Living in Playa del Carmen: Paradise Away from Home
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Dreaming of soft sand, crystal blue waters and that way your heart skips when you leap into a cenote? Then Playa del Carmen is calling your name.
On the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Playa del Carmen is a laid-back beach town sandwiched between resort-heavy Cancún and ultra-hip Tulum. It’s the perfect mix of chilled local beaches, hot nightclubs and relaxed coffee shops. Plus, with construction underway for the planned Maya Tren high speed rail, development in Playa del Carmen is only just getting started.
The town itself is not very big, but with the famous 5th Avenue, or Quinta Avenida, international shopping malls such as the Quinta Alegría and the Paseo del Carmen Shopping Mall, and world-renowned nightclubs, it does have a bigger town feel. Divided down the middle by the Mexico 307 highway, Playa has a mix of local neighborhoods, gated golf communities, bustling high-rise apartments and stunning new developments for sale such as Duna Playa del Carmen.
How to get to Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, PDC, or simply ‘Playa’ to those in the know, is a bustling beach town on the Mexican Riviera Maya. Only one hour from Cancún, and another hour from Tulum, Playa del Carmen sprawls horizontally along the beach, so wherever you buy, you won’t be far from spreading your towel on the sand. Playa del Carmen is on the Caribbean coast of Mexico and is in the eastern time-zone, making it an ideal destination for anyone looking for quick, cheap flights from the eastern part of the US and Canada.
To get to Playa del Carmen you’ll fly into the Cancún airport and take a bus or taxi. The drive is typically 45 minutes to an hour and can be as little as $200 MXN or $10 USD for a bus, or $45 USD for a taxi if you book in advance.
With these gorgeous beaches and a crystal blue sea that’s always the perfect temperature to take a dip in, Playa is a popular holiday destination with a thriving expat community. Families, couples and solo travelers can all find their home here.
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The best neighborhoods to buy in Playa del Carmen
When you’re looking to build a home or buy a home, finding a great place is the top priority. As is true in many beach towns, the beach side of the highway is the most expensive place to live in. With walkable distances to the sea and loads of bike paths and sidewalks, it’s possible to live here without a car and never have to venture far.
The most popular neighborhoods to live in are the centro, along 5th Avenue and Playacar. If you’re looking for an investment property that’s guaranteed to bring in income, 5th Avenue is the place to be. With its thriving nightlife and a seemingly endless beach just a short walk away, properties here are booked up fast, especially around the Christmas season where a nice apartment can cost double or even triple its usual monthly rental. There are some drawbacks, though. 5th Avenue is not the place for long term living if you like an early night! With bars competing with each other till the early hours, live music and street performers, the hustle and bustle can get a bit overwhelming. It’s not just on the weekends, either! 5th Avenue is a party every night. Great for the tourists, not so great if you’ve got an early morning meeting.
For peace and quiet, but still a short walk to the beach, Playacar is perfect. Playacar is a gated community with strict security guards, a golf course, and much quieter beach access. It’s a fantastic place with so much greenery and fresh air, plus less light pollution so you can see the stars on clear nights, but it’s just a short walk or bike ride into the bustling party of 5th Avenue. As soon as you’re through the Playacar gates it’s like you’re in another world! Playacar also boasts an aviary and authentic Mayan ruins, which are fantastic places to walk and explore.
On the other side of the highway, the properties are newer and cheaper. New-build communities such as Jardines de Ciudad Mayakoba and local communities such as Ejidal offer property bargains and beautiful facilities for a much lower price, but are not within walking distance of the beach. Although it is technically possible to live in these neighborhoods with just a bike, there are no bike paths nor pedestrian crossings across the highway, making it difficult to walk or cycle safely.
It may not be obvious when you visit a neighborhood for the first time what that neighborhood is actually like after dark or on weekends. We think it’s a good idea to stay in the neighborhood you’re thinking about buying in to feel these changes for yourself.
Weather and seasons in Playa
Like beach towns all over Mexico, Playa is seasonal with a high season and a low season. The usual high season runs in the winter months, December through April, whereas low season is in the hotter summer months and the wet fall. Hurricane season runs June to November and, while hurricanes are rare here, it’s important to be prepared.
In the high season, Playa is heaving with people. It’s an expensive time to visit as the prices of rental properties shoot through the roof, and your favorite beach spot will have more visitors than usual. If you plan to rent your property, this is just good news. Vacation rentals at this time of year are in high demand and visitors from the US, Canada and Europe are willing to pay a lot more to secure their Christmas week in the sun.
And we can’t blame them! Temperatures in the high season are perfect, with December highs around 82°F, rarely falling below 77°F or exceeding 87°F. In the high season there isn’t that much rain either, and any showers are usually over within 10 minutes. Humidity is manageable too and, while you may need a jacket for the winter nights, it won’t need to be thick.
Playa is blessed with year round good weather, but in the summer things get hot. The average high June temperature is about 90°F but with the high humidity it can feel even hotter. These temperatures don’t put off sun-seekers, though, and there is still a tourist trade in the summer months.
Summers also bring the rainy season which lasts from May to October. You’re likely to see a whole week of little thunderstorms on your weather app in these months, but that’s deceiving as the rain in Playa usually only lasts for a short period of time. Almost every day has sunshine hours, and a trip to PDC in the rainy season does not mean your trip will be a washout. You may even come to love the short tropical downpours that ease the heat in these months and keep the jungle luscious.
There’s one last season in Playa that we haven’t covered: Sargassum or algae season. Unfortunately, sargassum has always been a part of Playa’s seasonal changes, but in the last few years the algae bloom has started to have a real impact on this small town as a result of climate change. Sargassum season is from May to October, but the peak is in the summer months. It floods the beaches and the surf and really means that the main beaches in Playa are off limits for swimming as the sargassum can be an irritant to your skin. It also releases a foul smelling gas as it decays, meaning that your balcony on a beach side property is not as hot as usual.
Fortunately, the sargassum is seasonal, and by September and early October it has cleared. The government of Mexico is keen to resolve this issue, too, and has contracted a clean-up operation on-shore, and ships in the sea to collect sargassum before it hits land. Although it is a shame that the beaches are affected in this way, there are many other things to do in Playa del Carmen in the sargassum season and the town doesn’t shut down – far from it.
Everyday life in PDC
While owning a home in Playa del Carmen means owning in a different country, most of the things you have at home you will also be able to find here, at the standards you’re used to.
What’s the currency and typical payment form in PDC?
In Mexico, cash is king and Playa is no exception, with some places not accepting credit cards at all. While a few businesses will take US dollars, most expect to be paid in Mexican pesos. Businesses that do take credit cards may have limited options; some credit cards, such as American Express, are often not accepted, and Apple Pay and other app-based payments are rare, if used at all in Mexico. Fortunately there are loads of currency exchanges in Playa, and all of them offer the same rates, so you won’t be caught short here without cash.
Tipping is expected in Playa del Carmen, and most waiters rely on tips to make a living wage. Leaving a tip of around 10% is usual, and don’t be surprised to get chased down the street if you forget to leave anything at all. Some restaurants include the tip in the total, hoping that their customers don’t look too closely and add another tip on top – be careful to review your check every time.
The cost of living in Playa del Carmen
The cost of living in Playa del Carmen is much cheaper than in cities in the United States and Canada, but Playa is one of the more expensive places to live in Mexico. Playa is a beach town for every budget. Backpackers have hostels and local markets to go bargain hunting in, whereas those with a thicker wallet will find plenty of luxury. It’s possible to live comfortably in Playa as a single person with $1000 USD a month, but if you’re a beach club regular, then you will need more. Overall you will save money on the basics here with gas prices, utility bills and even things like a personal cleaner or chef, costing much less than in the USA or Canada.
Getting around in Playa del Carmen
With many bike paths and almost no hills, it’s easy to get around with just a bike, especially if you live in a central location. In fact, that’s one of the things we love about Playa – how easy it is to get from your house to the beach, park your bike and get sunbathing. Bikes are hot property in Playa too, and second hand ones are snapped up quickly on Facebook marketplace. Because they’re so popular, bikes are often stolen, so be careful to always lock your bike away and store it off the road overnight. Most apartment buildings have their own secured parking lots so it’s easy to find a safe place.
When you need to go further your options are taxis, buses, colectivos – minibuses that shuttle people to and fro along busy commuting routes – or your own car.
- Taxis in Playa del Carmen can be tricky: if you don’t speak Spanish they will overcharge you, so you should always ask for the price before you enter a taxi. Never get into a taxi and expect to pay at the end or you will end up paying much more than you expected. There are no taxi apps, such as Uber or Didi in Playa del Carmen and the only taxis available are the official taxis.
- Public transport is notoriously unreliable in Mexico, but it is possible to catch a bus to the airport or to other locations in the Riviera Maya. We love ADO buses – they’re (mostly) on time, they’re nice vehicles and they’re cheap, costing around $200 MXN or $10 USD to get from the airport in Cancún to the center of Playa. Book online or go to the ticket office to purchase your ticket before you travel – the lines in the central locations can get long!
- Colectivos are the cheapest option at only a few pesos per ride, but without a local to guide you, it can be tricky to figure out where they’re going and when they will arrive. The colectivo to Tulum leaves from under a bridge of the highway and it leaves whenever it’s full – perfect for a cheap Tulum trip!
- For some playenses, it makes the most sense to own or rent a car. If you’re moving as a family, if you live in Playacar and want to do your own shopping, or if you’re buying a house over the highway, then a car is a necessity. If you’re going to live here full-time it’s fairly easy to buy a car in Playa, but if you’re staying in Playa for a limited time each year then renting is a better option. Even in a safe driveway the sea air in Playa has a habit of rusting things.
With plenty of large supermarkets, getting the food you love to cook is simple. Playa has a number of superstores including Walmart, Chedraui and Mega which are all accessible by car, on foot or on your bike. Playa is also home to a number of smaller health stores, where you can find specific spices and specialist products such as vegan or gluten free options.
Our favorite store in Playa is DAC Verduras Y Frutas – a great little shop filled to the brim with delicious and fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, local meats and fresh bread. They even deliver!
Are there good gyms & work out spots in Playa del Carmen?
Playa has a very active expat community and there are plenty of gyms, sports clubs and work out classes happening all over the town. Evolve gym offers a few branches in different areas of Playa and is good value for money. The Gym is also well stocked, and there is an open air Coco Gym Beach which is a fantastic place to work out to the sound of the waves. As well as the gyms there is the Deportivo Mario Villanueva Madrid– a free, open air sports club with tennis courts, a soccer pitch, a running track and a weights area.
Can I get good medical care in Playa del Carmen?
In Playa there are many doctors, dentists and drug stores who offer exceptional services at a fraction of the price back home. Doctors almost always speak English, and are willing to fit you in even for last minute operations. Cosmetic surgery too is booming, with many people choosing Playa Del Carmen as a vacation destination and as a medical tourism destination: it’s not unheard of to find people coming here and booking the last few days of their vacation out for cosmetic procedures, the quality is that good! A lot of the American visitors make sure to pack their suitcases full of their prescription drugs they need before they hop on a plane back home.
Our recommendation – buy any drugs away from Quinta Avenida. They are very expensive on the main street and you can stock up on drugs for a fraction of the price if you find a farmacia a few blocks away from the beach. Expect to pay half the price, or even less, at a drug store such as Farmacia Similares.
Working in Playa
With fast and reliable internet, Playa del Carmen is fast turning into the Mexican destination of choice with digital nomads and remote workers. It’s never been better to be a remote worker, and Playa attracts the best of the best. With co-working spaces available for those who like the feel of an office, and accommodating cafes, there are working spaces in abundance. Even some of the rooftop pool clubs offer working day passes for those who want to work poolside!
In the high season there are many community meet ups and active Whatsapp groups for digital nomads, business people and entrepreneurs to connect and network with like minded people. Our favorite events are the Lunch and Learn meetups where experts make a lunchtime presentation on their skill or business – follow them on instagram at @lunchandlearnpdc. The Tuesday night quiz night always brings a crowd, too, and every Wednesday night there’s an entrepreneurs meetup on the rooftop at BePlaya. It’s a great place to make new friends and get acquainted with the expat community.
Are there good English speaking schools in Playa del Carmen?
If you are planning to become one of the many expats living in Playa del Carmen and you are moving with children, there are many schools and kids clubs in the area. For young children there are bilingual schools in many neighborhoods, a great way for your kids to pick up a little Spanish. The classrooms are filled with children from Europe, Mexico, the United States and Canada, meaning they’re rich in cultural learning opportunities. Children speak French, including Quebecois, English and Spanish in the classroom, and sometimes their teachers do too. It is important to note, though, that the majority of bilingual schools are private, and have fees starting at between $300 – $400 USD a month. Although there are local public schools, these serve the general population, have specific visa requirements and do not offer bilingual education programs.
One of our favorite private schools in PDC is the Ak Lu’um International School Community, for preschoolers to 6th graders. With a jungle campus, this is the only ecologically friendly school in Mexico, and offers a fully bilingual program including French and German as additional languages.
For high schoolers, the Colegio Ingles is a great choice. With a sprawling campus and facilities including soccer and a swimming pool, it’s a great choice for children who love being outdoors and staying active. The school follows the SEP, or Mexican Government approved curriculum and has a large foreign population too, so you don’t have to worry about your kids falling behind in English.
Crucially, there are many people living here with their families, and there are communities of English-speaking kids that are used to welcoming the new-comers. Rest assured that your children will make friends and will have the chance to learn a new language too!
Do I have to speak Spanish to live in Playa del Carmen?
Well, like all languages – it helps! But it’s not required. In fact most of the waiters, property managers, doctors and people you will come into contact with every day will likely speak English.
In supermarkets, taxis and out and about on the street, knowing some Spanish can prevent you from being ripped off. It’s a good idea to get the basics like learning the numbers and how to ask to use the bathroom. In Playa they have many Spanish schools for foreigners, and many Spanish teachers offer private tuition for as little as $200 MXN or $10 USD an hour. Playa is the perfect place to brush up on your school Spanish in the sun!
Is Playa Del Carmen safe?
As with all beach towns in Mexico, Playa gets its share of negative press. With the high amounts of money tied up in tourism, and the reality that some party-going tourists consume drugs, it’s sadly inevitable that there is some crime in PDC. Some neighborhoods are safer than others as a result. Most apartments come with security and door men, and require visitors to sign in and even provide ID to keep your home safe whether you’re visiting, or away.
Drug crime and violence is isolated, and the chances of an average tourist being a victim or a witness to a violent crime while on vacation is low. Stay away from purchasing illegal drugs in Mexico, and be aware that drugs such as marijuana are still illegal here. As in most places around the world, you should make sure your valuables are stored safely and out of view, use a sturdy bike lock and park in a designated parking lot while you’re out and about to minimize the risk of being a victim of theft.
Unfortunately, the police in Mexico are not paid well, and may try to extort visitors and locals alike if they see that you are committing a crime. Follow the local laws and this should be avoided, but do not walk home alone at night and never drive after drinking. If you do carry cash, it’s best to keep a smaller wallet with loose change to use to pay tolls or vendors to keep large notes hidden.
Overall, Playa del Carmen is a safe town and many thousands of people vacation here every year with no issue. Even within Mexico, Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya are known to be safe places, and the government has a huge interest in keeping it that way. You will see many police officers and national guard on the street and can be confident that Playa del Carmen is taking steps to improve its safety.
Other things to know!
Our local partners in Playa have a few other tips to make your life a little easier!
Firstly, get set up on Facebook Marketplace; it’s the best way to buy and sell secondhand goods! You can find some real bargains but move quickly – second hand bikes and homeware sell fast!
If you’re without a car, getting all your groceries on a bike can be a challenge, and taxis add up. In Mexico, you can get most things delivered to your door with the app Rappi. Rappi’s slogan is si tienes rappi, tienes todo (if you have Rappi, you have everything) and that’s absolutely true! You can get your favorite restaurant takeout delivered, and a Rappi can deliver your fresh OJ and coffee in the morning. You can even get Rappi cash delivered when you can’t make it to the bank! Pay for the premium for free delivery if you’re a frequent user – it’s worth it.
Transferring money back home? Or transferring your cash to your account in Mexico? Those bank fees can get expensive. One way to avoid the extortionate transfer fees for smaller sums is to use Wise, previously called TransferWise. Download the app and you can make almost instant payments from your account home to your Mexican bank account with very small fees. It’s easy to open an account here when you get your visa, and keeping an account in Pesos is crucial to keep your costs down.
ATMs charge extremely high fees, but if you do need to use one be sure to select ‘no’ when they ask if you want to accept their exchange rate. The ATM will still process your transaction but your transaction will be made using your bank’s exchange rate, saving you some money.
The best beaches in Playa del Carmen
Ready for the beach? Of course you are, that’s why we’re here!
Playa is well known for its beaches, the most famous one is Playa Incluyente with its iconic statue – the picture everyone thinks of when they imagine Playa Del Carmen. This is a family friendly beach and is a guaranteed fun day watching the crowd in Parque Los Fundadores, or soaking up the performers, sellers and the party atmosphere on the beach. There are lots of places for children to play and many sculptures in the park to explore.
Moving into the center, Mamita’s Beach is known as the party beach where the younger tourists crowd, drinking and showing off trendy swimwear. In Playacar you’ll find a more chilled beach, with fewer people. If you’re a resident, you have many access spots to the beach via the community. If you’re not a resident of Playacar, though, you’ll have to walk into the community along the beach, which can be a long way to go if you’re carrying a lot of beach gear.
On the other side of Playa you’ll find Coco Beach and Punta Esmerelda. These beaches have more of a local feel, and they’re much quieter than the busy central beaches. Punta Esmerelda also boasts a freshwater cenote, a great shallow spot for paddling with young children, and Punta Esmerelda is one of our favorite off-the-beaten-track beaches in PDC where you can enjoy the peace and quiet and simply listen to the waves.
What about the best beach clubs in Playa del Carmen?
A huge benefit of living in PDC is the gorgeous coastline, just moments from your door. It’s accessible all year round and with sand as soft as this you can just grab a towel and go.
But there’s something so great about a beach club too. The party atmosphere, the luxury sunbeds, the waiters bringing you cool drinks and delicious food all afternoon. We think margaritas taste better with our feet in the sand!
Playa is full of incredible beach clubs where the drinks flow as freely as the waves. For those who love a party, the famous Mamita’s Beach Club is guaranteed to deliver. Mamita’s beach is renowned for loud beats and soft, white sand. At sunset in the high season the beach is packed and you’ll find people dancing on their sunbeds and competing with the DJ for the loudest speakers. Hang out, soak up the atmosphere and make new friends as passersby stop to chat. It’s child friendly too, and the surf is often filled with children paddling in the waves shouting in English and Spanish. Expats, locals and tourists alike flock to Mamita’s beach especially on the weekends, and it’s the place to be to watch the sun set on another day in paradise.
While Mamita’s is a party-beach, Playa offers more relaxed beach clubs too. Our favorite for food and drinks is Lido Beach Club, a great place to eat with loads of delicious vegan options and healthy options too. Inti Beach is a great luxury beach club, where the beats and the drinks are chilled, the beds are extra comfy and the prices a little higher. Try the frozen mango margarita and thank us later! Stay till sunset and watch the fire show – a beach club guaranteed to impress your visiting friends.
The best restaurants in Playa del Carmen
For such a small town, PDC has a huge selection of restaurants. Here is one of the few places in Mexico where you’ll find so much delicious international food and so many high class restaurants in the same place. Sushi Club, Yum Yum and Po Thai Restaurante offer up the best Asian food in town, Mu Burgerhouse delivering the best hamburgers and Carboncitos serving delicious Mexican dishes, you will be spoilt for choice when you choose to eat out.
On 5th Avenue, get dressed up and head out to one of the upscale restaurants, including Porfirio’s and Montefuego, or grab a healthy salad at Green and Fit (our personal post-workout favorite). Wander down Calle 38, the most beautiful street in PDC, and discover Amate 38 for authentic Yucatan dishes and La Cueva del Chango for a delicious craft beer. There are many vegan restaurants too, and every restaurant is sure to cater to vegetarians or allergies. Don’t worry if you’re still learning Spanish, most of the waiters will speak English and there is always an English menu available.
The food scene in Playa is delicious, and one of our favorite reasons to call PDC home.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is filled with fun activities for all the family. For party-goers there are parties and clubs open every night and, after a quick walk down 5th Avenue, you will find many bars competing for your custom offering free drinks and tempting offers. For a night you won’t forget, Coco Bongo is a real treat. With live performances all night, Coco Bongo is famous for its excellent entertainment. The queue is always long, so book your tickets in advance!
Dreaming of swimming with dolphins? The Xcaret parks are jungle themed attractions to explore, and they’re so big just one day is not enough. They offer activities such as swimming, rope climbing, rides and also have amazing animals that you can get close and personal with, including dolphins. It’s an awesome place to learn about the jungle habitat and the animals that call the Riviera Maya home.
As well as the jungle, PDC is close to many cenotes. A cenote is a deep freshwater pool formed in a large sinkhole or cave. With crystal clear, blue waters, gorgeous plant life and spectacular fishes and animals, they’re the perfect place to cool off from the jungle heat. In a cenote get ready to jump in, swim, snorkel and explore, plus take some of those stunning pictures you’ve seen all over Instagram!
Cenotes in Playa del Carmen are our favorite activity – mostly because there are so many to explore! There are the popular ones, such as Cenote Azul and Cenote Suytun, and some hidden gems too, such as Cenote Secreto and Cenote Zaci-Ha. If you rent a car, or go out exploring, make sure you check out the lesser known cenotes. It’s fantastic to have these majestic pools to yourself, and well worth a trip into the jungle.
Day or weekend trips from Playa Del Carmen
Playa’s central location on the Riviera Maya means that it is a great location to get out and about. There are some fantastic adventures waiting to be had in some of the amazing islands nearby, including Isla Cozumel, Isla Holbox and Isla Mujeres. There are many tours available to take you over, and we recommend spending a weekend exploring. In sargassum season, heading to an island is a perfect solution if you’re craving the beach, as they usually have beaches away from the algae bloom.
Playa is also situated close to Isla Cozumel, which you can see on the horizon from the beach. Cozumel is a vibrant and beautiful little island and is perfect for a day trip or a weekend getaway from Playa. It’s a relaxed island and is a cruise hotspot, so think cocktails and a lot of souvenir stands. It’s very easy to catch the ferry across to Cozumel, and pretty cheap. Ferries to Cozumel run often throughout the day, but be aware they get extra busy on the way back as everyone waits for the last to leave. Our recommendation is to always catch the second to last ferry back to Playa, or get in the queue for the last ferry early. The ferry does get full and people do get stranded on the island for the night!
Of course a trip to the Riviera Maya would be incomplete without a trip to Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world! Getting there is easy if you have a car, and if not then there are plenty of tours. We recommend getting an English speaking guide if you do visit. Although there are signs, the information on them is sparse and the guides will be able to describe truly amazing facts and anecdotes that are nowhere to be found in the official literature. Are you a resident in Mexico? Residents and locals get in for free to most tourist attractions on a Sunday, so bring your residency card and save yourself the entrance fee!
When you call the Riviera Maya your home, there are so many other places to take a weekend or day trip that are a little more off the beaten track. We love Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan famous for its fantastic buildings and its flamingo beaches. Still in Quintana Roo is colonial Valladolid, where you can camp and discover hidden cenotes among the jungle.
The future of Playa del Carmen
Tourism in Playa, and the Riviera Maya, is currently booming. The demand for vacation properties is so high that they cannot build them fast enough, and the last two Christmases almost all the accommodation available in the town sold out.
Investors and the government in Mexico are banking on this trend to continue, and the construction of the Maya Tren is a really exciting development that will make traveling here greener and cheaper. The Maya Tren is due to be completed in 2023 (although we foresee a few delays). When it arrives it will link Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum with a high speed rail link which will extend into the jungle. Previously remote areas of natural and cultural wonder in Chiapas will become a short ride away from the tourist hotspots in Quintana Roo, guaranteed to bring more tourists and a lot more tourist dollars.
It seems, then, that the boom times for the Riviera Maya are set to continue, and that Playa Del Carmen is a town with a bright future. It’s a great little beach town with a lovely, friendly atmosphere and with exciting projects on the horizon, Playa is a fantastic slice of Mexican paradise that is perfect for calling home.