It doesn't cost a cent to join in a game of beach volley on Playa 88 © NurPhoto / Getty Images
Not quite as flamboyant as Cancún or boho-chic as Tulum, Playa del Carmen is the humble middle sibling on the Riviera Maya. Prices here aren’t quite as sky-high here, and there’s a deluge of experiences you can have without spending a dime.
Best of all, the beaches of Playa del Carmen – arguably its main attraction – are free to use and easy to access on foot. Even the strands that sit in front of shiny resorts and swanky restaurants are gratis for all.
Chill out on picture-perfect Playacar Beach
Just south of the bustling ferry terminal in Centro lies the sweeping white sands and shallow spearmint water of Playacar. Locals and expats all agree this is the city’s best beach. Compared to other beaches in Centro, Playacar is cleaner, quieter, and calmer.
The immaculate strand is part of an upscale gated community with plush beachfront villas and family-friendly resorts. It’s open to the public and just a 10-minute walk from Centro. There are no facilities or snack bars here, but vendors often peddle baskets of sugar-coated churros on the beach.
Go for a self-guided murals tour around the Colosio neighborhood in Playa del Carmen © Arkadij Schell / Getty Images
Admire murals by local street artists
In recent years, the streets of Playa have become proud canvasses to local street artists. The Colosio neighborhood in the far north is seeing an explosion of graffiti art, but you can find a mashup of vibrant murals almost anywhere in town these days. Start at 10th Avenue, where brick walls feature striking paintings of Maya and emblems of Playa del Carmen.
Explore the Xaman-Há ruins
While you’re in Playacar, take a detour to the little-known ruins of Xaman-Há. Although located within the private residential area, visiting the ruins is free.
This smattering of Maya ruins are the remnants of a pre-Columbian Maya settlement established in the 13th century. Xaman-Há, meaning “northern water”, was the most significant starting point for pilgrimages from the mainland to the spirited Cozumel island.
Take the first side street from Playacar Beach and cross the road to get there. You’ll see a few sets of temples surrounded by the jungle, with more iguanas than humans around. Xaman-Há is a hidden part of Playa del Carmen that few know about and a slice of history that curious travelers will relish.
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Visit the free cenote at Punta Esmeralda
It’s a bit of a trek to get to Punta Esmeralda, but it’s the only beach in Playa del Carmen with a cenote (freshwater spring). It’s not the quintessential cenote with turquoise water shimmering under stalactites, but the shallow and warm tidal pool is plenty of fun for kids to splash around and grownups to wade in. Look carefully, and you’ll spot water bubbling up to the surface from underground.
Locals flock to Punta Esmeralda in droves, especially on weekends, but you hardly see any all-inclusive package-deal travelers here, even when it gets busy. The lounge chairs and palapa shade cost money – but laying out on the beach is free.
Playa del Carmen's beaches are all free to access © Emma Shaw / Lonely Planet
Play beach volleyball on Playa 88
This under-the-radar beach in the Colosio district appeals to more residents and fishers than holidaymakers. You don’t have to be ripped (or minted) to join in a game of beach volley on Playa 88. Every evening, active locals pitch up their nets and invite anyone interested to join in and play a game of volleyball or two. By the time the match ends, players go from strangers to friends, spending the evening knocking back beers as the sun sets. If you’re looking for a free experience that keeps you active, Playa 88 is your answer.
Roam in nature at Parque la Ceiba
It’s exactly what families look for while on vacation: a natural park with fun-filled play areas for kids, short walking trails and a shaded alfresco cafe for parents to chill. It’s worth traipsing across the hectic Highway 307 for this rare patch of verdant greenery where children of all ages can run free, and grown-ups can take a respite from the sun.
Occasionally, Paque la Ceiba runs yoga classes, movie screenings, book fairs and dance performances.
Volunteer at a local dog shelter
Volunteering on vacation isn’t for everyone – but it can be an enriching experience for those willing to sacrifice some beach time to give back. Animal lovers will embrace the chance to shower dogs with love at Voluntarios Perrunos, a dog shelter that rescues abandoned canines. Spend a morning walking the dogs or just playing with them – it takes a bit of your time, but it’ll make a world of difference to them.
Browsing the shopping districts from Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) to Colosio flea markets © anouchka / Getty Images
Browse Playa del Carmen's Sunday market
Who doesn’t love a good market? The city used to be stuffed to the gills with flea markets and organic food stands, but many have shut down during the pandemic. The only remaining is the Sunday market on 30 Avenida Nte in the mainly-locals Colosio district.
This is your typical outdoor flea market: a dizzying mashup of taco carts, fresh produce stalls, and kids’ clothes stand. Browsing is free, of course, but we can’t promise you won’t be tempted to try some sizzling taco de tripa (intestines) for a meer M$20 (US$1) each.
People-watch at the Palacio Municipal
The central plaza, Palacio Municipal, isn’t the most attractive square in town – with few trees and way too much concrete. But take a stroll through the park on a weekend evening, and you’ll soon realize this is an excellent (if not the best) spot to people-watch and get a feel for local life.
At sundown, you can see couples strolling with an elote (corn on the cob) in hand, families running after their giggling toddlers, and cowboy-hat-wearing gentlemen belting out old-school classics. Food stands serve a smorgasbord of regional Mexican flavors, including marquesitas (stuffed crepes) and tacos de cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) – iconic of the Yucatán Peninsula – at M$20 (US$1) each.
See traditional dances at Parque Fundadores
After you’ve had your fill of tacos, take a wander down to the beachfront square, Parque Fundadores, the palpitating heart of Playa del Carmen. This central plaza is a hive of activity every evening, as the sun sets and brings the temperature down a notch. A 52-foot (15.8 meters) Maya sculpture stands at the water’s edge, setting the stage for daily dance performances.
Look up, and you’ll spot the Voladores de Papantla, men swinging off a tall pole and spinning all the way to the ground. This acrobatic cultural dance originated from Veracruz and was named an Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco. Originally, the dance was part of a ritual to appease the gods during drought; today, it’s more of a cultural display found all over Mexico. Remember to bring small notes to tip the performers.