A city that has cropped up almost overnight, Playa del Carmen is now one of the most desirable getaways on Yucatán Peninsula. This length of coast on the Mexican Caribbean is known as the Mayan Riviera.
And as well as boasting world-class white sandy beaches and all the marine life of the Caribbean, the Riviera is blessed with natural phenomena known as cenotes. These are pits or sinkholes, some flooded and some dry.
Many are open to the public, shining for their sparkling limestone-filtered waters and peculiar stalactites.
Mayan archaeological sites like the World Heritage Chichén Itzá are at hand, and closer to home are imaginative theme parks like Xcaret and Xenses where the Mayan Riviera’s culture and nature roll together into something both exhilarating and educational.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Playa del Carmen:
1. Xplor Park
An adventure park like no other, Xplor Park has action-packed activities in a safe natural setting.
There’s a zip-line course more than three kilometres in length, shooting down a tower almost 50 metres tall.
You can also steer an amphibious vehicle through five kilometres of prima jungle on two trails, scrambling across rivers like a pro.
Xplor Park has its own cenote, and you can navigate two subterranean rivers on a raft, paddling with your hands along well-lit tunnels.
And to complete the adventure, take a swim beneath the stalactites and head off on a guided spelunking hike through the cenote.
2. Río Secreto
A recent discovery, the Río Secreto is the largest cenote on the peninsula, with more than 12 kilometres of tunnels.
And one of the reasons this is such a good thing is that there are 15 different entrances so you’ll never bump into other groups during your guided trip through the caves.
Once you’re equipped with wet suits, lamps, neoprene shoes and helmets you’ll take part in a Mayan smoke ceremony, a prerequisite to enter this sacred site.
Most of the tour you’ll be wading through waist-high water, awed by the supernatural stalactite concretions that have only been seen by human eyes in this last decade.
Suggested tour: Playa del Carmen: Tickets to Rio Secreto and Lunch
3. Cenote Chaak Tun
Moments from the centre of the resort is one of the most fun and safest of the cenotes on the Yucatán Peninsula.
This flooded pit has clear water to swim in, and on arrival you’ll be kitted out with wet suit, life jacket (if necessary) and snorkel.
After that you’ll embark on a guided adventure through tunnels with masses of stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
Your guide will point out bats hiding among these formations and explain the importance of cenotes to Mayan culture.
The largest chamber is an astonishing, cathedral-like space, illuminated by a shaft of light through the hole in the ceiling.
4. Xcaret Park
A theme park about the Mayans, the nature of the Mayan Riviera and Mexican culture in general, Xcaret Park needs to be in your plans if you’re holidaying with a family.
Many of the attractions are on jungle trails and include the genuine Mayan ruins of Xcaret (which the park is named after), a river meandering through a Mayan village, waterpark-style slides and a beach.
You can step into the middle of a traditional Fiesta Charra celebration and find out about Mexican history at the Hacienda Henequenera.
Xcaret is also an animal park, with jaguars, sea cows and a sensational butterfly pavilion.
After dark you can stay around for the Xcaret Mexico Espectacular, a dazzling show with 300 performers recounting the big moments from Mexico’s past.
Playa del Carmen is chock full of dive shops and centres (20 in 2018). What makes it such a great diving hotspot is that you get the warm water temperatures and wildlife of the Caribbean Sea with the infrastructure of a large-scale resort.
The island of Cozumel also acts as a natural barrier, which helps keep currents manageable and visibility high.
For people who are already PADI-certified Playa del Carmen’s appeal comes from the once-in-a-lifetime dive sites close to the resort.
One is the Tajma-hál cenote, which has a maze of underwater tunnels and caves.
For a plunge to get the adrenaline pumping go on an expedition to a reef to swim with bull sharks.
There’s even a top rated snorkeling paradise called Xel-Ha. It has a mangrove, forest and lots of water activities: Xel-Há Park All-Inclusive 1-Day Pass
6. Parque Los Fundadores
Taking the bus from the airport the seafront Parque Los Fundadores Park will be the first thing you see in Playa del Carmen.
As much as a plaza as a park, the Parque Los Fundadores is a welcome parcel of greenery amid the hectic streets of the resort.
There’s a cute chapel, which we’ll mention below, but you’ll also be drawn to the Portal Maya.
Facing the sea, this arch rises to 16 metres and was erected in 2011 to commemorate 31 December 2012, the end of a 5,126-year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.
In Mesoamerican fashion it is aligned with the sun and early birds will visit first thing to watch the sun rise through the portal.
Throughout the day you can watch the Mesoamerican Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) ritual being performed.
7. Chichén Itzá
At Playa del Carmen you’re in range for a trip to one of the world’s great archaeological sites.
Chichén Itzá is two hours on the road, but it’s a journey that history buffs won’t think twice about making.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been ranked as one of the New Seven Wonders of The World.
Apart from its breathtaking scale, one of the things that enthrals people about Chichén Itzá is the fusion of Maya-Puuc building techniques with methods from the highlands of central Mexico.
The city was a major centre for more than 600 years from the 7th to the 13th century and has imposing landmarks like the 30-metre Pyramid of Kukulcan, one of Mesoamerica’s most impressive ballgame courts and the Mayan calendar stone measuring 25 metres across.
Chichén Itzá’s history is complex and its monuments are charged with esoteric meaning, so it’s a good idea to hire a guide for a complete experience.
Recommended tour: Chichén Itzá All Inclusive Tour: Cenote Visit and Lunch
The most recent addition to the Riviera Maya attractions is a “sensory park”, using auditory, tactile, visual and olfactory installations for a strange but enjoyable multi-sensory environment where nothing is ever as it seems.
It takes half a day to get through the park, which blends natural topography and vegetation with man-made landscaping and installations.
Some of the many activities and attractions are the Xensatarium, which plays with perception, Xitrico Garden where you can drink lemonade from a lemon tree, El Pueblo, where houses are upside down and slopes that seem to go down go up, and Riverlaxing, where you’ll float gently through a cenote with ambient sound and lighting.
9. Tulum Ruins
For another dose of Mayan culture, the fortified city of Tulum is less than an hour down the east side of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Founded around the 6th century, Tulum was the port for the inland city of Cobá and reached its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries.
Set atop 12-metre cliffs, it’s one of the only known walled cities in Mayan civilisation.
This structure is up to eight metres thick and five metres high and runs continuously for 400 metres on the west side of the settlement – combine that with the cliffs and you can see that defence was a big consideration for the Mayans when they built the city.
Monuments not to be missed are the Castillo (main pyramid) and the Temple of Frescoes, with paintings that are still visible inside and figurines of the “Descending God” in its niches.
Top selling tour: Tulum, Cobá and Cenote Day Trip with Transfer Options
10. Playa Punta Esmeralda
Around 1.5 kilometres up from the central Avenida C.T.M., Playa Punta Esmeralda is a sublime beach where a shallow cenote meets the Caribbean Sea.
The freshwater mixing with the seawater creates beautiful green tones, hence the name, and you’ll be happy just wallow in these cool waters.
As with any beach in Playa del Carmen a pelican might show up out of the blue, and you’ll be able to rent a palapa (palm sunshade). The beach may be some distance from the centre of the resort, but a food truck will stop by and you can pick up a fish taco and frosty beer for pocket change.
11. Capilla de Nuestra Señora del Carmen
Amid the mayhem of the resort you may want to find somewhere a bit quieter and more reflective.
This lovely modern chapel is at the start of Quinta Avenida just in front of the bus terminal.
The chapel is a whitewashed building ringed with palms among the shops and eateries around the Parque Fundadores.
In front of the body of the chapel there’s a separate, rounded campanile.
Taking advantage of a prime spot at a much-loved resort, the chapel has a lively wedding schedule, but if you do get to go inside check out the view of the Caribbean Sea through the window.
12. Frida Kahlo Museum
Newly-opened on the 110th anniversary of her birth in 2017, the Frida Kahlo Museum is a kind of interactive chronology of the iconic artist.
There are projections, auditory techniques, multimedia displays and interactive exhibits telling the story of her life, the way she saw the world and the meaning behind some of her most famous works.
You’ll learn about her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera and the tram accident that shaped her outlook at 18 years old.
The museum is more concerned with throwing you into Kahlo’s world, but there are a few papier-mâché works by the artist in a display case.
If Chichen Itza and Tulum piqued your interest for pre-Hispanic culture there’s another site just 15 kilometres south of Tulum.
Also known as Chunyaxché, Muyil is in nearly 40 hectares of ceiba forest on the northern fringe of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
You may even meet a howler monkey on your way to the site.
This Mayan city was settled as early as the 4th century BC and abandoned in the 16th century.
Only a fraction of Muyil has been excavated so far, but the emblematic monument is the Castillo pyramid, standing at more than 17 metres high which makes it the tallest on the Riviera Maya coast.
On the Sendero Muyil there’s a wooden footpath leading down to the Muyil Lagoon where you can stand on the pier and survey the water.
Suggested tour: Half Day Trip Sian Kaan Muyil
Up the 307 on the way to Cancún, Xoximilco is an attraction by Xcaret that is modelled on the canals and islands of Xochimilco in Mexico City.
Just as with the original you’ll board a trajinera (flat-bottomed boat) with a host and set off for a trip around the canals.
Every now and again you’ll stop for a mariachi band or food.
There’s a lot of tequila or corona beer on board, but you can also opt for soft drinks like aguas frescas (juice and cereal drinks), while the main meal is a tasting tray of typical Mexican recipes like chicken with mole sauce, esquites (corn salad) and carnitas.
There’s a party atmosphere all the way, and by the end you might be in a dancing mood.
15. 3D Museum of Wonders
One that kids will love, the 3D Museum of Wonders is a gallery with more than 60 painted three-dimensional illusions.
And while this might sound simple enough, it’s only when you witness these works up close that you can appreciate how creative and immersive the works are.
Keep your camera ready because there are a few opportunities to interact with the paintings, pretending to ride a surfboard, holding up a wall breaking through da Vinci’s Last Supper, being groomed by a monkey or getting stuck inside one of Jean Siméon Chardin’s soap bubbles.