These two destinations look similar when you first start your online vacation research: both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are known for their white sand beaches, each has beautiful resorts, both provide access to amazing snorkeling and diving sites, wild nightlife can be found in each city, both are within easy distance of the area’s main tours and eco parks, and they’re only an hour’s drive apart. How different could they be?
Despite all their similarities, Cancun and Playa del Carmen provide two distinctive vacation experiences, and your choice will depend entirely on your own personal preferences. But how can you know which one you’ll love the most if you’ve never been?
In my opinion, the fundamental differences between these two Mexican Caribbean destinations lie in just two main aspects: atmosphere and beach.
Atmosphere: Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen
Do you see yourself strolling along streets lined with cafés and restaurants? Cooling off with tangy micheladas at a beach club or lantern-lit palapa bar? Riding a sky blue rental bike from one end of town to the other? When it comes to atmosphere and pure beach town charm, Playa del Carmen is your destination. The city centers around 5th Avenue, a long pedestrian street that runs parallel to the coastline, and the compact layout of the town makes it easy to get to restaurants, the beach, or your hotel by foot or by bike. Playa del Carmen is a town for travelers who want to explore on their own, try the bars and restaurants, and do some people-watching.
The atmosphere of Cancun as an overall city is almost non-existent for travelers, with no good place for a lovely café-lined stroll, at least not within the Hotel Zone. (Downtown Cancun, where the locals live, is growing as a cool place to hang out, but it might be too out of the way for most resort-lovers.) That being said, each beach resort is its own little world with its own charm and lovely style, and the city’s restaurants often have gorgeous views and scenery, so you’ll still find yourself surrounded by plenty of atmosphere.
The downside to Playa del Carmen: As the city has grown over the past decade, more and more large businesses are coming to Playa del Carmen. This means several stunning new shopping malls on 5th Avenue and larger luxury hotels that are wonderful for the local economy, but many complain that the small-town beach charm is beginning to disappear.
Beach: Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen
On your next vacation, do you see yourself wasting the day away lazing on a lounger by a pristine infinity pool overlooking intense blue-and-turquoise striped Caribbean waters? Do you long to wake up to an ocean view every morning? To see the moonlight shining on the ocean from your balcony each evening? If you’re a beach-obsessed pool junkie, then you want to experience Cancun. The Cancun Hotel Zone sits all along a long and narrow island, meaning that almost every single resort has an amazing beachfront location. And yes, the beaches here rank among the best in the world – extensive white sands and striking turquoise waters that are rarely found elsewhere. If you want to just relax and not worry about a thing while enjoying the world’s most gorgeous views (and who could blame you?), then book a week at an All Inclusive resort in Cancun.
The quality of the beaches in Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, varies greatly. While the overall color of the ocean in Playa del Carmen can be stunning, the area right along the shoreline might not be. The beaches of the main Downtown Playa del Carmen area have suffered extensive erosion and sometimes (to be honest) have a not-so-great smell. The only Playa del Carmen beaches that even come close to Cancun’s beaches sit at the far southern end of town: at resorts by the very southern edge of the Playacar area. Shangri-La Beach at the end of 38th Street also looks very nice on most days, but still doesn’t compare to Cancun.
The downside to Cancun: The layout of Cancun, with a long-and-narrow Hotel Zone and a separate Downtown area where locals live, means that the city is more difficult to explore. When staying at a beach resort, you probably won’t be able to walk to many cool restaurants, and it’s not as easy to really, truly explore the area unless you take a city bus or two. If you just want to lounge around the perfect beaches, dine at the resort restaurants, and maybe just go out once or twice for a special dinner or a jungle tour, then you won’t mind.
The decision here really falls on what kind of vacation YOU want. Both cities boast beautiful scenery and some of the world’s best hotels and resorts, along with good prices compared to many beach destinations in other countries. Don’t stress over the decision for too long because you can’t go wrong! Just pick atmosphere (Playa del Carmen) or beach (Cancun), then get started planning the details of your vacation.