Whether you’re looking for a kid-friendly beach or seeking out the best surf spots, we’ve got you covered © Digital Vision / Getty Images
Playa del Carmen sprawls across a glorious 32km (20-mile) stretch of the Riviera Maya coastline, alternating between wild rocky coves and powder-puff-white sand spits. And considering how small the area is, there’s a surprisingly broad range of beaches to choose from.
The best beaches are on both northern and southern ends of Playa del Carmen, away from the thumping music and party crowd of Centro. In the North are rocky stretches and coral reefs teeming with vibrant marine life. Down south, you’ll find wide strands with crushed-coral sand and the shallow, crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.
Whether you’re looking for a kid-friendly beach or seeking out the best surf spots, we’ve got you covered. These are the best beaches in Playa del Carmen.
Best beach for open space
Ask any local what the best beach in Playa del Carmen is, and the answer is likely Playacar. This expanse of white sand runs immediately south of the busy ferry terminal, but it’s calm and pristine, a stark contrast to the downtown mayhem.
The sweeping bay of golden sand rarely feels crowded, even though it’s flanked by beachfront condos and all-inclusive resorts. As Playacar is an upscale gated community, the public beach is well taken care of, and it shows: even on days when sargassum seaweed washes up on shore, it gets cleaned up first thing in the morning.
To get to Playacar Beach, walk past the ferry pier on Av Benito Juarez. The shore next to the dock has a gentle slope with shallow waters excellent for the young ones. Continue further and take the first side street to find the Xaman-Ha ruins, where remnants of a pre-Columbian Mayan settlement still stand. The entrance is free.
Top Tip: In Mexico, all beaches are public by law, including beaches in private communities. Walking into Playacar along the beach is easy, and you will rarely get checked. For those driving in, make sure to bring an ID, which you just need to show at the checkpoint.
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Playa del Pecado
Best secluded beach
The isolated southern tip of Playacar is a secret whispered amongst locals. Backed by wild jungles and soaring palm trees, the sand-rimmed beach is one of the few remaining patches of wilderness in the Rivera Maya. Free from commercialization, the only sign of civilization here is the security guard from private land nearby.
It takes a bit of effort to get here: keep walking south from Playacar Beach for 30 minutes until you clamber over rock formations and reach an impassable point. But this wild comma of sand is well worth the hike — you’ll most likely have it all to yourself. There’s no shade or vendors on the beach, so bring a hat, snacks and drinks with you.
Kids love to splash in Punta Esmerelda's lagoon-like cenote © Afton Almaraz / Getty Images
Best beach for families
On the far northern edge of Playa del Carmen lies the crescent-shaped bay of Punta Esmeralda. You certainly won’t be alone here, as it's a popular spot for local families, but it is an undeniable break from the tourist trail.
What makes Punta Esmeralda such a big hit with families is its lagoon-like cenote (freshwater spring). This isn't your typical underground sinkhole: it resembles a tidal pool, with soft sand and knee-deep water that kids love to splash in. A fantastic natural playground, Punta Esmeralda has creature comforts as well, including changing rooms, shaded deckchairs and snack stands.
Top Tip: Punta Esmeralda is a curved bay sheltered from the open sea, and thus receives less sargassum seaweed than other beaches in Playa del Carmen. If you’re visiting during the sargassum season, which runs roughly from April to August, this might be the best place to swim in seaweed-free water.
Best beach for snorkeling
It may not be your traditional white-sand paradise, but Xcalacolo Beach offers something special for those interested in what lies beneath the surface. With coral reefs and rocky outcrops, the strand has vibrant marine life perfect for underwater exploration.
The water under the dock plays host to schools of manta rays, angelfish and technicolored parrotfish, and it’s shallow enough for nervous swimmers to feel safe. Children will enjoy poking around the natural pools that form around the rocks, spotting hermit crabs and sea slugs. You can even sign them up for marine biology classes, which include soft snorkeling adventures, with We Love the Sea. The courses are open to kids aged 5 to 12 years old and held twice a week at Xcalacolo Beach.
Top Tip: If you’re looking to rent snorkeling gear, check out rental shops in town rather than on the beach, as they’re usually much cheaper. Reef-friendly sunscreen is also available in many convenience stores and pharmacies downtown.
The best way to take in this golden hour is to book a sunrise stand-up paddleboarding session at Inti Beach © Luna Vandoorne / Shutterstock
Best beach for sunrise
Stretching across the busiest part of Playa del Carmen, Inti Beach is party central for millennials and hippies. During the day, it’s high in energy and packed with a young crowd sipping cocktails in bamboo cabanas; by night, fire dancers take the stage, with sexy Cafe del Mar music echoing in the background.
At sunrise, however, everything comes to a standstill. There is silence, except for the hypnotizing sound of the lapping waves and the occasional breeze, and under the sun’s rays, the calm-as-glass water turns into a sea of liquid gold.
The best way to take in the moment is to book a sunrise SUP (stand-up paddleboard) session with Aloha Paddle Club. The guided sessions are held daily starting at 7am, and offer a rare opportunity to see Playa del Carmen before the city awakes.
Top Tip: To get to the beach in the early hours, consider renting a bike from the many BiciPlaya kiosks around town. This city-wide bike-sharing system allows anyone (tourists included) to rent a bike using their app. Fees start from M$98 (US$4.75) for a one-day pass.
Best beach off the beaten path
The lesser-known Playa 88 gives a glimpse of how Playa del Carmen used to be. Fishers arrive in their colorful painted boats, hauling their catch for the day; young men from the Colosio neighborhood take an early morning dip in the sea, while older gentlemen walk their dogs along the shore. Indie travelers slowly roll in with their bicycles before pitching up for a game or two of beach volleyball.
Unlike the popular beaches in Centro, Playa 88 remains relatively quiet and unvisited. You won’t find rowdy beach clubs or massive resorts here — just a few wooden cabanas and tin-roofed shacks. The sandy spit is framed by a thick jungle and swamp, which you need to traverse (along a sandy path) to get to the beach.
The main draws at Puerto Aventuras are the turquoise waves and perfect swells © Javier Garcia/Shutterstock
Puerto Aventuras Beach
Best beach for surfing
It’s easy to love Puerto Aventuras: azure waves and clear-as-glass water lap up against what's lauded as the cleanest beach in Playa del Carmen. With its marinas and outdoor dining options, this upscale residential community has a Florida feel to it.
The main draws here are the turquoise waves and perfect swells, making it a hot favorite among wave riders. Lessons run by Nohoch Surf are a massive hit among local families and visitors, especially during mini surf camps, when you'll see kids as young as four standing up on their boards and riding the waves – on day one! If you feel confident enough to go it alone, the school also has rentals, from soft-top surfboards to fiberglass longboards.
Top Tip: Puerto Aventuras is a straightforward 20-minute drive from Playa del Carmen. It can be difficult to access the beach, though. Leave your car at the Puerto Aventuras Hotel car park and follow the narrow walking path to find the beach. If you’re not driving, catch any colectivo (public transport) bound for Tulum from the Av Juarez terminal in Playa del Carmen.