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

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. Would you like to know, what are the main differences between Cancun and Riviera Maya? Let’s find out!

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 of 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.

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. I was finally able to see the two main tourist destinations in Mexico and understand, what are the differences between them, as well as decide, which one do I like better, Cancun or Riviera Maya.

In this post, we’ll compare Riviera Maya vs Cancun, so you’ll know which holiday destination in Mexico fits your style of travel better.

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: 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 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 84 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).

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. 

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

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.

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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  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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