What’s the Difference Between Cancun and Playa del Carmen?


If you’re thinking of taking a destination vacation to Mexico, two areas that will undoubtedly come up in your research are Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Cancun especially is a well-known location, but what about Playa del Carmen? How are the two different?

The differences between Cancun and Playa del Carmen are as follows:

  • The beaches at Playa del Carmen can get packed and crowded fast, but not so much in Cancun (more beaches = more spread out crowds)
  • Cancun boasts the famed Hotel Zone for lodging, although Playa del Carmen has its fair share of resorts as well
  • Cancun is somewhat safer than Playa del Carmen, with fewer major crimes over the years

Still on the fence about whether a getaway to Cancun or Playa del Carmen is right for you? Then keep reading! In this article, we will touch more on points like the quality of resorts and beaches, safety, and trip pricing so you can decide where in Mexico to visit next.

Where Is Cancun? Where Is Playa del Carmen? 

Both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are in Quintana Roo, a state in Mexico. That’s why so many traveling enthusiasts often pit these picturesque cities against each other. 

For more location specifics, Cancun is in the southeastern part of Mexico, which in turn is on the Yucatan Peninsula’s northeastern coast. The Caribbean Sea lines Cancun, which is a hop, skip, and a jump from the Riviera Maya, a coastal resort band. As of 2015, approximately 743,626 people live there. Tourist data from 2016 and 2017 suggests that 9.09 million people flock to Cancun in a year.Playa del Carmen is situated in the Solidaridad municipality. The Caribbean Sea is right along the city’s coast as well. Like Cancun, Playa del Carmen is near the Riviera Maya, but it’s more eastern to it than Cancun is. According to population info from 2014, 186,700 people live here, so Playa del Carmen has a much smaller population than Cancun. Still, about 1.1 million tourists will come per year, says Statista.com data from 2017.

How Far is Playa del Carmen from Cancun International Airport?

Despite both sharing the same Mexican state, Cancun and Playa del Carmen aren’t adjacent to one another. Should you arrive to Mexico via the Cancun International Airport, it would take you approximately 50 minutes to reach Playa del Carmen by car. If you wanted to board a bus and get to the Mexican city that way, the trip is longer, about an hour and 15 minutes. 

You could even ride a taxi from the airport to Playa del Carmen. For a one-way trip, expect to pay roughly $60 if you have between one and three passengers. If you’re with more than three riders, the price would likely increase. Should you want to travel roundtrip, the taxi ride may cost you $110. The drive should last about 50 minutes. 

Playa del Carmen has no airport of its own, so there’s no way to really speed up the process of getting there.

We always recommend using USA Transfers when traveling from Cancun International to your resort.

Mitch and Michele Alverson

If you started your vacation in Cancun and wanted to spend a day in Playa del Carmen, it would take you roughly an hour and 14 minutes to get from one city to another by car. Otherwise, upon landing in Cancun International Airport, you’re about 15 minutes away from Cancun’s Hotel Zone if you’re traveling by cab.

What is the Hotel Zone, you ask? Also known as Zona Hotelera, the Hotel Zone includes beaches, restaurants, and resorts across a slew of Cancun subdistricts. From salsa clubs to bars, flagship shopping, and even the Underwater Museum of Art, the Hotel Zone has a lot to offer.

Should you take a cruise from Cozumel (especially a Carnival cruise), you’d have to hop aboard a ferry to get to either Playa del Carmen or Cancun. It takes between 25 to 40 minutes for the ferry to arrive to Playa del Carmen. If you wanted to continue on to Cancun, you’d have to land in Playa del Carmen and then take a second ferry to Cancun. That ride lasts about an hour.

Portal in Playa Del Carmen

Are Resorts in Playa del Carmen as Good as Cancun’s?

No vacation is complete without lodging. As you continue your debate about whether to stay in Playa del Carmen or Cancun for your Mexican getaway, you’re going to compare resort quality between the two. Which offers the better accommodations?

You won’t exactly be slumming it at a resort in either city. As we said in the last section, the Hotel Zone or Zona Hotelera is a popular strip of resorts and lodging in Cancun. Some of the resort options there are:

  • Panama Jack Resorts Cancun (starting at about $270 a night)
  • Temptation Cancun Resort (starting at about $233 a night)
  • Dreams Sands Cancun Resort & Spa (starting at about $243 a night)
  • The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa (starting at about $256 a night)

These are all four-star hotels, with some even rated five stars. Even outside of the Hotel Zone, you’ll find such lodging options as Turquoize at Hyatt Ziva Cancun (starting at about $580 a night), Royal Sands – Resort & Spa (starting at about $224 a night), Club Med Cancun Yucatan, and the Royal Cancun (starting at about $239 a night). Again, you’re looking at four-star hotels and up.

What about if you’re thinking of staying in Playa del Carmen instead? There’s no shortage of resorts here, either. Some of them include:

  • The Fives Hotel & Luxury Residences (starting at about $574 a night)
  • Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort (starting at about $256 a night)
  • Playacar Palace All-Inclusive Resort (starting at about $387 a night)
  • Panama Jack Resorts Playa del Carmen (starting at about $202 a night)

You can’t really go wrong staying at a resort in either city. The above Playa del Carmen resorts are all four stars and up as well. While Playa del Carmen has some lower-rise hotels than Cancun’s, the lodging options in both cities are high-quality.

Is Cancun Safer Than Playa del Carmen?

As you recall, both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are in the same state, Quintana Roo. Just how safe is this state? This 2019 article from Canadian news resource Global News says that Quintana Roo has attracted its fair share of violence since 2017. 

Some incidents that have occurred include an early 2019 shooting at Las Virginias bar that killed seven people. This happened in a low-income tourist area not close to Playa del Carmen. The year prior, one of the ferries in Playa del Carmen exploded, injuring 25 passengers. In 2017, the Blue Parrot nightclub in Playa del Carmen was the site of a shooting that led to five deaths. 

The Cancun Area is as safe as any big city in the U.S. Behave as if you were staying in downtown Dallas and you’ll be fine.

Mitch and Michele Alverson

Both car robberies and homicides have increased in Quintana Roo, spiking quite high between 2016 and 2018, says Global News. It seems that Playa del Carmen is the target of violence more than Cancun, so we’d say the latter is the safer of the two cities. Still, no matter which city you stay in, we’d suggest sticking close to your resort area. That will help you enjoy the safest experience. 

Which One Has Better Beaches?

The beaches in Mexico are some of the clearest, most gorgeous you’ll ever see. If any beach is Instagram-worthy, it’d be these. However, depending on which resort city you stay at, you’ll have different experiences on the beach.

Cancun boasts nearly endless beaches. The coast stretches for so many miles that there’s more than enough for everyone. Even during the busiest times of the year, such as spring break and winter tourist season, the beaches don’t get overly busy. You should have no problem carving out a nook of sand and shore for yourself.

That’s not so much the case in Playa del Carmen. With less beach to go around, you’re sure to run into thick crowds at some point. That becomes even more likely as you venture towards Fifth Avenue, a popular tourist destination. While moving north should clear out the crowds somewhat, expect busier beaches overall. 

The best kept secret is Maroma Beach, which his located in just outside of Playa Del Carmen. Read about it here.

Mitch and Michele Alverson

We have to talk about the quality of the beaches as well. In Cancun, you’ll find beaches with all the accommodations and amenities, including bathrooms, food and drink, umbrellas, benches, and other seats. The beaches also tend to be cleaner. 

Over in Playa del Carmen, beaches aren’t as well-maintained. Seaweed may linger in the water, detracting from your experience. There’s also a noteworthy lack of bathrooms, bars, umbrellas, seats, and even lifeguards at some beaches here.

Is a Trip to Playa del Carmen More Expensive Than Cancun?

Finally, let’s talk money. Between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, which is the more expensive vacation destination? It depends. Some of the resorts we listed earlier in Playa del Carmen were pricier than those in Cancun, but the opposite can be true as well. 

Some people who have visited both cities believe Cancun is the costlier of the two. Others say the price difference is practically nonexistent. Whether you favor Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you can pay more for a luxurious, all-inclusive experience or scrimp if necessary. 

Conclusion 

Cancun and Playa del Carmen are two Mexican cities in the state of Quintana Roo. They’re located about an hour from each other by car. Cancun has an airport while Playa del Carmen does not. Both cities have great resort options, with Cancun offering a stretch of lodging in its Hotel Zone.

While the beaches are phenomenal, Cancun’s tend to be taken care of better. They also have more amenities for travelers. The cities are prone to violence, especially Playa del Carmen, so it’s important to be a smart and savvy tourist.

Hopefully, you’re now ready to choose between Cancun and Playa del Carmen for your next Mexican vacation. If we can help you book your next trip fill out our form.

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