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Cancun vs Playa Del Carmen: Comparison Guide To Help You Choose

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Playa del Carmen or Cancun? It's a common question when planning a trip to the Riviera Maya. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and the choice should be based on what you are looking for in your vacation. If you are hesitating between the two, keep reading, and you'll find some ideas that will help you choose a destination.


The first difference between the two cities is their size. Cancun is a large city of more than 600,000 inhabitants, while Playa del Carmen is a small town of 150,000. In Cancun, you will find more options in shopping centers, restaurants, bars, endless choices for day and nightlife, nightclubs, and all the amenities of a larger city, all comparable with first-class Caribbean destinations.

There are two different areas, the city itself and the hotel zone. Here you will find the luxury hotels with the popular all-inclusive plan. If you visit Cancun and stay in this area, you will enjoy its beautiful beaches. Cancun is very popular with American tourism, while Playa has a more European influx. Even though both destinations are family-friendly, Cancun stands out in terms of younger tourism, spring breakers, and those looking for a vibrant nightlife scene. Its nightlife is fantastic and surpasses what Playa del Carmen has to offer in this regard.

The beaches in Cancun are less crowded in the resorts than the public beaches in Playa. Unfortunately, it is difficult for you to enjoy the best beaches if you are not staying in one of these resorts. On the contrary, all of Playa del Carmen's beaches are public and with easy access. Several paradisiacal islands are worth visiting close to Cancun, such as Contoy Island, Holbox, and Isla Mujeres. It's a fantastic option to spend a few days recharging, especially after indulging in the hectic nightlife of Cancun. Cancun is usually ideal for those looking to enjoy an all-inclusive resort or its nightlife. If those are your priorities, Cancun is an excellent option.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is in the heart of the Riviera Maya, a fishing village that has developed and grown to become one of the trendiest destinations in Mexico in recent years. Despite its recent development, it still maintains the small-town charm in the Caribbean. As the locals call it, Playa is a tranquil city, clean and well-kept, and in recent times has been acquiring fame as a chic destination.

You will enjoy the unique atmosphere of Playa's main street, Quinta Avenida. This avenue and its surrounding neighborhood have many fashion shops, art galleries, incredible fine dining, and boutique hotels. Playa is an elegant destination that attracts a more sophisticated tourist that wants to get away from Cancun's bustle. In Playa, there is something for everyone, and even though there aren't as many nightlife options as in Cancun, there is something for everybody to enjoy.

Playa, like Cancun, has its own hotel zone called Playacar, where most resorts are located. However, most of the largest and best-known all-inclusive resorts are located along the entire coast of the Rivera Maya, and outside these large resorts, there is not much nearby. Because of its location, it is perfect for exploring the entire Riviera Maya. From here, you can visit the Mayan ruins, their cenotes, water parks or take a ferry to the beautiful island of Cozumel.

Cenote in Riviera Maya (2)

Playa has a lot of lovely boutique hotels at affordable rates a few streets away from its beaches. Just head to the beach and spread your towel or spend the day in one of its famous beach clubs like Mamitas or Kool. Another option is to get away and spend the day on one of the most spectacular beaches in the area, such as Tulum or Akumal.

If you are looking to spend the day lying in the sun in an all-inclusive resort and party every day, with more urban tourism, Cancun is your best option. If you want to spend your vacation in a chic and stylish place, with beach and tranquility during the day, and some nightlife, with tourist attractions of the Rivera Maya nearby, Playa del Carmen will be perfect for you.

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Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

E. Douglas Pratt

Friday 28th of January 2022

This comparison appears to be objective and packed with facts helpful to someone like me who's traveled widely and has never been to Mexico. Thank you, Graciela Zamora! -Doug Pratt, Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Monday 19th of July 2021

Pro tip… don’t fly to Cancun if staying in playa.. the roads are a disaster between the two cities.

Elliott J Sharaby

Thursday 23rd of February 2023

@Brian, what other airport is there besides Cancun?


Friday 22nd of April 2022

@Rhonda, how was the travel with the hotel shuttle ? Going in may - wondering bout the experience bout the shuttles ...thanks!


Saturday 5th of March 2022

@Brian, What would your suggestion be? Many people take hotel provided transport from Cancun.

E. Douglas Pratt

Friday 28th of January 2022


Thanks, Brian!

-Doug Pratt, Atlanta, Georgia, USA

David Pinto

Tuesday 20th of July 2021

@Brian, si what fly into Cuzumal and take a 45 min ferry with all your luggage???? I live there in playa