Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Which Mexican City is Better?

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun is not an easy one to call. Just look at these two places. One’s the buzzy resort center of the Yucatan, brimming with all-inclusive hotels that have infinity pools rolling down to the edge of the Caribbean Sea. The other is the hub of the much-loved Riviera Maya, with blinding-white beaches stretching to the north and south, not to mention a buzzy digital nomad and expat scene that’ll have you drinking margaritas from midday if you want to. We’re not going to lie: They are both pretty awesome.

But what is it that sets them apart? What’s the difference in the beaches, the resorts, the vibe? Where’s the more adventurous? Which is the cheapest? Cue this guide. It runs through all the ins and outs of each destination to help you pinpoint the Mexican resort that’s perfect for you.

We’ll take a look at those all-important aspects of accommodation and food. That’s so you can get a handle on where’s the spot to taste the spicy tacos and choco-infused mole sauces. We’ll also run through budget expectations for both places, and – of course – where you find finest beaches. Because, let’s face it, most travelers hit this corner of North America because of the cotton-white sands and crystal-clear waters.

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Accommodation

hotel playa del carmen
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When it comes to accommodation in Cancun you really only have one choice: Hotels. Yep, there are a few backpacker hostels and local guesthouses, but they won’t put you close to the shoreline and don’t really represent what a vacay to the resort is about. You’ll want to look to book somewhere in the appropriately named Hotel Zone (the Zona Hotelera in the local). That’s a long, narrow spit with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the wide Laguna Nichupté on the other. It’s home to an estimated 70 or more hotel names.

You’re sure to know of some of them already: The Ritz Carlton, the Grand Fiesta, Westin, Hard Rock. The vast majority tick all the boxes for laid-back trips of Mexican R&R. We’re talking huge grounds covered in multiple pools, private stretches of beachfront, in-house bars, swim-up bars, events calendars, room service – the list goes on and on!

Things are different down in Playa Del Carmen. As a real, lived-in town and less of an out-and-out tourist resort, it’s got everything from beachside cabins with sandy decks to deluxe penthouses in aparthotels. There’s also a big push here towards Airbnb-style accommodation, with self-catering condos that have access to pools and gyms becoming ever more popular, mainly down to the digital nomad crowd that’s been flooding in in recent years.

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Prices

boat in cancun
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Okay, we’ll level with you, Cancun doesn’t come cheap! Well…at least not by Mexican standards. Hotel resorts in these parts usually cost upwards of $100 a night, and that’s rarely for the most famous ones like the Ritz or the Hard Rock. Food can either be a bargain (choose to eat in Cancun town, not in the restaurants of the Hotel Zone) or astronomically expensive (celeb chefs run many of the classy kitchens in the resorts). Then you’ve got the price tag of a night out. In Cancun’s mega clubs (more on those later), you’re looking at $40 on entry alone. However, that typically buys you an open bar for the evening, so we’ll leave you do the math as to whether it’s a bargain!

Playa Del Carmen isn’t quite as prohibitively expensive. You can save there by dodging major hotel resorts and picking Airbnb lettings, which sometimes give hefty discounts on long-term stays – sometimes even 75% off or more! Eat locally and you’re looking at whole meals of Mexican goodness for under $3 a pop. Once again, it’s drinking that can really crank up the daily outgoings. That said, Playa won’t have the huge door fees that Cancun does, and there’s an abundance of places to drink, helping to bring competition to the beer menus.

See a more detailed price comparison below:

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Cancun Playa Del Carmen
Bottle of water (supermarket) $0.67 $0.85
Beer (restaurant) $2 $1.80
Accommodation (x1 night at 4-star hotel) $120 $70
Meal for one (local restaurant) $5 $4
Gasoline (1 litre) $1 $1

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Food

mexican food
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The food scene in Cancun really depends on where you are. Make for the bustling heart of downtown Cancun and you’ll notice there’s some serious bargains on grub. The stalls of Parque Las Palapas were a revelation for us. They churn out all sorts of pork and chicken and seafood tacos with dousings of habanero pepper and fresh tomato salsa, all for under $5 a meal – and that’s leaving while hardly being able to walk! On the flip side, there’s the Hotel Zone. That’s the land of establishments like Fantino and Lorenzillo’s, which serve creative fusion food and epicurean platters inspired by the French kitchen. You’re going to pay a whole load more for that sort of eating; we’d say upwards of $25 a head each sitting.

The food scene in Playa Del Carmen has changed considerably in recent years. There was a time when it was mainly local cantinas touting corn tortillas filled with spicy Mexican mixtures. You can still find those, especially around the busy streets of Calle 10 and Avenida Norte. However, they’re now punctuated by a new breed of chilled, millennial-driven cafés like Parisian La Brioche and colorful Marley Coffee. They’re pricier, as are the international eateries nearer to the beaches and in the hotels.  

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Beaches

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The one you’ve all been waiting for: Beaches! The fact is that there’s a never-ending debate between locals of the Yucatan about where’s got the finest coastline. Both of these spots have their own convincing arguments. The folk in Playa Del Carmen talk of their more undeveloped shorelines, which you can explore just outside of town. Proponents of Cancun champion their pristine, manicured sands.

Despite being just 40 miles apart, Playa Del Carmen and Cancun occupy slightly different types of coast. The shores further south – that’s Playa – are noticeably thinner and wilder. You can hit the city beaches, but there’s barely enough room to fit in the few rows of sunbeds. Or you can head just out of town, to spots like El Marlyn Azul (north) and Playacar Beach (south), where the coast widens just a little.

Up in Cancun, the beaches take a turn for the much more manicured. They’re known for being wide and looked after. That responsibility usually falls to the folk who run the lareg hotel resorts, which flank the entire of the Hotel Zone. The upshot here is that you won’t have to put up with the seaweed blooms that can outright ruin the beaches around Playa

TL;DR: Go Playa for natural beaches, go Cancun for looked-after sands with more space and less seaweed.

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Attractions

chicken Itza
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Playa Del Carmen probably reigns supreme for the traveler looking to get out there and explore. Located midway down the Riviera Maya, the town is the perfect jump-off point for getting to most of the region’s wonders. Ferries across to Cozumel – a major snorkeling and diving destination – go virtually every day. You can easily cruise out westwards to find the haunting ruins of Chichen Itza. Oh, and you’ve got Tulum to the south, which is another uber-famous resort, known for its half-ruined Mayan temples by the sea.

Cancun, on the other hand, will likely involve more organized trips. That’s not a huge issue, because there are now more tour operators within the Hotel Zone and the town than you can shake a spicy seafood taco at. They field a menu of excursions that includes everything from scuba diving to cenote swimming. What’s more, you can usually get everything sorted at the front-desk of your hotel. No need to ring around; no need to plan elaborate road trips. It’s the simpler but pricier way to go if you’re planning to hop around the Yucatan Peninsula during your time in Mexico.

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun: Nightlife

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Both Playa Del Carmen and Cancun are pretty darn accomplished on the nightlife front. They’re both major spring breaker destinations, but also cater to 18-30s crowds, and more refined nightlife hawks who love chic cocktail lounges. To put it another way – there’s something for all sorts of hedonist in these places.

Cancun trumps Playa Del Carmen when it comes to the sheer size of the clubs. There are a few mega venues that host thousands of revelers every night – check out the likes of Mandala and Senor Frogs. Those go into serious overdrive from February to March, when spring break hits town, and at Christmas, which is the middle of the high season. Most of the action is focused on the heart of the Hotel Zone, around where the coast changes from going west to east to north to south. On top of the super clubs, Cancun also brims with elegant bars and bistros. They’re mainly in the big resorts and offer refined nights of long drinks and haute cuisine.

Playa Del Carmen, meanwhile, has a whole downtown grid of Mexican cantinas and watering holes. The vibe is noticeably less international, though you do still get names like Senor Frogs on the roster. We’d say there’s more choice of individual venues, but there’s also more a focus on independently owned establishments. You’ll also catch regular live music, along with non-hotel bars near the beach, which makes for great sunset viewing.

Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun : Where is better?

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Playa Del Carmen vs Cancun isn’t an easy one to answer. The truth is, they’re different…

Cancun is much more your purpose-built relaxation resort. Once you’re in the Hotel Zone, you could almost be anywhere in the Caribbean, and it’s very Americanized. However, the beaches are well protected, most accommodation options have luxuries like swimming pools, and you can really forget about the stresses of the Rat Race as you sip margaritas and laze on the scintillating shoreline.

Playa Del Carmen is a fusion of resort and authentic Mexican coast town. There’s more Latin American character at play, especially if you make for the food scene and the nightlife, which is corn-flour tacos and mariachi bands from start to finish. It’s also a little cheaper down in Playa’s corner of the Yucatan Peninsular coast, and you’ll be able to break away and explore snorkeling spots and ancient temples with ease.

Basically: For rest, relaxation, and luxury, Cancun’s the perfect choice. For something a dash more authentic, emptier beaches, and extra adventure, go for Playa Del Carmen.

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