Hey fellow travelers! If you’re like me, living in a place like Chicago where the winters can be brutal, the idea of a warm getaway is not just appealing, it’s essential. Last November, I took the plunge and headed to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Here’s my no-nonsense guide, filled with real stories and tips to help you make the most of your trip.

Choosing Playa del Carmen Over Cancun

When planning a getaway to the Mexican Caribbean, a common dilemma arises: Playa del Carmen or Cancun? Both have their allure, but they cater to very different vacation styles. Here’s a deeper dive into why, for many, including myself, making the extra effort to reach Playa del Carmen is absolutely worth it.

The Flight and Arrival in Cancun

Firstly, it’s important to note that whether you’re heading to Cancun or Playa del Carmen, your flight will land at Cancun International Airport. This is your gateway to the region. Cancun, known for its sprawling resorts and all-inclusive packages, might seem like the convenient choice since you’re already there. But wait, there’s more to consider.

Why Playa del Carmen Shines

Yes, getting to Playa del Carmen involves an additional hour’s drive south from Cancun, but this short journey brings a significant shift in experience. Here’s why:

  1. Local Culture and Authenticity: Playa del Carmen offers a more authentic Mexican Caribbean experience. It’s a place where you can immerse yourself in local culture, enjoy bustling streets, and savor the genuine charm of the region. Unlike the more Americanized Cancun, Playa del Carmen provides a taste of real Mexico.
  2. Vibrant and Lively Streets: The heart of Playa del Carmen, Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue), is a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly street filled with local shops, cafes, and street performers. It’s a stark contrast to Cancun’s Hotel Zone, where you’re mostly confined to the resort premises.
  3. Diverse Dining and Shopping: While Cancun offers many high-end dining and shopping options, Playa del Carmen presents a more varied and authentic selection. From quaint local eateries serving traditional Mexican dishes to artisan markets, the options are more reflective of the local culture and often more budget-friendly.
  4. Beach Experience: Both destinations boast beautiful beaches, but Playa del Carmen’s are generally less crowded and more relaxed, offering a more serene beach experience compared to Cancun’s often busy shores.
  5. Proximity to Attractions: Playa del Carmen is conveniently located closer to many of the Riviera Maya’s key attractions, such as the cenotes, Tulum, and Cozumel, making day trips easier and more feasible.

The Verdict: Is it Worth the Extra Hassle?

Absolutely, yes. While Cancun might be the more straightforward choice, the extra hour’s journey to Playa del Carmen opens the door to a more diverse, authentic, and enriching experience. It’s a chance to explore beyond the typical resort confines, engage with local culture, and create memories that are unique and personal. For travelers seeking more than just a beach holiday, Playa del Carmen is a jewel worth the additional effort.

Getting There: The ADO Movil Experience

I landed in Cancun and immediately booked a ride to Playa del Carmen using ADO Movil. It’s simple – you can book it online or just go to their bus stop outside Terminal 3.
Avoid the swarm of tour operators and taxis at the airport; they’re more expensive and less reliable.
ADO is the way to go – affordable, comfortable, and you get to charge your phone on the way!

Accommodation: Airbnb for the Win

I stayed in an Airbnb, and let me tell you, for $50 a night, it beat any hotel experience. More space, more privacy, and a real feel of living like a local. Plus, it was within walking distance of a Walmart, perfect for stocking up on snacks and essentials.

Exploring Playa del Carmen: The Real Deal

Now, let’s talk about Playa del Carmen itself. It’s split into various areas, each with its own vibe:

  1. The Beach: Gorgeous! Clear water, white sand. But watch out for seaweed seasons. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes not.
  2. Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida): This is the main tourist street. It’s a mix of souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. It can get crowded, but it’s a must-visit for first-timers.
  3. Local Neighborhoods: Wander off the beaten path. The local neighborhoods are where you find the real Playa del Carmen – vibrant, colorful, and full of life.
  4. The Food Scene: Beyond incredible. From street tacos to upscale dining, there’s something for every palate and budget.

Personal Food Stories

Kaxapa Factory: A Venezuelan delight. The owner, Jose, is the heart and soul of the place. He personally served us a tasting of homemade drinks, and his wife cooked up the most amazing arepas. It felt like dining with family.

Primo: A roadside restaurant where you see the cooks in action. Their octopus dish? Life-changing. They play with flavors in a way that’s both bold and respectful of the ingredients.

Activities and Adventures

There’s so much more to do in Playa del Carmen than just hit the beach:

  1. Cenotes: Natural swimming holes. I visited Cenote Azul and it was a refreshing escape from the heat. Crystal clear water and fish nibbling at your toes!
  2. Tulum Ruins: A short trip away, these Mayan ruins are breathtaking. Go early to beat the crowds.
  3. Nightlife: Clubs and bars are everywhere, but for a unique experience, check out a local salsa night. Even if you can’t dance, it’s a blast to watch.

Tips and Tricks

  1. Language: A little Spanish goes a long way. Even basic phrases help in connecting with locals.
  2. Money: Use pesos, not dollars. You’ll get better deals and it’s easier to haggle.
  3. Stay Hydrated: It’s hotter than you think. Always carry water.
  4. Beach Clubs: If you want a day at the beach with amenities, check out a beach club. They offer loungers, food, and drinks, but there’s usually a fee or minimum spend.
  5. Transportation: Renting a scooter or bike is a fun way to explore, but be aware of the traffic rules.


Playa del Carmen is a gem. It offers a perfect mix of beach relaxation and cultural exploration. Every street, every corner has a story, and the food is just out of this world. This trip was more than a break from the Chicago winter; it was an adventure that touched my soul. Can’t wait to go back!