Just as Playa del Carmen is located halfway between the resort towns of Cancun and Tulum, it is culturally and energetically a happy medium between the two as well. Cancun is a sprawling city with an equally expansive hotel zone that is located outside of the actual city that the locals inhabit. For this reason, tourists tend to stay in massive, self-containing all-inclusive resorts. Tulum, at the other end of the spectrum, is known for its small, eco-friendly boutique hotels, back-packer hostels, and large expanses of undeveloped, uninhabited nature. Like Cancun, the small “pueblo” or town of Tulum is located far from the beach, however, tourists stay in hostels, small hotels and Airbnbs in the town center in order to coexist with locals and explore the vast, untouched natural surroundings of secluded beaches and protected nature reserve.
Playa del Carmen is significantly larger than Tulum, and yet still feels like a small beach town. It has large all-inclusive resorts, hostels, Airbnbs and boutique hotels scattered throughout local neighborhoods, and unlike Tulum and Cancun, the town is located directly on the beach. Locals and tourists interact and coexist fluidly, and both enjoy their close proximity to the beach. All of the beaches in Playa are obviously all connected but have very distinct personalities. Here are some of my favorite beaches in Playa that collectively satisfy all of your beach-going needs.
Shangri La beach is located at the center of Playa at the end of 38th street, and in front of the eco-resort Mahecal. This beach is generally very packed, great for people watching and swimming, and is in close proximity to Playa Mamitas where there is always a DJ set. In recent years, there has been a seaweed plague that has hit this part of the beach quite hard; however this year, they have installed barriers about 500 m out that have successfully blocked the seaweed, leaving the water as crystal clear and turquoise as ever.
Playacar is my personal go-to beach for swimming. It is located in a private neighborhood and hotel zone that have guarded, gated entrances; however, you can access it publicly by way of Señor Frogs next to the Cozumel ferry pier. Of all the beaches in Playa, Playacar has by far, the most beautiful beaches, clearest water, and whitest sand. There are a mix of hotels and private houses and, while it may get fairly full close to the public entrance, if you walk in about 10 minutes, you’ll find large stretches of beach almost all to yourself. Additionally, many of the private houses that back up to the beach are surrounded by palm trees that give ample shade for those who need a respite from the harsh Caribbean sun.
This beach is accessed to one side of Reef Hotel through a narrow walkway not visible from the street and is therefore one of the best kept secrets in Playa. There are no other hotels for about half a kilometer, and practically no one is ever at the beach. A slice of virgin beach heaven in the middle of the city. There is a small docking area filled with colorful fishing boats to one side of Reef Hotel, adding a little charm to the atmosphere. Because there are no hotels nearby, the beach is not cleaned or cleared of seaweed and other debris as often as the aforementioned beaches, but don’t let that deter you.
Punta Esmeralda is the last public beach in Playa before the neighborhoods give way to the long stretch of massive all-inclusive resorts that lie between Playa and Cancun. This beach is filled to the brim with local families, large groups of rambunctious friends, food vendors, and battling boom-boxes blasting every kind of Mexican music from Ranchero to Reggaeton. A unique plus for Punta Esmeralda is that it has a small freshwater open cenote that literally connects to the ocean. I would recommend getting to this beach early or during the weekdays to enjoy the cenote before it is overrun with small children splashing and playing in its shallow waters. Punta Esmeralda is spectacular for sunrise swims.
Whether you are looking for a secluded and relaxing beach experience or a social, sensory-stimulating beach party, Playa has them all. Wherever you decide to have fun in the sun, all of Playa’s beaches are great for swimming, and all are easily accessed and in very close proximity to the city center, restaurants, convenient stores, hotels, and neighborhoods.
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