strapped in and flown back to your start point.
Sip on cocktails at Mamitas Beach Club
If you’re looking for something chic and upscale to do in Playa del Carmen, then you should definitely head to this trendy hangout. Mamitas Beach Club is a hotspot for high-end hanging out, located around three blocks from Fifth Avenue. This is where people come to relax – and party – on the sand.
Here you’ll get a slice of private beach with white sand and sea views, while DJs spin a soundtrack of chilled electronic music. There’s also waiter service direct to your lounger, and a clubhouse with a restaurant and other amenities. For even more exclusivity, there’s a VIP area with a swimming pool and luxurious loungers.
Soak up the art at Gaston Charo Gallery
For more art in Playa del Carmen, you should make a beeline for the Gaston Charo Gallery. This small and local gallery, tucked away on a side-street just off Fifth Avenue, is the place to go to get a grip on the artistic creativity in the region.
Displaying everything from photography and paintings to sculptures and jewelry, this primarily modern (think cubist and surrealists) collection showcases a series of colorful, striking pieces from various local artists. If you find something you like, then you will be pleased to know that you can also purchase pieces of art here, too.
Go ziplining or rafting at Xplor
For adrenaline junkies, Xplor is where it’s at. This jungle-based adventure park boasts a whole load of different exciting activities, allowing you to have a jam-packed day surrounded by nature. From flying across jungle canopies to exploring subterranean rivers on a kayak or even taking to the water on an amphibious vehicle, you’re bound to have the best time ever here.
Since it’s close to Playa del Carmen, it’s fairly easy to pack in all the activities into your day. The entrance ticket is an all-inclusive pass which means you’ll have access to all the activities going. It even includes food and beverages, so you’ll be completely covered for a comprehensive day out.
For all-inclusive tickets to Xplor, click here.
Explore the galaxy at SAYAB Planetario de Playa del Carmen
Set in a striking modern building, this place really makes for one of the more off the beaten track things to do in Playa del Carmen. The SAYAB Planetarium plays host to a variety of multimedia presentations on the awesome subject of the cosmos. If you want to escape the heat for the day or have something a little different to do with your evening, then this planetarium should be on your to-do list.
Interestingly, SAYAB features shows that specialize in cenotes too, as well as other diverse topics related to the region, so make sure to check out the schedule beforehand. Most of the programs are in Spanish, but there are also regular offerings in English too.
Visit Tulum Archaeological Site
For the most impressive Mayan Ruins at easy driving distance from Playa del Carmen, head to Tulum. Once known as Zama, or “City of Dawn,” Tulum served as the port city of the more important Coba. Some of the structures – ie the 13th century watchtower – are directly overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, and the small beach below the ruins makes for a nice addition.
For a guided tour of Tulum, click here. For a tour that also goes to Coba and the cenotes, click here.
Make sure to read my post The Best Day Trips From Playa Del Carmen.
Spend the day exploring Archeological Zone of Muyil
Muyil is amazingly one of the earliest Mayan sites on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and one of the longest inhabited as well. Located just over an hour from Playa del Carmen, this archaeological site spans 38 hectares of jungle and ruins and is crowned by the Castillo Pyramid. Soaring up to 57 feet, this pyramid is the highest on the Maya Riviera.
There’s a variety of intriguing ruins located in this adventurous jungle setting, many of which can be reached on foot. It takes around an hour to walk around and take in most of the visible sites. There’s also a lagoon here, called Muyil Lagoon, which is connected to the rest of the complex via boardwalk. Here you will also find a lookout which boasts breath-taking views of the lagoon and out over the dense jungle all around.
For a guided tour that goes to Muyil as well as Sian Ka’an Reserve, click here.