After living in Playa del Carmen for more than half a decade, one becomes quite familiar with the ins and outs of the most sophisticated beach town in the Riviera Maya. Since we are in the hospitality industry, our reservations and ambassador teams receive a fair amount of questions related to everything from the weather and what to pack to safety and exchanging money.
We decided to put together a list of tips to help travelers visiting the area get the most out of their Playa del Carmen vacation experience.
1. Local Currency
- The currency used in Playa del Carmen is the Mexican Peso, but US dollars and credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and main tourist attractions. Buy pesos from your local bank before you come. Most banks offer a much better exchange rate than your hotel or the exchange houses along 5th Avenue.
- Also, the best way to avoid credit or bank card fraud is to avoid using them. If you must use an ATM, go to one within a bank rather than using a random one on the street or in your hotel.
If you need to buy groceries, use your US dollars. The main grocery stores offer the highest exchange rates in town.
2. What to Pack
- You are coming to the beach so pack light! Flip-flops during the day and a pair of wedge sandals for a nice dinner out (stilettos = twisted ankles on cobblestone streets). You’ll feel most comfortable in loose, breathable clothing. Pack a couple of swimsuits and a sarong, which doubles as a beach blanket. In the cooler months from December to February, a light sweater for the evenings comes in handy. The majority of restaurants in Playa del Carmen have a casual dress code, but at some more elegant eateries, men are required to wear long pants and closed-toed shoes.
- Don’t forget to pack biodegradable sunscreen. All sunscreens are luxury items here and are very expensive – some costing $500 pesos or almost $30 USD in the resort gift shops! Many of the parks in the area prohibit sunscreen that is not eco-friendly.
- Another product we like to have around come dusk here in Playa del Carmen is Johnson’s Baby Creamy Oil with Aloe and Vitamin E. It works wonders as a mosquito repellent!
- In the beach bag, old sheet and pillowcase packages (the plastic ones with zippers) are perfect for packing your sunscreen. We also throw in a wide paintbrush to dust the sand off our legs and feet after a day at the beach.
Many travelers are opting to pack only a carry-on to save on the fees for checked baggage. Remember, that any liquid (including shampoo, sunscreen, and vanilla bottle souvenirs) over 100ml will be confiscated at the airport.
3. Stay Healthy
- If you’ve been to Mexico before, chances are you are all too familiar with Montezuma’s Revenge (the not-so-pleasant traveler’s diarrhea.) When our family comes to visit us, we always show up at the airport with some snacks and yogurt drinks. Consuming yogurt every morning (no added sugar is best) in any form seems to help build up the good bacteria in your system and ward off the nasty curse.
- Eating tacos while visiting Mexico is a must! But steer clear of the desolate taco stands with no customers. If the locals are crowding around a particular vendor, it’s a good sign that it’s been around a while and it’s safe to eat from.
- Keep hydrated, and that means drink plenty of water in between the tequila shots and piña coladas!
- The sun is warm and friendly in the Mexican Caribbean, just like the people, but it needs to be respected or you’ll end up scorched. A bad case of sunburn is enough to ruin a vacation, so be sure to protect your skin every couple of hours with a fresh application of sunblock.
4. Save some money while exploring what Playa has to offer
- 5th Avenue is Playa del Carmen’s main dining, shopping and entertainment district. It’s a bustling, cobblestone street that’s closed to traffic and it’s a prime spot for people watching. Along La Quinta, it’s Spanish name, you can find hundreds of great restaurants, boutique and artisan shops, galleries, dive centers, pubs and lounges.
- That being said, it is often busy with tourists, which means it can be a bit pricier. Don’t be afraid to venture away from this famous avenue to find little hole-in-the-wall restaurants with amazing authentic food and very reasonable prices. Try Casa Sofia, just a couple of blocks west (heading away from the ocean) from the south end of 5th on Airport Road. Other restaurants offering tasty, traditional cuisine that won’t cost an arm and a leg include Dona Mary’s (30th Avenue & Calle 26,) Papa Charly’s (Calle 30 between 25th & 30th Avenue,) La Tarraya (Calle 2 & the beach) and Los Aguachiles (corner of Calle 34 & 25th Avenue.)
- If you know you want to do a tour or have an adventure-filled day at one of the nearby eco-parks while you’re visiting Playa del Carmen, book online at least 14 to 21 days prior to your arrival to receive discounts on the admission passes. Visit the Xcaret Experiences webpage for details about pricing and promotions.
- There are free daily cultural performances like the Danza de los Voladores or the Mayan Warrior Dance in Parque Fundadores located at the south end of 5th Avenue near the chapel and the beach. Grab a churro (a popular Mexican sweet treat) or an order of fresh, peeled, tropical fruit from a vendor within the park and enjoy the show!
5. Best times to visit Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya
- Unfortunately, you are not alone when you decide to book a family vacation during the Christmas or Easter breaks. These are the peak seasons in Playa del Carmen, which means you need to plan ahead as the resorts and vacation rentals fill up quickly.
- Furthermore, epic music festivals like the BPM and Arena draw tens of thousands of people to the city annually in January. Not only are flights and accommodations more expensive during this time of year, but also the city experiences a heavy influx of visitors. Expect popular downtown beaches like Mamitas, to be a lot busier. You’ll find the best deals and the least amount of visitors from September to November and April to June.
- As far as weather goes, the ideal months to come are from the end of November until the end of May, when hurricane season is over and the weather starts to cool off. Average winter temperatures range from a comfortable 23 to 25 degrees Celsius (or 74 to 77F.) There is less rain during this time of year and you can expect blue skies and a calm, turquoise sea, for the most part. Come springtime, it warms up to the high twenties, but the humidity is still lower than in summer.
6. Swim in a cenote
- This is one of the most memorable (and inexpensive) activities you can partake in when you visit Playa del Carmen. These spectacular swimming holes were formed thousands of years ago when the underground river system beneath the Yucatan Peninsula caused parts of the limestone bedrock to cave in. Each cenote is unique, with its own breathtaking features. Some are completely enclosed with remarkable stalactite and stalagmite formations, while others are open, natural swimming pools.
- There are a few within the city limits and several along the Riviera Maya’s Federal 307 Highway. Getting there is easy and only costs a few pesos if you take a Colectivo (a van taxi that runs along the highway from Puerto Morelos to Tulum.) The official starting point for the Colectivos is on Calle 2 between 15th and 20th Avenue, but they will pick you up and drop you off anywhere you need to go along the highway. Cenotes Eden, Azul and Crystalino are approximately 20 minutes from Playa del Carmen and are walking distance from the highway drop off point.
- The nature within the cenote setting is awe-inspiring. There are usually cliffs to jump from, bathrooms, and life jacket rentals. The waters are cool, crystal clear and very calm so if you are a decent swimmer, life jackets are not necessary. Many attract divers who explore their deepest depths through tunnels and connecting caverns.
Bring your own towels, snacks and beverages but leave the beer at home since alcohol is not permitted. US dollars or credit cards are not generally accepted by these private, family-run attractions. The entrance fees range from $40 to $100 Mexican pesos ($2.25 to $5.50US.)
- Within this flourishing, metropolitan seaside city, you’ll find a variety of exceptional, international cuisine. There are plenty of family-friendly restaurants, pub-style beach bars and posh eateries. The tip, or propina in Spanish, is not usually included and leaving 15-20% is standard for satisfactory service.
- It is also typical to leave at least $1 peso per bag for the people who pack your groceries and at least 10% of the total at the pump for the gas attendant. It is not customary however, to tip for a taxi ride unless the driver has provided extra service such as helping you with your bags.
- Most service personal are good-natured, hard-working, honest people. But every now and then a tip is included in the total of the check without notifying the patron. So it never hurts to double-check and clarify the total with your server when eating out.
8. Stay Safe
- The Yucatan Peninsula has nice highways and that make it relatively easy to get around. This area is also one of the safest areas in Mexico. However, do use caution if you have rented a car, as it is common to see a careless driver or two flying down the highway at dangerous speeds. It is always recommended to get the full insurance package with your car rental. Another important note: use extreme caution when driving in the rain as the highways become as slippery as a sheet of ice.
- Playa del Carmen itself is a very safe city and especially in the downtown core where most of the action in town takes place, it is perfectly fine to walk after dark. Always use common sense and your best judgment when alcohol is involved.
- Most vacation rentals and resorts provide safes to keep your valuables locked away. This is a good place to put your passport, jewelry, electronics and your tourist visa
Be sure to have your visa (the card you filled out on the airplane) at the airport on the day you leave. It is a hassle and expensive to replace a lost tourist visa.
- Although bicycles are a main mode of transportation here, use extreme caution. Pedestrians and cyclists may have the right of way here, but because many drivers ignore that fact, you should always be alert. The city of Playa del Carmen is making it safer for those that ride bikes by constructing bike paths along the major routes. There are several bike rental shops in town and it is a quick and easy way to get from one side of the city to the other on a pedal bike.
- Buying souvenirs is a great way to remember your trip to the Riviera Maya. The shopkeepers expect a little bartering and often start at a much higher price than they’ll actually accept in the end. Being friendly and fair will result in a price you will both be happy with.
- While walking along 5th Avenue, chances are you’ll encounter someone selling tours. If possible, check online in advance while still in the pre-trip planning stage to get an idea of the admission prices to the adventure parks and attractions in the area. Sometimes, if you speak to a salesperson at one of the tour booths on the street, they can customize a tour for you and may give discounts when more than one excursion is booked.
10. Have the best of both worlds
- Living in paradise, we always have a steady stream of family and friends that stay with us. We love to give our visitors the opportunity to see Playa del Carmen from the perspective of a local. By eating at little gems we’ve found over the years and setting off together on mini road trips to colonial towns like Valladolid or the breathtaking Bacalar Lagoon, we’ve created memories that will last our lifetimes.
- If you can stay with friends or book a vacation rental, you’re more likely to hear about and discover special places beyond the resort, taste more authentic food and have richer cultural experiences. But it’s also a nice option to forget about cooking and laundry for a couple of days. So we like to book the whole crew in for a night or two at a hotel.
- Our guests always tell us they feel like they’ve experienced the best of both worlds. They have a chance to absorb the local lifestyle as well as indulge in the welcomed state of inertia often generated from an all-inclusive stay.
Be An Adventurer
Book a few nights at a centrally-located, private and spacious condo in the Playa del Carmen, then reserve a hotel on one of the nearby islands like Holbox, Cozumel or Isla Mujeres for a couple of nights. This gives you the perfect opportunity to explore the city and its sublime surroundings.
We hope these tips are useful when it comes to planning your beach getaway in the Riviera Maya. We want you to have the vacation of a lifetime! If you have any questions that this article did not cover, do not hesitate to contact our team of Playa del Carmen experts at 1(800)519-2486 or +52(984)803-3191.
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About the Author
Juanita grew up in a small town in the middle of Canada. Having experienced twenty years of ruggedly cold climate, she had seen enough snow to last her a lifetime. After moving to and working in Vancouver for thirteen years (where she was ecstatic to see the odd palm tree) she jumped at the opportunity to move with her husband and three children to Playa del Carmen. She calls it a ‘dreamy existence’ and cherishes year-round, backyard barbecues with friends, road trips and watching the sunrise over the Caribbean. She writes for Bric Vacation Rentals.