Mexico was never really a place I wanted to visit and if it hadn’t fallen into my lap, I’m not sure I would have gone. I’m here to say that I am so happy that we went.
If you’re here reading this now, you’re probably planning or thinking about taking a trip to Mexico! Maybe it’s your first, maybe you’re like my mother in law and have been 5,823 times. At any rate, I hope this Playa del Carmen itinerary can get you started on planning your epic trip to the land of beautiful beaches and delicious tacos!
Our trip to Mexico started when we busted out of the never-ending Minnesota winter and spent 4 days exploring this stupidly photogenic area of the Yucatan Peninsula.
But first, I just want to start off being biased, stereotypical, and
probably definitely rude. I’ll just get it out of my system. But before you get all judgey let me just say that I swear I’m nice!
I grew up in Texas, nowhere near the border, but still, close enough. I’d spent my whole life swearing I would never visit Mexico – like no freakin’ way dude.
Only because my perception of the whole country was from what I knew of the border towns – trashy and dangerous. And, I only knew those things from watching cops with my dad.
Like most people, I didn’t do a lot of traveling as a child. Most of my traveling has come over the last several years so this perception of Mexico is what I thought my entire childhood and early adult life.
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Written by: Stephanie
4 days in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
However, like traveling tends to do, it really opens your eyes as to what the world outside your bubble is like. And when it comes to the Riveria Maya – color me impressed.
Prior to Mexico, I’d traveled to a dozen or so countries and hundreds of cities- Obviously, not all of them wonderful in every aspect, but each place has at least one great thing about it.
Like Italy- I loved Italy but I hated Naples,
The idea of going to Mexico as a winter getaway was pitched to Pete and me about a month after we started dating, haha! We have some friends who found a great deal at a resort in Cancun and it was going to be a big friends trip. So we figured, ah what the hell, that’ll be a great test of our infant relationship. After a month or so of sitting on the idea, we eventually said let’s just book it! Yassss boo.
Then a few months later, there we are. Taking our first
We ended up not meeting with our friends at all…we couldn’t coordinate things and the drive from Playa del Carmen to Cancun would have been annoying to make every day. Even though it turned into just a couples vacation and not a friends trip, we had a wonderful time together.
I feel like this area of Mexico is definitely a “safe” place for a vacation – safe not meaning violence safe, but safe meaning more along the lines of that it’s easy. All you have to really do is choose a resort and get on the plane.
This part of the country is also really nice because if you’re like us and get sick of laying on the beach every day there are so many day trips from Playa del Carmen that you’ll never be bored.
So I think Riveria Maya is the perfect place for those who don’t travel often, have never traveled, or just want something simple.
And because I already broached the subject, I felt totally safe in Mexico. We did go down there right after all the nightclub shootings so we were a bit nervous and our moms were totally freaked out, but rarely did I ever feel uncomfortable.
There was only one time we were out walking down one of the larger streets that I felt uneasy, but it was our own fault – we were trying to find a restaurant and weren’t really paying attention.
That said, nothing ever happened and there are always tons of armed police officers everywhere, anyway.
Minneapolis to Cancun
Getting from Minneapolis to Cancun could not have been any easier. We took a direct flight in the morning and arrived in Cancun about 4 hours later.
Ticket prices from Minneapolis were about $400 roundtrip. It had been a long time since I’d taken a direct flight and man, they are seriously the way to go. I’m totally used to having layovers longer than the duration of all my flights, haha.
We arrived in Cancun to a much nicer airport than we had been anticipating. I’m not certain what we were expecting, but we were definitely impressed with the organization and cleanliness.
We heard from friends and family who have previously flown into Cancun that you have to walk down a hallway lined by all the driver/limo/taxi/donkey cart companies and they constantly are shouting at you to grab your attention. “Head down, walk fast, ignore everyone” was the advice we were given. We didn’t find this to be the case at all.
Outside the airport, there is definitely a congregation of men and women holding signs and shouting for people so I suppose that could be overwhelming to some, but we were not at all harassed or bothered by the chaos.
Cancun to Playa del Carmen
One of the first things I researched when planning this vacation was how to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen.
There are buses and things you can take, but I’m not interested in that. I’m totally extra and prefer private transportation.
The distance between Cancun and Playa del Carmen is about 40 miles and takes roughly an hour. The drive down was much quicker than the drive back so on your return trip I would add in some extra time as a cushion. Don’t miss your flight because of traffic or construction!
Cancun to Playa del Carmen transportation
Entertainment Plus / 209-382-7587
I did find a company that did private transfers for like $100 round trip. It was super easy to book and find them at the airport and everything went off without a hitch.
All of the drivers will be located outside of the airport in a common area – it’s literally impossible to miss. The driver will have a card or tablet with the company name and the bookers last name. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
After finding our driver we popped into a private van and were on our way to Playa del Carmen. I can’t remember our driver’s name, but he was talkative, friendly, and made the hour drive pass very quickly.
What’s funny is that everyone you run across will try to tie themselves to you- like our driver supposedly knew a bunch of people in Minnesota…a guy we met later in the week while shopping said he was our waiter at the hotel, but I’m sure he just wanted us to shop at his place.
I doubt any of that is true, I think like most countries the people in the tourism business try to be relatable. The shop owners in the Marrakech souks are the same way.
Gran Porto Real
Av Constituyentes #1 / 1-877-448-2776
Updated July 16th, 2018 – Gran Porto Real has been rebranded as Panama Jack.
Upon arrival in Playa del Carmen, we checked into our resort, the Gran Porto Real. Neither one of us had ever stayed at an all-inclusive before so we were totally stoaked and ready to check the place out!
The check-in process was very easy, we were given our armbands, exchanged some dollars for pesos, and were showed to our room.
Afterward, we met with one of the resort employees (as they make everyone do), but it was mostly a sales pitch for timeshares and other things that we weren’t interested in. It lasted longer than necessary because we couldn’t get away, I think the only way to get out of it was that I had to sign away my non-existent first born child.
Back in our room, we quickly exchanged travel clothes for swimsuits and headed out to explore! But first, cocktails!
For the most part, we had a pretty sweet set up. We were at the end of the hotel so we had some nice tree cover to the right and then a view of the rest of the hotel and pools off to the left.
We were directly over the stage area (there are nightly shows) so our view was obstructed by a massive pole and cross beams for the stage. The plus side to that was we could sit on our balcony and have a birds-eye view of the shows. The downside- the shows were kinda lame and we saw the same one a couple times.
Having never been to this part of Mexico before, or any part of Mexico for that matter, I wasn’t sure about the beach situation.
FYI: The beaches in Playa del Carmen suck. If this isn’t brought under control soon I can easily see this part of Riviera Maya becoming less of a beach/touristy destination.
The Gran Porto is located right on the beach, and while it’s decent enough, it’s not totally what I was expecting. You can tell they’ve been trying very hard for years to preserve it with sandbags, but that can only do so much.
There is a pier that probably used to land on or very near the beach, now it’s about 15-20 feet (at least?) into the ocean.
Walk far enough along the beach and you’ll see handfuls sandbags everywhere, and rocks propping up palm trees so they don’t tip over. You can also see many exposed roots of the palm trees. It’s a really sad situation.
We later learned that the erosion is due to the overdeveloped coastline and many of the buildings were built on top of mangroves and that destroys the beaches.
But if you walk a bit towards Mamarita’s beach club (north-ish) you’ll find a better beach. Also, in the coming days, we’re heading up to Puerto Morelos and that is a phenomenal beach area.
Even so, we still found a nice place to sit and enjoy being at the ocean and not in freezing ass cold Minnesota.
Our first PDC sunset…absolutely beautiful. I was completely obsessed with the sunrises and sunsets and would wake up early every day to make sure I was there to photograph it.
The Gran Porto has several restaurants on campus. So, walk around and find one that looks good and enjoy your first dinner in Mexico!
Day One: 5th Avenue Playa Del Carmen & Resort Exploring
Today is a quiet day exploring Playa del Carmen and the resort. We set up our schedule with a beach/lazy day alternating with active/tour days. We chose to alternate days because we can only take so much time being lazy…we like to have fairly active vacations, but we did want to make sure we spent some time laying around drinking cocktails all day
This morning head out to downtown Playa del Carmen and the main shopping drag, 5th avenue. You’ll see a nice mix of classic shops as well as modern mall type storefronts. Even though this is one of the classic things to do in Playa del Carmen, walking down 5th avenue might make you want to set yourself on fire. The shop owners can be very pushy, especially if they see a resort bracelet on. They’ll immediately say they also work at the hotel, or they were your waiter the other night, but you just have to say STAHP! and keep walking.
Poke into the textile shops and look around at the gorgeous handmade textiles. My favorite store was the iconic Rosalia. You cannot miss this store as it has tons of clothing items hanging in the open air shop. I bought a gorgeous multi-colored blanket for about $60. Prices are probably fairly expensive compared to the rest of Playa del Carmen, but everything seems to be of high quality. Updated to add – a year and a half later, the blanket is still goin’ strong!
Other fun stores include:
- Hacienda Tequila for the classic kitschy tourist souvenirs – make sure you buy some Mexican vanilla!
- Prison Art Store for one-of-a-kind leather goods decorated by prisoners in Mexico – the profits are used for rehabilitation and to help reentry into society
- Hamacamarte for all your hammock and hanging chair needs
After you’ve walked up and down the street a few times and your hands are full of goodies, head back to the resort, grab a poolside lunch, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing.
Seriously though…that sky.
Day Two: Playa del Carmen excursion and the world’s best tacos
Oh my god- snorkeling!
If you spend some time doing research I think you’ll also find that the best snorkeling in Playa del Carmen is in fact not in Playa del Carmen. Puerto Morelos frequently comes up as a top spot to drop in the water for a swim so that’s what we’re doing today!
This morning we are heading from Playa del Carmen up to Puerto Morelos for a snorkeling excursion. I can’t remember who we booked the tour through, but I think we found it on Tripadvisor. It was close to a half day trip with an hour or 90 minutes of snorkeling and an included lunch at one of the beach restaurants.
We were picked up in front of our resort and were later joined by one other lady before we took the 40-minute drive up the coast. Y’all, Puerto Morelos is gorgeous. Like, so stupidly gorgeous. We didn’t go into town or anything, but the beach was perfect and the cute beach club we had lunch at was delicious.
You can tell an immediate difference in the way the beach looks that Puerto Morelos is less built up than Carmen is.
The reef is listed as a marine park so you will need wristbands to snorkel in this area (you’ll get these from your guide). Also, the reef is set off the coast a bit so you’ll need a boat to get out there. I did read that strong experienced swimmers can actually swim to the reef, but overall it’s not recommended.
It is one of the best-preserved reefs in Riveria Maya where you’ll see all sorts of animals, ranging from barracuda to sea turtles!
And then lunch… We had a rice and vegetable dish with a piece of fresh grilled fish.
Beach walkin’ & TACOS!
After lunch, your guide will drive you back down to your resort in Playa del Carmen. Spend the rest of the day relaxing at the pool or beach or drinking or shopping. Whatevs, it’s vacation.
When you’re hungry again go out for the best. tacos. of. your. life. Not even joking. I have dreams about these tacos and nothing I’ve found in the states even comes close to them. Shocking, I know. You’d think Minnesota would have authentic Mexican food :p
MMMMF *foaming at the mouth staring at these again*
El Fogon is a must do in Playa del Carmen. It is this tiny unassuming open-air restaurant right off one of the main drags in Carmen. You can easily walk from the Gran Porto up Avenue Constituyentes de Quintana Roo, but we found this to be a less than desirable route, particularly because the road is so busy and it’s a
lot bit sketch. You’d be better off walking back down 5th avenue and then taking Calle 8 up to the restaurant.
The first time we had El Fogon was for an early dinner, 5ish? or so and we walked right into the restaurant and sat down immediately. Service was quick, tacos were the bomb.com.
Do yourself a favor and order the three al pastor tacos. Don’t even bother with anything else. I mean, you can if you want – I’m sure everything is good, but the al pastor is where. it’s. at. The pastor is on this gigantic meat wheel and some guy is standing in front of it hacking off thin slices and catching them on open taco shells. There is a pineapple above the meat so all the yummy pineapple juice is seeping into the meat and tenderizing it. After it’s plated, he will swing his knife up and catch a piece of pineapple. Dinner and a show.
We are convinced that the tacos there are so good because it is literally 3 feet from the road and there are probably zero health codes in Mexico. So exhaust = good tacos?
I don’t argue with science.
Day Three: Takin’ it easy & a tasting menu
Mojitos, Mojitos, and more Mojitos
Yesterday was an outing so that means today is for chillin’.
Do whatever you want today – ocean swim, lay on a lounge chair, have a mojito or three, pool swim, lay on the lounge chair, have another mojito. Lather, rinse and repeat.
PLANK’S delicious tasting menu
16th Street between 1st & 5th ave / +52 984-803-0108
But! Don’t eat too many poolside taquitos because dinner is at a restaurant called PLANK. PLANK is another one of the best restaurants in Playa del Carmen. We sort of stumbled upon this while browsing for things to eat for dinner. It’s listed as the #44 restaurant with 4.5 stars. Wait, really? It’s listed as a tie for #1 in my book.
PLANK was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I’m a total foodie and absolutely appreciate good, simple, quality, inventive food. It’s like art. And lemme tell you, this did not disappoint. Easily one of my top 10 favorite meals of my life. Have dinner at PLANK and you’ll be winning at life.
PLANK calls itself a gourmet grill and patio bar and that’s a fair assessment. The patio is adorable, but we were seated inside for some reason. The cool thing is there are several different menus, starting with brunch.
I love me a good brunch #basicwhitegirl
They also have a dinner menu with the ushe. Their claim to fame, so to speak, is the tasting menu. This is what we did and I totally recommend you to do the same!
The meal starts with an appetizer dish which are a couple dips and some flatbread. Next course is a smoked gravlax which is smoked salmon with lemon and spices – this was phenomenal, easily one of my favorite things ever. I know I keep saying that, but for real…you’ll flip your sh**.
Next up are jumbo shrimp and scallops wrapped in bacon – all served on a salt plank. The main course is a surf & turf – self-explanatory but also wonderful.
Finally, dessert is a chocolate mousse, vanilla cheesecake, apple crumble, and banana tatin. Oh my god, give me more.
Notice how we progressively get drunker as the meal progresses…LOL, oh Mexico. All of this for 825 pesos per person which is like $44 USD- I’ve had two cocktails that cost that much, haha. I swear I’m not an alcoholic.
Day Four: Day trip from Playa del Carmen to Tulum!
Last day in Mexico! Wahhhh. But, at least it’s a fun one. I’m sure you’ve been hearing all about Tulum and how you absolutely have to visit and you absolutely should so, today we go to Tulum!
Climb the Coba pyramid
We found a super fun tour with Alltournative called the Tulum & Coba Maya Village tour. This is a full day excursion, like 12-13 hours depending if you’re in Playa del Carmen or Cancun. Ticket prices are just over a hundred dollars and totally worth it.
The tour starts with hotel pick up in Cancun, then PDC, and then you’ll hit up Coba. I never knew much about Mayan history other than the uber famous Tulum and Chichen Itza, so Coba was very interesting.
Definitely, take them up on the offer to rent a bicycle and pedal around the area. It’s quite large and was HOT. And definitely climb the pyramid – it is terrifying to do so, but you’ll be the reigning Coba queen when you do. Maybe you’ll be smarter than we were and not wear white shorts :l
The pyramid is SO steep I was constantly checking myself to make sure I hadn’t slipped and was in fact, still alive. There is a rope going up the center for everyone to death grip onto, but because nearly everyone is scared and uses the rope, the steps have worn down and are uber slippery.
That is totally what it looks like…no posing for angles there. 100% legit scary sh**. Once you’ve made it to the top take a moment and sit down to cry. Then contemplate why you just did such a stupid thing, haha.
At least the view from the top is gorgeous.
Coming down isn’t any easier, probably terrifyingly worse. You have a birds-eye view of the grade and you can’t get anywhere near the rope.
The poor suckers coming up are hogging it. I thought to myself on more than one occasion “Nah man, I’m good. I’ll just stay up here and live out my days.” So, do what we did and go down on your butt. Don’t do what we did and wear white. Got it? Good!
Jump into a cenote
After you’ve survived Coba you’ll continue your journey on to the Maya village. It’s an adorably small village with people livin’ life like they always have.
You’ll get to participate in a blessing ritual and then strip down and jump probably 25? 30? some ungodly number? off of a perfectly stable cliff into a cenote.
It is quite frightening to jump off, but commit to it! Scream loud on the way down and hold your breath at the end. We both did it and were so happy we did. The cenote was beautiful and the water was the perfect temperature. and you’ll see some fish!
For all you scaredy cats, there is a set of stairs that you can walk down and swim in the cenote as well. Still fun, but lame.
Afterward, you’ll have a great lunch prepared by a group of Mayan women. After lunch, you’ll head to Tulum!
The prettiest of blues…
You’re given plenty of time to walk around the ruins and explore. If you’re lucky the beach will be open and that’s where I suggest you spend your time. It was too windy the day we were there so it was closed. whomp whomp.
I mean, have you ever seen water so blue? So dreamy. Side note, the color of the water in this area reminds me so much of the water surrounding the Florida Keys.
After about an hour or hour and a half, you’ll pile back onto the bus and make your way back to Playa del Carmen.
Last night in town calls for another dinner at El Fogon. Told you we were obsessed. We went quite a bit later than the first night so it was significantly busier. I wanna say we stood in line for 45-60 minutes. El Fogon is the only place worth that wait.
Maybe wind down with drinks by the pool? Or go bed – no judgment here!
Day Five: Head home
Spend the morning packing up, taking one last sunrise photo and resort photo and then meet down in the lobby for the airport transfer.
We had booked round-trip tickets with Entertainment Plus and had zero complaints about the process. The driver was on time and while he wasn’t as friendly as the first one he was still nice and more importantly, got us to where we needed to be.
Have a safe flight home! You’ve been real PDC…until next time!
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Founder of Packing for Plenty in July 2017. Along with her husband, Pete, she is on a mission to visit most countries. And wants to take y’all along as well! On PFP Steff provides travel itineraries ranging from a weekend trip nearby to 2 weeks living abroad like a local…detailed destination specific travel tips that aren’t readily available elsewhere…and unique and interesting bucket list worthy experiences.