Playa del Carmen is known as one of Mexico’s most expensive destinations, but it is possible to have a great time in Playa on a budget.
Admittedly, we did have to dig pretty deep in the four months we spent in Playa to find free activities. That said, our list of free things to do in Playa del Carmen should keep you busy, even if you don’t have much cash to spend.
In Playa del Carmen (and all of Mexico), all beaches are public and free. If you can get access to the beach, anywhere, you’re allowed to enjoy it. There are as many flavors and stretches of beach in Playa del Carmen as there are types of people who visit. The beautiful people tend to congregate outside Mamitas and Kool beach clubs. No need to pay for a beach chair, just grab your towel and lay down on the beach, and you’re there for free. As you walk north of Mamitas, the beach is just as beautiful, but crowds thin and you’ll see more locals.
Tip: If you go to Mamita’s beach, you can grab cheap drinks and snacks at the Oxxo convenience store on Calle 28 Norte as you walk toward the beach.
People watch on Quinta Avenida
Quinta, sometimes called 5th Avenue, is the place to see and be seen in Playa. It has the feel of a touristy beach resort during the day, changing to a pretty thriving night scene as the day wears on. The far South end by the pier is a gauntlet of touts and tourist shops that turns to a quieter buzz of restaurants and trinket shops as you head North. Walk far enough North, past Avenida Constituyentes, and you’ll find little Italy, where it’s a bit quieter and prices are a bit lower.
Tip: Food and entertainment are pretty expensive on Quinta Avenida, but you’ll find the cheapest ice cream at McDonalds (70 pesos or about 50 US cents for a cone) and the cheapest eats at Pizza Pazza (between calles 14 and 16) where you can grab a slice starting at 15 pesos (about 1.25 USD). Head west on 10th Avenida or along any of the streets (calles, in Spanish) leading west of Quinta and you’ll find much cheaper eats than on the main drag itself.
Check out Parque Fundadores
Newly renovated, Parque Fundadores is a great starting point for checking out the busiest parts of Playa. Start by looking at the impressive new sculpture overlooking the beach and right next to the pier to Cozumel (Avenida Juarez and 5th Avenida). Be sure not to miss the lovely white stucco church at the corner of the park (Nuestra Senora del Carmen Catholic Church), with windows that look out over the dazzling Caribbean sea. At night peruse the stalls that line the area. Be entertained by the many activities that regularly take over the park and the surrounding streets.
Walk through Playacar
Located at the far South end of Playa, Playacar is a green, tree-lined community that’s as close to an idyllic suburb as you’ll find in the Yucatan. Sidewalks are wide and there’s a lot of ground to cover, making Playacar perfect for a long walk, bicycle ride or a run. Bring water and a snack as convenience stores can be fairly scarce in Playacar. Playacar is also a gated community, but if you look reputable and are prepared to offer a reason why you’re going in, and you shouldn’t have any problem. The easiest entrance for most is on Avenida 10 Sur and Calle 1 Sur, though there are several entrances, including one on the highway (50 Avenida Sur and Paseo Coba).
Get some local flavor on Avenida Juarez
Juarez is busy, vibrant and chock full of cheap places to eat and shop any time of day. Most tourists don’t venture West of 10th avenue and it’s a shame. The touristy Playa del Carmen rapidly fades to a real Mexican town the further West you go. Just use the same common sense precautions you would use walking around any strange city in North America or Europe and you’ll be fine. We’ve walked Juarez all the way from Quinta Avenida to about Avenida 80 with our little kids many times, both during the day and early evening.
Hang out in the park
You’ll find some fun free entertainment in the attractive Parque 28 de Julio (15 Avenida Norte and Calle 10 Norte) most evenings, where local families go to relax after work. Right across from the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) it’s also the location of a giant Christmas tree in winter and hosts a lot of festivals throughout the year. During the day, Parque la Ceiba (on Calle 1a Sur and Diagonal Avenida 60) is worth a visit, with its playgrounds for the kids and quiet (if short) walking trail. There’s even yoga in the mornings, and lots of kids and community activities taking place all the time.
Go to the flea market
Check out the flea market on Sundays on Calle 54 between Avenida 10 and 30. You likely won’t find any priceless treasures here, but it’s busy and fun, and a great way to see the real Playa del Carmen.
Are you an animal lover?
Check out the Playa Animal Rescue’s Spa and Play days every Saturday at 9:00 am. You’ll give the rescued puppies some much needed love and TLC, and help out a good cause. Meet them in the Mega parking lot for transportation to and from the shelter. A cash or donation of dog food is much appreciated.
Check out the Sports Center (Unidad Deportiva) on 10 Avenida and Calle 34. It has tennis courts, basketball courts and a running track. Tennis court fees are around 3 USD an hour, but everything else is free.
Too rainy for the beach?
It won’t you cost a penny to take a walk through two of Playa’s largest malls, Maya Centro (on the highway/50th Avenida and about Calle 28 Sur) and Plaza las Americas (located at Avenida 115 Norte and Calle 75 Norte). The malls are air conditioned, indoor and modern and the food courts abound for cheap food options. If you have kids and 15 pesos (about $1.25 USD) to spend, there’s a miniature train ride in both malls. If you can tease a little cash out of your wallet, both malls also have arcades, modern movie theaters (some movies are in English) and Maya Centro has a bowling alley right beside it.
If you can manage transportation, there are quite a few fun free day trips out of the city.
Swim with the sea turtles in Akumal Bay. The beach is free, you can bring your own food and drink. Bring a snorkel to get the most out of swimming with these beauties. With any luck, you’ll also see barracuda and rays. Check out the informative CEA or Centro Ecological Akumal for some great info on sea turtles.
Check out Puerto Morales. This is worth the drive just for the view of the fishing boats and spectacular aquamarine ocean off the pier. There’s a nice central square if you want to relax a bit, and be sure to check out the Alma Libre bookstore for the best selection of English books in the area. Walk North of the pier to access a long, natural beach. As with all beaches in Mexico, it’s a public beach, so just set down your towel and enjoy.
Tip: Don’t be put off by the sea grass. The sea grass is a sign of healthy marine life. Unlike Playa, the beach isn’t manicured in most places, so there might be a little floating sea grass along the waters edge. If so, you might need to take a little hop over the first couple of feet of sea grass and you’ll be in virtually crystal clear water. Bring your snorkel, as we’re seen hawks bill sea turtles offshore and tons of fish, but be careful as there’s sometimes a bit of a current.
Relax on Tulum’s quiet beaches. Tulum is best known for its Mayan ruins, but it also boasts what I think are the nicest beaches in the area, with fine white sand and crystal clear water. For now at least, the best thing about Tulum’s beaches is that they’re relatively quiet, but word’s getting out fast. The best place to access the beach is just off the beach access road close to El Paraiso Beach Club, though you should be able just to walk on through any of the beach resorts. Bring your own drinks and snacks as the next beach clubs be a bit of a hike down the beach.
Looking for a cheap place to stay in Playa? As a family of four, we’ve had the best luck getting good deals on apartment stays through Airbnb.