Cancun vs Riviera Maya: Which is the best vacation destination on the Yucatan Peninsula? There is no single right answer to this question, and the correct choice for you will depend on a number of factors including what you want to see and do, where you want to stay, how far you are willing to travel, and what you want to spend.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya: What’s the Difference?
The first thing to note when comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya is that Riviera Maya refers to a 100 mile stretch of coastline that covers over 15 municipalities, dozens of beaches, historical ruins, islands, and more. The major municipalities on the Riviera Maya include Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Tulum, and Puerto Morelos. There are also a number of smaller, more secluded villages along the Riviera Maya, including Punta Allen, Akumal, Boca Paila, and Paamul.
Cancun on the other hand, is a single resort city with a population of nearly 900,000, that sees over 6 million foreign visitors per year. Located 15 miles north of Puerto Morelos, the northernmost town of the Riviera Maya, Cancun is the best-known tourist destination in Mexico.
It is important to keep this in mind when considering Cancun vs Riviera Maya–Cancun is one city, and the Riviera Maya encompasses many cities. When comparing the two, we will focus both on the Riviera Maya in general, and get into specifics, comparing the different municipalities in the area to Cancun.
Activities and Attractions
The Riviera Maya has a very wide array of attractions and activities to take part in. Starting from the north, the city of Playa del Carmen is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Riviera Maya. Famous for its long, white sand beaches, which are less crowded than the ones in Cancun, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for anyone interested in soaking up some sun or swimming in the warm Caribbean waters.
Other popular activities in Playa del Carmen include buggy and ATV tours of the jungle, swimming in local underwater caves, called cenotes; sailing; and snorkeling and scuba diving. Playa del Carmen is also in close proximity to a popular amusement and theme park, Xcaret, which is a very popular destination for tourists.
A 45 minutes ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, across the Cozumel Channel, is the island of Cozumel, which is famous for having some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving sites in the world. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System starts right off the coast of Cozumel, and stretches south into the waters of Guatemala and Honduras.
These reefs off Cozumel are teeming with tropical fish, sea turtles, shrimp, and are even home to the largest fish in the world, the whale shark. You can also view the reefs in glass bottom boat tours, if you prefer to experience marine life without getting wet. When it comes to exploring the reefs off the coast of the Yucatan, Cozumel is far and away the best destination.
Further south is the town of Puerto Aventuras, another popular Riviera Maya destination, where the main attractions include swimming with dolphins and manatees, fishing, golfing, snorkeling, and visiting the local cenotes to swim. A local ecological park, Ecopark Kantun Chi is known for its cenotes and underground river, and visiting it makes for an incredible experience.
Located towards the southern end of the Riviera Maya, the city of Tulum is a very popular tourist destination, mainly due to the Mayan ruins located in the city. In fact, Tulum was the original tourist destination on the Yucatan Peninsula, attracting international visitors long before Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Cozumel.
The first thing you will notice about Tulum is its wall, which surrounds the city and stands between 10 and 16 feet tall. Built by the Mayans to guard the city, much of the wall remains intact today. In the city of Tulum are some of the best preserved Mayan ruins in the country. The ruins include three main structures–El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God.
Located a 45 minute car ride outside of Tulum is another Mayan site, the ruins of Coba, which contains older and larger structures than those in Tulum. Coba features a group of pyramids, called Nohoch Mul, the tallest of which towers almost 140 feet tall.
For the traveller interested in visiting Mayan ruins and historical sites, Tulum and Coba are must-sees.
Cancun is a city that really needs no introduction. One of the most popular tourist destinations in North American, Cancun is famous for its beautiful tropical beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and great nightlife. Since its construction in the 1970s, Cancun has become a popular destination for spring breakers, families, solo travellers, and honeymooners alike.
The beaches in Cancun are world famous for their long, white sandy stretches and turquoise Caribbean waters. Popular activities on the beaches and in the ocean include snorkeling, scuba diving, jet skiing, motorboating, flyboarding, and paddleboarding.
Most of the most popular resorts and hotels in Cancun have direct access to the beaches, but there are also a variety of other, more secluded beaches, such as Playa Delfines and Playa Tortugas, which are easily accessible, but much less crowded than the main beaches in Cancun.
Cancun is also famous for its tours, excursions, and day trips. Popular destinations include the nearby Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and El Rey, the local cenotes and caves, the underwater museum, the local shopping center, taco and beer tours, the 18 hole golf courses such as Playa Mujeres Golf Club, sunset sailing trips, kayaking Nichupte Lagoon, and more.
Perhaps the biggest attraction in Cancun, however, is the nightlife. Spring breakers come to Cancun from all over the United States each year to party at the nightclubs, bars, and lounges throughout the city. These venues are famous throughout the world for their great live entertainment and DJs, theme nights, low-cost drinks, and great party atmosphere. Some of the most popular nightclubs and bars in Cancun include Coco Bongo, Mandala, and Señor Frog’s.
Cancun and Riviera Maya are accessible by two international airports–Cancun International Airport and Cozumel International Airport. Cancun International Airport receives many more frequent direct flights from most major US cities. Cozumel International Airport does not receive as many direct flights, but Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, and Minneapolis all offer direct flights to Cozumel.
If you fly to Cancun, you can take a flight from Cancun to Cozumel International Airport. The flight takes about 15 minutes. If you plan on driving from Cancun to any Riviera Maya destination, the trip can take anywhere from 45 minutes to about 2 hours, depending on where you are planning to go.
Both Cancun and the Riviera Maya are famous for their luxury accommodations. The all inclusive resorts in both destinations are some of the nicest in the world, with beachfront access, fine dining, oceanside pools, master suites, private balconies, tours leaving from the hotel, and more.
In Cancun, some of the most popular all inclusive resorts include:
Paradisus Cancun: luxury beachfront resort with beautiful master suites overlooking the beach, fine dining in the multiple restaurants and bars, spas, gyms, a golf course, pools, wine tasting tours, and more.
Le Blanc Spa Resort: An adults-only resort located right on the beach that has spas, beautiful suites, 24 hour in room dining, jacuzzis in the suites, and more.
Sun Palace: An all-inclusive resort for couples located on the beach, featuring luxury accommodations, spas, gourmet dining, excellent wine and beer, and reserved spots on the beach.
Cancun also has plenty of rental villas and estates, and boutique and international chain hotels for travellers to stay in.
In the Riviera Maya, the accommodations include all-inclusive resorts, on par with those in Cancun, plus luxury rental homes, apartments, and condos, and chain and boutique hotels. Some of the most popular resorts in the Riviera Maya include:
Playa del Carmen:
Hilton Playa del Carmen: Beachfront adults-only resort with swim-up suites, extensive pools, tennis courts, classes and tour groups, 10 restaurants and bars, and more.
Paradisus Playa del Carmen: Located 45 minutes from Cancun Airport, Paradisus Playa del Carmen is an excellent luxury resort with beachfront access, fine dining in its multiple restaurants and bars, gyms, spas, extensive pools, and more.
Cozumel Palace: waterfront all-inclusive resort with excellent access to scuba diving and snorkeling sites. Luxury suites, fine dining, and more. Great for families.
Occidental Cozumel: all-inclusive resort with Mexican estate-style architecture. Located right on the beach, has excellent suites, pools, dining, and more.
Kan Tulum: A boutique hotel located 3 miles away from Tulum’s major archeological sites, Kan Tulum has excellent accommodations, great pools, tropical gardens, and a bar.
Intima Resort: an adult-only private walled resort surrounded by Tulum’s tropical jungle. Excellent suites, including swim up units, and great access to Tulum’s archeological sites and beaches.
Depending on which city you stay in and your accommodations, the cost of your vacation can vary wildly. That being said, comparing apples to apples, Tulum is generally the most expensive location, with an average cost of $1,890 per person per week. Next is Cozumel, with an average cost of $1,541 a week per person. Then Cancun and Playa del Carmen, which both cost an average of around $1,340 per person per week.
The Bottom Line
When considering Cancun vs Riviera Maya for your next trip, there is no right or wrong choice. The correct choice for you will depend on what you are interested in seeing, doing, and spending. If you want to stay in a great all-inclusive right on the beach, experience a variety of watersports and activities, and enjoy the nightclubs and bars after sundown, all for a reasonable price, then Cancun can’t be beat.
If you are more interested in travelling around, visiting historical ruins, going on adventures through the jungle, to cenotes, to amazing snorkeling and scuba diving sports, and to secluded beaches away from the crowds, then Riviera Maya destinations like Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel are for you. Especially if you are willing to spend a little more. Ultimately, the choice is up to you.