Mexico

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

posted by Liza 4th April 2017 5 Comments
Cancun vs Riviera Maya, what's the difference? Where to go in Mexico?

Last updated on May 2nd, 2019

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? To be honest, I spent a fair amount of time deciding where to go in Mexico for the first time, Cancun or Riviera Maya back in 2015. That time we picked Riviera Maya. However, we returned to Mexico in 2016 in order to get married (read more about out experience getting married in Mexico – it was super straightforward) and spend out honeymoon there, I decided to split our honeymoon into two parts and stay in both, Riviera Maya and Cancun and give a chance to Cancun this time. 

In this post, we’ll compare Riviera Maya vs Cancun, so you’ll know which one to choose when you go to Mexico so you have an amazing holiday.

Let’s get started.

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!

Cancun or Riviera Maya. Which one is better?

Part 1: All you need to know about Cancun

Where is Cancun located?

Cancun is a famous 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 speaks English, so there are absolutely no problems with communication.

Cancun has some really great beaches, I must admit (Hyatt Ziva where we stayed for 4 nights has one of the best beaches I’ve ever visited (and that after visiting 70 countries). Want to know which beach made it to the top 1? The one in Maldives (read about our experience in Maldives here).

Riviera Maya vs Cancun: beaches in Cancun

What is there to do in Cancun?

The downtown of Cancun is in the Zona Hotelera, Hard Rock Cafe being the center of it. In case you want to go out, 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. 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). 

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. However, it’s pretty much the same story in Riviera Maya (apart from the public bus that could bring you to the attractions).

There are, however, plenty of amazing tours that depart from 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

Cancun or Riviera Maya
 

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 a great thing!

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!

Hyatt Ziva Cancun

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. 

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!

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.

The biggest difference: Riviera Maya 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, 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 or Riviera Maya, but the question is incorrect since Playa del Carmen IS in Riviera Maya.

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 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.

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 okay. 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. 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.

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!

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5 Comments

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.

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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

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Andrea 8th March 2018 at 12:48 am

I have two girls 19 and 21 and don’t know where to stay.

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[…] Have you been to the Maldives as well? Not yet? You can check my post about the best time to go to the Maldives! Alternatively, if you’re looking for great tropical holidays, you can check out my post about Cancun and Riviera Maya in Mexico.  […]

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[…] Tulum is a part of Riviera Maya) and if you would like some more information, head to my post about Cancun vs Riviera Maya, where I explain in detail, what are the differences between these two tropical […]

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