Last updated on December 31, 2022 by Wandering our World
So, you have chosen to take a trip down in Mexico for your next vacation but are struggling to decide between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. These two popular tourist destinations border the Caribbean Sea and welcome large numbers of tourists to their sun-kissed, tequila-laced shores each year, and we’re going to help you choose which one will be best suited to your vacation plans.
Cancun is located in southeast Mexico, on the northeast corner of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It’s renowned for its white sand beaches, incredible nightlife and huge nightclubs, all-inclusive resorts in the tourist-friendly Hotel Zone, and its plethora of vacation activities.
Cancun is a far more lively place than Playa del Carmen and that shows as it has lots more activities and attractions, as well as a huge selection of restaurants for dining out and chain resorts.
World-class scuba diving, Mayan ruins, and flamingo tours are all waiting for you in Cancun. That makes famous Cancun an arguably better choice for those who want a holiday where everything is on their hotel’s doorstep.
Playa del Carmen is also located along the Caribbean coast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and is around 70 kilometers to the south of Cancun.
Playa, as it’s known locally, is a magnet for those seeking white-sand beaches, lush jungles, and ancient archaeological sites. Explore the cenotes, snorkel with turtles, and shop till you drop.
Ultimately Playa del Carmen is less touristy than Cancun, has a more ‘authentic’ Mexican feel, plenty of boutique hotels, and is better for those looking for a more laid-back vacation.
So read on to find out more about these two superb Mexican vacation destinations in what is the best – and most honest – comparison around.
We delve deep into the beaches, hotels, activities, nightlife and more in each location, all to help you plan the perfect vacation. By the time you’ve finished reading, we’re sure you will have made up your mind.
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is Better For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Snorkeling?
- Which Is Better For Scuba Diving?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Which Has The Best Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- What Time Of Year Is Best?
Which Is Easier To Get To?
In terms of reaching these two destinations, there should be no major obstacles to overcome. Both are very easy to reach, with Cancun being slightly easier. There’s only 70 kilometers between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, and both places are served by the same airport, Cancun International Airport (CUN), which also happens to be Mexico’s second busiest airport.
Playa del Carmen is slightly more time-consuming to reach, as you will also need to transfer by road down from Cancun’s airport.
Aside from that, travel is very simple. Cancun Airport receives a plethora of direct flights each day from airports throughout the US. It also receives many direct flights from the major European and South American cities. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a direct flight.
Flight times from New York and Los Angeles take a little under five hours. For flights from Europe or Buenos Aires, you should expect to be in the air for closer to ten hours. Allow a couple of hours’ extra travel time if you are transferring down to Playa del Carmen upon arrival.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
As the smaller town, Playa del Carmen is a little easier to get around. Many places are within walking distance of one another, and taxi rides should be shorter when needed.
Cancun is a little larger and more spread out (see photo below), so you may need to use the taxis to get around more often than you would do in Playa del Carmen. Cancun’s downtown area is a little over ten kilometers away from the Hotel Zone, and you will need to use public transport more often here.
Both places have good transport systems in place though, and buses can also be used to keep the costs down compared with taxis.
Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen have beautiful islands just offshore too, and both have ferry services running to and from these islands throughout the day.
The ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres costs 24 dollars for a return ticket, and the crossing takes about 25 minutes. From Playa del Carmen, the ferry to Cozumel takes about 40 minutes each way on the regular ferry or 20 minutes on the fast ferry, and prices start at around ten US dollars.
Which Is Better For Beaches: Cancun or Playa del Carmen?
Whichever destination you ultimately choose, you will be rewarded by warm turquoise water and soft, white sand beaches.
Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are blessed with stunning beaches along their Caribbean coastlines.
And the reality is that whether you are looking for a quiet beach where you can dive into this season’s best-selling book, a party beach, or an activity-rich beach with excellent watersports options, Cancun and Playa del Carmen both have you covered.
Though for water sports and overall activities, busier and more ‘touristy’ Cancun may have slightly more options geared towards vacationers.
Below we look quickly at a few of the beaches in more detail….
Playa del Carmen: Best Beaches
Parque Fundadores is a superb beach for those looking for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s a very popular beach, with a mix of locals and tourists visiting to relax and chill by the sea throughout the year. Because of this, it can get pretty busy at weekends, but there’s plenty of space to find a quiet spot.
Mamitas Beach is perfect if you are looking for a party. This busy beach is lined with beach clubs, bars, and restaurants, and there are plenty of people looking to get the party started.
Playa Maroma is a great beach for the more active-minded. The beach is wide and flat, with soft, white sand, and there are plenty of watersports on offer. You can hire jet skis or a catamaran, or simply grab your mask and snorkel and enjoy the colorful marine life.
Cancun: Best Beaches
Playa Pez Volador is a great beach for those looking for a tranquil spot to settle down in the sand with a good book. It’s located in a small bay in the Hotel Zone and often gets overlooked.
There are limited amenities here, so maybe pack a beach towel to lie on, but the crowds are also limited.
Playa Chac Mool is a great option if lying still in the sand is not your cup of tea. There are plenty of watersports going on here, and the northern end of the beach blends into the party beach of Playa Gaviota Azul.
You can start your evening here with a sunset cocktail before venturing behind the beach to the mega clubs.
Recommended: Sharks & Shark Attacks In Cancun & The Riviera Maya
Which Is Best For Snorkeling?
Whilst the central beaches of Playa del Carmen and Cancun are both famed for their powdery-soft sand, this abundance of sand over rocks doesn’t always allow for the best snorkeling experiences. But if you are mobile and travel a little bit farther from your hotel or join a day trip, you can enjoy some truly thrilling snorkeling.
Passing right by these two tourist destinations is the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second largest barrier reef system.
For the best snorkeling day trips from Cancun, head out to Isla Mujeres on a whale shark snorkeling trip. Whale sharks are one of the most impressive sights you can see in the ocean. They are the world’s largest fish, but fear not, they have no real teeth and have no interest in humans. Their diet consists of tiny plankton, which they filter feed from the ocean.
For the best snorkeling from Playa, a day trip out to Cozumel will not disappoint. Cozumel is famed for its scuba diving, but the snorkeling is excellent too. You’ll have a chance of encountering a whale shark here too, but the main draw is the luxuriant, healthy reefs, which provide a safe haven for a myriad of colorful tropical fish.
Which Is Better For Scuba Diving?
If bobbing around on the surface is not for you, and you prefer to scuba dive below the waves, then maybe Playa del Carmen will be best for you.
The fantastic, healthy reefs off of nearby Cozumel will make sure you get your fill of blowing bubbles. But that’s not to say Cancun can’t also offer unique and thrilling experiences on scuba.
Cancun is home to the Cancun Underwater Museum. This unique dive has you cruising between statues and sculptures underwater, which is something a bit different. (Recommended: A Local’s Guide To Scuba Diving In Cancun).
But another reason why scuba divers may prefer Playa del Carmen is its proximity to Tulum. Mexico is famous for its cenotes diving (see photo below), and Tulum is a great place to experience this different and magical kind of diving.
If you plan to log a few dives during your Mexico trip, you may well prefer the diving opportunities from Playa del Carmen over those from Cancun.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
As two major destinations that receive thousands of tourists each year, there are plenty of options to suit every budget.
From high-rise all-inclusive resorts to backpacker-friendly hostels, Cancun and Playa del Carmen have it all. But with lots of choice, finding your perfect hotel can be a little time-consuming.
We’re going to pick out one stand-out hotel for each location in four different categories—all-inclusive, luxury, mid-range, and budget—to help give you an idea of what’s on offer.
Playa del Carmen: Best All-Inclusive Hotel
Grand Velas Riviera Maya: Set in 85 acres a few kilometers outside central Playa del Carmen, this phenomenal all-inclusive resort continues to wow its guests. Expect excellent customer service, gourmet cuisine, and revitalizing spa services.
The all-inclusive rates include meals at the property’s eight restaurants, and the resort has a fitness center and kids’ club too! See photos and rates at this link.
Cancun: Best All-Inclusive Hotel
Turquoize at Hyatt Ziva: The suites at the Turquoize feature private balconies with hot tubs, stunning ocean views, and include butler service. The resort has a stunning rooftop infinity pool and bar, and a well-equipped fitness suite.
The location is superb, in the heart of the Hotel Zone and right on the beach, with views across to Isla Mujeres. See photos and rates at this link.
Playa del Carmen: Best Luxury Hotel
Palafitos Overwater Bungalows: Less than three kilometers from Playa del Carmen Beach, Palafitos Overwater Bungalows features stunning accommodation with a restaurant, free private parking, an outdoor swimming pool, and a fitness center.
This 5-star resort features bungalows built out onto the ocean – something synonymous with destinations like Bora Bora and the Maldives! The rooms include air conditioning, a seating area, a flat-screen TV with cable channels, and even a hot tub. It’s impossible to sleep closer to the ocean without getting wet. See photos and rates at this link.
Cancun: Best Luxury Hotel
Oleo Cancun Playa Boutique All Inclusive Resort: It’s hard to find luxurious beachside accommodation in the city’s famous hotel zone without stratospheric prices attached to it. However Oleo Cancun Playa Boutique offers an all-inclusive experience – and even rooms with sea views – at more than half the price of many neighboring hotels. It’s luxury at a budget price. See photos and rates at this link.
Playa del Carmen: Best Mid-Range Hotel
Playa Maya by MIJ Hotels: Playa Maya is located right on the beach and is just a short walk from the excellent shopping at 5th Avenue. Hotel amenities include high -speed internet, swimming pool, free breakfast, and easy beach access.
Families will enjoy the fact that kids stay for free, and children can enjoy splashing around in the kids’ pool. See photos and rates at this link.
Cancun: Best Mid-Range Hotel
Hotel Carrillos: With an outdoor swimming pool and a plunge pool, Hotel Carrillos offers pleasant accommodation a little over two kilometers from central Cancun.
There’s a restaurant with a children’s menu and a snack bar, and the rooms have flat-screen tvs. See photos and rates at this link.
Playa del Carmen: Best Budget Hotel
SC Hotel: This popular 3-star hotel is located within walking distance of Playa del Carmen Beach and Parque La Ceiba. The hotel features a restaurant, an outdoor swimming pool, and airport transfers are available. Rooms include free WiFi, flat-screen televisions, and coffee-making facilities. See photos and rates at this link.
Cancun: Best Budget Hotel
Shoestring: Finding a stylish place on a shoestring budget is hard in Cancun, but Nomads Enigmatic Hotel & Hostel is just that. This modern hostel in downtown Cancun has been created in an old Mexican style but comes complete with bar, outside swimming pool and wonderful shared garden. For the price, it’s a fantastic choice. See photos and rates at this link.
Which Has The Best Nightlife?
If vacation time means party time to you, then maybe Cancun will be the better choice. Whilst there are plenty of bars and clubs in Playa del Carmen too, the huge nightclubs in Cancun (known as mega clubs) are just that bit bolder, brighter, and larger.
Cancun is renowned for being a boisterous Spring Break destination, and the clubs and bars are geared towards this party scene throughout the year. Mega clubs holding 5,000 people blast out the tunes well into the early hours. In short, you will have no problem finding a wild party in Cancun.
Playa’s nightlife is a little bit more reserved and understated. The nightlife is centered around the bar scene rather than mega clubs like in Cancun. There’s still plenty going on once the sun has set, but if you are looking to party every night, maybe Cancun will be the better option for you.
Yet whilst Playa del Carmen’s after-dark party scene is more laid back than Cancun’s, the one big advantage it has is the fact the bars, clubs, and shops are closer together and tend to be within walking distance of each other. In contrast moving from bar to bar or club to club in Cancun’s Hotel Zone takes a bit more time and effort, and taxis may be needed.
Which Is Best For Families?
The quieter nature of Playa del Carmen lends itself well to welcoming families on vacation. The once sleepy fishing village has grown over the years, but still retains much of its small-town charm. On the other hand, Cancun is bigger and brasher, but you can still escape the madding crowds and enjoy a great family vacation there too.
With plenty of beaches in both locations, there are also plenty of options for snorkeling and jet skis to entertain the children. There are also an array of activities and day trips available from both locations. For culture vultures, a day trip to the ancient city of Chichen Itza is possible from either location. Travel time from Cancun or Playa del Carmen will be approximately two and a half hours.
Fancy a day-trip to a nearby island? From Cancun, you can jump on the ferry across to Isla Mujeres. It’s a peaceful paradise and a great escape if the hustle and bustle of Cancun is getting too much for you. From Playa del Carmen, you can head across to Cozumel and enjoy its world-class snorkeling and scuba diving.
Overall, Playa del Carmen is probably the best choice for families. The quieter setting offers a more authentic Mexican experience, yet there is still plenty to see and do.
Which Is Cheaper?
You can expect similar prices in both locations, but as a general rule, Cancun is regarded as more expensive than Playa del Carmen.
You can find accommodation to suit your budget in either location, but the prices can be slightly higher in Cancun, which makes Playa del Carmen cheaper to stay in than Cancun. However with so many choices, you can shop around and easily find something to suit your needs.
If partying is on the cards, Cancun has bigger and bolder clubs, and entrance fees can be a little higher compared to Playa del Carmen. The cost of drinks can be a little less expensive in Cancun, though.
Food is similarly priced in both locations, and, once again, the abundance of restaurants means that you can easily find excellent food to suit your tastes and budget.
The cost it takes to fly to each destination is very similar, as they are both served by the same international airport, but the transfer to your hotel will be longer and more expensive for Playa del Carmen.
What Time Of Year Is Best?
The short distance between Playa del Carmen and Cancun means that they share the same climate and weather patterns. Whilst both can be termed “year-round destinations,” there are distinct high and low seasons.
The low season is generally perceived as being from May to June and from September to November. During these months, the temperatures soar and the rain can start to fall. The low season also brings lower prices, and deals can be found on hotels, tours, and club cover charges. However, the autumn months can bring a hurricane, along with heavy rain and larger waves.
The high season is considered to be between the months of December and April. This is the time of year when you can expect perfect weather, but you should also expect bigger crowds and higher prices. At this time of year, you can avoid the busiest crowds by booking outside of Christmas and Spring Break times.
For the high season, it’s best if you can book well in advance of your planned travel dates to get better rates. The high season also brings the best snorkeling and scuba diving conditions.
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: Our Final Thoughts
A trip down to Mexico seldom disappoints, and whether you decide on either Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you should have a fantastic vacation.
But if partying is going to be a big part of your vacation, then maybe Cancun will serve you best. Whilst families or those seeking a more chilled vibe on their vacation will possibly prefer the more relaxed Playa del Carmen.
Scuba divers and snorkelers can enjoy a great vacation in either location too, but Playa del Carmen has more dive sites and more underwater diversity to enjoy.
With amazing food, stunning beaches, and plenty of direct flights and hotels, planning a trip to these two giants of the Mexican tourism industry shouldn’t pose too many problems once you have made your choice. Happy holidays!