Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya are popular tourist destinations in Mexico. Playa is a bit of a party town, with all-inclusive resorts, bars and clubs, but it’s also perfectly situated for cultural and adventure tourism. We show you how to spend 3 days in Playa del Carmen and see some fascinating sights (beyond the club).
Day 1 – Day Trip to Tulum
Skip your morning coffee, and indulge in Aztec and Mayan history with a sipping chocolate from Ah Cacao (3 locations along 5th Avenue). Basically a hot chocolate version of an espresso shot, it’s lightly sweetened melted chocolate, diluted with a bit of water.. Alternatively, try a Mayan Hot Chocolate, which is flavoured with cinnamon.
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For your first day in Playa del Carmen, take a day trip to the Mayan ruins in Tulum. Tulum was a walled Mayan city, and the ruins are some of the best on a coastal site. So you get ruins and the beach!
The Tulum Archeological Zone can be easily accessed with a comfortable ADO first-class bus. The bus takes 1 to 1.5 hours and departs from either the ADO Terminal Túristica on the south side of Playa, or from the more central Terminal Alterna. Either way, make sure you end up in the Tulum Archeological Zone. Avoid going to downtown Tulum as this is a 1 hour walk to the Archeological on the coast.
Day 2 – Snorkel or Scuba Dive in a Cenote
A cenote is a natural sinkhole that forms when the limestone bedrock collapses, exposing the groundwater underneath. The ground throughout the Yucatán peninsula is made of porous limestone, so there are no rivers or lakes. All freshwater goes underground, and forms a complex network of caves and tunnels.
Some cenotes are wide open pits, while others are small cracks in the earth. And Cenotes closer to the sea will have a layer of salt water that sits below the freshwater. (This is because salt water is heavier, and there’s virtually no current to cause the layers to mix.)
As their only source of fresh water, cenotes were very important to the Mayan people. Mayan cities would be based around a large cenote or two, and some also developed cisterns. But if a cenote dried out, it would mean the ruin of the city. One argument has it that the human and animal remains discovered in several cenotes were from sacrifices to avoid this fate.
The cenotes of the Yucatán are beautiful, magical places. Today, many of them welcome locals and tourists for swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving. Playa del Carmen has a huge cave diving community, owing to the unparalleled network of underwater caves accessed via the cenotes.
Arranging a dive
Contact our friends at Blue Life and arrange for a day of snorkelling or scuba diving in the cenotes (tell them Matt and Keith sent you). This a wonderful experience that you’ll never forget, and a great way to escape the mid-day sun. If you’re a certified scuba diver, opt for a cavern dive in a cenote. You’ll explore the tunnels, but never stray too far from the cenote entrance (for safety reasons).
Cenote Dos Ojos is wonderful for both snorkelling and cavern diving. Cenote Jardín del Eden (aka Ponderosa) is great if you prefer simply swimming around in an open-air picturesque environment. There’s even a ledge for jumping in! Blue Life has several cenote combos they recommend, depending on your experience and comfort level.
Most of the cenotes are south of Playa del Carmen, between Playa and Tulum. Some of the most popular are within Tulum itself. Blue Life will take care of transportation and all the equipment you need.
On the drive, ask your guide to stop for breakfast at El Arbolito in Puerto Aventuras. They have some of the best tacos you’ll ever get your mouth around. There’s a variety of fillings and toppings to choose from.
Day 3 – The Beach and Authentic Mexican Food
Use the last day to relax a bit and explore Playa del Carmen.
Wander south along 5th Avenue to Parque Fundadores (at Benito Juárez avenue). Framing the beach entrance is a wonderful sculpture (Portal Maya) featuring the rings from the Mesoamerican ballgame.
From here, walk along the beach north to Constituyentes avenue. (This is where the ferry dock is located). Continue up Constituyentes and stop for a delicious seafood lunch at Los Aguachiles (between 1st and 5th Avenues). Order a grilled octopus and an aguachile (and whatever else looks delicious on the menu).
Afterwards, continue exploring the downtown area along 5th Avenue. Stop for a bit of shopping at the Quinta Alegría mall (very americanized) or wander north along 5th Avenue. When the heat of the day gets to you, stop at a restaurant patio for a cheap beer bucket. Order some guacamole with nachos and spend the rest of the afternoon people watching.
If you want to visit more of the Mayan ruins the Yucatán, check out our itinerary 5 days in the Yucatán, based out of Mérida.
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 3 days in Playa del Carmen? Let us know what you thought in the comments!