Playa del Carmen is a lively city on the Riviera Maya, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It is 70 kilometres south of Cancun and 65 kilometres north of Tulum, off the coast of the famous Cozumel Island. In recent decades, it has undergone a big transformation, becoming one of the most important, and popular tourist destinations in the entire Caribbean area. Big hotels have been built along the coast and the beaches that have greatly contributed to this transformation.
In addition to enjoying the sun and paradise-like beaches, there are many other things to see and do in Playa del Carmen. It is a very tourist-oriented city, and also lively and busy. Beaches, ideal climate, night-life, rich cuisine, coral reefs, Maya ruins, theme parks. During your journey, you will find both relaxation and the possibility to be active, or walk through nature. This city has the right elements to provide you with an unforgettable holiday and allow you to discover daily life in Mexico. Let's look at the best parts of this area together.
- The centre of Playa del Carmen (La Quinta Avenida)
- Riviera Maya
- Cenote La Cueva
- Cenote Kay
- Cenote Azul
- Cenote Naval
- The underground river - Rio Secreto
- Yal-Ku natural aquarium
- Xplor Nature Park
- Xcaret Park
- Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
- Around Playa del Carmen: Tulum ruins
- Around Playa del Carmen: Xel-Ha Park
- Around Playa del Carmen: Chichen Itza
- Around Playa del Carmen: Cozumel island
- Around Playa del Carmen: Akumal
The centre of Playa del Carmen (La Quinta Avenida)
La Quinta Avenida is the heart of Playa del Carmen, an excellent place to go shopping, eat, rest and cool down. It is a lively place, at any time of the day or night. Here, there is basically everything to be able to switch off for a while. You will find bars for a beer or cocktail, or perhaps have a bite to eat or an ice cream. Shopping lovers will find the ideal place, and not just in the big-label boutiques or chain stores. There are many souvenir shops and Mexican crafts stalls that you will be able to encounter on the streets.
There are several items to buy, ranging from sombreros to bottles of tequila and mezcal, bright clothes, and small items. You will also find the most fashionable hotels in Playa del Carmen, all easy to reach on foot: starting from the beaches. La Quinta starts near Parque Fundadores, near the harbour where you can wait for the ferry to Cozumel Island, and continues for several kilometres, as far as Calle 40. The centre of night life is Calle 12, where you will find some of the most famous and popular clubs and bars in the entire Riviera Maya.
If you want to enjoy a suntan, the cliffs, the waves, the cenotes, the natural fresh water pools that form in the grottoes along the Caribbean coastline, Riviera Maya is the place for you. Here you will find seafood restaurants, great places for night life, sophisticated spas with relaxing treatments, shopping malls and even golf courses. Riviera Maya is one of the best places for scuba diving or snorkelling, discovering the seas. Here you find the second largest coral reef in the world, which is home to a number of marine species that will surprise you. You may be surrounded by many curious animals, starting from tropical fish, sting rays and whale sharks. Nature reigns supreme here. You will be enchanted by the fine, white sand beaches, the crystal-clear, turquoise waters, that are ideal for a swim or a day of relaxation.
With its unique ecosystems, with the lush rainforest, that still holds abundant flora and fauna, and is part of a precious ancestral culture. There will be grottoes to discover and dive into. If you prefer eco-tourism outside the large cities, a large part of the region has no structure and no buildings. The landscape has developed here without limits and becomes the habitat for several animals. You can walk amidst nature here, recharge your batteries and organise tours around the area. Riviera Maya includes a coastal part, that starts just south of Cancun and goes as far as Tulum: An extension of about 140 kilometres.
Cenote La Cueva
A cenote in a grotto surrounded by freshwater. The natural setting of the Yucatan peninsula makes these places even more spectacular. Going diving or snorkelling in the Riviera Maya cenotes is one of the most popular activities, and a unique experience. There are at least 7 thousand in the region. These secret underground caves are formed when limestone collapses, leaving a hole in the ground that leads to a turquoise colour water pool. One of the most popular in the area is the Cenote La Cueva, loved by tourists due to its history and the beauty of its waters, in contact with nature. Its name refers to the natural arch that is a characteristic of the wall.
These wonders are a part of a massive underground network of rivers and grottoes that are mostly unexplored, and are often surrounded by vegetation. Others are perfect destinations for an afternoon swim or perfect destinations for diving. These sinkholes have also been found in Australia, Cuba and Turkey and in some parts of Europe.
The Maya cities and religious centres were built in these cenotes, for two main reasons: they were important sources of water and also had a symbolic value: they were thought to be the home of Chac, the god of rain. There are several structures near the Chichen Itza ruins. One of the best known is the “Well of sacrifice”. After dragging the bottom, archaeologists found human remains, in particular children, and precious items: confirmation of the human sacrifices and offering made to seek the goodwill of the god of rain.
It is impossible to make a list or classification of the most fascinating grottoes: of the most particular is Cenote Kay, a magical cave, covered in stalactites where you can get a free massage or beauty treatment. There are in fact small fish that gently remove skin impurities.
This is another of the most popular ones. Imagine a wonderful fresco that mixes the green of lush vegetation with the intense blue of the waters: the Cenote Azul, near Chetumal, is all this together. It is 300 metres wide and has steep walls, with a depth of about 90 metres. It is the ideal place for diving and snorkelling: here you will have the possibility of encountering several marine species, including colourful fish and surprise guests.
A network of underground canals connects it to the multicoloured Bacalar Lagoon, a timeless place. A pool of magical water, that was renamed “The lagoon of 7 colours” by the Maya people, due to the 7 hues that the water can take on, depending on the depths. Swimming in a setting like this will be a unique experience.
The underground river - Rio Secreto
Yal-Ku natural aquarium
A natural lagoon, in the state of Quintana Roo, 2.5 kilometres from the town of Akumal. This is a nature reserve that is a kind of aquarium full of tropical fish and marine species that you seen while snorkelling or diving. Calm, clear waters, in a rocky, limestone setting. The lagoon’s beach is just perfect, a place where you can relax and enjoy the colours of the water, the ideal climate and the lush mangrove vegetation.
An ocean inlet that lives alongside a cenote. Two ecosystems co-exist here, a fresh water one and a salt water one with relative flora and fauna. The lagoon is the habitat of several bird species and the place is especially suited to families with children. The forest offers the opportunity to walk along paths in contact with unspoilt nature.
Xplor Nature Park
We are 10 kilometres from Playa del Carmen, in a green expanse of eighty hectares, that combines various elements: nature, culture, also via enhancement projects. Get ready to admire the presence of hundreds of animal and plant species. You may want to start by visiting the aquarium, or discovering the route of the amazing underwater rivers or relaxing and smiling on the beaches filled with turtles. That is not all, as you can also admire the lagoons that sometimes see sea cows as visitors, or the colourful gardens, inhabited by lively, bright butterflies and birds.
There is even the possibility of retracing history. The city of Xcaret was very interesting as it was an example of a port separated from the city thanks to a protective wall. This was a stratagem and tactic to try to defend the city in the event of attacks from the sea. This port became the transit point for the Spaniards who wanted to go to Cozumel Island. Maya ruins have been found in the area, that are still visible. The park visit starts from the main square, thought of as a jolly, family-oriented space. There is a colonial-style cellar under the square, where you can taste Mexican wines and there is also a silver mine.
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
A huge biosphere in the state of Quintana Roo, which is over 5 thousand square kilometres in size and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The sheer size of Sian Ka'an, which means “sky gate” in the Maya language, means that different ecosystems and hundreds of animal species can be hosted here. There are at least 300 bird species, 400 plant species, and it is possible to come across jaguars, tapirs, monkeys and pumas too. One part of the reserve includes the Mexican Caribbean Sea coral reef, while another part if on land.
You will find white-sand beaches, pretty coves and lush mangrove forests on the coast. The reserve also includes 23 archaeological sites from the Maya civilisation. Muyil was the most important, a commercial centre built on trade. There are plenty of activities here, from snorkelling to diving, and fishing. You can also organise boat trips, admiring the fresh water lagoons, surrounded by mangrove forests and perhaps crossing the canals that prove the skills and foresightedness of the Maya people.
Around Playa del Carmen: Tulum ruins
One of the most beautiful attractions in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula: an irresistible mix of history and natural beauty. The town of Tulum wraps around the archaeological site of the same name, that has a wonderful view of the sea. Add a beach that winds among the ruins and you will find a place enveloped by an unforgettable atmosphere. The town stands on a rocky headland that looks out onto the Caribbean Sea: Thanks to its position, it was the first Maya city to be reached by the Spanish conquistadors in 1517. The original name of the town was Zama (dawn), due to its position facing east, as if it was the symbol of a new day, and then later was named Tulum, or “wall” in the Aztec language.
You can see the ruins of the defence walls at the archaeological site, which were a deterrent for other populations. In particular, they were built on three sides, while the fourth side was aimed directly over the Caribbean Sea. A small cenote provided the water supply. Tulum at the time, was one of the most strategic and influential trade centres in the country. It enjoyed domestic trade with villages inland and with other states. Here, the brick buildings in the sacred area have been preserved.
After passing through a wall, you will enter the “Castillo” (castle), the emblem of the area. Given its strategic position, it was the structure that was used to spot enemy ships. According to some findings, it was also a place where human sacrifices were made and gifts were left to honour the gods. You will enjoy a unique view, from a wooden staircase, in this area. You will find a small bay before you: a relaxing moment when you can admire the view of the Caribbean Sea.
One of the places to visit is the Temple of the Descending God: an example of great Maya architecture. The structure is an upside down pyramid, with the walls widening towards the top. A portrayal of the sun god setting upside down can be seen on the front According to archaeologists this god was inspired by the sun and rain, essential elements as they fertilise the soil.
One of the latest elements, “The temple of frescoes”, in the central part of the area, was built around 1450, and has been altered several times over the years, and also used for different purposes. In classic times, it was a sanctuary, that was extended with another storey. Several portrayals of gods worshipped by the Maya people have been found here, in addition to fertility, the moon and the rain.
Around Playa del Carmen: Xel-Ha Park
Around Playa del Carmen: Chichen Itza
One of the most popular and best-preserved attractions in the world. Chichén Itzá is the monumental complex created by the Maya people which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and has been called “one of the new seven wonders of the world". The city's foundation is wrapped in mystery, but its position is probably determined by the presence of two cenotes, natural sinkholes in which human sacrifices were made in the name of the gods. The ruins extend for over three kilometres and were certainly part of a large city, given the number of buildings involved in different styles. One of the preserved elements is the Kukulkan Pyramid, a kind of temple dedicated to the god Kukulkan, the god in the form of a feathered snake. The figures here are impressive: it is 25 metres high and formed by 365 steps, one for each day of the year.
There is also a pelota pitch (the forerunner of football that was popular with the Maya people). This is the the largest example in Yucatan, as it is 116 metres by 68 metres. It also has has bas-relief work. Don’t miss the Temple of Warriors, a pyramid surrounded by several rows of pillars that represented the Maya warriors. On the top there is an altar that was used for sacrifices. El Caracol, a kind of astronomy observatory, is very interesting too. The Maya people managed to calculate solstices thanks to the shadows that the sun projected inside the structure.
Around Playa del Carmen: Cozumel island
Get ready to visit Cozumel Island, the third largest island in Mexico, and most certainly one of the prettiest. Merit is its breath-taking natural setting with mangrove forests and crystal-clear waters, with changing hues and warm, soft sand. There are also 22 kilometres of coral reef. This is why it is considered to be the ideal place for snorkelling or diving. We are off the shore of Playa del Carmen, about twenty kilometres off the eastern coast of Yucatan.
The name of the island means “island of swallows”. For the Mayan people, it was a sacred island where women went to pay homage to worship the moon goddess: a pilgrimage to obtain love and fertility. Here you will find a variety of animals and unique plants. Have you ever heard talk of the Cozumel wren? Or of the vireo, the Cozumel fox or the coralline frog? There are also raccoons and colibri, amongst others. In Cozumel it isn’t possible to get bored. You can plan your activities in the Chankanaab National Park, or swim amongst dolphins. There are even two universities on the island. If you can’t sit still, you can try surfing, fishing, motorbike rides, canoeing or cycling.
Around Playa del Carmen: Akumal
Just think that until 1958, this corner of paradise, a special place for turtles, was just a huge coconut plantation, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It was Pablo Bush Romero, the entrepreneur and scuba-diving enthusiast, together with an exclusive water sports club, that discovered the place and its potential. Akumal, jewel of the Maya Riviera and incredible destination for snorkelling or diving. The rest is recent history in this picture-postcard setting, where everything is superlative: the fine white sand, clear sea and lush vegetation of palm trees that reach almost as far as the shoreline.
Inside the park, you will find the famous Cenote Dos Ojos: caves amidst a breath-taking setting of wild nature and crystal-clear waters, filled with different hues to dive into. You can also plan tours of white sharks, enormous animals that can be up to 18 metres long, who live off plankton. They are in no hurry, seeing as though they can live up to 150 years. The stars, however, are the turtles, with which it is possible to swim and connect just a few metres from shore, while they are laying their eggs, perhaps. You can also go bird watching, visit the lagoon or travel along the paths through the jungle. There is also a small Maya site with ruins, close to Akumal.
Depart for Playa del Carmen with Costa Cruises
In just a few years, it has gone from being a simple fishing village to being a trendy destination, famous for its beaches, its natural beauty and its hidden archaeological treasures. Playa del Carmen will be an explosive concentration of ideal climate, history to discover and night life. There are also interesting facts, such as that for a matter of sobriety, facilities and hotels cannot be over 13.5 metres in height.
There is also the possibility of shopping on Quinta Avenida or going to restaurants and bars. And for anyone who wants to be surprised, there are some islands nearby that will provide a relaxing afternoon amidst unrivalled flora and fauna. “Playa”, as it is called by Mexicans, will also provide you with sports opportunities: from snorkelling to diving and canoeing. With an eye on the local Mexican cuisine and drinks. Just choose this happy city for your holidays and perhaps visit it on Costa Cruises excursions.