With a walkable city center, vibrant nightlife and easy access to beaches and reefs, ruins and jungles, it’s no wonder Playa del Carmen is one of the fastest-growing cities in Quintana Roo

From its humble beginnings as a fishing village, Playa has evolved into a multicultural beach town brimming with remarkable restaurants and cafes, yoga studios and chic apartments. But it hasn’t forgotten its roots, either: taquerias still line the side streets, Mexican music blasts from public speakers and lively night markets take over the squares as night falls. 

It’s a pleasure to get to know this multi-faceted city in the middle of the Riviera Maya. Here are the top things to do in Playa del Carmen.

Seek out the Xaman-Há ruins

Few casual tourists know this, but Playa del Carmen is home to a set of Maya ruins that date back to the 13th century. Xaman-Há was established here as a launchpad for pilgrimages from the mainland to Cozumel. Mayans from all over the region would pass through Playa del Carmen en route to worship Ix Chel, the goddess of fertility.

Today, the Xaman-Há ruins lie inconspicuously under thick foliage, among creeping vines and hanging roots, in the Playacar gated community. You’ll most probably spot more iguanas than visitors here – and that’s the subtle charm of the site. To visit, walk along the Playacar beach or enter through the Playacar Fase II gates and let the guards know you’re visiting the ruins. Although they’re located within the private residential area, accessing the ruins is free. 

People swim and a boy jumps off a cliff into the water of Cenote Azul, one of the most popular cenotes in the Riviera Maya
The delightful Cenote Azul offers a cool getaway very close to downtown Playa del Carmen © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Swim in a water-filled cavern

To cool off from the blazing sun and thumping beach clubs, intrepid travelers can dive into the secret underworld of turquoise pools and caverns. Called cenotes, these natural swimming holes were considered by the ancient Mayans to be portals for communicating with the gods. These days, they are the crown jewels of the Riviera Maya, drawing in outdoorsy travelers and adventurous families.

The nearest cenotes to Playa del Carmen are just a 20-minute drive or easy colectivo bus ride away. The trio – Cenotes Azul, Cristalino and Eden – are all right next to another, making it easy to visit all three in one day. With crystal-clear water and skin-nibbling fish swimming around, these open-air cenotes provide bundles of fun for travelers of all ages. Grown-ups are free to jump off the cliff edges into the water; teenagers can put on snorkeling masks and swim between the boulders; while tiny tots will enjoy splashing in the shallow pools.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.

Take a day trip to Cozumel

You can see Isla Cozumel looming on the horizon from any point along Playa del Carmen’s waterfront. With a low-key atmosphere and miles of empty beaches, the island is an excellent escape from the hubbub of Playa. It’s an easy 1-hour boat ride away, with high-speed ferries departing hourly every day from the main pier downtown. 

Don’t underestimate the size of Cozumel: as Mexico’s biggest Caribbean island, it measures 30 miles (48km) long and merits at least a few days to see it all. Even if you’re here for the day, we suggest hiring a buggy or jeep to navigate the island’s lush tropical forests and nature reserves. 

Punta Sur Ecological Park is a highlight for many: spot crocodiles on a lagoon boat ride, visit the Maya ruin El Caracol and climb the Celarain Lighthouse for a panoramic view. To top it off, book yourself on a snorkeling tour of El Cielo and get the chance to swim off the world’s second-biggest reef.

Visitors enjoy the white sands and blue waters at Punta Esmeralda in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
The beach is never more than a couple of blocks away in Playa del Carmen © Daniel Slim / AFP via Getty Images

Hit the beach

What Playa del Carmen’s beaches lack in Cancún and Tulum’s scope, they make up for in remarkable accessibility. The planners of this beach town laid out its plan to create easy public access to most parts of its 20-mile(32km)-long coastline.  

The busiest beach in Playa del Carmen stretches from the buzzing main square, Parque Fundadores, to 16th Street. But the best strands are in the northern and southern ends of town. Punta Esmeralda is a local’s favorite up north, with a unique cenote right on the beach. Playacar down south is a sparkling quiet stretch that’s part of a private residential community yet open to the public. If you’re feeling intrepid, keep walking south from Playacar and clamber over rock formations to reach the wild and often empty Playa del Pecado.

Watch the sun rise from a SUP

The best time to see Playa del Carmen in its full glory is undoubtedly at sunrise when the calm water is tinted a golden hue, and the beach is clear of sun beds and peddlers. Rise early and go on a sunrise stand-up paddle board session with Aloha Paddle Club on Sixth Street. As you take in views of the town from the water, you’ll see why Playa del Carmen is at its most appealing at the golden hour. 

Say “om” on the sand

Playenses, as locals are affectionately known, are very much into fitness and wellness, which is easy to see from the hodgepodge of yoga studios and meditation centers dotted around town. A well-loved joint is Playa Yoga Tribe, a studio housed in a palapa (an open hut with a thatched roof). On offer is a range of yoga sessions, from hatha to meditation, all donation-based. 

But nothing beats yoga on the beach: Sunrise Yoga Playa holds sessions on CTM beach at 7am every day. No reservations are needed, but a minimum donation of MX$100 ($4.80) is recommended. Just bring a mat, stretch out and find your center.

Young male standing on the beach with his bike with ocean and sky in the background, Playa del Carmen
Biking is a wonderful way to explore the streets and beaches of Playa del Carmen © Malgosia S / Shutterstock

Pedal everywhere

Active travelers looking to burn some calories will be thrilled to learn about the citywide bike-sharing system in Playa del Carmen. BiciPlaya has bike stands all around town, with new ones popping up every other week. Anyone, including tourists, can use the system: just download the app on your phone, key in your details and unlock a bike for just MX$98 ($4.80) per day.

Our favorite bike path stretches along Tenth Avenue, along which you can pedal parallel to the beach all the way from Parque Fundadores to Avenida CTM. Just keep an eye out for pedestrians and speedy drivers as they aren’t yet accustomed to the growing numbers of cyclists.

Indulge in Maya chocolate

After all that exercise, it’s fair to say you deserve a treat. Pop into any of Ah Cacao’s locations for a cup of Mexican hot chocolate – along with a deep dive into Mexico’s Maya cacao tradition. Ah Cacao is Playa’s homegrown chocolate cafe chain, specializing in all types of cacao products. The artisans here make their products by hand and only source cacao from responsible farms in Mexico. Plus, the social enterprise has committed to supporting organizations like Plant-for-the-Planet and Conservation International to help farmers grow cacao using sustainable practices.

Admire street art on every corner

With a thriving art scene, Playa del Carmen is a magnet for creative types. In recent years, the beach town has seen an explosion of graffiti art, evident in the mashup of vibrant murals found all over the city. In particular, the northern district of Colosio has become street-art central. Start from 10th St and make your way to 30th St, where massive murals inspired by Frida Kahlo and other Mexican emblems blanket the walls.

Hang out at artsy Le Lotus Rouge

Part art house, part restaurant and part theater, Le Lotus Rouge is Playa’s most unique and creative hangout. This quirky space promises an immersive art experience: every corner is saturated with works designed to stimulate your imagination. Resembling a Parisian cabaret, the stage hosts live performances ranging from aerial acrobatics to traditional Mexican shows on weekends. Free guided visits and shows are offered on Fridays and Saturdays from 7–11pm; donations are appreciated.

Numerous stalactites in the Rio Secreto underground caverns, Yucatan, Mexico
In the underground cavern complex of Rio Secreto, the stalactites amaze © Josef Stemeseder / Shutterstock

Go on an underground adventure

If cenotes are your jam, you’ll rejoice at the chance to unleash your inner Indiana Jones in Río Secreto. You’ll start by biking off-road through a lush jungle while spotting wild iguanas and coatis (a relative of the raccoon), followed by a hike along a 0.6-mile (1km) cavern with a helmet and headlamp in hand while admiring the bats and stalactites that hang from the ceiling. Next, you’ll rappel into the fresh, turquoise water and swim through the grotto – all with a knowledgable guide in the lead. And on a blazing hot or rainy day, Río Secreto makes for a great escape as you’ll spend all day underground. ​​ 

Dine under jungle trees on 38th St

For dinner, head to the most beautiful street in Playa, Calle 38. Giant banyan trees and hanging roots flank the road close to the water’s edge, creating a rare pocket of greenery in a bustling corner of town. Here, you’ll find several charming restaurants, complete with luscious gardens, running streams, koi ponds and trickling waterfalls.

The most popular of these is La Cueva del Chango, which has earned a loyal following thanks to its quality food and such regional dishes as chicken in poblano mole sauce. Meaning “Monkey’s Cave,” La Cueva del Chango has an impressively lush jungly terrace on which you can dine under the shade of palm trees, next to red bromeliad flowers and flowing streams.

Across the road, Amate 38 charms with even more nature. A small waterfall cascades down to a koi pond surrounded by tall tropical trees. Whether you sit out on the outdoor wooden deck or inside the open-concept dining space, you’ll hearing the sound of cascading water and chirping birds.

Both restaurants are particularly busy on Sunday mornings, as Playa del Carmen is big on breakfast culture.

Take dinner in a cave

Those in search of a unique meal out will be impressed by Alux, a cave restaurant that reinvents the meaning of fine dining, serving up gourmet cuisine in a natural cavern. Its contemporary menu surprises with dishes like pork terrine with pineapple curry and roasted bone marrow glazed in chili. While some parts of the space veer toward artificial (think kitschy neon lights), the overall ambiance offers an unparalleled dining experience. 

All guests are led into a tiny air-conditioned wine cellar stocked with expensive bottles from Europe – be sure to ask the price before ordering and don’t feel obliged to take a bottle if it doesn’t fit in your budget. A meal here is pricey, so take your time after your meal to savor the food and wander deep into the thousand-year-old grotto.

People-watch along Fifth Avenue

All roads in Playa del Carmen lead to Fifth Avenue, a boisterous pedestrianized boulevard that doubles as the city’s main drag. Just a block away from the beach, the avenue is flanked by buzzing restaurants, tequila bars and knickknack stores. 

Loud, over-the-top and bulging at the seams during high season, this isn’t a place we’d usually recommend travelers to seek out. But once in Playa, you’ll inevitably find yourself meandering along the walkway – and you may as well embrace the tableau. While hassling is common here, street vendors are usually not pushy and will move on when you smile and say no.

If it’s a lively and convivial atmosphere you’re looking for, you’ll find it along Fifth Avenue. It can be entertaining to watch street performers break into dance moves or put up fire-swallowing acts in the evenings. Keep strolling to the end of Fifth Avenue toward Ave CTM and you’ll find thinner crowds, less noise and better-quality restaurants.

Five flying acrobats (or “voladores”) enact their ritual, flying off a pole in traditional costumes suspended by their feet
The famous Voladores de Papantla enact their gravity-defying routine on a regular basis in Playa’s Parque Fundadores © Tati Nova photo Mexico Shutterstock

Watch traditional dances at Parque Fundadores

Evening time is when Parque Fundadores, the city's main square, truly comes alive. Expats and tourists convene at the beachfront square as the sun sets and the temperature cools off, snacking on elote (grilled corn smeared with spicy and creamy chili) and sipping fresh coconuts while watching traditional dance shows. 

The setting itself is sublime: a 52ft-(15.8m)-high sculpture, aptly named Portal Maya, stands on the beach, setting the scene for a night of live action. Every afternoon starting from 4pm, a dance troupe in elaborate headdresses reenacts ancient Maya dance rituals, complete with chants and conch-shell blowing. 

At the same time, the Voladores de Papantla will start swinging off a tall pole and spinning all the way to the ground. Originally from Veracruz, this acrobatic dance was part of a ritual to appease the gods during drought; today, their tradition is a Unesco-designated Intangible Cultural Heritage. These shows are free, but we advise bringing some notes to tip the dancers. 

Browse the night market at the Palacio Municipal

A few blocks from the beach stands the Palacio Municipal, a square that looks less attractive than Parque Fundadores but promises a less tourist-oriented experience. In contrast to its beachfront sibling, this park appeals more to playenses, particularly families with little ones and senior citizens who congregate here for a game of dominoes or two.

On weekend evenings, a buzzing market takes over the park’s green patches and concrete paths with artisan products, handicrafts, traditional clothing and unique jewelry made in Playa. If you’re not stuffed, this is the best place in town to sample authentic Mexican street food, especially Yucatán’s pride and joy, tacos de cochinita pibil, spiced pork slow roasted in an underground oven. Flush that down with a passion-fruit frappé and indulge in the locals’ favorite, marquesita (a crunchy crepe filled with condensed milk, chocolate or Edam cheese).

You might also like:
Things to know before going to Playa del Carmen to make your trip more memorable
The best beaches in Playa del Carmen for spring break relaxation
A guide to Playa del Carmen for digital nomads

Explore related stories

Lonely Planet editor Melissa Yeager swimming in the river surrounding the resort at Hotel Xcaret México in Playa del Carmen.

Wildlife & Nature

Copy my trip: Hotel Xcaret México in Playa del Carmen

May 31, 2024 • 7 min read