A happy trip is what we all want. And one of the best ways to set up your vacation for success is by understanding the nuances of the destinations you have to choose from.
So, whether you’ve got a day trip on your radar or want to base yourself in Akumal or Playa del Carmen, I’ll help you understand the similarities and differences between each.
But why trust me?
I lived in Playa del Carmen for six months and visited Akumal during that time.
So, I’ve got lots of insider info to share.
This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, we’ll receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
An Overview of Akumal and Playa del Carmen
Before we dive into details about Playa del Carmen and Akumal, below is a summary of what we’ll be talking about.
|Akumal has better beaches
|No need to rent a car
|There's more to do in Playa del Carmen
|Neither destination has to be expensive
|Playa del Carmen has more hotels
|Seaweed season plagues both beaches
|Remote work culture is in Playa
|You can visit both destinations in a day
Tip #1: Akumal Has Better Beaches
Akumal and Playa del Carmen are both beach destinations. But when it comes to which one has the best Caribbean beach, Akumal is unquestionably the winner.
A short but wide and fluffy sand beach will greet you upon your arrival. Unless you visit after a rainstorm, there’s no need to use the filter on your phone—the water is a naturally see-through turquoise.
And then there’s the swimming. Akumal sits in a bay, so its water receives protection from strong waves. The result?
Water that’s so still and warm it’s like stepping into a bath.
Of course, the weather plays a role. If you’re in Akumal on a windy day, the water will be choppy. But it doesn’t have the larger waves that Playa del Carmen gets under the same conditions.
When deciding between Playa del Carmen and Akumal, consider your tolerance for crowds. You’ll encounter far fewer people basking on Akumal’s shore than on Playa del Carmen’s.
Needless to say, the beach vibe in Playa del Carmen is ideal for a spring break or party getaway.
Restaurants and bars line the beach, letting you stick your feet in the sand while drinking a margarita and chowing down on some tacos.
Akumal has some beach restaurants too.
However, they’re set back from the water and tend to have a more formal feel than the ones in Playa.
That said, not all of Playa del Carmen’s beaches are packed and loud. If you head a couple of miles north, you’ll encounter some quieter public beach spots.
Nevertheless, Akumal still takes the cake for the most beautiful beach.
Tip #2: You Don’t Need a Car
Whether you choose to visit Akumal or Playa del Carmen, don’t bother renting a car. Both towns are best explored on foot. And if you end up needing a vehicle, there are plenty of taxis around that can get you where you want to go.
That said, if you don’t enjoy or aren’t able to wander long distances, you’ll appreciate Akumal’s small size.
There’s not much to do in Akumal other than beach it. Furthermore, you won’t have to go wandering around to take the popular sea turtle tour—simply walk up to one of the tour boats that hang out along the shore.
In contrast, Playa del Carmen has a whopping 5-mile pedestrian avenue, aptly named 5th Ave.
You probably won’t want to explore more than the first two miles from its start in the center (it gets a bit desolate after that), but that 4-mile round trip journey past yummy restaurants and cute shops is enough to fill an afternoon.
Just one block behind 5th Ave. is the slightly less touristy 10th Ave. There, you can wander another few miles round-trip, eating at cheap local restaurants and getting some (extra) exercise in at the free public university stadium.
Whatsmore, Playa del Carmen has an ADO bus station right on 5th Ave, in the center of its main attractions. So, you can easily hop on a bus to Cancun, Tulum, and Merida, among others.
If you want to catch a bus to Akumal, walk about 15 minutes to the informal outdoor bus station. It’s located beneath a bridge at the corner of 50th Ave. and Avenida Benito Juárez.
Akumal doesn’t have a formal bus station. However, it’s easy to catch a small van (called a combi) to Playa del Carmen, Cancun, or Tulum by waving down a combi on Highway 307.
Tip #3: Playa del Carmen Offers More Activities
When it comes to choosing whether to pay a visit to Playa del Carmen or Akumal, the number of activities they offer may (or may not) matter.
If you guessed that Playa del Carmen has more to do than Akumal, you’re spot on.
You can spend days exploring the different areas of 5th Avenue. Dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants surround the touristy center of Playa. Furthermore, it’s a great place for the shopaholic, as Playa has three malls.
Parque los Fundadores is yet another great place to spend some time. This is Playa’s main plaza, situated smack-dab in front of the beach. You’ll encounter indigenous performers putting on free shows in the afternoon; please support them by tipping.
Playa’s ferry terminal sits next to this plaza. Ferries frequently depart for Cozumel, which is only a 30-minute ride, making for a great day trip.
On the other hand, Akumal’s downtown sits across Highway 307, away from the beach. And if you choose to go there, you’ll be greeted by a few local restaurants and a small plaza.
It’s a cute and sleepy town, but it’s not the reason people visit Akumal.
Assuming you do what most visitors do and stick to Akumal’s beach area, you’ll have access to diving tours and tours that’ll take you to swim with sea turtles.
Other than that, you’ll need to book a tour or arrange your own transportation to go on half or full-day trips to cenotes (sinkholes) or nearby Tulum and Playa.
Tip #4: You Don’t Have to Break the Bank
Akumal is overall a more expensive destination than Playa del Carmen, but you can still visit it economically.
The hotels are what make Akumal more expensive, which we’ll talk about next.
Food-wise, you can get some delicious grub outside of the gated beach area if you’re on a budget. There, meals run for around the same price that you’d pay in the U.S.
You can also cross Highway 307 and get far cheaper meals at local restaurants.
That said, there’s an entrance fee to enter Akumal (approximately $6), and the gates open at 9:00 am. They waive this fee if you stay at a hotel directly on Akumal Beach, though. You’ll also be able to access the beach 24/7 if you’re a hotel guest.
On the other hand, Playa del Carmen is a destination geared toward the backpacking, party-loving tourist. Its beaches are open to the public, and you can visit them at any time of day or night without paying a fee.
Yes, Playa has some super expensive digs (looking at you, Playacar). But unlike Akumal, hostels and 3-star hotels abound.
Food is also cheap and plentiful starting on 10th Avenue, just two blocks up from the beach.
So, when you’re considering a getaway to Akumal or Playa del Carmen, you’ll be able to save some pesos in Playa more easily. Nevertheless, if you’ll be spending time in Tulum without wincing at its prices, you’ll undoubtedly be able to afford Akumal.
Tip #5: There Are More Hotel Options in Playa
The title says it all, and it likely comes as little surprise to you at this point.
Whether you want to keep your costs low by booking a bed at a hostel or you want to splurge at the Riu Palace in Playacar, Playa del Carmen offers accommodation for every budget.
Best of all, if you’re on a budget, you can grab a great deal while still being steps away from the beach. Selina was my go-to hostel during my time in Playa.
If you’re still on the fence about visiting Playa del Carmen or Akumal, the limited hotel choices in Akumal might be the decision turning point for you.
Because of how small Akumal is, there are only so many hotels that they can squeeze in along the beach. And lucky for visitors, they choose not to squeeze.
But that also means you’ll only have a handful of beachfront properties (and expensive ones at that) to choose from.
That said, you can head across good ‘ole Highway 307 and find limited, but cheaper, accommodation in town.
Tip #6: Sargassum Season Plagues Both Destinations
Whether you visit Akumal or Playa del Carmen, the chances are high that you’ll encounter seaweed if you travel between April and August.
I’m not talking about the occasional seaweed strand, here—at its peak, sargassum can pile up a couple of feet high.
Sadly, this phenomenon is the result of human negligence; deforestation and agriculture have caused unhealthy amounts of fertilizer to inundate the Yucatan’s waters.
The result is a marine environment that suffocates wildlife. On shore, rotting vegetation makes first-time Caribbean goers question the people who raved to them in the past about its blue waters.
The moral of the story?
Do your part to buy organic produce, and visit Playa or Akumal outside of sargassum season.
The first tropical storm or hurricane of the season will whisk away the sargassum, leaving you with a postcard-perfect beach.
Tip #7: Digital Nomad Life is in Playa
If your goal of heading down to Playa or Akumal is to work remotely, Playa del Carmen is hands-down the best spot to be.
Digital nomads and expats alike inundate this area, helped along by coworking spaces like Selina.
Many digital nomads stay at Selina, while many others get Airbnbs or rent long-term apartments through locals. Regardless, frequent activities in downtown Playa make it easy to meet new friends.
It’s uncommon—but certainly not unheard of—for a digital nomad to work from Akumal.
WiFi connection is usually one of the reasons. Unlike Akumal, Playa del Carmen offers many coffee shops you can head to if your Internet goes down.
Accommodation is another issue for long-term travelers wanting to stay in Akumal. You’ll encounter limited and often expensive digs compared to the deals you can sometimes snag in Playa.
Tip #8: You Can Visit Both in a Day
If you still can’t decide whether you’d rather visit Akumal or Playa del Carmen, here’s the good news: You don’t have to choose.
This is, of course, assuming that you’re staying at another destination in the Yucatan and are planning on visiting Playa or Akumal only as a day trip.
You can easily visit these destinations from:
Of course, traveling back and forth from your base and visiting both Playa and Akumal on the same day is going to make for a massively packed day.
That said, you don’t need tons of time to see Akumal—a couple of hours will do.
You can then dedicate the remainder of your time to exploring Playa del Carmen.
The other option is to base yourself in Akumal or Playa and then visit the other destination as a day trip. As mentioned earlier, you can catch a combi on Highway 307 to make the approximately 30-minute journey between these two beach spots.
Akumal or Playa del Carmen: What’ll It Be?
Quiet beaches or a roaring nightlife. Lots of activities or a laid-back getaway.
These are some of the many considerations to consider when choosing between Akumal and Playa del Carmen.
Personally, I loved using Playa del Carmen as my base to explore Akumal and other Yucatan destinations—and that’s coming from my non-party, early-to-bed self. However, if I were going to the Yucatan for a short trip, I’d likely choose Akumal.
Everyone has their own travel style, though, and I’d love to hear about which destination you end up visiting. Leave a comment about your experience, or feel free to ask any questions as you continue planning your vacation.