The promise of palm tree-lined beaches, crystal clear water, and margaritas might have you dreaming about a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula.
So if you’re trying to understand the difference between the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, here it is: The Riviera Maya is a coastal region in the Yucatan, and Playa del Carmen sits within it.
Yep, that’s right—by visiting Playa del Carmen, you’ll automatically be visiting the Riviera Maya.
But is Playa del Carmen the best destination in the Riviera Maya?
I’ve spent nearly one year galavanting around Mexico’s Riveria Maya and will lay the groundwork so that you understand the relationship between Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya.
Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen: An Overview
Short on time? I’ve got your back.
Here’s a chart to give you a quick understanding of the similarities and differences between the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen.
|Feature||Riviera Maya||Playa del Carmen|
|On the Yucatan's coast||Yes||Yes|
|Lots of beach choices||Yes||No|
|Atmosphere||Quiet to loud||Mostly a party town|
|Good for digital nomads||Yes||Yes|
Now let’s explore these points in more detail.
1. Playa del Carmen Is in the Riviera Maya
You can visit the Riviera Maya without seeing Playa del Carmen, but you can’t visit Playa without being in the Riviera Maya.
To understand why that is, let’s take a look at geography.
The internet is full of sources boasting about how long the Riviera Maya is, ranging from 75 to 100 miles long.
I’m not about to claim I know the correct number. But I can tell you most people agree that the Riviera Maya starts a little south of Cancun, around Puerto Morelos.
How far south the Riviera Maya stretches is where the real controversy begins.
Some say the Riviera Maya only runs to Tulum. Others claim it extends to Punta Allen, the biggest (but still tiny) town in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Personally, I’m inclined to go with the Sian Ka’an thought process. This reserve begins at the end of Highway 15 in Tulum and extends to the tip of a peninsula, making it the perfect end to a long stretch of Caribbean coastline.
Regardless of where Mexico’s Riviera Maya ends, Playa del Carmen sits squarely within it.
So, if you’re leaning towards wanting to see both Playa and the Riviera Maya, basing yourself in Playa del Carmen is an excellent choice.
2. Beach Choices Abound in the Riviera Maya
When comparing the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, there’s no contest in terms of beaches; the Riviera Maya offers more—and better—choices.
Some noteworthy beaches in the Riviera Maya include:
- Playa Paraíso
- Playa Maroma
Since the Riviera Maya covers such a long stretch of Caribbean coastline, you can choose from small fishing towns (Puerto Morelos), party beaches (Playa del Carmen), nature getaways (Sian Ka’an), and even ruins overlooking the ocean (Tulum).
In contrast, Playa del Carmen offers a limited number of beaches. Most of its beaches are short, broken up by rocks, piers, and buildings.
The beaches around Playa’s tourist center are particularly crowded, and there’s little space to lay out a beach towel during high tide.
That said, if you stay in the gated community of Playacar, you’ll have access to longer and more pristine beaches. The public beaches two to three miles north of downtown Playa del Carmen are also larger.
Furthermore, you can consider taking a Playa del Carmen to Cozumel day trip to enjoy island life at some of Cozumel’s stunning beaches.
The bottom line? The Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen both offer beautiful beaches, but the “best” beach experience depends on personal preference.
3. Playa del Carmen Is for Backpackers
If you’re traveling on a budget and love the backpacking lifestyle, Playa del Carmen is an excellent choice.
Playa del Carmen is one of the most populated towns in the Riviera Maya. It’s packed with low-cost hostels, cheap bars, and street food (as long as you head a few blocks back from the beach).
I spent several months staying at the boutique hostel Selina Playa del Carmen, seated in the heart of the tourist district and equipped with a cowork space.
Should you want to steer clear of the backpacking crowd, you’ll find more family and luxury-oriented accommodations and vibes in many other parts of the Riviera Maya.
Akumal, Tulum, and more secluded resorts along highway 307 all offer 3-star and higher beach accommodations.
Tulum has a particularly unique vibe, so I recommend reading my post on Tulum vs Playa del Carmen before deciding if it’s the right fit for you.
You can also check out my post on must-know tips for visiting Akumal Beach to get a better feel of what to expect.
For the sake of full disclosure, Playa del Carmen offers a handful of upper-class hotels, particularly in and around the Playacar area.
4. The Riviera Maya Has Quiet Areas
There’s no denying it—Playa del Carmen is a party town.
You can find clubs and bars open seven days a week, and it isn’t uncommon to hear music blaring until 6:00 am.
There’s also a lot of traffic in Playa compared to other destinations in the Riviera Maya.
Quieter parts of Playa do exist, though. I spent a couple of months at an Airbnb in northern Playa del Carmen, which was less touristy and devoid of clubs. The exclusive, gated Playacar is another tranquil area of Playa.
Overall, though, if you’re looking for a quiet beach getaway, destinations in the Riviera Maya outside of Playa del Carmen are your best bet.
Personally, I’m a fan of Akumal for a quieter vacation if beaching it is your main goal. Especially if you spend the night, given that you’ll pretty much have the beach to yourself in the first hours of the morning.
Tulum is also an excellent choice if you want a quiet beachfront hotel while being a short walk or drive from restaurants, shops, and bars.
That said, the quietest and most nature-oriented area you can visit in the Riviera Maya is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Psst! Check out my guide on Is Playa del Carmen Safe? for details on how to stay safe during your visit to the Riviera Maya.
5. Playa del Carmen Is an Ideal Riviera Maya Base
If you’re weighing the differences between Playa del Carmen vs Riviera Maya and know you want to do a lot of exploring, I recommend basing yourself in Playa.
Regardless of where people say the Riviera Maya starts and ends, Playa del Carmen sits in the middle of this stretch of Caribbean coastline.
Traveling to destinations within the Riviera Maya from Playa del Carmen is a breeze; an ADO bus station sits in the center of the tourist district, and buses depart frequently.
Of course, you can always rent a car in Playa and take day trips to sites within the Riviera Maya.
Just be aware that parking in Playa del Carmen can be tricky. So, consider booking accommodation that offers parking to save yourself time.
6. Digital Nomads Base Themselves in the Riviera Maya
The Riviera Maya is an excellent place for digital nomads to base themselves.
Unlike Cancun, the Riviera Maya’s neighbor to the north, the Riviera Maya tends to attract longer-term digital nomads looking to settle in and meet fellow remote working travelers.
Psst! Check out my guide on Cancun vs Riviera Maya for more details on Cancun.
I’ve worked in the two largest towns in the Riviera Maya—Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Of the two, I found Playa del Carmen more reliable in its electricity and WiFi connection.
That said, if you work at a coworking space, such as Selina Playa del Carmen or Selina Tulum, you shouldn’t have to worry about the electricity and WiFi going out since they have generators.
But if you plan on renting your own place and are worried about the WiFi going out during an important meeting with your boss, from my experience, there’s less of a chance of that happening in Playa.
I’ve never worked in towns in the Riviera Maya outside of Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
However, my guess is that the remote work culture would be limited, and the electricity and WiFi situation could be unreliable.
7. Sargassum Season Is No Joke
If you haven’t heard of sargassum, you’ll never be able to forget this word if you end up traveling to any place in the Riviera Maya, including Playa del Carmen, from May to October.
Sargassum is a brown seaweed that floats on top of the water thanks to oxygen-filled pneumatocysts.
Although sargassum is natural, the quantity of sargassum that now graces the Rivera Maya’s shores from May to October isn’t. Between fertilizer runoff from agriculture and rising ocean water temperatures, sargassum is a massive issue for locals and tourists alike.
Mounds of sargassum wash up on shore, sometimes multiple feet high. Many hotels do their best to control the problem by hiring people to cart the sargassum away in wheelbarrows or bulldozers.
Even so, the water remains unpleasant for swimming, and a sulfur smell radiates from the beach.
To be fair, sargassum isn’t only an issue in the Riveria Maya—many Caribbean destinations and even Florida suffer from the problem.
So, if you want a mostly seaweed-free Yucatan vacation, I recommend traveling to the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen from November to April.
Riviera Maya or Playa del Carmen—Which Is Better?
I hope this information has cleared up your confusion regarding the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen.
Personally, I love the Yucatan’s Riviera Maya region. It offers a diverse choice of beaches, varying town populations, and unique activities.
If you have questions about visiting the Riviera Maya or Playa del Carmen, leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to help.
I’d also love to hear your feedback if you visit this region. What were your favorite parts of the Riviera Maya? What would you do differently if you went back again?
P.S.—Are you trying to understand the difference between other destinations in the Yucatan? If so, check out my guides on Playa del Carmen vs Cancun, Cancun vs Tulum, and Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen.
Laura has been wandering the globe for over a decade. She’s an early bird and backpacker at heart and can often be spotted with a dog or ten that she’s befriended along the way. Much of the content Laura writes on A Piece of Travel includes details on wheelchair accessibility, with the support of her brother-in-law and sister. You can learn about their accessibility endeavors here.