Firmly on the tourist trail, Playa del Carmen ranks right up there with Tulum as one of the Riviera Maya's trendiest spots. Even so, the city remains genuine and welcoming to all travelers.

You might be looking for lively dance parties or peaceful wellness retreats, beachside cocktails or to experience some Mayan heritage. Let us help plan your perfect weekend with this two-day itinerary for a trip to the sociable, happy-go-lucky paradise of Playa del Carmen.

Day 1: beach, tourism, and Mayan heritage

Morning: watch the sunrise from the beach

You’ve just arrived and surely are itching to hit the beach. If you can muster the energy, wake up early and head down to Playa Shangri-la, a tranquil stretch of beach situated off leafy Calle 38, to watch the sun peek over the horizon at sunrise, turning everything a delicious shade of orange. 

After you’ve had your fill of early morning meditation on the beach, head to nearby Ah Cacao Chocolate Cafe for breakfast. While this might look like an ordinary coffee shop, Ah Cacao specializes in all types of handmade cacao products, and is dedicated to supporting sustainable farming practices in Mexico. Don’t miss the Mexican hot chocolate, a rich ode to traditional Maya drinking chocolate.

Tourists exploring a predestrianized shopping street with colorful bunting fluttering in the breeze
Fifth Avenue, or La Quinta, is Playa's main tourist street packed with shops © anouchka / Getty Images

Afternoon: hit the tourist center

Once you’ve filled up on all things chocolate, take a wander down Playa’s tourist thoroughfare, Fifth Avenue AKA La Quinta. Sure, it’s packed with people, but it’s fun perusing the shops and vendor stands, and you’ll find plenty of Mexican kitsch.

Make your way down to Parque Fundadores, the city’s most well-known park and home to a rather striking sculpture dedicated to the region’s Mayan heritage. This place buzzes with activity and you may be lucky enough to catch a performance by the Voladores de Papantla. This acrobatic cultural dance (recognized for its Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco) involves several performers climbing an extremely tall pole, tying themselves to ropes and then spinning to the ground. Originally a ceremony to appease the gods during drought, it’s associated with the Totonac people of Veracruz, though you can find performances in other parts of Mexico. Make sure to bring some small bills to make donations, as this is how the flyers support their work.

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Bury your feet in the sand as you relax with a drink at one of Playa del Carmen's many beach bars © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Evening: have drinks on the beach

Nothing is better than an evening happy hour on the beach – head to one of the many beach clubs lining Playa’s homey shores for a perfect place to enjoy a drink with your toes in the sand. We recommend bohemian-inflected INTI Beach Club for a few cocktails on one of the comfy couches overlooking the surf. The beach “patio” is punctuated with perfect palm trees strung with happy lights, and the DJ rocks a laid-back international vibe. 

Later, move next door to Fusion bar and grill, where you can settle into surprisingly comfortable wooden loungers underneath thatched mini-palapas, grab a casual bite to eat and puff away on a hookah while the moon comes up. Live bands play chill reggae-inflected tunes, and should you end up staying all night (or coming back), fire performers hit the beach in front of the bar at 11pm.

If you’re looking for something a little more upbeat, head to Zenzi for live music, DJs, and salsa dancing, or La Bodeguita del Medio, a riff off of the Havana original that hosts bands playing music with a distinct Cuban flavor. 

Day 2: yoga, more beach time, and Calle 38

Morning: start the day with a yoga class

Playa del Carmen has a distinctly wellness-oriented side, with meditation centers and yoga studios drawing a devoted following. Wake up on the bright side with a class at Playa Yoga Tribe, which offers a roster of yoga styles. After you stretch out and find your center, grab brunch at Choux Choux, an atmospheric indie space known for its French-style pastries and delightful eggs Benedict. 

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If you're in the mood to make friends head to sociable Playa Mamitas © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Afternoon: pick a beach

In the afternoon, grab your sunscreen and head for Playa’s coast. The city has several sandy stretches to choose from, depending on the atmosphere you’re looking for. Looking to connect with other people? Head to Playa Mamitas (named for its well-known beach club). If you would like a more peaceful hangout, walk down to the tranquil beaches at Playacar; the water here is some of the clearest in the area, and you’ll have plenty of space to stretch out and enjoy the aquatic scenery. 

Evening: Calle 38 is the place to be for nightlife

When the sun goes down and you’re ready to hit the town, walk down Calle 38 (especially lovely at night) to grab a bite from La Cueva del Chango, which specializes in Mexican cuisine made with fresh local ingredients. Once you’ve wolfed down some nopal salad and ancho chiles, wander to the city center to grab a drink or two at La Reina Roja, a boutique hotel with a striking bar and a hip rooftop pool. 

Don’t let the night end without heading to Le Lotus Rouge, the city’s most unique and creative hangout. The owner, Natacha, has created an immersive art experience for her patrons, hand designing each of the spectacularly decorated rooms; the stage (reminiscent of an old-school Paris cabaret) hosts everything from traditional Mexican music to LGBTQ+ art festivals. 

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There are many different hotel options in the city center and on the beach in Playa del Carmen © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

How to book the perfect weekend in Playa del Carmen 

How to get there

While Playa has a small local airport, most flights come in from Cancún and require a short bus or taxi ride. If transport is not included with your accommodation reservation, book tickets to and from the airport with ADO for no-hassle transfers.

Where to stay

Playa del Carmen is chock-full of hotel options for every type of travel and budget; these properties can be found along the beach or in the city center, but none are far from the action. If you’re looking for an atmospheric stay right on the water, try Mahekal Beach Resort. Mahekal’s rooms are housed in palapa-style buildings and are beautifully designed, each one with a small patio with a hammock. The grounds incorporate native plant life into their landscaping, and the property has several pools, a spa and a lovely area right on the beach full of beach loungers.

Introducing Mexico

Bailey Freeman traveled to Playa del Carmen with support from Mahekal Beach Resort

This article was first published October 2019 and updated February 2022

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