It’s hard to top Playa del Carmen when you want a sunny escape from winter (or anytime you want to wiggle your toes in the surf and sand, for that matter). The city has white-sand beaches, Mayan ruins, authentic Mexican cuisine, and plenty of shopping and nightlife.
Like any vacation, though, the fun and sun comes with a price tag, and you can choose either a budget or a luxury experience. Here’s how to have a great winter escape no matter which route you take.
Playa del Carmen on a Budget
Stay: If you plan to spend your entire time at the resort, an all-inclusive that includes alcohol may be a good option. However, if you want to dine at a few of Playa del Carmen’s restaurants, a vacation rental may be more economical. Stock up at a local supermarket for meals you intend to eat in.
Vacation rentals average $122 USD on Airbnb. (This sleek, one-bedroom apartment rents for $124 USD per night and is a short walk from the beach.) If you’d rather stay at a boutique hotel in a similar price range, opt for Hotel Cielo, located just steps from bustling 5th Avenue.
Dine: You’ll find taquerias -- inexpensive taco shops -- throughout Playa del Carmen. For arguably the best in the city, head to El Fogon and order the tacos al pastor, fresh tacos made of pork that is sliced from a Lebanese-style shawarma. In addition to tacos, the restaurant serves fajitas and massive burritos.
See the Sights: Most day trips from Playa del Carmen will set you back at least $75. One way to save is to rent a car and drive to your destination. For example, organized Akumal Bay snorkeling trips that pick you up at your resort start at $75. Drive yourself, and the price drops to $25 to go with a guide at the beach. Bring your own gear, skip the guide, and you’ll pay nothing to swim with the sea turtles in the sparkling waters.
If a rental car is out of your budget, take advantage of the free things to do in Playa del Carmen. There’s no charge to visit the beach -- all beaches in Mexico are free -- or to stroll along 5th Avenue (as long as you fight the urge to buy souvenirs from the vendors and shops there).
Playa del Carmen in Luxury
Stay: The adults-only Royal Playa del Carmen delivers first-class luxury, including “beach butlers” to bring you drinks on the beach and a “pillow menu” for a good night’s sleep (all-inclusive from $330 per person, per day). For Mayan culture, though, we like Sandos Caracol Eco Resort (all-inclusive from $255 per person, per day). The property offers a cenote for snorkeling, jungle nature trail, Mayan ruins, and traditional ceremonies with a Mayan shaman.
Dine: If you splurge on one meal in Playa del Carmen, make it Oh Lala!. The intimate, open-kitchen restaurant serves perfectly prepared filet mignon, lamb chops, grilled octopus, tuna, and even curry. Expect to spend $50 per person, and make reservations early to ensure you get a table.
Another unforgettable option is the restaurant-in-a-cave, Alux. While waiting for your rib eye steak, orange salmon, or surf and turf, you’re free to wander between stalagmites and stalactites to the cenote.
See the Sights: The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a must-see when visiting Playa del Carmen. Although you can find cheaper tours that herd you on buses, budget approximately $100 for roundtrip transportation from your resort.
Xcaret Park is well worth the $89 admission to spend the day exploring the replicated Mayan village, zoo exhibits, and nature trails. For something more adventurous, take a day trip through Xenotes Oasis Maya to four different cenotes, where you can rappel, zip line, kayak, and snorkel ($109, including round trip transportation).