Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what’s the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

posted by Liza 4th April 2017 2 Comments
Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

Are you are curious where to go in Mexico? Maybe you would like to know what’s the big difference between Cancun and Riviera Maya? Cancun vs Riviera Maya what to choose? To be honest, I spent a fair amount of time deciding where to go in Mexico for the first time, Cancun or Riviera Maya and during the next trip to Mexico (in order to get married there, actually), I decided to split our honeymoon into two parts and stay in both, Riviera Maya and Cancun.

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. In this post, we’ll compare Riviera Maya vs Cancun, so you’ll know which one to choose when you go to Mexico.

Let’s get started.

Cancun or Riviera Maya. Which is better?

Part 1. Cancun. Where is Cancun?

Cancun is a great holiday destination (mostly for the Americans) because of its posh all-inclusive resorts, soft sand, and turquoise ocean. Cancun is really close to the airport (Cancun airport), so it won’t take you more than 30 minutes to get there by taxi.

Cancun has really great beaches, I must admit (Hyatt Ziva where we stayed has one of the best beaches if not the best in entire Cancun, I wrote about it in our honeymoon post).

Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

The downtown of Cancun is in the Zona Hotelera, Hard Rock Cafe being the center of it. In case you want to go out sometimes, all the bars, clubs and markets are located there. The clubs are quite expensive, sometimes the entry is around 30-40 dollars per person, but note that it includes unlimited drinks and show. I guess that’s what makes Cancun a very desirable destination for Americans aged 18-21. First of all, they can drink (in the United States the minimum drinking age is 21) and secondly, the alcohol prices are very low.

Cancun has plenty of posh expensive all-inclusive resorts, but it also has many hostels and 3-4* hotels, which offer free shuttles to the beach. All the beaches in Cancun are public, that’s a great thing!

Apart from clubbing and shopping, there’s not much to do in Cancun. There are an underwater museum and Dolphinaris in Cancun, but everything else requires you to buy a tour and get quite far from Cancun.


Part 2: Riviera Maya. Is Riviera Maya better than Cancun?

Riviera Maya, on the contrary, has plenty of things to offer, from natural caves with turquoise water (cenotes) to Tulum and all these famous parks like Xcaret, Xplore, and Xel-Xa. You can go watch some turtles in Akumal or go around in a tiny gondola in Xochimilco. However, Riviera Maya is really huge (better to say long) as it goes all the way from Cancun airport to the South, to Tulum.

Read about the 10 best resorts in Riviera Maya here!

The journey from Cancun Airport to Tulum is really long and pricey. The fastest way to get there is by taxi, but it would cost you around 90-110 dollars one way (depending on the location of your hotel). There’s a bus, but it has a weird schedule, so it’s worth to check in advance how much you have to wait till the next bus. However, if you’re heading to Playa del Carmen, there’s a bus, which goes there every half an hour or so and it’s not so expensive. It’s also possible to get first to Playa Del Carmen by this big bus and then jump in a small minibus “colectivo”, which goes to Tulum every 5 minutes and costs around 70 pesos per person.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

Most of the hotels in Riviera Maya are huge family-oriented resorts and some of them even consist of 3-5 lobbies (or 2-4 different hotels). For example, Grand Bahía Principe where we stayed for 5 days, has 3 different hotels – Akumal, Coba, and Tulum. Most of the hotels are built in the mangrove and thus you’ll be surrounded by local fauna during your all-inclusive stay: iguanas, agoutis, tejones, racoons and even more animals. That’s something you won’t see in Cancun (because there is no jungle).

However, in places like Playa Del Carmen, you can find cheap accommodation and affordable hotels and hostels. Also, Playa del Carmen is quite a big city located in the heart of Riviera Maya, which has plenty of shops, shopping malls, restaurants, bars, and clubs. The most famous club is probably Mamitas Beach – they usually organize huge parties for New Year and invite famous DJs. Many people are asking what is better, Playa del Carmen vs Riviera Maya, but the question is incorrect since Playa del Carmen IS in Riviera Maya.

The beaches in Riviera Maya vary a lot: some are very rocky and you’ll need some special shoes to enter the ocean, some have coral reefs which make swimming there entertaining but not very comfortable. I personally liked the beach in Cancun way more than the one in Riviera Maya, but Riviera Maya is proper exotic compared to Cancun. So in this case comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, you need to choose what do you value the most: comfort while swimming or proper exotic experience. I wouldn’t say Cancun is better than Riviera Maya or Riviera Maya is better than Cancun. They both are different.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

Is it worth going to these famous parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha?

I can only tell you about my experience in Xcaret in 2015. It was quite bad. There’s pretty much nothing to do there except for the show and swimming in the artificial river. There’s a zoo but it’s not so impressive either. The beach there was tiny and overcrowded and the food wasn’t good either. So I felt like paying 110+ dollars wasn’t worth it and our hotel Gran Palladium was way better than the park. However, if you’re staying in Cancun, the parks could be proper exotic for you.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

Travel independently or buy a package tour to Cancun or Riviera Maya?

Well, since we were booking everything last moment for our honeymoon in Cancun and Riviera Maya, we had to use However, if you’re doing everything in advance, it’s worth to check the package tours, as it can be up to 2 times cheaper (and sometimes even more). This applies if you’re going to an all-inclusive resort of course. In case you’re going to a hostel in Playa del Carmen, it’s cheaper to book everything yourself.

Why not check this guide to the best hotels in Riviera Maya, Mexico? 

Staying a long time in your all-inclusive resort can be boring. Add some adventure and thrill to your next trip to Cancun or Riviera Maya by taking a tour to one of the mystical places Yucatan peninsula has to offer: pyramids, cenotes, jungle waterparks you name it.

In case you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! We’ll be very happy to answer them!

Liked this article about Riviera Maya vs Cancun: where to go in Mexico? Share it on Pinterest!

Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico? Tulum, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Ceniotes

Check this out


Karen 9th April 2017 at 9:51 pm

Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m in the process of finalizing my travel plans to Mexico for next February and I came across your post. My husband and I (plus 2 teenage boys) also plan on staying at the Hyatt, but I’m also trying to figure out which of the ruins we should visit while we are there. Did you go to either Chichen Itza, Coba, Ek Balam or Tulum? I realize it is quite a drive from Cancun, but I can’t travel to the area without seeing at least 1. Chichen Itza is really far, but it’s also the most well known. I’ve also heard great things about Coba as well. I’d also love to go snorkeling at some point while we are there, so assuming we can plan that out w/ the concierge. Finally, since most of the adventure/water experiences seem to be farther down the coast, I was considering staying in Playa del Carmen for 2 days and then head up to Cancun for the rest of the week to relax. However, there is something nice about just staying in 1 place too! Thanks in advance.

Liza 10th April 2017 at 12:31 pm

Hey, Karen! We went to Tulum and various cenotes, but couldn’t go to Chichen Itza. You can go snorkelling for free in Hyatt, they have this option, but the best snorkelling is in Akumal – you can see some giant turtles there. We actually stayed 4 days in Gran Bahia Principe Coba – that was really close to Tulum and cenotes, we didn’t even buy tours – just went there by public transport (faster and 3 times cheaper). And then we went to Hyatt in Cancun just to enjoy the hotel and the ocean. However, in Hyatt you can buy all the tours and even go to Chichen Itza from there


Leave a Comment