Are you planning a holiday in Mexico, but you aren’t quite sure, where to go? Well, as you probably know, some of the most popular options include Cancun or Riviera Maya (including Playa del Carmen and Tulum). Would you like to know, what are the main differences between Cancun and Riviera Maya? Is Cancun better than Playa Del Carmen or Tulum? Let’s find out!
This post has been originally published in 2017 and then updated in 2019 and 2020. This post has last been updated in July 2021.
If you’re new to this blog, hi! We are Liza and Jose, a Russian-Mexican couple based in London, UK. We try to go to Mexico every year and each time, I try to share the most useful city guides, tips and advice on this blog. Are you interested in more blog posts about Mexico? Read our Mexico destination page.
Here’s what you can expect to find in this post:
This post's overview:
- 1 What is Riviera Maya and why are there so many places? Our experience in Riviera Maya and Cancun
- 2 Cancun or Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Akumal): what’s the best Caribbean destination in Mexico?
- 3 Part 1: Cancun
- 4 Part 2: Riviera Maya. Playa del Carmen. Tulum. Is Riviera Maya better than Cancun?
- 5 Is it worth going to the famous parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha?
- 6 Should you travel independently or buy a package tour to Cancun or Riviera Maya?
- 7 Planning a honeymoon in Mexico?
- 8 Some of our other posts about Mexico you might find useful:
What is Riviera Maya and why are there so many places? Our experience in Riviera Maya and Cancun
I spent a fair amount of time researching where to go on holiday
That time in 2015, we picked Riviera Maya. However, we returned to Mexico in 2016 in order to get married and decided to split our honeymoon between two locations: Riviera Maya and Cancun, which was a great idea! We stayed near Playa Del Carmen, visited Tulum and then stayed in Cancun for 4 days. If you have an opportunity to split your holiday into a few parts, you can visit all these places because surprisingly, they all are different and all are great. However, if you can only pick one, keep reading, I will try my best to explain the differences between Cancun vs Playa del Carmen and Tulum (the latter two are located in Riviera Maya).
But first, check the availability and the prices of the flights to Cancun now. Playa Del Carmen and Tulum don’t have their own airports, so you will have to fly to Cancun in any case.
Cancun or Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Akumal): what’s the best Caribbean destination in Mexico?
Part 1: Cancun
Where in Mexico is Cancun?
Cancun is a famous and very popular Mexican resort located on the East Coast of Mexico (Yucatan Peninsula, to be precise).
Cancun is a great holiday destination 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. Everybody in Cancun speaks English, so there are absolutely no problems with communication. Cancun is extremely popular with American tourists while in Riviera Maya (Playa del Carmen and Tulum) you can find a lot of European travellers as well.
Cancun has some really great beaches, I must admit that Hyatt Ziva where we stayed for 4 nights had one of the best beaches I’ve ever visited (and that after visiting 93 countries). Want to know which beach made it to the top 1? The one in the Maldives (read about our experience in the Maldives here) and this one in the Seychelles).
What to do in Cancun?
If you’re wondering what to do in Cancun, let me tell you about the best activities and things to do in Cancun.
The downtown of Cancun is in the Zona Hotelera, Hard Rock Cafe being the
Partying in Cancun: The clubs are quite expensive, sometimes the entry is around $30-40 (USD) per person, but note that it includes unlimited drinks and a show. I guess that’s what makes Cancun a very desirable destination for young Americans aged 18-21, who can go out in Cancun (in Mexico, you can buy alcohol if you’re 18). I haven’t been to Cancun during the spring break time (I guess that would be the most popular time of the year for the 18-year-olds), however, if it’s not your cup of tea, I would recommend avoiding the time of the spring break if you’re planning to go to Cancun.
Shopping in Cancun: there are a couple of shopping malls in Cancun, however, the prices are not much different from the US.
Museums and other activities in Cancun: one of the highlights of Cancun is the underwater museum – it’s best visited together with the shipwreck snorkelling tour.
Best tours to take from Cancun: Cancun is a great destination for exploring the highlights of Yucatan peninsula and there are plenty of tours you can buy in order to see the most of Cancun.
Some of the tours that I would recommend include:
Where to stay in Cancun? Options for any budget
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 actually great.
As I mentioned above, it’s great, that Cancun has many options for ANY budget and here I wanted to share with you some of the best-rated hotels in different price ranges.
We stayed in Hyatt Ziva that is an amazing family-friendly hotel, which also has an adults-only tower, spa and swimming pool, which makes it amazing and quite unique in combining these two totally different amenities. Check the availability now!
Prices in Cancun. How expensive is Cancun, Mexico?
If you’re wondering what are the prices in Cancun and how expensive is generally Cancun, well, I can say, that you can relax there with any budget.
Luxury hotels are expensive (usually something like $500-700 per night), but that’s for two people and all-inclusive, meaning that you don’t have to spend any $$$ on anything anymore. However, you can easily relax in Cancun for a week for $2000 for two people including flights, food and affordable hotels (even resorts if you catch it on sale).
I would say, Cancun is a typical resort town with not much nature around it. It’s also not that exotic (and certainly not AS EXOTIC as Riviera Maya), but it’s a great place for relaxing, swimming, partying and eating. It reminded me of Miami Beach, however, it has a much better beach than Miami Beach.
Part 2: Riviera Maya. Playa del Carmen. Tulum. Is Riviera Maya better than Cancun?
What is Riviera Maya? Riviera Maya is a region in Mexico located along the Caribbean coast. It starts south of Cancun and includes famous resort towns such as Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Riviera Maya 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!
Getting to Riviera Maya from the Airport
The journey from Cancun Airport to the far end of Riviera Maya / 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 checking 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 “
I recommend hiring a car in Cancun Airport – it’s actually pretty straightforward to drive around Riviera Maya and it’s often much cheaper than just taking a taxi both ways & to a couple of shops. We always hire cars from rentalcars.com (check the prices and availability of rental cars in Cancun airport here). Make sure to avoid companies like Hertz and National in Mexico as they are known to scam people.
Alternatively, you can pre-book a transfer to your hotel in advance. The price for a pre-booked transfer is usually much better than the price for a taxi you get quoted on arrival. You can use Gettransfer to check the prices and availability of transfers from Cancun International Airport to the hotel of your choice.
The biggest difference: Riviera Maya vs Cancun (or Playa del Carmen / Tulum vs Cancun)
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, tejons, 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 and Tulum, 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.
Tulum has been getting increasingly popular with expats and started becoming somewhat similar to Bali with a lot of Instagrammable cafes, boutique villas, resorts and yoga retreats. Now in Tulum, you can find some of the most unique hotels in the world and a lot of celebrities come there as well. Read my guide to the most Instagrammable hotels in Tulum as well as the guide to the best areas to stay in Tulum for any budget!
Beaches 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 ones in Riviera Maya (except for Mayakoba beaches and Tulum beaches, those are amazing), but Riviera Maya is very 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.
Is it worth going to the famous parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha?
In the last 10-15 years, Grupo Xcaret has built 4 different open-air theme parks, Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Xochimilco and Xplor. Each of them has a different theme, for example, Xplor is all about zip-lines, underground rivers and adventure, Xcaret has underground rivers, a large zoo and an incredible show; Xel-Ha is all about snorkelling and Xochimilco is basically a gondola ride with live music, show and food!
You can either visit one of them or some of them or even all of them if you have enough time! The parks are located all around Riviera Maya & it would take you from 10 to 50 minutes by car to reach some of them. You can either buy tickets and go there by yourself or buy one of the tours that would bring you there and back!
If you decide to book a ticket that includes transportation, you can do it below:
Should you 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 book our hotels. 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.
Planning a honeymoon in Mexico?
We have a separate blog about amazing honeymoon itineraries for countries all around the world. If you’re planning a honeymoon in Mexico, feel free to check out this post about a perfect honeymoon in Cancun (itinerary and best things to do).
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 the 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!
Some of our other posts about Mexico you might find useful:
or check our Mexico travel category for more interesting posts about Mexico!