Two of the most popular vacation destinations in Mexico are Cancun and Riviera Maya. These two east-coast locations offer travelers a wide variety of vacation experiences. In fact, the diversity of experiences is what makes these two locations so popular. They are also located fairly close to each other, so it’s easy to experience both in one trip.
When it comes to considering Cancun or Riviera Maya, you really need to think about the destination where you will be spending most of your time, since many of the popular day trips and activities will cross between the two areas.
To help you navigate the decision between Cancun and Riviera Maya, I’ve put together this helpful guide. In the sections below, I will provide you a bit of information to help you narrow the decision between Cancun vs Riviera Maya.
A Brief Overview & Comparison: Cancun vs Riviera Maya
For the resort-focused, fun-loving traveler, the best spot is Cancun. For travelers who are looking for fewer crowds and a more authentic Mexican experience, Riviera Maya is the place to visit.
No matter which you’ve picked for your next vacation, I hope that this look at Cancun vs. Riviera Maya has helped you make the best decision for your travel needs.
- Great bars and nightlife
- Amazing beaches
- Highly accessible
- Tourist focused city
Cancun is known as Mexico’s favorite party destination. This hot spot located on the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula is popular for spring breakers but is also a fan favorite for families and travelers that just want a fun holiday experience. Cancun was developed around the tourist destination, so traveling here you’ll get great service and a more “Americanized” feel.
Cancun is a tropical location on the Caribbean Sea giving you the best beaches and water sports, but also an opportunity to experience the tropical forests that sit just to the south and west of the city.
- Quieter travel destination
- Less crowded beaches
- Lots of outdoor activities
- Three different resort areas
Riviera Maya is a stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula south of Cancun that is popular for tourists who are looking for spots that are a little less busy than Cancun. The most well-known resort areas in the Riviera Maya are Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, and Tulum. These three resort areas offer visitors great beaches, amazing recreational activities, and quiet but comfortable resorts.
Many visitors to the Riviera Maya come for the cultural experiences. These locations offer a more authentic Mexican experience. They also offer opportunities to learn about and experience the history of the Mayan peoples. Riviera Maya is full of archaeological sites to explore.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya: A Quick Guide to Choosing
I’ve given you just a taste of what you can expect from a visit to Cancun or Riviera Maya. Now, I’d like to share some basics about each destination so you can start discovering the best destination for your next beach vacation
If you are looking for an easily accessible location for a beach holiday, Cancun is always a nice option. This busy community is tourist-focused so it offers an exceptional level of service you won’t find elsewhere in Mexico. The famed “Hotel Zone” of Cancun offers travelers an immense amount of variety of lodging on the beach.
If you don’t want to spend your entire holiday at the beach, Cancun does have some great experiences that you can check out. There are lots of opportunities for water sports. But also consider day trips to the Mayan Ruins of El Rey and Chichen Itza. For something more adventurous, a day paddling the cenotes will be a winner for kids and adults alike.
Suggested Reading: Cancun vs Cabo: An Honest Comparison To Help You Choose
Just a short distance south of Cancun you’ll find Riviera Maya. This stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula is dotted with small resort towns and the small island destination of Cozumel. It is a short drive from Cancun, but here you’ll find small, quiet beaches, more intimate resorts, and a look into Mexican and Mayan cultures.
Beach vacations are not as popular in Riviera Maya, because there are fewer beaches. However, this is a great destination for adventurous travelers. There are tons of outdoor activities that you can enjoy in Riviera Maya. It is a hot spot for diving and snorkeling on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The tropical forest offers wildlife viewing and cenote adventures. Riviera Maya is also dotted with Mayan ruins, the most distinctive of which are those at Tulum.
Suggested Reading: Riviera Maya or Punta Cana – An Honest Comparison
The 6 Key Differences Between Cancun and Riviera Maya
Now that you have a good basic idea of what Cancun vs Riviera Maya offers for vacation, it’s time to make a deeper dive. I now give you six ways that Cancun and Riviera Maya differ.
Which Is More Family Friendly?
This really depends on what kind of family vacation you are looking for. If a resort-based beach vacation is what your family loves, then Cancun is your spot. Hotels like the Moon Palace, The Grand, and Hyatt Ziva offer great amenities for kids and families.
However, if you and your family like activities outside of your resort and don’t mind smaller, quieter beaches, then Riviera Maya is better for you.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
Cancun is hands down the better spot for great nightlife. This vibrant city is filled with great spots to party the night away. Hotels like Hard Rock Cancun have amenities that are geared toward the traveler who wants a party atmosphere. In town you’ll find plenty of bars like Senor Frog’s is a fan favorite for food, drinks, and after-hours fun.
Which Is Cheaper?
In general, Cancun tends to be more affordable than Riviera Maya. I say in general because not everything is cheaper in Cancun. For instance, Cancun offers such a range of lodging options there is certainly something for any budget. But, because the area is so tourist-focused, you may find that things like souvenirs and food are higher priced than you’ll find in Riviera Maya.
Riviera Maya tends to have more boutique hotels, which can be pricier. You’ll also have to pay more for ground transportation when you arrive, as most of the resort areas in Riviera Maya are at least 45 miles away.
How Does the Food Compare? Or Which Is Better for Restaurants & Eating Out?
When it comes to traveling outside of the US, I tend to prefer foods that are different than I would find at home. For this reason, I think that Riviera Maya is the better spot for food.
Riviera Maya’s smaller communities, like Playa del Carmen, offer small downtown areas where you can experience amazing restaurants with a local flare. Sure you can get some traditional Mexican fare in Cancun. However, since it is so Americanized it’s easier to find chicken tenders in Cancun than good ceviche.
Which Is Easier to Get To?
Cancun is certainly the easiest of the two destinations you get to. Yes, you will fly into the same airport for Cancun and Riviera Maya. However, from the airport, the taxi ride is much shorter to the Cancun Hotel Zone. To get to Riviera Maya, once you leave the airport, you are looking at another hour in a car or shuttle before you get to your destination.
Which Is Easier to Get Around Town?
Once you’ve arrived at your destination in Riviera Maya, you’ll find that it is easy to get around by taxi or on foot. The small communities of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and others are safe and can easily be explored by walking.
The large size of Cancun, and the fact that most hotels located in the Hotel Zone are spaced far apart means that you’ll have to taxi just about anywhere you go in Cancun.
Suggested Reading: Cancun or Hawaii: Our Honest Comparison
5 Questions to Help You Decided to Travel to Cancun or Riviera Maya
As I end my examination of Cancun vs Riviera Maya, I offer some of the most frequently asked questions about traveling to these locations. To close I answer five questions about traveling to Cancun and Riviera Maya.
Is Cancun or Riviera Maya Better for Hotels?
This really depends on what kind of hotel experience you are looking for. Cancun is packed with large traditional resorts, many of which offer all-inclusive options. If you like smaller, boutique hotels or vacation rentals, Riviera Maya is the better option for you.
When Should You Visit Cancun or Riviera Maya?
The best time to travel to Cancun and Riviera Maya is between December and April. This is when the weather is best and there is a lower risk of hurricanes. I would avoid Cancun in March, as it is busy with spring break travelers. For more affordable travel to both locations try the shoulder months of May and November. The weather is still good, and you can get better deals on hotels.
Is Cancun or Riviera Maya Better for Outdoor Activities?
Riviera Maya offers so many different outdoor experiences that it is really hard to compare it to Cancun. With locations like the Mayan ruins at Tulum or the Sian Ka’an UNESCO World Heritage site, you can experience the beach, the culture, and the amazing tropical ecosystems that make Riviera Maya so unique.
Riviera Maya also offers the typical ocean activities like snorkeling and scuba diving on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Is Cancun or Riviera Maya Better for Remote Work?
If you have to travel for work, or do work while traveling, I would suggest you pick Cancun. Because this city is so focused on tourism, the availability of good internet, free WiFi and other remote working essentials are easier to find in Cancun than Riviera Maya.
Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya is another good spot for remote working, but if you are heading to one of the smaller towns in the Riviera Maya, you may have more difficulty finding reliable services.
Is Cancun or Riviera Maya Better for Beaches?
Cancun’s white sand beaches are what many people see as the perfect vacation. The beaches in Cancun are wide and offer warm, clear, blue waters for swimming. Many of the hotels along the Hotel Zone beaches have staff that will clean the beach early in the morning ensuring that your beach experience is perfect.
Riviera Maya has smaller, narrow beaches. Which isn’t ideal if you are looking for a “beach” vacation. However, the waters in Riviera Maya are calmer thanks to the barrier reef that slows the ocean tides.