There are so many great destinations in Mexico, and Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two of the best. However, both offer very different vacations, so making the choice between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is as important as it is difficult.
Thankfully we’re here to help! Below we pit Cancun vs Playa del Carmen, letting you know what to expect in each, comparing the beaches, culture, and nightlife.
We then give you a run down of some of the best natural sights and things to do in each destination to help you decide which one is better for your holiday.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Which is the Better Choice?
Many people think these destinations will be quite similar as they’re both in Mexico and close to each other. However there are notable differences.
We’ve found that Cancun has better beaches than Playa del Carmen, with the sand more ‘powdery’ and the beaches in general bigger.
However, because Cancun is such a famous destination, the gorgeous stretches of sand here tend to be highly developed and very busy. That means Cancun feels a bit like a concrete jungle at times, although the upside for tourists is that there are many hotel rooms with an ocean view.
Playa del Carmen also has some nice stretches of sand, particularly in Playacar – which is in the Hotel Zone. The beaches at Playacar are as good as the ones in Cancun, albeit the one issue is that there’s less of them.
Playa del Carmen has a much more authentic feel than Cancun though, and has more of a laid-back ‘town’ vibe than busy brash tourist-orientated Cancun. That’s no surprise though as Playa del Carmen is a lot smaller.
But because Cancun is so tourist-orientated it has a very good shopping scene, a huge array of restaurants, and the nightlife is lively and loud with numerous bars and nightclubs. So there’s always things to do in Cancun. Although all of that has also made the city quite ‘Americanized’ with chain restaurants and hotels.
There are some very nice restaurants and bars in Playa del Carmen as well, so there are things to do in the evening there as well. That said, the emphasis in Playa del Carmen certainly isn’t on partying.
Playa del Carmen is a safe destination for tourists too – as is Cancun – but as always you must be vigilant in regards to petty crime in both destinations, and be careful of leaving drinks unattended.
Below we look at what things you can see and do in Cancun and Playa del Carmen in more detail, so you have an idea of what excursions are possible.
Cancun or Playa del Carmen: Natural Sights and Things to do
This famous Mexican destination has many gorgeous white sand beaches, and within the Hotel Zone Playa Delfines is one of the best. The turquoise water there is shallow and warm making it perfect for swimming. But another fun aspect of this beach are the iguanas that come to sunbathe there. You can often spot dolphins from the beach as well!
Of course Cancun is a destination where adventure is always just around the corner. So why not head to Playa Ballenas where you can hire jet skis and go racing over the strong waves.
For something a bit different, become a pirate in the evening and join Captain Hook Cancun. For several hours you will be taken out to sea on huge replica pirate boats to enjoy a themed show & dinner. It’s fun and sums up Cancun well – there’s always something happening here.
There’s always shopping opportunities too! One of the best places to ‘shop till you drop’ is La Isla Cancun Shopping Village. This huge mall has a fascinating array of shops, from locals selling handicrafts to the world-renowned Prada. There’s even an aquarium.
You can find some incredible cultural excursions in the Hotel Zone too. We would recommend taking an excursion to the stunning Mayan ruins of El Rey
Or if you venture outside of the Hotel Zone you can do a tour of the breathtaking ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. After that you will get the chance to swim in cenotes – huge sinkholes that have filled with water and are now gorgeous natural swimming pools. A trip like this will let you see another side of Mexico, as well as part of this country’s fascinating history too.
After a busy day soaking up the sun, shopping and exploring, then the nightlife in Cancun beckons. Cancun Mandala is one of the coolest spots for late night fun. This energetic nightclub is one of Cancun’s most popular party spots. Another is Congo Bar Cancun, a nightclub and bar with several levels, dancers, and entertainment.
Recommended Stays in Cancun:
Le Blanc Spa Resort: This all-inclusive five-star adults only resort is as luxurious as you can get. Right in the heart of the action, it’s by far the best five-star resort in Cancun. It’s pricey but well worth it. Visit their website by clicking here.
Moon Palace: This five-star golf & spa resort is known for it’s exceptional facilities, huge choice of restaurants and many kid-friendly activities – including their own water park! This is the best choice in Cancun if you’re traveling as a family. Visit their website and learn more by clicking here!
Playa del Carmen
While some of the beaches in Playa del Carmen often have seaweed on them, Playacar Beach in the Hotel Zone is as good as any beach throughout Mexico! Expect sugar-soft sand and turquoise crystal-clear water, and while it can be busy during the day, it tends to get quieter during the early evening making it a perfect spot for sunset walks.
If you head around 20km south from Playa del Carmen you will find Akumal Bay, a wonderful white sand bay where you can swim with sea turtles and snorkel with colorful reef fish and rays. It’s a very special spot. A great underwater camera – like this one – is a must. (Recommended: Sharks in the Riviera Maya: Safety Info, Attacks & More).
The shopping epicenter of Playa del Carmen is Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) where you’ll find countless shops as well as handicraft sellers. You’ll find anything and everything there, and the side streets of Fifth Avenue are full of little bars and independent sellers.
Another worthwhile excursion would be a trip to the family friendly nature park, Xcaret. There you can swim in caves and with dolphins, enjoy entertainment shows in the evening, and even explore an underground river.
After a day enjoying the sights and swimming, a few drinks in the evening is a must. Although Playa del Carmen isn’t as nightlife centric as Cancun, there are several great evening spots.
For a great selection of local craft beer and drinks from around the world then head to Club de la Cerveza on Fifth Avenue. Another one of our favorite evening haunts is the trendy Tequila Barrel – expect good music, great hookah and friendly staff. This is also a great place to watch sport events! (Recommended: A Local’s Guide to Nightlife in Playa del Carmen).
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Which is the Better Holiday Choice?
Both these Mexican holiday vacations will provide unforgettable memories but for very different reasons.
Cancun is energetic, busy, loud and developed. The beaches and water here are gorgeous, and the shopping and nightlife scene is famous for a reason. So if you’re looking for a lively holiday that combines sunbathing with eating out, partying late, and lots of things to do, then Cancun will be the better choice than Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, has some lovely beaches too. It’s less busy, more relaxed, and has an authentic feel compared to the more ‘Americanized’ Cancun. So if you’re looking for sun, sea and sand in a smaller more laid-back destination, then Playa del Carmen will be the better choice than Cancun.