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Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: A Comprehensive Comparison Between Two Destinations

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The Riviera Maya is located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at the northeast part facing the Carribean Sea. The area is known for all-inclusive resorts, towns with numerous tourist attractions, and of course, pristine long beaches.

They say the beaches in the Riviera Maya are so beautiful that even well-rounded travelers have a hard time choosing just one destination. The most famous destination of them all are Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The latter being a laid back town with beautiful and equally popular beaches and the former being known for its party vibes and a spring break haven.

The question is always: Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen? Which one should you come and visit?

Before we answer that question, let us first look at both places in terms of location and famous beaches.

Location

Cancun

cancun-location

Cancun is the stretch of land off the coast of Mexico that is attached to the mainland by two short bridges.

The beaches in the area are divided into two: the northern side beaches, which covers the hotel zone to Punta Cancun, and the eastern side beaches, which consists of the ocean side and lagoon side. The beach facing the ocean is by far the most popular as most hotels and resorts are located in the area.


Play del Carmen

playa-del-carmen-location

Play del Carmen is a stretch of land that faces the Atlantic ocean and extends to mainland Mexico. The world “playa” means beach and truly, the whole zone is considered a tourist attraction for its lovely beaches. The main long beach stretches from the ferry docks down to Calle 14 and Gran Porto Real.

Now let’s look at the difference between the two and consider which place is a good match for what you are looking for.


​Small Laid-Back Beach Town versus Las Vegas by the Sea

Play del Carmen

playa-del-carmen-the-beach-of-Playacar-at-Caribbean-Sea-in-Mexico

Playa del Carmen is a small city with a population of only 150, 000 people. It is a city with a distinctive small town feel to it making it more attractive to people looking for a quiet retreat, intimate, easy going laid back vacation.


Cancun

cancun-zone-hotelera-lagoon-view

Cancun, on the other hand, has 650 000 inhabitants. It is a large well-developed city with two distinctive zones, the tourist zone known as Zona Hotelera and Cancun. This place is ideal for people looking to party and enjoy the comforts of a Vegas-like town with a beach life feel.


Tourist Attraction

Play del Carmen

Playa’s tourist strip 5th Avenue or Quinta Avenida is its main attraction. The 1.4 stretch of land can be is preferably enjoyed walking and is just 2 blocks from the beach. Even with its small town vibe, Playa del Carmen is lined with a limitless collection of world-class international restaurants, cafes, bars and shopping centers. The impressive high street atmosphere starts in the morning and doesn’t end until late night.


Cancun

the-forum-by-the-sea-plaza-at-zone-hotelera-cancun

Cancun is nothing short of Vegas except that it is by the sea and not in the desert. Its tourist zone is known as Zona Hotelera which is an 11-mile 4-lane boulevard packed with massive all-inclusive hotels, resort and spas, casinos and everything you can find in Vegas.


Crowds

Cancun

cancun-crowds

Cancun because of its bigger and longer stretches of beach, there will always be plenty of room to share with other tourists. It is unheard of in the area to have to fight for a spot to go sunbathing on the beach even in peak seasons.


Play del Carmen

playa-del-carmen-crowds

On the other hand, even with a fewer population, Playa del Carmen is a favorite among Europeans and other travelers from outside the US. Because of its smaller beach area, the beach can get crowded especially along the stretch of sand that is parallel to Fifth Avenue. If you find yourself unable to get a spot in the sand in Playa del Carmen, head farther north past the hotel strip to find some space.


Mexican Culture

Cancun

taco-factory-a-popular-restaurant-offering-tasty-mexican-food-in-cancun-hotel-zone

Cancun probably is the most Americanized place in Mexico. Everywhere you go, there Americans all over and people speak English with an American accent. It will also be difficult to find authentic Mexican stores and even food in the area as it is dominated by designer shops and American food chains. You will have to drive downtown to find a taste of Mexican culture.


Play del Carmen

cooks-in-white-caps-near-huge-frying-pans-on-the-bank-of-playa-del-carmen

Compared to its larger concrete counterpart, Playa has a distinctly Mexican feel.

It’s easy to evade the tourist pull by just walking a few streets off of 5th Avenue where you can enjoy authentic Mexican cuisine at local prices, with the locals.


Cost

Cancun

Swimming-Pool-In-Luxury-Resort-cancun

Cancun being the bigger city and more sophisticated is, of course, the pricier among the two destinations. Although both towns can be considered expensive compared to most towns in Mexico, Cancun being the touristy one is packed with luxurious resorts and hotels—not much of a destination for a budget backpacker.


Play del Carmen

luxury-swimming-pool-at-RIU-Tequila-Hotel-in-Playa-del-Carmen

Meanwhile, Playa del Carmen being smaller and less touristy is somewhat less expensive than Cancun. You can discover significantly less expensive accommodations in the area and cheaper food. With vacation rentals in each value range, it's a fantastic approach to take a group or family holiday in Playa.

​Quick Recap

So depending on your situation and what you picture in a great vacation both place is a dream destination.

If you want the classic old town to feel and go backpacking, you should be visiting Playa del Carmen. The city has walkable destinations which are ideal for families to have a vacation. If you also want to experience Mexico, then this place is for you.

But if you want to have a feel of Vegas by the sea and experience a party vibe throughout your stay, then Cancun is definitely for you. Cancun predominantly caters to older teens and adults who are looking for adventure and good entertainment.

I hope this piece has helped you decide between Playa del Carmen and Cancun. If you found this article particularly useful or you might know someone who will, please share on. You can also comment below for any feedbacks.

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