This post contains affiliate links. Read more in our disclosure.
Playa del Carmen is a gorgeous beach town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. While it does cater to tourists, it’s less crowded, more affordable and more low-key than its nearby neighbor, Cancun. When hubby and I went, we had only four days to get as much done as possible. Here are the things that you can’t miss out on when visiting Playa del Carmen.
1. Talk to some locals.
Just regular folks, not those guys on the Avenida that are trying to sell you a tour. We found that most of the citizens of Playa del Carmen were super friendly and eager to help us with directions, taking our photo, restaurant recommendations, and the like. Learning at least a little Spanish beforehand goes a long way. Remember to stay safe, of course – don’t agree to go anywhere or do anything you’re uncomfortable with.
If you want to go a step further and live like a local, go a step further and rent out someone’s home on Airbnb. Get $30 off your first stay here!
2. Eat fish tacos at Los Aguachiles.
Los Aguachiles is a casual, unassuming eatery a short walk away from the resort area at Playa. We had the best fish tacos here. The tacos are small and incredibly cheap, so order a bunch and try different varieties. The staff did not speak English when we went, so be prepared to order in Spanish, and have a dictionary on-hand (or on-phone) if needed.
3. Grab Argentinean food at La Portena.
La Portena is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sidewalk stand on La Quinta Avenida. You’ll sit in a row of bar seats and watch as the chef puts together a delicious homestyle Argentinian meal right in front of you. You can’t go wrong with a ribeye steak, but we also loved the roast chicken we had here. Portions are big, so come hungry.
4. Go snorkeling or scuba diving.
I’ll start by saying the Yucatan peninsula has some of the most beautiful, colorful, vibrant sea life you’ll ever see. We traveled out to Cozumel to go snorkeling as we heard there were beautiful reefs out here. On our snorkeling tour with Cozumel H2O we saw sea turtles, barracudas, sharks, corals, and tropical fish, to name a few. While hubby had a fantastic time, it turns out I get extremely motion-sick on those little boats. I spent half of our scuba tour lying down on the boat trying not to vomit. If you have a sensitive stomach too, I still recommend going. Bring Dramamine or motion sickness bands as a precaution – I wish I did!
5. Visit the beach.
This is a given. When you’ve been out in the sun all day, nothing will feel better than jumping into that cool, clear water and relaxing on the white sand. I’m not a “beach person” but we had to go at least once. Depending on where you go, you may also be able to find beachside bars and rentals for jetskis and boats. Look here for a list of recommendations for beaches in the area.
6. Shop at La Quinta Avenida.
This street along the shore is packed with tourists and there are a lot of annoyances that come with that – shopkeepers yelling at you to get your attention, random tour agencies soliciting you, crowds, and cheap souvenirs. However there are a lot of interesting things along this road as well, including restaurants, stores of all kinds, bars and clubs, and it’s worth walking up and down the Avenida at least once. Some cheap and delicious restaurants can be found if you walk past the main tourist areas. We got to get treated by “doctor fish” inside one shop – a unique and very ticklish experience.
7. Visit Chichen Itza.
Commit to the 2-hour drive and visit this World Wonder. You can avoid the tour groups by renting a car (knowledge of driving a manual car may be required) and getting out there as early in the morning as possible. While Chichen Itza seems secluded and remote in photos, in real life it is chaotic. Be prepared for lots of souvenir sellers swarmed around the monument and hordes of tour groups arriving as the morning progresses. Bring sun protection, a large-brimmed hat, comfortable shoes, and water.
8. Take in historical sights at Valladolid.
Valladolid is an historical city about 45 minutes away from Chichen Itza. It’s along the route back to Playa, so it serves as a good stopping point for sightseeing. We parked near the central square, snapped some photos by the church alongside the square, and had a meal at Las Campanas before we headed back to our hotel.
9. See other ruins as well.
We visited the ruins at Ek Balam but I have also heard great things about Tulum. What we loved about Ek Balam is experiencing all of the history of Chichen Itza, with little tourist presence and mostly local visitors. Because it’s a much less popular ruin site, we were also able to climb up many of the ruins and take in the view of the forests around us. There are no rails or protective barriers on the ruins, so bring comfortable and sturdy shoes and take necessary precautions.
10. Swim in a cenote.
Cenotes are sinkholes filled with water that are commonly used for swimming. We went to the cenote at Ek Balam, imagining that the water would be the perfect end to a long, hot day out on the ruins. It’s a walkable distance from the ruins, though if you’re tired and hot from exploring and climbing you may be better off renting one of the bike taxis they have available. The changing areas were minimal – no closed-off showers or anything fancy. Swimming in the cenote was a great way to cool off and bond with some of the local families who were also visiting for the day.
Have you traveled to Playa del Carmen?
What was your favorite thing to do there? If you plan on going one day, what are you looking forward to doing? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Don’t forget to share this post on social media!