Now that Playa del Carmen is on the map as a world-class beach destination, you may be familiar with it or at least know of someone who has spent time here. Once travelers have the opportunity to absorb the majestic air of Playa del Carmen, most become repeat visitors.
Whether you’ve never been to Playa del Carmen or you’re guilty of spending an entire Riviera Maya vacation in the confines of an all-inclusive, don’t worry, we’re not going to hold that against you. But you should know, there are literally hundreds of fun-filled, enriching experiences to be had within this vast area of sublime, exotic wilderness.
The region bursts with jaw-dropping natural beauty and offers a long list of stimulating diversion for visitors of any age. Moreover, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where Playa del Carmen is located, features a safe and well-maintained highway system. Exploring the area on your own is as easy-breezy as a day at the beach.
The options for family fun and adventure are endless. Here is a sample of what your clan can see and do on a weeklong getaway in Playa del Carmen.
Where to stay
For families, a vacation rental is the highly recommended accommodation option. Younger kids can go to sleep in their designated room, while parents can still enjoy down time at night in their own space versus being cramped together in one hotel room.
Have no fear! You can still count on amenities such as a pool, beach clubs, concierge and cleaning services. But you benefit more from having the freedom to determine a schedule that works for your family rather than revolve around the hotel restaurant and activity schedule. Plus, by staying in a vacation rental, chances are better that you’ll explore beyond the property. By engaging in the local mix, you’re more likely to taste authentic flavors and encounter sights or special events that give you a true sense of the spellbinding city and its people.
Condo-hotels such as The Elements, Magia Playa and Paseo Del Sol are superb family-friendly options in Playa del Carmen. Services are available to help you plunge into vacation mode as soon as you step off the plane. Before you arrive, have your booking agent arrange for a convenient airport transfer as well as have your fridge stocked with every item you might need. You and your children will appreciate the comfortable home away from home feeling, while still being able to savour the heavenly, tropical vacation setting.
Day 1: Hit the beach!
Once the crew has settled in and slipped into casual Playa del Carmen attire, head to Los Aguachiles for a bite to eat. There are two locations, open for lunch and dinner, one on Constituyentes in between 5th & 15th Avenue and the other is on Calle 34 and 25th Avenue. The fresh menu features a variety of seafood tacos and crispy tostadas shells heaped with combinations of fish, octopus and jumbo prawns cured in lime. To compliment the delicious eats, these guys make the best carbonated lemonade (limonada mineral) and Micheladas (cold beer with lime and spices).
Tip: For a list of top restaurants on and off of 5th Avenue, check out our staff’s guide to their personal favorites.
After everyone has had their fill, pack your beach bag! It’s time to check out the glorious stretch of Riviera Maya coastline that Playa del Carmen sits upon. If you do choose to stay at The Elements or Magia Playa, the beach is a stone’s throw away. Your family will love the food and beverage service, volleyball court and ample shaded loungers at the exclusive beach club at The Elements. At Paseo del Sol, guests have access to the beach via The Reef Hotel located across the street (under a 10-minute walk away).
There are a few points in the city at which you are able to access the public beach. From the north end of Playa del Carmen, there is CTM near Canibal Royal Beach Club and The Elements. Right down from the BRIC offices on Calle 38, there is a nice stretch of beach to spread the blanket on. Mamitas Beach Club at Calle 28 offers beach beds and lounge chairs for rent and includes pool access. Lido Beach Club is located on near Calle 12 and offers a perfect beach vibe with good food and music. Zenzi is another amazing ocean front beach club and bar that features live music throughout the day and into the night. INTI Holistic Centre at Calle 4 offers a terrific zen vibe. Finally, at the south end near the ferry terminal to Cozumel, the beach is wide and the turquoise views continue on forever. As you meander past Señor Frogs, the beaches tend to become less and less crowded the farther south you go.
Wherever you choose to park yourself for the day, it is bound to be the ideal start to your Playa del Carmen beach vacation.
Day 2: Swim with turtles and see a cenote.
Just 25 minutes south of Playa del Carmen along the federal 307 highway, are a string of limestone sinkholes known as cenotes. The crystal clear, natural swimming pools present a wonderful opportunity to keep cool in our warm Riviera Maya climate. The cenotes are fed from the largest underwater river in the world so the water always provides a welcome cooling sensation.
We recommend going early in the day around 10:00 a.m. to avoid the crowds. Two hours is plenty of time to explore, snorkel and jump from modest stone ledges into the refreshing waters. Your family will be awed by these extraordinary phenomena which conceal themselves within the thick jungle brush throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
Three top choices near Playa del Carmen are Cenote Eden, Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino. Most have bathrooms, change rooms, lifejackets and snorkel gear rentals. Be sure to bring pesos with you for the entrance fees, which are around $70-100 pesos ($4-5USD). Since they sit along the highway, you cannot miss them. If you do not have a vehicle, you can take a van taxi or Colectivo from Playa that will cost you approximately $40 Mxn ($2.50 US) each way per person. Just notify the driver where you want to go and he will call out your stop and let you off there.
Taxi service is convenient in Playa del Carmen, but not always the most economical. A private van that typically can transport up to nine passengers averages about $3000 pesos ($176 US) for the whole day. The service is door to door and the driver often provides a cooler with bottled water and pop. At your request, sometimes beer and snorkel equipment can be included as well. If you are traveling with a group or two families, this is the way to go as you can split the cost. The drivers are very flexible and can help you customize a memorable adventure.
Next on the itinerary is swimming with sea turtles in Akumal Bay, only 5 minutes down the road from the cenotes. This tranquil bay is protected by a portion of the Mesoamerican Reef System, where sea turtles, stingrays, a variety of coral and reef fish make their home. Being able to view such a colorful array of marine life up close and personal is a surreal encounter with nature your family will talk about for years to come.
Tours from Akumal Dive Shop on the beach offer experienced guides and snorkel equipment for children and adults. Since there is a bit of a current around the reef, this activity is recommended for children 6 and up. The guides have a life preserver ring for the children to grab hold of as they take the group to all the best locations in the bay where the underwater life thrives. Furthermore, the dive shop provides lockers for storing your valuables while you are out on the hour long tour.
A few restaurants that sit along the powdery sand serve casual fare like fish tacos, ceviche, burgers, fries, pizza and pasta. The picturesque scene from these open air eateries will captivate you as you enjoy icy cocktails and tales of your reef encounter.
Tip: Please remember to wear eco-friendly sunblock in order to preserve the vitality of the reef. Touching the turtles and the coral is prohibited. It is strongly advised that visitors keep a distance of 2 meters from the marine life.
Day 3: Enjoy down time by the pool.
After a fun-filled day on the road, your group will appreciate the relaxed setting around the pool. Prep a thermos of minty mojitos and laze about with a good read as the children spend hours splashing around in the pristine pool.
If you are staying at an ocean front property, bring a body board to the beach and ride the ways with the kiddos. Comb the shore for rare seashells or build a Mayan pyramid in the sand. Have a photo session and let the kids take turns capturing a shot or two. This afternoon of uninterrupted quality time will be something aIl of you will remember fondly.
If you have older kids, they will love a game of beach volleyball. While you are at the nearest superstore, pick up a couple of floating rings or mattresses for the pool. Your teenagers will be set for the day, content to lie back and soak up the sun.
For dinner, La Parilla on Constituyentes and 5th Avenue offers a lively atmosphere and great service. Try authentic Mexican food like enchiladas in a rich, mole sauce or tender arrachera (flank steak) accompanied by a mango margarita. We especially like this restaurant because while you dine, you’ll be entertained by live music courtesy of a traditional mariachi band.
After your delicious meal, stroll down the cobblestones on the vibrant 5th Avenue. There are plenty of shops from which you can pick up comical t-shirts or handicrafts for friends and family back home. Or if you are looking for a little something for yourself, there are endless boutique and jewelry stores as well as galleries presenting a vast selection of mementos to choose from.
Grab a sweet treat at Chez Celine (Playa’s best French bakery) or one of the many gelato cafes and that line the pedestrian-only avenue. As you walk back to your vacation home, watch the impressive street performers who dazzle the crowds with their dance shows every night in Playa del Carmen.
Day 4: Explore Xcaret Park
There are dozens of options for family-friendly eco-parks in the Riviera Maya. However, there is one that covers all the bases as far as an introduction to the culture, history, fauna and spectacular nature of this region. Xcaret Park is located just five minutes from Playa del Carmen and has so many fascinating activities and attractions that you may need two days to visit them all.
For nature-lovers, you can float along Paradise River, an underground river system that takes you through mangrove areas and stunning limestone caves. The kids will be blown away by the array of wildlife in the park, including flamingos, scarlet macaws, tapirs, monkeys, butterflies, sea turtles and over 5000 marine organisms in the Coral Reef Aquarium.
There is a replica, multi-hued Mexican Cemetery as well as a Mayan village in the heart of the jungle. In World of Children (for ages 0-12), the little ones will squeal with delight on the water slides and appreciate the refreshing waters of the cenotes.
The vast park also has a schedule of cultural shows throughout the day. The family can partake in one enriching experience after another as you learn about the history and culture of Mexico and the ancient Mayan civilization. Watch the Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flying Men), a ceremonial dance that takes place on top of a towering pole. As well, there is a remarkable equestrian show put on by stately horses and their riders - las adelitas and los charros, or traditional Mexican cowboys.
There are chapels, archaeological sites and a sensational two-hour grand finale in the evening. This awe-inspiring spectacle depicts the country’s significant historical events and cultural pride through song, dance and theatrics. To experience Xcaret Park to the fullest, requires an entire day. The crew will be exhausted by the end, but you will be glad that you made time to visit. You can explore, eat and drink to your heart’s content since the park is all-inclusive. There is a general admittance that includes the majority of the park activities. However, additional attractions such as an adrenaline pumping speed boat ride, sea trek, stingray and dolphin encounters are available for an extra cost.
Tip: To get a 15% discount, book your passes online 21 days prior. Children 0-4 are free and kids aged 5-11 are 50% off the adult price. Present your Mexican passport and you can also receive the Mexican national discount during select periods.
Day 5: Soak up the sun.
Quiet days on the beach are just what the doctor ordered after a full day of activities at Xcaret. One of the many fabulous aspects of Playa del Carmen is that there is ample opportunity to connect with nature and rejuvenate.
INTI Holistic Center and Beach Club is one of those sublime spots that transports you to a new and heavenly dimension so beautiful, it’s difficult to leave. Located at Calle 4 on the beach, INTI offers oceanfront yoga and paddleboard classes. Sander from Aloha Paddle Club is great with children and often takes his own 10-month-old daughter out on the water with him.
There is plenty of comfortable seating where the family can kick back, share plates from the fresh healthy menu and sip on cocos frios (cold coconut water right from the shell). Since you’re on vacation, ask your friendly server to bring an adult version of the coco frio with an ounce of Malibu rum. Salud!
Once the sun goes down, a visit to Alux is next on the agenda. This marvelous restaurant and bar was featured in a Buzzfeed article for being one of the 21 most insanely unique bars in the world. It’s situated beneath the earth’s surface with tables set amidst a series of caves. Chandeliers highlight the extraordinary stalactites that have formed from thousands of years of calcium deposits.
There is a lounge setting towards the back with DJs and bistro tables for drinks, but the restaurant area near the entrance is family-friendly. Alux presents a non-typical dining atmosphere you will surely only experience once in your lifetime.
Day 6: Coba Ruins and Valladolid
The Yucatan Peninsula is filled with treasures and getting to them is quite simple. If you have rented a vehicle for the week, Coba and Valladolid are an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen (under two hours away.) Begin your day at the Coba Mayan archaeological site with an optional hour and a half tour. The guides are knowledgeable and help to bring the remnants alive with their stories and historical facts.
Coba is one of our favorites for several reasons. There are many trees that provide shade from the relentless Mexican sun. Bike rentals are available for both adults and children, as well as tricycle taxis for those who would rather be chauffeured from one structure to the next. Thirdly, visitors are able to climb the main pyramid at the end of the tour. Ascending up the ancient steps of Nohoch Mul then standing at its peak, overlooking the vastness of the jungle will take your breath away.
After a couple of hours at the ruins, you’ll be ready for lunch in the colonial city of Valladolid, only a half hour drive from Coba. This Pueblo Magico (one of Mexico’s Magical Towns) has earned the reputation for being the friendliest city in Mexico. Not exactly a cosmopolitan, urban center, Valladolid, has much to offer its visitors.
Two gems worth stopping by for a bite to eat are El Meson del Marques and Yerbabuena. Previously a mansion of one of the area’s wealthy families, El Meson del Marques has been converted into one of the city’s top choice hotels. Its restaurant boasts an elaborate, open-air courtyard where tables surround a tranquil fountain and a woman dressed in a traditional Mayan huipil sits at a stone fire pit warming handmade tortillas. The cochinita pibil (pulled pork) or chile relleno (poblano chile stuffed with ground beef and cheese bathed in a mild red salsa) are two popular regional dishes to try.
Yerbabuena is a second Valladolid eatery where you can taste some of the region’s typical fare. It is open for breakfast and lunch and features delicious menu options such as chayote squash stuffed with quinoa, Oaxacan mole, and fresh chia lemonade. Choose a table in the lovely garden patio and enjoy the fresh flavours and local dishes.
Find parking near the main plaza, have lunch then walk across the bustling plaza to Valladolid’s famous colonial cathedral, La Iglesia de San Gervasio. There are dozens of artisan shops and quaint little stores to peruse around the square as well as boundless photo opportunities to remember this mini Yucatan Peninsula road trip.
Other points of interest to add to your list of things to do in Valladolid are Casa de los Venados, which hosts a large, private collection of Mexican folk art and the Convent of San Bernardino. Last but not least, take the family to Cacao, a Mayan factory and store where you can observe how chocolate is produced from cacao nibs. If your children love cenotes as much as the local kids in Playa del Carmen, there are several in the town and near Valladolid including one of the most famously photographed cenotes, Ik Kil.
Day 7: Get up early and stay out late.
Since your final day in paradise has arrived, you are going to want to soak up every last bit of sunshine, beach time and Mexican ambiance you can. The enchanting city of Playa del Carmen faces east, which means you can enjoy some spectacular Caribbean sunrises. Slide into your flip flops and make yourselves comfortable on the silky sand to watch Mother Nature put on an explosive show of colors over the turquoise sea.
For breakfast, Cueva del Chango (The Monkey’s Cave) on Calle 38 in between 5th Avenue and the beach is one of our beloved local hangouts. Try all-star Mexican brunch dishes such as chilaquiles, sopes or juevos divorciados (eggs cooked to your liking topped with half green and half red salsa.)
This long-standing eatery is known for having the friendliest staff in town and serves a delicious blended house juice made with nutrient-packed Chaya leaves. Half of the tables are outdoors, engulfed in a tropical garden setting. The others sit under a domed roof decorated with colourful glass bottles embedded within its mortar. In the center of the restaurant is a pond replete with Koi fish, lily pads and turtles.
Absorb every ray of warm Mexican sunshine in the afternoon. Breathe in the sea air and savor the blue-green views with your toes in the sand. Have a massage by the pool or finish off that book you’ve finally had the time to delve into this week.
You cannot leave Mexico without trying some authentic tacos al pastor. Eating tacos in good company is an all-time favorite pastime for Mexicans. El Fogon is our go-to taqueria with three downtown locations. The experienced cooks know how to make excellent tacos and slow roast the marinated pork on an upright spit all day long. The tender pork is shaved into a taco shell and served with a slice of pineapple, onions, cilantro and your choice of spicy green or red salsa on the side.Your taste buds will thank you, but your tongue may curse you if it is not accustomed to hot sauce. If this is the case, we encourage you to wash down the tacos with an ice-cold glass of horchata (a sweetened rice milk with cinnamon) or jamaica (a sweet hibiscus tea.)
If you can squeeze it in, Joya by Cirque du Soleil is an incredible live show that takes place in a magical venue just 20 minutes north of Playa del Carmen. The riveting show is a feast for the eyes and presents an array of colorful theatrical performers as well as contortionists and acrobats.
If you want to stay close to home, there is much to see at night along the lively 5th Avenue. Witness fire jugglers, Mayan warriors and marimba bands providing entertainment on this bustling street that stretches across the city’s downtown core.
If you have an upcoming beach vacation in Playa del Carmen, we hope these ideas serve you well when it comes to planning activities to keep your family engaged. This is a great starter guide if you have never been to the Riviera Maya. However, there are so many more options to choose from if you are looking for new experiences you will never forget. Contact our office and one of our friendly Bric ambassadors will be happy to make suggestions or help you coordinate the trip of a lifetime.
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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.