Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two of the most popular destinations in Mexico, known for their white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters and exciting nightlife.
However, both destinations have their pros and cons. If you’re planning a trip to either of these places, it is important to understand the differences between them.
This article will give you a detailed comparison of Playa del Carmen vs Cancun so that you can determine which one is better for your next holiday.
Boutique hotels, glimmering cenotes and laidback beach town vibes summarize the Playa del Carmen experience.
The compact town structure allows for slow strolls and easy access to a wide range of activities.
Beyond the main street is a trove of natural treasures, both inland and at sea.
Families, couples and people who love slow travel will find Playa del Carmen a charming Mexican getaway.
Urban tourism is strong in Cancun, delivered via shopping malls and luxury resorts. You’re encased in a bubble of beach, pools, international cuisine and water sports.
The wholesome picture gives way to some of Mexico’s wildest parties at nightfall, drawing massive crowds during university breaks.
Cancun is also known to be a gateway to ancient Maya, letting you bounce between water adventures and historical excursions.
If you have your heart set on this sunny destination, make sure you check out our guide on planning a trip to Cancun.
Playa del Carmen’s main beaches off Quinta Avenida often deal with human traffic, but turn off that main shopping street and you’ll find serene, people-less gems.
Playa Esmeralda lists among some of the most beautiful Riviera Maya beaches – the soft blue of a cenote winds through golden sand to open sea.
Sun lounging and kitesurfing are very welcome here.
The one disadvantage of beaches in Playa del Carmen compared to Cancun is that you’re playing Russian roulette.
Cancun’s tourist zone beaches are well-equipped but those of Playa del Carmen are often not.
No beds, no umbrellas, not always bars and worse of all – no bathroom. Do your research or risk not having necessary facilities!
In Cancun, beaches are literally at your doorstep. The luxurious resorts in the Hotel Zone back onto the Caribbean coast, clearly marking out the ‘holiday bubble’.
This means direct access to interlinked carpets of white sand and the generous amenities available on them.
You can’t miss these private beaches as they’re often equipped with lifeguards, rental vendors, occasional cabanas and casual souvenir stands.
Good news for people who can’t stop moving – Playa Chacmool, Playa Forum and other larger Cancun beaches launch you into epic water fun.
While younger kids splash close to the shoreline, teens and young adults are riding waves and jet-skiing like action stars.
Come evening, the energy does die down a little. Couples: set up a romantic dinner for two, right on the sand.
Cancun beaches open the gate to endless water fun.
While both locales are stunning in their own right, Cancun spoils you with its range of beachside activities.
Playa del Carmen may have evolved from beach town to a popular city, but it hasn’t lost its laidback appeal.
These cozy vibes are highlighted by the compact main streets, packed with restaurants, taquerias, bars, local and designer shops, beach clubs, entertainment venues… the list goes on.
But you’re not in Playa del Carmen for city browsing! Beach time is guaranteed, although plenty of excursions take you to the city outskirts.
Just 20 minutes away are numerous cenotes; glittering sinkholes like Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino are easily accessible via public transport.
Likewise, adventurous Xcaret Park keeps you outdoors. This theme park is rife with underwater caves, epic water slides, jungle ziplines, and night shows to end with a bang.
Playa del Carmen is also a prime HQ for day-outs.
Excursions to Cozumel are extremely popular; these tours offer amazing snorkeling and scuba diving at the world’s second-largest coral reef.
Tulum, just an hour away, has more beaches, cenotes and ruins.
Day tours to Chichen Itza, Holbox, El Cuyo are also available for history and cultural buffs.
Just an hour away from Playa del Carmen, Cancun’s day trips overlap.
Some of the best things to do in Cancun include day trips to Chichen Itza and El Rey Maya Ruins.
Others who prefer water time would take ferries to Isla Mujeres, or to nearby Contoy Island.
These trips often come with adventurous activities such as diving at the Banco Chinchorro reef, or exploring natural parks.
Staying close to the Hotel Zone, tourists spend full days on the beach.
For variety, you can trek through Cancun’s green lung: Kabah Ecological Park.
Families with kids enjoy its kid-friendly petting zoo, while historians may be interested in Casa Maya Museum.
If beach and nature reserve don’t fill your Cancun itinerary, Ventura Park Cancun and the Cancun Underwater Museum add an element of thrill.
Rainy day activities are plenty too. La Isla Cancun Shopping Village, Plaza Las Americas, and Kukulcan Plaza are great for picking up souvenirs (or new beach gear).
Museo Maya de Cancun recalls Cancun’s rich Mayan past.
Hotel entertainment teams also plan themed parties and other events on-site – the weather won’t bother you in any way.
Both Playa del Carmen and Cancun have a wide range of activities and excursions.
Playa del Carmen keeps this variety close at hand; public transport can get you from beach to town to cenote in minutes.
Cancun’s hotel bubble very much emphasizes beach time, but you have shopping malls to trawl through when the rain gets going.
When nightlife comes to play, the Playa del Carmen vs Cancun scale is actually pretty balanced.
You may be surprised to hear that Playa del Carmen features Cancun party legends: Coco Bongo, Mandala, Senor Frogs to name a few.
The main shopping street is robust at night, with several large-scale nightclubs you’d expect from bigger cities.
But for the most part, Playa del Carmen’s nightlife is characterized by bars.
From live music bars to casual beach bars with drink specials and open-air seating, they’re the main mingling hubs for visitors.
Mamita’s Beach Club often hosts music festivals, with BPM Festival and Riviera Maya Jazz Festival being two stage leads.
What really sets nightlife in Playa del Carmen apart from Cancun however, is the grid layout of the main area.
Because nightclubs and restaurants alike are all within walking distance, it’s perfect for bar hopping. Cancun, not so much.
Cancun is synonymous with nightlife, especially amongst university students.
Spring break has never been more YOLO when bars and nightclubs bring their parties into pools and beachside festivals.
Yes, those stories about disco nights, free-flow shots, foam parties and non-stop dancing are all true.
Best of all, you can be as casual or classy as you want. Downtown pubs are best for chill night-outers, and rooftop bars carve out a quieter niche for proper catch ups.
Dancers and grinders can shake those hips all night at clubs like Mandala, The City and Senor Frogs; 11:11 Club is for LGBTQ+ friendlies.
To escape the madness, opt for a couples’ sunset cruise instead.
Playa del Carmen and Cancun both have great nightlife options; they differ mostly in terms of accessibility.
If you’re the type to stay in one place, Cancun’s nightclubs truly live up to their reputations – it’s worth any travel.
For convenience and fidgety legs, Playa del Carmen’s entertainment venues are closely clustered.
Neither Cancun nor Playa del Carmen is known for authentic Mexican eats, as their dining scene is largely influenced by the tourist crowd.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any, or that quality is questionable – you’re just more likely to find recognizable chain restaurants and international menus.
Playa del Carmen’s main shopping street does fall prey to tourism.
Large menus are posted outside chain restaurants and western versions of international cuisine, with high price tags at fine dining eateries included.
To move away from the Italian and Brazilian cuisines, move further down the blocks. The real Mexican gems (and lower prices) are found further away from the town center.
While Cancun’s Hotel Zone layout isn’t great for window shopping restaurants, eateries are helpfully gathered in one place here.
If you’re a fan of smaller-scale establishments, taco shops, vegan restaurants and cute cafés, Playa del Carmen is perfect.
Cancun’s food scene can be divided into two main areas: the Hotel Zone and downtown Cancun.
While there are cozy eateries and fine dining in both zones, each carries its own preferred flavors.
The touristy crowd takes priority within the Hotel Zone, where luxury resorts bring foreign cuisines to the table.
Exotic fare ranges from French to Japanese to Mediterranean, often hand-in-hand with dress codes and hefty price tags.
To balance the outside tastes, authentic Mexican dining make the bulk of downtown eats.
Here, you get to enjoy Mexico’s cheap food prices at a premium, whether at street food stalls, taquerias or brunch cafés.
Playa del Carmen has a nice mix of all-inclusive deals and boutique hotels. There’s also plenty of options for a romantic getaway as lots of resorts cater to couples as well!
We have full guides on where to stay if you like party vibes, luxurious resorts, and even accommodations that are for adults only.
Here are a few of our favorite places to stay in Playa del Carmen:
A splash of white within carpeted greens, Secrets Maroma Beach Riviera is an all-inclusive, adults-only paradise.
Stamped ‘AAA Five Diamond Resort’, the 500-acre property can be summarized as: romantic and pampering.
Each room is designed to be contemporary and inviting, featuring private furnished balconies or terraces.
Swim-out access to 12 smaller pools plus the infinity pool is granted; so is unlimited access to gourmet restaurants and wait service.
There are plenty of secluded nooks for you to canoodle.
Tip: dress codes are strictly enforced.
Rosewood Mayakoba spans various small islands within a mangrove jungle, creating an ultra-unique enclave.
129 villas and suites overlook the Mayakoba canals, some with private pools and lagoon docks.
The magic continues with personalized butler service, beach cruisers and golf carts – carting you over to the Forbes-rated #1 Spa, Sense Spa.
Rosewood hits a great balance between adults-only and family-friendly amenities.
Adults and families each get an exclusive beach club, sharing four pools between them.
They also offer a diverse cast of seven restaurants, bars and pop-ups, ranging from Central Mexican breakfasts to seaside lunches.
Location is everything for Thompson Playa del Carmen, which is set along Quinta Avenida, Playa del Carmen’s vibrant center.
Not only are there two clubs down the block (perfect for late-night partiers), you’re minutes away from the beach and countless restaurants.
Couples and young adult travelers that love to party will appreciate this small-sized hotel.
Not only is it adults-only, but you have all the amenities you need. The mid-century design is perfect for staging photos; the rooftop pool is a full-day lounge.
Relax by the poolside in daylight, and switch swimsuits for dance shoes at night.
Cancun is famous for its all-inclusive beachside resorts – at least within the Hotel Zone.
Take your pick between adults-only resorts and gorgeous suites with swim-up pools.
Check out our guide on determining if an all-inclusive resort is right for you or read on to discover some of our top picks.
Exhausted from traveling? Fall into the luxurious beddings at Nizuc, a 29-acre estate close to Cancun Airport.
Decorated with elegant and textured furnishing, it’s a quiet getaway with thoughtful amenities.
Take your pick of the following: two exclusive beaches, six dining options that range from Mexican to Mediterranean, a conference and events center, and a wellness facility with beachfront treatment rooms.
There’s even a kids club to accommodate families.
What surrounds the 274 suites and villas is a nature preserve. Guests have direct access to tropical foliage and blooming coral reefs, as well as tranquil waterways.
The diversity in landscape offers many outdoor activities, including snorkeling, fishing, golfing, and scuba diving.
The all-white exterior of Wyndham Alltra Cancun really hammers in the Caribbean vibes.
Open and airy, it’s designed for couples, families and friend groups alike.
Your all-inclusive stay begins with an airport shuttle pick-up, which carts you to this one-stop-shop resort.
Ten restaurants, bars and lounges cater to all tastes and dietary requirements; fitness classes like oceanfront yoga help you balance those indulgent meals.
Kids and teens have their own niches, including a pirate-themed splash park and mini-golf course.
Couples can snag a seat at the beach, decked with chairs, palapas and cabanas. For mingling, stop by the poolside tables loaded with tacos and nachos.
Couples and honeymooners will find Hyatt Zilara Cancun the perfect fit. Why? It’s the sole hotel with a Romance Concierge to help you further woo your partner.
Being an adults-only, all-inclusive resort, you get all the privacy you need.
Located on the widest stretch of beach within Hotel Zone, this resort comfortably fits beach cabanas on their private patch.
Elevated pools couple with spacious suites and Caribbean-facing balconies; all spaces are serviced by attentive staff.
The same staff leads you through volleyball games, spirits tastings and nightly entertainment. For fuel, dine to your heart’s content at Hyatt’s six gourmet restaurants.
As the cost of food and activities are about the same, the average 7-day budget for two for Playa del Carmen and Cancun hinges on accommodation choices.
Playa del Carmen offers some very cheap accommodation within the beach vicinity, but you have fewer options overall.
Cancun has more accommodation options but budget stays are far from the beach; it’s hard to have a beachside vacation in Cancun on a budget.
The average one-week Playa del Carmen trip budget for two is approximately $2700.
Here’s the breakdown:
Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, an economy round-trip averages $291 per person.
Note that international flights (not from the States) may cost a lot more.
Accommodation – Backpacker hostels start cheap at $15 to $25 a night, while short-term rental apartments can go for $40.
Basic rooms run from $30 – $80 per night, but fancier boutique hotels can hit $250. Expect to pay around $1400 a week for accommodation in Cancun.
Food – Dining is typically cheap, with breakfast and street food priced $1-$3 a meal. Lunch may cost $15, and dinner averages $25 – $35 along 5th Avenue.
Beach clubs do charge minimum consumption, with rates running from $15 to $30. On average, a couple would spend $400 a week on food.
Activities – Beaches are free at Playa del Carmen, but entry to historical attractions can cost anything between $4 and $25. Tours usually cost around $80 – $120 per person. If you’re doing at least two major tours, expect to spend around $320 for two.
The average one-week Cancun trip budget for two is approximately $3200.
Here’s the breakdown:
Flight cost – Depending on departure location and time of the year, economy round-trip costs around $150-350 per person.
Note that international flights (not from the States) may cost a lot more.
Accommodation – There’s a huge difference between budget and standard stays. Basic hostels start from $25 up, while mid-range double rooms average $300-$400 per night.
All-inclusive packages are priced at $500 or more, with VIP suites hitting $2000 a night. Expect to pay around $2800 a week for accommodation in Cancun.
Food – Dining is typically cheap, with breakfast and street food priced $3-$5 a meal.
Lunch and dinner bumps up to $13 average, although fine dining will come with a heftier price tag. The average couple spends $420 a week on food.
Activities – Most daily activities are included in the all-inclusive deal, but longer tours can be costly. Adventure tours go from $60 to $150 up.
Entry fees to nightclubs start at $30 per person. If you’re doing at least two major tours, expect to spend around $300 for two.
Playa del Carmen is cheaper to visit, mostly because accommodations (even beachfront ones) are much more affordable.
Playa del Carmen and Cancun shares similar costs across other categories, such as food and activities.