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Cancun vs Riviera Maya (Playa Del Carmen and Tulum): Where to holiday in Mexico?

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

Here’s what you can expect to find in this post:

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 in Mexico for the first time back in 2015. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Cancun and I’ve heard about Riviera Maya as well, but I couldn’t quite understand, whether it’s the same place or two different holiday destinations and most importantly, which one is better? Then I came across names like Playa Del Carmen, Tulum, Akumal and got even more confused! However, once I travelled to Mexico and stayed in both Cancun and Riviera Maya, visited Playa Del Carmen and Tulum and stayed in Akumal, I understood the key differences. I returned to Mexico again in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020 (and even 2021) visiting a few different locations and I decided to write this short guide to the differences between the best beach towns in Quintana Roo (a state where Cancun, Riviera Maya etc are located) because maybe they are as confusing to someone as they were for me!

Cancun or Riviera Maya: where to go on holiday in Mexico
Photo by Gerson Repreza on Unsplash

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).

If you’re interested, what camera do I use to take photos, I have two: Sony A7 III with Samyang 35 mm prime lens (super flat and tiny) and Sony A6000.

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).

Riviera Maya vs Cancun: beaches in Cancun
A small part of the beach at Hyatt Ziva in Cancun

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 centre of it. In case you want to go out, all the bars, clubs and markets are located there.

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.

Cancun vs Riviera Maya. Where to go on holiday in Mexico?

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:

Chichen Itza and Ik Kil Cenote tour

Tulum Ruins and turtle swim tour

Xplore active park tour

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!

Luxury resorts in Cancun: The Grand at Moon Palace, Le Blanc Spa Resort (Adults Only)

3-4* hotels & resorts in Cancun: Smart Cancun by Oasis, Occidental Costa Cancun

Super affordable hotels in Cancun: Hotel Blue Star Cancun, Hotel Boutique Casa Mallorca

Best hostels in Cancun: Mayan Monkey Hostel, Agavero Hostel.

Best places in Cancun

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!

How far is Riviera Maya from Cancun

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 “colectivo“, which goes to Tulum every 5 minutes and costs around 70 pesos per person.

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.

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 Playa del Carmen

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.

Honeymoon 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 good. However, there isn’t that much to do except for the show and swim in the artificial river. There’s a zoo but it’s not so impressive. If you’re coming from a hotel in Cancun, Xcaret could impress you. However, I felt like paying 110+ dollars wasn’t worth it and our hotel Gran Palladium was better than the park. The beach there was tiny and overcrowded and the food wasn’t good either. 

X Caret evening show

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.

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!

Some of our other posts about Mexico you might find useful:

Driving to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum – things you need to know

Playa del Carmen on a budget – tips on how to save money

Andaz Mayakoba review – the most affordable resort in Mayakoba

The guide to different areas in Tulum: where to stay

The most Instagrammable hotels in Tulum

or check our Mexico travel category for more interesting posts about Mexico!

CategoriesMexico
  1. Karen says:

    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.

    1. Liza says:

      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

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  9. polo says:

    Thanks for your blog! I think we are staying in cancun because we want to go to Isla Mujeres and we don want to take a long ride. we were planning on having a daytrip on a nice catamaran where we can snorkel in the reef. i can’t wait to leave!!!

  10. Amy White says:

    we rented a van for 1 week, 6 of us.. car rental price was 900. I had to buy insurance because they said they don’t except us auto insurance. My company would have covered but the rental agency would not allow. Do you know any way around that? PS stayed in playa air b+b and also at occidental Xcaret. Awesome!

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