Things to do in Playa Del Carmen: My adventure-packed photo essay!

Welcome to our Beach Thursday: Yucatán special! I know what you’re probably thinking: “Oh no, not another ‘things to do’ post!” But don’t fret. I am publishing an adventure-packed photo essay of things to do in Playa Del Carmen, based on my own trip and interviews with locals. I promise: you will love every single activity (and picture) 😀

If you have additional questions about a tour or accommodation in Playa Del Carmen, feel free to send me a note or leave a comment below!

thanks to do in Playa Del Carmen, Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza photo I took on my trip to the Yucatán back in 2008

 Things to do in Playa Del Carmen: Day trips

Due to my short Thanksgiving break (Thursday – Monday), I had to be very selective about the places I visited. I wanted a good mix of history, relaxation, and adventure. As I would be more energized the first few days, I decided to visit the lesser-known Maya ruins of Ek Balam and Cobá. However, if you have never visited Chichen Itza, I recommend you go there instead of Cobá on your short Playa Del Carmen vacation.

I booked my tours via Karma Trails, a travel agency that partners with local  tour companies that give back to the Maya communities. I was very happy with this practice! All tours included a short stop at a local Maya village, giving them the opportunity to sell their own crafts without a middleman.

Things to do in Playa Del Carmen, mud bath at Rio Lagartos

That’s not sand – it’s ALL mineral-rich mud!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Rio Lagartos Dead Sea

Me floating on the Rio Lagartos Dead Sea — I mean salt flats

My Ek Balam tour included a great morning spent at Río Lagartos as well. We got to float on the salt flats holding ponds and bathe in mineral-rich mud, which brought back memories of my trip to the Dead Sea in Israel! We also got to see some crocs up close and personal (!), in addition to several other birds and PINK FLAMINGOS! 😀

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Rio Lagartos

I was not comfortable being THAT close to the croc…but I survived it!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, flamingos

Flamingos! You can see many more of them if you visit between May – June by the way 😉

The highlight of the all-day, 13-hour tour was our guide Gianluca though — a funny, knowledgeable polyglot. It was pretty awesome that he had an iPad with many photos, maps, etc. to discuss Maya and Mexican history with us during the rides between sites. We learned not only about the Maya ruins we visited, but also got cultural tidbits from other parts of Mexico. The history buff in me LOVED this.

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Ek Balam

Ek Balam Maya temple carvings: The “mouth of the jaguar”

The second tour, Cobá Mayan Encounter, was action-packed! In the morning, we visited a Maya community, witnessed a Maya shaman perform a ceremony, drifted on a beautiful lake, and rode down several zip lines. We also got to do some rappelling down a cenote + canoeing! Travel bucket list items checked 😀

Playa del Carmen attractions

Me riding the Coba Encounter tour zip line: the best one!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, cenote rappelling

Cenote rappelling! Don’t I look excited?!

In the afternoon, we visited the wonderful Cobá Maya ruins. I decided to rent a bike and it was the best decision I made. We had our tour guide explained the history for the first 20 mins., then we got to explore the site at our own pace for a good 45 min. It was plenty of time to leisurely cycle around the ruins, take some good photos, and even climb the main “pyramid”! By the way, that’s in quotes because apparently, we’re not supposed to call it that way 😉

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Coba Maya complex

One of my favorite structures at the Coba Maya complex. This one was used as an observatory

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Coba climbing

Atop the tallest “pyramid” at Coba. Gorgeous jungle views!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Coba pyramid

The main structure at Coba. Don’t call it a pyramid! 😉

Other great day trips from Playa Del Carmen is the charming town of Valladolid and swimming with turtles in Akumal. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it to either town on this trip. I’ll definitely have to go back and experience everything else the amazing Riviera Maya and Yucatan have to offer!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Valladolid

Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico (Photo: Elaine, Flickr)

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Akumal Bay

Photo of Akumal Bay by Carl Hancock. Fun fact: Akumal actually means “place of the turtles” in the Yucatec Maya language! 🙂

Theme parks & reserves: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor, Sian Ka’an

As I opted to visit 2 Maya sites + adventure tours, I didn’t get to go to any of the theme parks. However, Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor, and Sian Ka’an are highly recommended by several travelers and bloggers. I’m definitely checking them out on my next trip, especially the Xcaret night show (which I could have done one night, but Playa Del Carmen nightlife got me quite distracted!).

Xel-há Park (daily, 8:30 AM – 7 PM): for a close encounter with nature. Lazily float down the river, go snorkeling, SNUBA, walk underwater and even swim with dolphins here.

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, xel-ha

Xel-Ha: beautiful, natural waterpark (Kyla, Flickr)

Xcaret (daily, 8:30 AM – 9:30 PM): archaeological & adventure park, excellent to learn more about Mexican culture. Food is great, too. Dolphin/shark swims & other water activities also available here. Make sure you stay for the night show, check out the wine tasting & try out one of the semi-underground spa treatments!

Xcaret night show, things to do in Playa Del Carmen

Xcaret night show by Steve Oxenham, Flickr

Xplor (Mon – Sat, 9 AM – 5 PM): for the adventurous souls. 14 zip lines (including one through a waterfall and into a cave!), swim in an underground river, and even drive an amphibious vehicle. Enough said!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Xplor

Xplor Zip Line Water Landing by Dtraveller, Flickr

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve: located in Tulum, this  UNESCO World Heritage Site is spectacular. It is a little out of the way, but worth it. Kayaking, fly fishing, and condoning our popular here. I recommend used to spend one night at one of the cabins on-site.

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Sian Ka'an

Gorgeous Sian Ka’an by Ronald Woan

Where to eat in Playa Del Carmen

Coming soon! I still have to look for my notepad with all my restaurant recommendations 😉 I can tell you right now though: Go to Yaxche Mayan Fusion Cuisine Restaurant on 5th Avenue! Have one of the specialty Maya food mixed platters, Maya coffee (a ceremony in itself), and plantain flan for dessert (called pie de platano, with hazelnuts and cajeta, which is goat dulce de leche. TRUST me, you gotta have it).

Playa Del Carmen nightlife

As I told you on a previous post, Playa Del Carmen nightlife is ACE!

things to do in Playa Del Carmen, Coco Bongo

Coco Bongo Playa Del Carmen (Dan, Flickr)

One more thing to do in Playa Del Carmen: Beach massages!

So many Playa Del Carmen beach clubs offer cheap massages by the ocean, giving you tremendous bargaining power. I scored a 70-min. reflexiology massage for USD $18. BLISS! See if you can get one for less and report back 😉

beach massage, things to do in Playa Del Carmen

Playa Del Carmen beach massages are great value! Photo: appaIoosa, Flickr

Got more recommendations of things to do in Playa Del Carmen?

Special thanks to Karma Trails for offering a complimentary Cobá Encounter tour. I was not paid for a positive review and all comments on this article are my honest opinion, though.

24 thoughts on “Things to do in Playa Del Carmen: My adventure-packed photo essay!

  1. I LOVED Sian Ka’an! One of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I wish I had come across an $18 70-minute massage though!

  2. Hi, I am Sherlyn, a new fan of your Latin cultures blog, I find your blog pretty interesting as I love Mexico city so much and I have always wanted 2 visit Mexico city because of my significant other.. 🙂 Perhaps, we can meet up in Singapore and hang out together..

  3. Two TPThursday posts in a row for destinations where I’ve only sampled on cruises. When we were there we went to Xcaret because we were told the food was good and safe for tourists. At lunch when the waiter put down a spicy salsa I assumed that it was spicy by tourist standards and went a little too hard on it. I found out after a few minutes that it was the slow burn kind of salsa when it suddenly got hot even by my standards. I had to down my margarita and my wife’s sangria to fight the flames. I spent most of the afternoon curled up on a bench semi-drunk with heartburn while my wife explored the park and gift shops.

    • oh no! Hopefully you’ll be able to enjoy the destination better next time. Because there WILL be a next time, right? 😉

  4. Reflexology for $18? unheard of!
    Pink flamingos? Mayan ruins, salt flats, crocs ? I always thought Playa del Carmen was too touristy but I see there are lots more things to do there. Thanks for this writeup, Maria!

    • yes, you will find tourists on the beach and a lot of them on 5th Avenue, but that doesn’t take away from the charm and many things to do in Playa Del Carmen. You should definitely hit it up!

  5. I went to Chichen Itza as a kid, and my family nicknamed it “Chicken Pizza.” Hubby and I tried out Xcaret a few years ago when our cruise ship was in port. I really enjoyed floating down the underground river but thought the drinks were waaaaay overpriced (but I was preggers, so it didn’t matter).

    • any touristy part will be expensive, although I have found the all-inclusive passes (including all drinks and food) to be quite reasonable for families. You should definitely go back and do some of the adventurous activities!

    • you should definitely go back, Cathy! The Riviera Maya has WAY too much to offer, could never do it on just one trip.

      PS: I was terrified of the croc being that close, too. But now I think it was a great experience! haha :p

  6. Maria,
    When I visited the Mayan Riviera and the Yucatan, I wasn’t able to do the tours you highlight in here. However, I visited Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Xcaret. All those were great but I am ready to go back and explore more of the area. I would love to float in Rio Lagartos. I was able to get a massage for $35 an hour. You have to tell me where you went for yours.

    • An ancient haggling technique: act like you don’t care much — keep just walking by with a coy smile. Eventually, tell them that you know of a different place that charges $18 for a 70-minute massage and whether they’ll match the price 😉 Walla! Competition is so fierce that they’ll likely give in. If they don’t? Go to a different place that will! 😉

    • omg, WHAAAA?! It’s a BLAST! So much going on, so great. If you’ve been Las Vegas though this might not be so amazing… But for Mexico? Pretty awesome

  7. Looks like you had one amazing adventure, the Yucatan sure is one place to visit that is full of history, culture and non-stop fun. Chichen Itza is one of my fav places to visit, i am in ore every time I go there.

    • I certainly had a blast, never get tired of going back to the Yucatán! Good food, sweet people 🙂

  8. my 28yr daughter & I r going 2 all-inclus. in playa del Carmen dec-jan with an not so great budget to do a whole lot of adventures. We wld like to do 1 full-day and a half day attractions. love jungle nite shows daughter zip line, not too many stairs 4 me (will do with her) she likes the pyramids. help can’t choose the best to see with not a lot of $. 500.00 a pc. what wld u do most with what i’v tld u. vry much appreciated. help me. the best w/not a lot of time. can’t wait thank u. love u’r page

    • thank you and am so sorry I missed your message Susanne! what did you end up doing? Definitely Xcaret and Xelha parks should offer many options for both the adventurous and the one who wants to be more chill or has limited mobility.

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