Cancun vs Riviera Maya: what’s the main difference and where should I go on vacation?
If this is your doubt you have landed in the right place. I lived in Cancun and traveled a lot to the Riviera Maya and know both destinations very well.
So I feel the pain. It’s so difficult to choose between such spectacular places.
In this post, I will try to explain what are the main differences between Cancun and the Riviera Maya and hopefully help you decide which one will be your next vacation place.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | At a glance
Cancun is a city that is divided into the downtown and hotel zone. The hotel zone has around 100 different hotels and countless restaurants.
You can stroll around the hotel zone and shop and find tourist attractions.
You can take a bus or taxi into the downtown area to find local food vendors. In comparison with the size of Cancun, the towns in the Riviera Maya are smaller.
They typically have a more laid-back feel. The towns in the Riviera Maya are not separated into hotel zones and where the locals live in the same way Cancun is.
Cancun is famous for its high-energy, party scene. You can leave your hotel and find plenty of places to party in the hotel zone.
In recent years Playa del Carmen and Tulum’s party scene has grown, with electronic music festivals.
If you are not staying directly in Playa del Carmen or Tulum, you will need to take a taxi to get into town to experience the nightlife.
Smaller towns in the Riviera Maya will not have that energic nightlife.
For many people, it is hard to beat the convenience of staying in Cancun. The airport is a short distance from the hotel zone.
Your plane can land and you can be on the beach within an hour. Towns in the Riviera Maya take a bit longer to get to.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | location
As I explain in a more detailed post on the distance between Cancun and the Riviera Maya, Cancun is located on the north side of the state of Quintana Roo while the Riviera Maya is a stretch of coast that begins in Puerto Morelos, 30 miles south of Cancun all the way to Sian Kaan biosphere, 120 miles south of Puerto Morelos.
So while when we talk about Cancun we refer to the city of Cancun, the Riviera Maya is a geographical area that includes the big cities of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum and the villages in between them.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | Things to do
No matter where you end up staying in Mexico, there are lots of fun things to do in Cancun, the Riviera Maya, and from one place to the other.
The two locations are so close that no matter where you are staying you can visit the entire area on a day trip.
You will find great beaches to relax on in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. This area is famous for its crystal clear blue water, but what is underneath is truly amazing.
The Meso-American Barrier Reef runs just off the coast of the Riviera Maya and Cancun. It is part of the second-largest barrier reef system in the world.
You can snorkel or scuba dive and will be treated to views of a variety of corals and sponges. The reefs are home to a ton of marine life, including sea turtles, sharks, and countless, colorful reef fish.
All over the Yucatan Peninsula, you can find cenotes. Cenotes are freshwater pools, or sinkholes, that connect the surface to an extensive underwater river system.
Some cenotes are open, like large pools. Other cenotes have large overhead environments that you can snorkel or scuba dive in.
If you want to stay on land, you can visit Maya ruins. There are several different archeological sites you can visit that are near Cancun and the Riviera Maya, such as Chichen Itza, Coba, and Tulum.
You can book one of the tours suggested here below and learn about how the ancient Maya civilization lived.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | best beaches
Deciding which destination between Cancun and the Riviera Maya has the best beaches is a difficult task. They are all spectacular. However, the main differences refer more to how easy it is to get in the water and how crowded they are.
On weekends and festivities, they are all crowded. So make sure you either go early morning or avoid Sundays if you don’t like crowds.
In general, the beaches in the Riviera Maya, are all very much swimmable with no particular risks of currents, with some exceptions.
Some of the Cancun beaches, though, can be somewhat dangerous to swim because of the undertow currents so make sure you watch the flags on the beach and if it’s yellow or red, avoid swimming.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | Top tours
There are a lot of fun tours to choose from when you visit the Mexican Caribbean. Here are the top tours you do not want to miss on your vacation.
👉 Viator Exclusive Combo Tour: Tulum Ruins, Reef Snorkeling Plus Cenote and Caves
5⭐ 2524 Reviews
Visit the impressive Tulum archeological site. These ruins sit on top of a cliff with breathtaking views of the ocean below.
Start your day with a tour of the ruins where you will learn about the Maya civilization. Next, you will be driven to the snorkel spot.
Snorkel gear is provided and you will get a chance to cool off in the water and enjoy the marine life.
A boat will take you to the snorkel spot where you will have a relaxing swim. The tour ends with a drive into the jungle to visit Cenote Xtun.
Here you can jump into the freshwater cenote. Note: It takes almost two hours to drive from Cancun to Tulum.
If you are staying in Playa del Carmen or Tulum, the drive time is shorter. If you do not want to spend so much time in a car, book a different tour from Cancun.
👉 Chichen Itza Early Access, Buffet Lunch & Cenote English Tour
5⭐ 2556 Reviews
Beat the heat and the crowds with this early access tour of Chichen Itza. You will be picked up at your hotel or designated meeting spot and driven to Chichen Itza on a comfortable, air-conditioned bus.
You will beat the crowds there and get a guided tour, as well as free time to explore the archeological site.
Chichen Itza is a UNESCO world heritage site as well as one of the modern wonders of the world.
After visiting the site you will have a buffet lunch and then visit a local cenote. Here you can jump into the refreshing water and take a swim before heading back to your hotel.
👉 Luxury Catamaran and Snorkel. Lunch & Open Bar Onboard and Visit to Isla Mujeres
5⭐ 1844 Reviews
Enjoy a luxury catamaran cruise that travels along the coast of Cancun to Isla Mujeres. On your way to Isla Mujeres, you stop at a snorkel location.
Hop into the clear water and enjoy looking down at the corals and colorful fish.
From there you will be served a gourmet lunch on board and arrive at Isla Mujeres. You can choose to take a guided tour or explore the island on your own.
On the way back you will get great views of Cancun as you sip cocktails.
Note: this tour leaves from Cancun, so if you are staying in the Riviera Maya, you can expect up to a two-hour car ride to get to the marine (depending on how far from Cancun you are staying).
👉 Half-Day Sea Turtle and Cenote Snorkeling Tour from Cancun & Riviera Maya
5⭐ 476 Reviews
You will be picked up at your hotel in Cancun or on the Riviera Maya and travel to Akumal. Akumal is famous for being home to sea turtles!
You will take a relaxing snorkel looking for sea turtles and different rays and reef fish.
From there you will head to Cenote Xtun, a large freshwater pool where you can swim. You will be able to see the stalactite and stalagmite rock formations!
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | Where to stay
There are countless hotels to choose from in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. You will be able to find something that fits your budget and offers you the amenities that you want.
Having a hard time deciding where to stay? Here are some recommendations to get your search started.
1. Hyatt Ziva Cancun All Inclusive
This is a great option if you are traveling with a family! There are a variety of different rooms to choose from, and the hotel will keep everyone entertained.
There is a dedicated kid’s play area, as well as three different pools to explore. The hotel is right on a sandy beach and has tennis courts and basketball courts.
There are 8 different on-site restaurants to choose from.
2. Nizuc Resort and Spa
If you want a luxurious getaway, the Nizuc Resort, and Spa. Choose between jungle or beach views.
The spacious property gives you plenty of privacy, and you can even book a room with a private pool.
This is a five-star resort and is located in a secluded section of the beach.
There are 6 restaurants to choose from as well as pool-side and beach-side bars. Treat yourself to a day at the on-site spa.
3. Breathless Cancun Soul Resort & Spa | Adults Only | All Inclusive
This adult-only all-inclusive is a great option if you are looking for a spot to relax. The property has three pools and is located right on the white sandy beach.
There are 10 different restaurants where you will dine with an ocean view. The resort has volleyball, kayaking, and bodyboards available.
4. Hotel Bonampak Cancun
Located in downtown Cancun, this hotel is a great option if you want to be close to the locals. You can easily walk to shopping and local restaurants.
The hotel has spacious rooms and a large pool located on the large patio.
Riviera Maya Hotels
5. Palmaia – The House of AiA
This boho-chic style all-inclusive is located in Playacar in Playa del Carmen. All of the rooms have their own patio/terrace to enjoy.
Each block of rooms has a pool, so you do not have to go far to hop into the water. The resort is located on a large property right on the beach.
There is a fire pit area with a DJ. The resort offers wellness options and even has a vegan taco truck on site for lunch!
6. Mezzanine a Colibri Boutique Hotel | Adults Only
This hotel is located on the famous white-sand Tulum beach. It is a great option for couples looking for a relaxing getaway.
You can relax at the pool or on a sun-lounger near the ocean. There is an on-site Thai-inspired restaurant.
7. Grand Velas Riviera Maya
This resort is famous for its luxury. It is located north of Playa del Carmen. It is divided into different sections.
Zen and Ambassador are family-friendly, while the Grand Class is adult-only.
This resort is located on an amazing stretch of beach with plenty of loungers to relax in. There is an on-site spa that offers a variety of treatments.
8. Thompson Beach House
Located in downtown Playa del Carmen, this is a small, beachside hotel. It has a pool and terrace with beach views.
You can book in-room spa treatments, and enjoy the on-site restaurant.
This is a great option if you want to stay in the heart of Playa del Carmen with easy walking access to shopping and restaurants.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya: FAQ
How long is the ride from Cancun to Riviera Maya?
It depends on where you are staying in the Riviera Maya. The Riviera Maya starts in Puerto Morelos, which is about a 20-25 minute drive from Cancun.
It continues south to Playa del Carmen, which is one hour from Cancun.
The next big town you will get to is Tulum which takes about two hours from Cancun to reach.
The Riviera Maya extends south to Sian Ka’an, which takes about three hours of driving to reach Cancun.
Is it better to stay in Cancun or Riviera Maya?
It depends on what you want on a vacation! Cancun has over 70 hotels to choose from in the hotel zone. Here you can easily get to shopping, restaurants, and tourist attractions.
Cancun hotels are located on white, sandy beaches, and are conveniently located a short drive from the Cancun International Airport.
The Riviera Maya offers a variety of large, all-inclusive resorts that run along the coast of the Riviera Maya.
These resorts are separated from towns, so you will need to plan transportation if you want to leave them. You could also choose to stay in a town like Playa del Carmen or Tulum.
These areas are smaller than Cancun and you will mix more with the locals. Both Cancun and the Riviera Maya have beautiful beaches, clear water, and fun excursions to enjoy.
Do you fly into Cancun to get to Riviera Maya?
You can also use public transportation, ADO buses, to get from the airport to the towns of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum.
As an alternative, you can rent a car and drive from Cancun to anywhere you want, for better accessibility.
What airport is closest to Riviera Maya?
The Cancun International Airport is the closest airport to the Riviera Maya. You can book a private shuttle to take you from the airport to any location in the Riviera Maya.
It will take between 20 minutes and 3 hours to get to your destination in the Riviera Maya.
What is the best time of year to visit Riviera Maya?
There is not a bad time of year to visit Cancun or the Riviera Maya. The months of November to April are the dry season.
These are the winter months, but the weather still reaches the low to mid-80s and cools off at night.
The summer months of May to October are the wet and hurricane season. You can expect passing rain showers almost daily, but then the sun will come back out.
The peak of hurricane season is September and October. These months are hot and humid. Many people prefer the winter months because the temperature is not as hot and sticky.
But, if you come in the wet season there are fewer crowds.
Do hurricanes hit Riviera Maya?
Hurricanes can hit the Riviera Maya. The wet, hurricane season is from May to October. The peak hurricane season is August through October.
While it is possible that a hurricane hits the area, they are not common. Many years pass between hurricanes.
If you are planning a trip during hurricane season pay attention to the weather before you travel and buy trip insurance in case you decide to change your dates.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya | final thoughts
Cancun and the Riviera Maya are great vacation spots. They are located near the jungle, on stretches of white, sandy beach.
From either destination, you can get out of your hotel and explore the coral reefs and cenotes.
You can visit Maya ruins at archeological sites. If you are having a hard time deciding what destination is better for you, remember, they are close to each other!
You can easily book a hotel in Cancun and spend one day exploring the smaller towns in the Riviera Maya!
Most excursions are easily accessible from either Cancun or the Riviera Maya, you just might have a car ride.