Playa del Carmen is a great destination for families. Whether your family loves to dive into blue waters or into ancient civilizations; Playa del Carmen has something to offer everyone. My family is adventurous, curious, and loves to relax on the beach, which makes Playa the perfect getaway for us. And this time around we tried Playa two ways: Luxury Playa del Carmen and Playa del Carmen on a budget.
For those traveling from the East Coast, Playa del Carmen is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Visitors can fly to Cancun (4 hour non-stop flights from New York are frequent) and then drive about an hour south to Playa del Carmen. Since we weren’t renting a car right away, we used Cheap Cancun Transfers to whisk us from the airport to our hotel. Playa has the perfect price point for everyone. You can either stay in luxury at one of the many glamourous hotels along the water or stay in local budget accommodations. On our vacation to Playa del Carmen, we did both.
The first half of our vacation was spent in luxury at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen Resort ($299 USD/night). The resort is right on the beach and waking up to the sounds and sights of the beach was a great way to start the day. The well-maintained beach, including beach chairs and umbrellas for guests, made for hours and hours of family playtime. My kids and I alternated from boogy boarding to building sandcastles. After we were done with the beach, we would spend a bit of time taking advantage of the many infinity pools that overlook the ocean.
After the beach, we headed back to the room for nap-time. While I relaxed on the generous balcony overlooking the ocean, my toddler and 5-year-old napped inside and my older kids downed tokens in the arcade at the teen club and challenged each other to ping pong and chess. Once the younger ones woke, they took their turn exploring the play area overlooking the teen room. It was during those moments I would think, “This resort has everything.” Later on, the kids ventured back to the teen club to watch movies in the in-club movie theater.
We spent most of our meals away from the hotel, since it was a short walk from the hotel to La Quinta Avenida, which is a pedestrian only street with countless shops and upscale restaurants and many places to have dead skin eaten off your feet in fish tanks. The street caters to tourists and expats and it’s easy to blow a budget on a single meal.
We dialed back on the luxury for the second part of our vacation and stayed at the adorable Hotel Casa Tucan. We booked the room through Airbnb and at $45/night, this might be the best bargain in Playa del Carmen. Our room was sparse but spacious and had one king bed and two doubles. The hotel has a beautiful garden with plenty of shade trees that make you feel like you are staying in a tree house in the middle of the rain forest. Outside our door was a small charming swimming pool with a wading area, which we used at the end of each day. A small restaurant at the front has hearty food catering to the guests, many of whom are snow birds or European tourists in town for the diving. Besides the unique architecture and beautiful courtyard, there wasn’t much to the hotel. But to be honest, it needed little, since it was located just a block from the restaurant/shopping district and two blocks from the ocean.
We ventured to some local restaurants and had an amazing lunch of chicken tacos at Asadero el Pollo, where $50 pesos (roughly $2.50) gets you a quarter of a chicken, rice, beans, salsa, plenty of fresh tortillas, and a drink; it’s by far the best deal in town. You can also walk to Mega or Wal-Mart for food and souvenirs and right across from Mega is another highly recommended taqueria – Don Sirloin. A budget tip for buying ice cream: there’s a stand outside the souvenir shop on the corner of 5th Avenue (Calle Quinta Avenida) and 34th Street N (Calle 34 Nte) where ice cream is sold for a fraction of the price of that sold at the upscale ice cream shops on 5th Avenue. For a “nice” dinner without breaking the bank, we headed to La Cueva del Chango. Its tree house vibe and koi pond kept the younger ones entertained and the older ones swear they had the best guacamole – ever!
We used Hotel Casa Tucan as a home base to explore some of the sights of the Yucatan Peninsula. While there are many Mayan ruins one can explore (Chichten Itza, Tulum, Coba, Ek Balam), we decided to rent a car at the nearby Budget Car Rental and drive the 1.5 hours to Coba. Coba has one of the highest pyramids and visitors can still scale its heights. By the time we were done applying sunscreen, my 5 and 10 year-olds had already flown to the top. Coba, which was opened to tourists only in the 1980s, is still in the midst of being fully excavated. Jungle trails connect the different buildings and ball courts and visitors can either walk or rent bikes to travel from to the next. For those who don’t want to bike themselves, tricycles with drivers are available at the bike rental location. My wife and two older kids opted for their own bikes, while the two younger kids and I were chauffeured around on a tricycle. Riding through the jungle and exploring Mayan ruins is definitely the stuff that Indiana Jones-inspired dreams are made of. After Coba, we continued on to the colonial city of Valladolid, where a beautiful cathedral overlooks the city square. After eating lunch and then ice cream cones, we headed back on the toll road to Playa del Carmen.
The standout family activity from our trip was snorkeling at Xel-Ha. Since admission costs as much or more as admission to an amusement park in the United States, it was our big splurge of the trip. If you are visiting the Mayan Riviera with your family and enjoy outdoor water activities, Xel-Ha is worth every penny. Each visitor is given snorkeling gear and a life jacket to wear. Life jackets are mandatory, which can make it hard to dive and see the colorful fish at the bottom, but the water is pristine and in a protected lagoon. The family all floated through the mangrove channels to the river. As you snorkel or take tubes down the river, you can go cliff jumping, play on a ropes and zip line course over the water, and generally laze the day away. In addition to the river, you can snorkel in the lagoon, play at an amazing jungle playground with water slides, traverse a floating bridge, swim in cenotes and an underground cave, or eat and drink at the on-site restaurants. And since food and drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are included in the admission price, we popped in for something every time our energy started to lag. There are other activities available for an additional fee (swimming with Dolphins, high-speed boat ride, manatee adventure, etc.), but with so many activities included in the regular admission price and only 8.5 hours to enjoy it all, I’d skip the extra activities unless you plan to visit more than once.
For those who are playing along, here is information about where we stayed, ate, and dined while in Playa del Carmen:
Luxury Playa Del Carmen
Budget Playa del Carmen
Asadero el Pollo (roast chicken and tortillas)
La Cueva del Chango (fresh Mexican food, with excellent guac)
Don Sirloin (taqueria)
Caminante B&B (great burritos at a local hostel)
Delta runs direct flights from NYC to Cancun each day and we scored ours for $230/30,000 miles.
Cheap Airport Transfers provides round trip service from Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen for $110/private vehicle up to 7 passengers.
Budget Car Rental in Playa del Carmen has rentals available from $7 (compact car) to $30 (minivan) a day. Plan on spending an additional $15-20/day for mandatory insurance, which can only be purchased from the rental car facility.
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