Deciding between Cancun and Riviera Maya for your next Mexico vacation? We are here to help.
Cancun and Riviera Maya are two of the most popular destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula. Both of these places offer the quintessential Mexican beach holiday: pristine white sandy beaches, sparkling Caribbean waters, nightlife, and more. However, though they aren’t too far apart from each other, they are quite different.
The main difference between Cancun and Riviera Maya is that Cancun is more known for its lively nightlife, bustling hotel zone, and city-like atmosphere, whereas Riviera Maya is often associated with a more relaxed, nature-focused experience, offering quieter resorts and proximity to ancient Mayan ruins and natural parks.
But there is more than that. That is why we’ve written this article on Cancun vs. Riviera Maya, so you can discover which destination suits you better.
We’ll be comparing and contrasting them in 10 different categories so you can get a full and bigger picture.
What is Cancun Like?
Situated on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, Cancun is one of those very few destinations in the world that truly captures the hearts of tourists who visit in search of an unbeatable blend of relaxation, excitement, and cultural exploration.
By day, some of the nicest beaches in the world can be found here, with hundreds of idyllic palm trees swaying in the breeze, beautiful gorgeous white sand beaches, and clear turquoise waters. By night, there’s a huge variety of clubs, bars, and restaurants along the ‘Hotel Zone’ open until the early hours catering to anyone and everyone.
The bath-like warm temperatures of the Caribbean Sea are also a huge drawing point, with many locals and tourists choosing to make the most of the water sports on offer.
Everything from snorkeling, scuba diving, jet-skiing, paddleboarding, and parasailing can be done when you visit Cancun, for a price.
What Is Riviera Maya Like?
Riviera Maya is the name given to the huge stretch of coastline in the Yucatan Peninsula that typically runs from Puerto Morelos, just a 30-minute drive south of Cancun, through the popular resort towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum, finishing up in the small village of Punta Allen on the Boca Paila Peninsula, a mighty 3 and a half hours down south.
Much like Cancun, the Riviera Maya region is largely famous for its beautiful rustic white sand beaches-sandy beaches as well as the variety of small (and larger) fishing towns that line the coast.
You’ll be able to get a much better feel of the area and immerse yourself within the Mexican culture, something which you won’t experience if you limit yourself to Cancun’s Hotel Zone.
Whilst there may not be as many actual activities on offer, or the nightlife won’t be as varied, you’ll more than make up for this with the natural and cultural opportunities on your doorstep.
Cenotes, archaeological Mayan ruins, eco-parks like Xcaret, and the chance to hike through the dense Mexican jungle can all be included in your visit to the wonderful Riviera Maya.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya: How Do They Compare And Contrast
Which Is Better To Stay: Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Generally speaking, Cancun is the better place to stay, especially if you will be with your family or with children. By staying in Cancun, you’ll be close to everything there is to do in the region as well as it being easy to get to and from the airport.
Secondly, the hotel resorts you’ll find in Cancun are more than likely going to be much nicer than anything you’ll find further down the Riviera Maya region unless you pay a heavy premium.
Thirdly, because of where Cancun is situated, you will also be able to do virtually everything that you can do from Tulum or Playa del Carmen, meaning geographically there isn’t much benefit other than saving yourself an hour or two’s journey time to your destination.
One of the only reasons it’d be a great idea to choose to stay along the Riviera Maya would be so you could experience a true sense of what Mexico is like. I feel that you don’t get to experience this when you stay in the Cancun Hotel Zone and only venture out for a day trip.
Eating in small, family-run restaurants, having a drink in a local bar, and just generally chilling out and enjoying the peacefulness of not having hordes of tourists everywhere you look.
Which Is Better To Stay?
Which Has Better All-Inclusive Resorts: Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Generally speaking, Cancun has better all-inclusive resorts than the Riviera Maya. Cancun is almost synonymous with the term “all-inclusive resort”, and there are plenty of all-inclusive hotels all along the Hotel Zone that cater to a wide variety of different budgets and preferences.
Thousands of people flock to Cancun each day to relax, eat, and drink in one of the many all-inclusive that dominate the peninsula. If you’ll be traveling with the family then an all-inclusive can be one of the best and easiest ways to holiday.
There aren’t as many all-inclusive resorts in Riviera Maya as in Cancun. Most of them are situated near Playa del Carmen, but once you are past that area, all-inclusive are far and between. That is not to say that there aren’t amazing accommodations in Riviera Maya.
Tulum near the south Mayan Riviera is known for its eco-friendly and gorgeous hotels. The Riviera Maya is also dotted with amazing and historical haciendas that travelers can stay in. But if you want all-inclusive, stick with Cancun.
Which Is Better For All-Inclusive Resorts?
Which Has Better Nightlife: Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Cancun is known for having a much livelier and more vibrant nightlife in comparison to the towns along the Riviera Maya. Cancun’s nightlife, particularly around the Hotel Zone, is one of the city’s main attractions and just one of the many reasons thousands of people come to holiday here.
Each night, you’ll see a massive variety of holidaymakers out partying the night away in the Hotel Zone’s famous selection of nightclubs and bars like Coco Bongo, Congo Bar, and Mandala Beach Club. If you want to experience the madness of Cancun’s nightlife, be sure to visit in March during Spring Break (if you can handle it).
The nightlife along the Riviera Maya pales both Cancun in comparison, but there are still some gems to be found, especially in the main towns of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It’s more focused on laid-back bars, perhaps with live music that offer a different type of night out when compared to Cancun.
Think less rowdy and raucous, and more relaxed and civilized.
One of the unique things to do in Riviera Maya once the sun goes down is to go to a beachfront bonfire. Many bars along the beach in the Riviera Maya host these as an alternative and unique way to meet new travelers and socialize.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
Which Is Better For Beaches: Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Riviera Maya generally has better beaches than Cancun simply because it offers more variety. While it does have white sandy beaches that are full of beach clubs and places where you can get drinks and food like Cancun, Riviera Maya also has more rugged and rustic beaches that have kept all of their natural beauty.
The Riviera Maya area is a much larger region in comparison to Cancun, so you’ll be able to hop in the car and travel not too far away to a deserted tropical beach with everything that Cancun has minus the hordes of tourists.
📚 Read More: When Is The Worst Time To Visit Cancun?
The sheer number of hotels and resorts in Cancun does slightly diminish from the peaceful and serene beach atmosphere that you want whilst you’re on holiday.
This is not to say that the beaches in Cancun aren’t very good, completely the opposite in fact. They’re another one of the major reasons people come to Cancun. Soft sand, blue water of the Caribbean Sea, and an abundance of water sports to keep yourself occupied in between lazing around.
It’s what holidays are meant for, right? If I’m relaxing on a beach in the Yucatan Peninsula, I’d like to be surrounded by cliffs, jagged rocks, sea turtles, and swaying palm trees leading into dense jungle.
Which Is Better For Beaches?
Which Is Better For Shopping? Riviera Maya or Cancun?
Both Cancun and Riviera Maya are great for shopping, although, in my opinion, Cancun is better. There’s a much larger variety of shopping options including large shopping malls featuring luxury and international brands, independent boutique shops within the city itself as well as several local markets to shop until you drop in.
One of the most popular activities to do outside of Cancun’s beautiful beaches is the La Isla Shopping Village. It’s a beautifully designed open-air mall with shops like Louis Vuitton, Emporio Armani, and Gucci.
Being open-air and right on the Hotel Zone peninsula, you get to bask in the sunshine with a lovely sea breeze blowing through cooling things right down. On the Mexican mainland, you’ll also find several wonderful markets like Mercado 23 and 28.
Mercado 23 is more local and authentic and more suitable for souvenirs from Cancun, whereas Mercado 28 is larger but the goods there are generally cheap things for tourists.
Riviera Maya’s shopping experiences are much more authentic. You’ll be able to find plenty of small, independently run shops offering a variety of small or handcrafted products.
You can also find similar local markets throughout Riviera Maya too, with notable ones including the Mercado Maya Tulum, and individual sellers down the famous Quinta Avenida in Playa del Carmen.
Riviera Maya is wonderful for some authentic shopping, but if you know where to look, you can have this plus the convenience of the malls in Cancun which is why it gets my vote.
Which Is Better For Shopping?
Which Has Better Attractions? Riviera Maya or Cancun?
Riviera Maya most definitely has better attractions and things to do than Cancun. Riviera Maya is heavily focused on the natural and cultural attractions, whereas Cancun is generally more centered around the all-inclusive holidays, relaxing on the beach, and nightlife.
Being such a wide region, Riviera Maya is home to plenty of incredible things to do and see. Unsurprisingly, it’s famous for plenty of ancient Mayan ruins that dot the land, notably in areas around Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza.
It is home to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a protected area in Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You’ll be able to get guided tours around these fascinating places and marvel at the incredible architecture of this ancient community. You might even be able to combine viewing these ruins with stopping at one of the many stunning freshwater cenotes hidden within nature.
As aforementioned, Cancun is much more centered around the all-inclusive holiday, with plenty of sun, sea, and relaxation taking over much of what there is to do there. You can take day trips from Cancun to the cenotes or Mayan Ruins, but they are quite far.
It is more common to head to Isla Mujeres or Holbox as a day trip from Cancun.
Which Has Better Attractions?
Which Has Better Cenotes? Riviera Maya or Cancun
Without a doubt, Riviera Maya has much better cenotes than Cancun. The main reason is because of the sheer diversity of the cenotes in Riviera Maya.
Because of the expansive area, travelers will find open cenotes that are great for swimming, closed cenotes that are full of geological formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, and everything in between.
Some even have an extensive network of underwater caves that are perfect for divers and snorkelers, and even dramatic cliffs from where the land has fallen through.
📖 Note: If you’re unfamiliar with cenotes, they are giant natural sinkholes filled with wonderfully clear freshwater. You can jump in, swim around, and explore the beauty of these incredible natural formations.
There aren’t any cenotes inside Cancun, and the nearest ones are about 30 minutes away. Because of that, the ones that are closest to the city are typically very busy.
The one benefit of staying in Cancun and wanting to explore the cenotes is that you’ll likely find it easy to book a tour. Not only will they take you to the ones nearby to Cancun, but you’ll also get the opportunity to go to quiet ones further south.
Which Has Better Cenotes?
100% Riviera Maya
Which Is More Affordable: Cancun vs Riviera Maya?
Generally speaking, Riviera Maya is more affordable than Cancun. Since Cancun is a bit city and Riviera Maya includes a variety of not-super popular destinations, the prices in Riviera tend to be a little cheaper.
There is a nice and wide range of accommodation options from resorts to hostels for travelers along the Riviera Maya. This means that you’ll always be able to find something easy on the wallet, or if you can afford it, more luxurious.
When it comes to shopping, local markets and independent shops can also bring the price of products down dramatically, both of which you’ll find all over Riviera Maya.
The same can also be said for restaurants and eateries. Small, locally-owned restaurants are always going to be cheaper than the big tourist-oriented chains you’ll find in Cancun.
If you’re heading to Cancun, you’ve more than likely booked to stay in a fancy all-inclusive which has probably cost you a lot of money. On top of this expense, you’ve also got Cancun’s nightlife which can significantly increase your spending money.
Which Is More Affordable?
Which Is Better For Families: Cancun vs Riviera Maya?
Cancun is most definitely a better destination for families than Riviera Maya. This is primarily because of how easy pretty much everything is on a holiday to the sunny Mexican resort, whereas the towns along the Riviera Maya are a fairly long drive away and a lot of hotels are self-catering.
As I’ve mentioned, the vast majority of people stay in Cancun’s large all-inclusive hotels. They come with several on-site restaurants, which already makes your life ten times easier, especially if you’ve come as a family.
The next point for choosing Cancun is its proximity to Cancun International Airport. Cancun’s Hotel Zone is just a twenty-minute drive away meaning you could be off the plane and relaxing on the beach within an hour or two at most. The last thing you’re going to want to do after a long flight is to drag the kids on an hour-long transfer.
The final point is that if you do decide to venture away from the Hotel Zone, you can do so by booking a tour. Everything is taken care of for you and these can be booked through your hotel for ease and simplicity. Unless you’re staying in a large chain hotel, you might find it a little harder to book tours in smaller towns like Puerto Morelos.
In Riviera Maya, many of the destinations are not as popular, meaning that they’ve yet to develop the infrastructure for convenience and comfort. Yes, you might still find hotels that are suitable for families, but traveling around with small kids in the Riviera Maya region is going to be challenging.
Which Is Better For Families?
Which Has Better Safety: Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Riviera Maya is marginally safer than Cancun because of the fact it’s just far less busy. Cancun is known for its rowdy nightlife which can sometimes lead to trouble, perhaps if you are very drunk and alone late at night.
Riviera Maya has an established nightlife scene, though it is much less intense than Cancun’s and focuses more on chilled-out vibes, reducing the risk of opportunistic thieves looking to take advantage of blind-drunk tourists.
In terms of hotels, Riviera Maya’s all-inclusive hotels are more secluded than Cancun’s which makes for a safer and more calm environment.
You’ll notice plenty of police presence in Cancun to deter criminals, but this shows that crimes can and do occur. These are usually limited to pickpockets and other petty crimes, but always keep your wits about you when out and about.
Which Is Safer?
Generally speaking, Riviera Maya
Which Is Better For a Honeymoon: Riviera Maya or Cancun?
Both Cancun and Riviera are great destinations for a honeymoon, but Riviera Maya is definitely better. When it comes to honeymooning, you want to have a romantic break away surrounded by idyllic scenery, and beautiful nature being waited on hand and foot like royalty. Riviera Maya is the place for that.
Cancun is far busier and built-up and a honeymoon there would be a completely different experience than one in Riviera Maya.
It’s very nightlife-focused, which is great if that’s what you like to do, but for a honeymoon, you’re going to want to spend peaceful, quality time with your newlywed and really enjoy each other’s company with the added benefit of being somewhere incredible. Riviera Maya ticks all those boxes.
Like most luxury all-inclusive resorts, you can pre-book honeymoon packages to feature rose petal rooms, running baths, a private secluded dinner on the beach, and day trips specially organized for you both which will make your Riviera Maya honeymoon unforgettable.
Which Is Better For Honeymoon?
Cancun vs Riviera Maya Comparison Table
|Better To Stay||Better Beaches|
|Better All-Inclusive Resort||Better Attractions|
|Better Nightlife||More Affordable|
|Better For Shopping||Better Safety|
|Better For Families||Better For a Honeymoon|
Cancun vs Riviera Maya FAQs
How Far is Riviera Maya from Cancun’s Hotel Zone?
The distance between Riviera Maya and Cancun’s Hotel Zone can vary significantly depending on the specific location in Riviera Maya. From some places, it is approximately 45 miles to reach the Riviera Maya from Cancun’s Hotel Zone, which means at least an hour’s drive. For other places, it can be over 100 km and over a 2-hour drive.
How Far is Riviera Maya from Cancun Airport?
The distance between Riviera Maya and Cancun Airport can vary significantly depending on the specific location in Riviera Maya. From Cancun Airport to Riviera, it can be as little as 25 km or more than 150 km, or 25 minutes to 3 hours by car.
Is Snorkeling Better in Cancun or Riviera Maya?
Both Cancun and Riviera Maya have amazing snorkeling experiences where you can explore the rich marine life in the sea, but the ones in Riviera Maya are generally considered better. In Akumal, you can swim with wild turtles in their natural environment.
As you can see, comparing and contrasting Cancun and Riviera Maya is no easy task. They might be two of the most popular tourist destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula, but they actually have a lot of differences.
From above, you can see that Riviera Maya and Cancun tied, but where you decide to visit will ultimately depend on your own personal preference! For us, Riviera Maya is definitely the better Mexican destination to visit!
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