Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Which Holiday Destination is Better?

cancun vs Riviera Maya
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So, it’s come down to Cancun vs Riviera Maya. First off, don’t worry too much about which you pick. Both beckon visitors to the balmy shores of the Mexican Caribbean, where the waters are turquoise blue and the palm trees sway in the trade winds. They each offer R&R and tequila-soaked parties, with some truly fantastic hotels and resort stays by the water’s edge. You can’t really go wrong in these parts…

But if you’ve only got the vacation time to make it to one, be sure to check out this guide. Here, Cancun will be battling it out with the Riviera Maya. We’ll reveal everything you need to know about these two gorgeous locations, with a special eye on their beaches, their mainstay attractions, the buzzy nightlife scenes, and the top hotels.

You should find that both places share quite a lot of similarities. One, Cancun, is a bustling city that’s famed for its long Hotel Zone and spring break parties. The other, the Riviera Maya, isn’t just a single town, but rather a stretch of Mexican ports and beaches that runs for nearly 100 miles down the side of the Yucatan Peninsula. Let’s dive right in and see which one suits you the most.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: General vibe

A beach on the Riviera Maya
Photo by Darren Lawrence/Unsplash

First off, we should say that Cancun and the Riviera Maya are two very different things. One’s a major city with an adjoining resort district at the top end of the Yucatan Peninsula. That’s Cancun. The other is a whole section of the Mexian Caribbean coastline, running for a whopping 85 miles from tip to tail. That’s the Riviera Maya.

So, choose to stay in Cancun and you’re choosing to stay in a single town, although you can pick between different neighborhoods – like Centro and the South Hotel Zone. Go for the Riviera and you have a choice of nearly 10 individual towns, not to mention the whole island of Cozumel to boot. More than that, every location on the Riviera Maya has a slightly different feel to it. Tulum, for example, is uber-chic and very showy these days, but Puerto Morelos still has the charms of a laid-back Mexicana fishing village.

Basically, Cancun is always going to be Cancun. It’s a party-mad, R&R resort that’s packed with hotels and bars and spring break clubs. Love it or hate it, that’s what you get. Riviera Maya, on the other hand, offers multiple resorts, some sleepy, some lively, some characterful, some luxurious. You can hop between them or settle in just one that has the vibes you like the most.

Winner: Riviera Maya – there’s just so much choice.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Accommodation

hotel in Mexico
Photo by Kalea Morgan/Unsplash

There’s a whopping 921 hotels on offer from Booking.com in Cancun. Most of those await in the official Hotel Zone. That’s the most popular district in the city and the one you’ll want on the radar when you come to book. Shaped like a number 7, it runs east and then south from the center. The nightlife nerve center is around Punta Cancun. The quieter, more luxurious all-inclusives are further south. We particularly like the budget-friendly Celuisma Imperial Laguna for shoestring trips. However, there’s nothing that can beat the opulence of The Ritz-Carlton – think a private beach, seven restaurants, and a private spa.

Booking.com offers over 2,000 hotels along the whole length of the Riviera Maya. There’s a little bit more variety here. Yes, you get the usual all-inclusive resort with sprawling infinity pools in the major resort towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. However, there’s also space to fit in quirky eco stays like the rustic-chic Papaya Playa Project or the Scandi-chic Copal Tulum Hotel, complete with lush jungle gardens and a breezy rooftop. There are also hostels for the true budget seekers and Mexican homestays that put you in the more residential areas of towns like Tulum, but rarely super-close to the top beaches.

Winner: Riviera Maya. Again, this comes down to variety.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Prices

Shopping in Riviera Maya
Photo by Braden Collum/Unsplash

Both of these places are major tourist destinations, so you can expect them to be a tad more expensive than more off-the-beaten-track Mexican spots. Comparing the two, there’s really not much in it. The truth is that Cancun can be cheaper for some things, while the Riviera Maya can be for others. Let’s take a look at where those pesos will stretch the farthest:

  • Restaurants – Prices for food in Playa Del Carmen are very reasonable. Beachfront and 5th Avenue will be the more touristy and slightly more expensive places, while you can eat between 10th Avenue and 30th Avenue to get the local prices. We’d say that food in Cancun is more expensive in general. However, you can get bargain street food at the ad hoc markets that pop up around Centro’s Parque de las Palapas in Cancun.
  • Transport – Taxis tend to be more expensive on the Riviera Maya than in Cancun, but that’s not so much down to cost as it is to the longer distances you’re likely to be traveling from town to town. Both places have a pretty good local bus network, which will be just the fraction of the cost of traveling by private taxi – you’re talking just a handful of dollars for even the longer rides!
  • Hotels – We’d say there are more budget hotels in Cancun than in Riviera Maya. That’s mainly because most hotels in Riviera Maya will be close to the beach. In Cancun, you can always retreat to the more wallet-friendly Centro part of town. There’s not a grain of sand in sight, but it is easier on the budget. That said, some deluxe hotels in Cancun reign as the most expensive in Mexico as a whole, so watch out for those.

Winner: Cancun, because the Centro area has some bargains.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Food

Food market in Mexico
Photo by Miranda Garside/Unsplash

Here’s the thing – don’t come to this part of Mexico in search of authentic Latin cooking. You can get it, but Oaxaca or Puebla this is not. The region isn’t known as one of the culinary hubs of the country. It’s probably more famed for the wealth of international kitchens or fusion kitchens. Some of those are downright fantastic, mind you. Most are associated with hotels and bear the names of celeb chefs. The downside is you’ll need to fork out a whole load more for a tasting menu there than you would for a street taco in CDMX.

The stand outs for us in Cancun are the Hacienda El Mortero, a yummy Mexican restaurant is just an eight-minute drive from Hotel Zone. The menus are brimming with tortilla soup, guacamole baskets, fajitas, enchiladas – it’s real good if you have to sample something local. You can also hang around the Parque de las Palapas areas to taste the fantastic street food there. Alternatively, check Lorenzillo’s for Med-Mex fusion food and surf-turf on the lagoon side of the Hotel Zone.

The sophistication of the Riviera is on show at Cocina de Autor just south of San Miguelito. It’s an elegant, fine-dining spot with tables that roll out to gaze across the Caribbean. Flavor combos like smoked cream and honeydew mole, pork, cactus and chamomile are the name of the game. Azul is another option that reveals the casual eating side of the area with its sumptuous international buffets.

Winner: Riviera Maya. More towns equals more restaurants, and a more local flavor to boot.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Beaches

beach in Mexico
Photo by Joe Cooke/Unsplash

Talcum-white sand and seas of milky blue are the name of the game pretty much anywhere you go in this corner of Mexico, so there’s plenty to look forwards to in both Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Some caveats are needed though:

The main beaches in Cancun stretch along the Hotel Zone. It’s worth knowing that the northern beaches (the ones on the top of the 7) have the calmest waters. They’re usually better than any in the whole of the Yucatan for families, but they will get busy. Options there include Playa Cancun and Playa Langosta. If you don’t mind a few waves, you can curve around to the long part of the Hotel Zone to discover Gaviota Azul or Playa Marlin, where the crowds drop away just a little. Also remember that you have the option of crossing to the Isla Mujeres. It’s a boat ride away, but it’s paradise.

Riviera Maya has some of Mexico’s most-photographed beaches. The one that always seems to pop up is the main beach at Tulum. That’s an Instagrammer’s dream with its temple-topped cliffs. However, it’s by no means the best in the area. That honor would probably go to the vibrant Playa Akumal, where the palms fringe a perfect white coastline, or – here’s a personal fav – secluded Xpu-Ha. The major downside with the Riviera Maya beaches is the Sargassum seaweed bloom. That can pass by between April and August and totally ruin the place.

Winner: Probably Cancun, but only because of the seaweed blooms that affect the beaches of the Riviera Maya.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Attractions

Aquarium
Photo by Biljana Martinic/Unsplash

Cancun is a resort town and that’s what it does best. The main draws are the beaches (see above), the nightlife (see below), and a few family friendly attractions in the classic sense. The Cancun Aquarium is a budget-friendly example. It’s located inside the La Isla Shopping Village and offers a glimpse at some amazing local marine life. On top of that, Cancun is a fantastic place to launch expeditions deeper into the Yucatan. That means day trips to the cenotes or even UNESCO-tagged Chichen Itza are possibilities. Most packages include pickup and drop off at your hotel. Easy.

The Riviera Maya also has a darn fantastic array of family draws, but bolsters that with loads of nature. The numero uno thing to do is Xel-Ha Park. It’s the perfect fusion of the wild and the fun, with zip lines and swimming cenotes and lagoons filled with tropical fish. We’d also say that the Tulum Mayan ruins are something spectacular. They face the Caribbean Sea from the Archeological Zone of Tulum and are unlike anything else in the world, even with the steady stream of Instagrammers!

Winner: Riviera Maya, because Cancun is more of a self-contained resort.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Nightlife

Cancun nightlife
Photo by caevans100/Pixabay

Spring break in Cancun…it reads like a line on the bucket list! Seriously, this one’s up there with Ibiza and Cabo and all the other major global party destinations. It’s always wild, always raucous. Coco Bongo really leads the charge. It’s a club unlike any other, with projected videos, balloons, soap bubbles, and confetti just a taste of what goes on inside on a normal night. Oh yea, and it’s owned by Jim Carrey! Other epic venues include The City and Mandala, but there are bucket loads of bars and whatnot to fill the nocturnal hours.

The Riviera Maya has some pumping spots right alongside relaxed beach towns. You won’t be glugging tequilas to sunup in chilled Puerto Morelos, for example. However, that’s perfectly possible if you manage to score a place on the Playa Crawl down in Playa del Carmen. Alternatively, there’s a lower key nightlife in venues like Kitxen, where dancing and mezcal cocktails and chatting to the locals is the name of the game.

Winner: Cancun. It’s one of the most legendary party towns in the world.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: For families

Riviera Maya Tulum beach
Photo by drelyea/Pixabay

Planning a jaunt to Mexico with the family in tow? The truth is that both these destinations are great picks. They offer oodles of hotels – some of the best family hotels in the country, in fact – right on the Caribbean Sea. Cancun’s whole Hotel Zone has stays that are well primed for the whole troupe, but we’d recommend skipping the uber-lively area of Punta Cancun, which can become overrun with spring break partiers during February and March. Better choices are the beaches on the north side of the Hotel Zone and even the condos of Puerto Cancun.

However, we’d say that the Riviera Maya is an all-round better choice for families. It’s got about 10 different towns that you can pick from, each with varying levels of liveliness, but none with the same hedonistic overload that comes with spring break in Cancun. Places that we think are perfect for family visitors in these parts include chilled Puerto Morelos, Punta Maroma, and the more upscale gated community of Playacar (for villas).

Winner: Riviera Maya is the more family friendly option since it’s quieter during spring break.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Day trips

Cenote
Photo by Roberto Carlos Roman Don/Unsplash

One of the great things about making a trip to the beach towns that sit on the side of Quintana Roo state is that you get all the joys of the central Yucatan Peninsula within reach. What’s helpful is both the Riviera Maya and Cancun are close to pretty much all the main draws. To put it another way, all the things you can do from Cancun you’ll be able to do from Riviera Maya and vice versa. However, there are some day trips that are a touch easier from Cancun. They include:

  • Chichen Itza – The great UNESCO city of the ancient Maya lies neatly down the main highway to the east of Cancun. It’s an absolute must for history buffs.
  • Valladolid – A very pretty colonial-era city with its roots in the 1500s, this one’s a taste of something more authentic than the beach city itself.
  • Isla Holbox – A lesser-known corner of the Yucatan that’s got gorgeous white-sand beaches. Come here to get around on an ATV and push the chill factor to the max.

There are also day trips that you’ll find easier to make from the Riviera Maya. They tend to be to places that are further south in the region, closer to the Belize-Mex border and in the less-explored southern end of Quintana Roo. They include:

  • Bacalar Lagoon – Recently, the Bacalar Lagoon rose to Instagram fame for its shimmering waters that glow in seven shades of blue.
  • The cenotes – There are oodles of cenotes tours around both Cancun and Riviera Maya, but the best leave from the latter, taking in cenotes like Azul and incredible Dos Ojos.
  • Cozumel – Cozumel is technically a part of the Riviera Maya but it also makes a cracking daytrip if you’re staying on the mainland. It’s especially good for scuba diving and snorkelling.

Winner: Draw. There are fantastic day trips on offer from both these places.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya – the verdict

So, as you’ve read, both of these locations have a lot of pros and not that many cons. That’s just what it’s like in this awesome part of Mex! In fact, the real answer to the Cancun vs Riviera Maya debate is that there is no answer. Sorry. It’s just about what you want from your holiday.

Cancun is home to some super impressive hotels and beaches. What’s more, being in a big city means you’re closer to more of the action and nightlife. On the flip side, the Riviera Maya has stunning coastal lagoons and cenotes, along with characterful fishing towns, but also pumping nightlife areas that are more local than spring breaker.

We’ll let you decide.

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Founder of Journeying The Globe. Adventurer and hustler. I have been traveling for the last four years, splitting most of my time between Thailand and Bali.