9 Mistakes to Avoid: Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun

Ah, the Riviera Maya. Your decision to visit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula may have been easy, but since you found me here, choosing where to go once you touch down in the land of tequila might be proving to be more difficult than you thought.

I get it—I felt the same way until I spent time there.

Now, equipped with multiple trips to Cancun and a three-month stay in Playa del Carmen, I’ll share some of the most common mistakes I see people make when considering Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun.

Accessibility Note: Cancun offers slightly better wheelchair accessibility than Playa del Carmen. Check out our guides on Cancun and Playa del Carmen for more details about wheeling around these destinations.

Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun Overview

Before we dive into the biases people can have when considering a trip to Playa del Carmen or Cancun, I put together this nifty little chart to give you a glimpse of their similarities and differences.

FeaturePlaya del CarmenCancun
International airportNoYes
Bus station in central locationYesNo
Wide beachesNoYes
Crowded beachesYesYes
More budget-friendly optionsYesNo
Big party sceneYesYes
Easy to walk aroundYesNo
Base for day tripssYesYes

9 Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun Mistakes

Ready to become a savvy Riviera Maya traveler?

Grab a pen or pull up the notes on your phone so that you can weigh the pros and cons of visiting Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Mistake #1: The Nicest Hotels Are in Cancun

When comparing Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun, Cancun has more high-rise hotels.
Hotel Zone of Cancun.

Take one look at Cancun’s skyline and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that there must be some really nice hotels among those glistening high-rises.

While it’s true that you’ll have your pick of fancy resorts in Cancun, that doesn’t mean that Playa is packed full of hostels…it’s only partially packed with them.

There’s no doubt about it—Playa del Carmen attracts a more backpacker-type crowd than Cancun.

However, there are still some really nice hotels and resorts in Playa del Carmen.

For example, anything in the gated Playacar district will give you a luxurious vacation far enough from the party noise of downtown but close enough so you can get there via a quick cab ride or a long walk.

If you want to be closer to all the action, Playacar Palace, seated by the ferry port but outside the gated portion of Playacar, is an excellent choice.

Playacar Palace in Playa del Carmen.
Playacar Palace.

Of course, if budget hotels and hostels are more your style, you’ll have plenty to choose from in Playa. I wrote a review on Selina Playa del Carmen if you’re looking for a well-located hostel with a cowork space.

That’s not to say that Cancun doesn’t have its fair share of hostels, though. Selina offers a hostel right on the water and one by the ADO Cancun bus station. And there are plenty of others around too.

Mistake #2: Playa del Carmen Has Loads of Wildlife

Trendy 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.
5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.

Yes, you’ll likely hear more birds chirping and see more trees in Playa del Carmen than in Cancun. Nevertheless, Playa isn’t a great destination for above-ground nature enthusiasts.

If you’re into snorkeling or scuba diving, though, both Playa del Carmen and Cancun are excellent destinations for exploring the underwater world.

In Cancun, you’ll be a short boat ride away from the Cancun Underwater Museum of Art. Here, you’ll get to snorkel or dive around approximately 500 sunken sculptures. In fact, it’s the largest underwater museum in the world!

Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, is close to Cozumel, which is home to the Mesoamerican Reef. This reef is the largest in the western hemisphere and the second-largest reef in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Long story short, more secluded destinations like Tulum are a better option for animal sightseeing on land. But if your main goal is to see marine wildlife, both Playa del Carmen and Cancun are excellent options.

Mistake #3: Cancun is a Better Hub for Day Trips

A cove overlooking Cancun's skyline from Isla Mujeres.
View of Cancun’s skyline from Isla Mujeres.

When you’re walking around the Hotel Zone, you’ll be bombarded with signs and people from tour agencies offering day trips from Cancun. Needless to say, Cancun is an excellent hub for day trips.

But so is Playa.

In fact, by basing your stay in Playa del Carmen, you’ll be closer to popular and lesser-known, but beautiful, day trips including:

  • Cozumel
  • Chichen Itza
  • Tulum
  • Akumal
Ruins in Tulum.
Ruins in Tulum.

You can easily visit these destinations as day trips from Cancun, too. However, if you’re thinking that you might like Playa’s vibe better but are concerned about how hard it’ll be to take day trips, I’m here to help put those worries aside.

Just like in Cancun, there are tour agencies hoping to get tourists’ attention with signs on street corners and people selling tours as you pass by.

You can also hop on local transportation in Playa del Carmen (and Cancun, to be fair), saving you lots of money and letting you be more in control of your time at these destinations.

Mistake #4: You Need a Car in Playa del Carmen

One of the biggest differences of Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun is that Playa is easy to explore via this pedestrian street.
5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen.

If you’re thinking about visiting Cancun, there’s a 99.9% chance that a vehicle’s going to have to come into the mix—ADO buses at the airport and downtown Cancun bus station don’t pass through the Hotel Zone, which is where the beaches are located.

That’s not to say that you have to rent a car in Cancun, but you will need to take taxis or more rickety local buses to get where you need to go.

Playa del Carmen is blissfully the opposite.

Whether you fly into the Cancun airport or are at the Cancun downtown bus station, you can take an ADO bus directly to Playa.

ADO buses at the Cancun airport.
ADO buses at the Cancun airport.

You might be wondering—but what about once I arrive in Playa del Carmen?

No car needed.

The ADO bus station is located right on 5th Avenue, which is a 5-mile pedestrian street packed with everything you need, including accommodation.

In fact, renting a car in Playa del Carmen is actually more of a hassle than not having a vehicle; there’s next to no parking, and you can’t access many points of interest with a vehicle since so many attractions are located on and around 5th Avenue.

Mistake #5: The Best Parties Are in Cancun

A colorful shopping street in Playa del Carmen.
Shopping street in Playa del Carmen.

Hands-down, the fanciest parties are in Cancun.

But the best parties? Well, that depends on your opinion.

You see, Playa del Carmen is similar to Cancun in that it’s a party town. However, the parties tend to be geared towards backpacker-type travelers, and there are relatively fewer options than in Cancun.

Nevertheless, like Cancun, Playa del Carmen has a world-famous Coco Bongo. It also has a couple of Senor Frogs, which is a chain restaurant/bar that’s also found in Cancun (among other destinations in the world).

Like Cancun, every night is a party night in Playa. People congregate in the pedestrian 5th Avenue of Playa, with clubs and bars staying open into the not-so-wee hours of the morning.

If your goal is to get some R&R, I recommend choosing a place to stay that’s set back from 5th Avenue. Otherwise, blaring music and shouts from drunken crowds will likely wake you during the night.

Mistake #6: Playa del Carmen’s Beaches Are Less Crowded

A massage hut framing a narrow beach in Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen’s beach early in the morning before the crowds arrived.

I don’t have the statistics on me, but I think it’s safe to say that more tourists visit Cancun than Playa del Carmen.

However, Cancun’s beaches are significantly longer and wider than those in Playa. As a result, when comparing Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun, Cancun’s beaches often feel roomier than Playa’s.

If you’re planning on lounging at the beach in Playa, I have a few recommendations for how you can snag some sand space:

  1. Arrive early to claim your spot.
  2. Visit on a weekday. The beach becomes extra crowded on weekends with locals off from work.
  3. Head to Playa’s northern beaches. They still have a narrow strip of sand, but fewer people frequent them.

Nevertheless, that isn’t to say that you’ll have an endless beach to your own in Cancun. But there’s more sand surface area and beach options for beachgoers to choose from.

Mistake #7: Everything is Expensive in Cancun

A taco sign with prices in pesos.

If you’re anywhere along the Hotel Zone of Cancun, expect to overpay for anything you buy. I’m talking U.S. prices at best, and U.S. prices in tourist cities at worst.

However, Cancun doesn’t have to be expensive.

If you stay in downtown Cancun, you’ll have access to $3 lunches and dinners, with portions large enough to give you two or three meals. There are Walmarts and other grocery stores where you can purchase cheap snacks and water. Accommodations are also a fraction of the price compared to the Hotel Zone.

Of course, staying in downtown Cancun comes with its downsides.

Namely, there’s no beach, safety is often mediocre, and there aren’t many touristy things to see. Did I mention there isn’t a beach?

For these reasons, budget travelers tend to flock to Playa del Carmen where they can get cheap accommodation and food just a few blocks from the beach and attractions.

That said, if you need to base yourself in Cancun and don’t want to spend loads of money, know that it’s possible to do.

Mistake #8: WiFi Is Worse in Playa del Carmen

A cowork space in Playa del Carmen.
A cowork space in Playa del Carmen.

It’s natural to assume that WiFi will be spotty in Playa del Carmen’s small town compared to a modern metropolis like Cancun.

But when examining Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun, from my experience, the WiFi situation is pretty equal.

In fact, Playa is a huge hub for remote workers. A lot of this likely has to do with the year-round warm climate, cheap living, and smaller town feel compared to Cancun. But it’s also a great sign that good WiFi is in abundance.

That said, I’m not about to tell you that you’re going to have perfect WiFi all the time in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

As a digital nomad myself, I’ve experienced dropped connections in both locations.

Both is the operative word there. Usually, a quick reset of the router takes care of the issue.

The same can’t be said for other parts of Mexico, such as Valladolid, where I’m currently writing this offline keeping my fingers crossed that the WiFi company will resolve their internet issue yet again.

Mistake #9: It’s Too Hard to Visit Either In a Day

Bus station in Playa del Carmen.
Bus station in Playa del Carmen.

Maybe you’re not looking for an either/or type of answer from this post rather than a, which of the two places should I spend more time in?

In that case, this may comfort you—it’s easy to visit Playa del Carmen from Cancun in a day and vice versa.

You can technically drive from Cancun to Playa in just over an hour. But based on the many times I’ve traveled this route, I find that it takes closer to 80 – 90 minutes. Part of this is based on traffic in Cancun and the other part on whether or not they’re doing roadwork.

Although Playa isn’t a good place to have a vehicle, it’s a great asset to have when leaving town. Therefore, if you’re traveling from Playa del Carmen to Cancun, I recommend renting a car. There are lots of car rental agencies in downtown Playa. That’ll get you to where you want to go in Cancun quicker, especially if you only have a day to visit.

For those traveling from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, the ADO bus is my favorite option. It’ll drop you off in the center of town where you’ll be within walking distance to Playa’s highlights. That way, you won’t have the hassle (and expense) of finding a parking spot for your vehicle.

FAQ: Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun

Do you still have lingering questions about visiting Playa del Carmen or Cancun? I’ll address some of the most common ones below.

However, if you have questions that I don’t cover here, let me know in the comments section and I’ll be happy to help.

Is Cancun or Playa del Carmen better for a long-term stay?

Personally, I prefer Playa del Carmen for a long-term stay, although I won’t go so far as to say that I’m with the majority—or minority, for that matter. It really comes down to personal opinion. Both destinations offer necessities for long-term living: banks, WiFi, gyms, parks, etc.

Does Playa del Carmen or Cancun have the best beach?

A wide, empty beach in Cancun with bright blue water.
Beach in Cancun.

Cancun’s beach is better than Playa del Carmen’s since the beaches are wider and longer. I even think the sand looks whiter and feels softer in Cancun than Playa.

How far is Playa del Carmen from Cancun?

On average it takes around 1 hour, 15 minutes to drive from Playa del Carmen to Cancun. Travel time may be more or less depending on where in Cancun you’re departing from, traffic, and road construction (there’s a lot of it!).

How can you travel between Playa del Carmen and Cancun?

You can drive, take a colectivo (a small, local van), or take an ADO bus (a massive, modern, air-conditioned bus) between Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

Is the bus station in Playa del Carmen within walking distance to the center?

Terminal Turistica in Playa del Carmen.

Yes. The ADO bus station is located on 5th Avenue, a pedestrian street in the heart of Playa del Carmen. You’ll want to get off at the touristica station, as there’s a second bus station in Playa del Carmen that’s off the main drag. That said, it’s only a 10-minute walk or so to reach 5th Avenue from that bus station if you happen to get off at it. Most ADO buses coming from Cancun go directly to the touristica bus station, though, so it’s unlikely you’ll have to worry about it.

Is the bus station in Cancun within walking distance to the center?

The bus station in Cancun is located in downtown, but it isn’t in the tourist center, which is the Hotel Zone. There are a lot of cheap restaurants around the Cancun bus station, and you’ll be a short walk from Parque de las Palapas, which is a park worth the visit for its snack stands and the cultural activities they sometimes have.

Which Destination Will it Be?

Hopefully, this post helped clear up your dilemma of deciding between a stay in Playa del Carmen vs. Cancun. Personally, I prefer Playa over Cancun. However, I’d love to hear your thoughts—whether you have questions or have visited these destinations and have insight to add, feel free to leave a comment.

Psst! Are you also trying to decide between a trip to Playa del Carmen and Tulum? Check out my post on Tulum vs. Playa del Carmen and Cancun vs. Tulum. I’ve also written a guide on Cozumel vs. Cancun.