Cancun Vs Riviera Maya. Which should you choose in 2023?
If you are looking for a beach getaway in Mexico that guarantees sun, sand, sea, and ice-cold cervezas, both Cancun and Riviera Maya are popular choices. They are both located in the Mexican Caribbean in the state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan peninsula.
Cancun is the capital of the state. The Riviera Maya region is a collection of beaches and coastal towns that sit just south of the city.
Both areas are home to gorgeous beaches, upscale resorts, and excellent restaurants and bars. Both also make a convenient base for traveling onwards to various ancient ruins, archeological sites, and other places of interest in the Yucatan.
There is only a short distance between the two areas. (Literally, they are right beside each other.)
The only major difference is that Cancun is a very built-up modern city whereas the Riviera Maya consists of smaller sleepier towns. Choosing which is the best between Cancun vs Riviera Maya is somewhat subjective.
It depends on what you are looking for during your vacation. This article will provide some food for thought to help you compare the two.
I live in the Yucatan capital of Merida and have explored the area extensively. So, I feel well-poised to help you make the decision!
Which Has Better Beaches?
One of the main draws of traveling to Mexico’s Caribbean coast is the opportunity to simply relax by the sea. In both Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you will find beaches with soft, powdery white sand that runs parallel to translucent turquoise seas.
Both areas have something for everyone too. That is, whether you are looking for exclusive beach clubs where you can rent cabanas and sunbeds for the day and enjoy waiter service.
Or whether you are looking for spots where you can just lay your towel down wherever you please and have plenty of restaurants a stone’s throw away whenever you get hungry. The main difference is the crowds and the presence of more secluded spots.
Cancun is a large city and its main beaches are concentrated around the hotel zone. Playa del Niño, Playa Delfines, and Playa Langosta are all stunning beaches in Cancun but they are always crowded.
When you head south towards Playa del Nizuc, things get a little quieter. But you never have the secluded, desert island getaway vibe that you can get on some of the Riviera Maya beaches.
Winner: Riviera Maya
Riviera Maya Vs Cancun: Which is Easier to Get to?
Currently, Cancun International Airport (CUN) is the only major international airport in the state of Quintana Roo. This is where you will need to fly to wherever you are staying.
This is the case whether you are staying in Cancun or traveling to Tulum, Puerto Morelos, or all the way to the southern part of the state in Mahahual.
Obviously, your transit time is much lesser if you are staying in Cancun. ADO buses run frequently between Cancun airport and the city center and can get you downtown in just 30 minutes.
Taxis and private transfers are even faster, more convenient, and reasonably priced. Meanwhile, if you are staying in Tulum or elsewhere in Riviera Maya, you are likely to be looking at several hours’ worth of travel time.
While that isn’t the end of the world, sometimes getting through customs at Cancun can take a while, especially if you are traveling in the peak season. If you have spent hours on an international flight, then another couple of hours at customs, the added domestic travel time once you arrive in Mexico can be nightmarish.
Fortunately, a lot of resorts and hotels around the Riviera Maya do offer free transfers for their guests. The Mexican government has confirmed that an international airport will be built in Tulum to help better accommodate tourists traveling to the region.
The airport (Felipe Carillo Puerto International) is expected to start operations in 2024. From then, getting to the Riviera Maya ought to become much easier.
There will be direct flights to Tulum from the US and different areas in Latin America.
Cancun Vs Riviera Maya: Which is Cheaper?
Cancun and the Riviera Maya are not really the budget travel destinations that they once were. These areas, along with Puerto Vallarta and Los Cabos are among the most popular areas in Mexico for international tourists. Prices are starting to soar.
If you are trying to visit Mexico on a budget, you may want to consider some of the lesser-visited beaches in the Yucatan state or off-the-beaten-path destinations in Chiapas and Campeche. Still, of the two, you are likely to find better deals in Cancun.
The sprawling Cancun hotel zone has something for every budget and taste. Here you will find adults-only resorts perfect for those that want to party.
There are also a lot of family-friendly all-inclusive spots, luxury spa hotels, and affordable boutique choices. Downtown Cancun should also not be written off either.
The area has a more “local” feel and is home to a plethora of great, affordable restaurants and taquerias. Your money goes further here than it does in the hotel zone.
You can find deals in the Riviera Maya if you shop around. But Tulum, in particular, is very expensive, especially during the peak season. (December to March).
The summer months are more affordable across the board. But this is also the hurricane season.
Which Area is Better for Exploring Ruins?
Even if you only really plan to relax and go to the beaches during your time in Mexico, you should dedicate at least one day to visiting some of the incredible Mayan ruins in the country. Chichen Itza is a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the seven wonders of the world.
Iis well worth the journey to get to.
Tulum ruins are also impressive and sit perched on a cliff, overlooking the Caribbean sea. Although Cancun is technically closer to Chichen Itza and Coba, the sites can be very easily reached from both Cancun and Riviera Maya.
There are a lot of reputable tour companies in this region that offer excursions to some of the best Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula. They will pick you up from your Cancun/Riviera Maya hotel in the morning and drop you off in the evening.
You can opt to do a small group tour with other travelers to keep costs down or do a private tour. You can of course make the journeys by public bus or colectivo but opting to do a tour takes a lot of stress out of managing the logistics of your trip.
A trip to Chichen Itza can also be combined with a visit to some traditional Yucatan villages or cenotes, or to the ruins at Ek Balam. From the Riviera Maya, you can also head south to the ancient city of Chacchoben, nestled in the heart of the jungle, or to the lesser-known ruins of Oxtankah, Kohunlich, and Kinichna.
Which Has Better Nightlife?
Cancun is renowned for being one of the hottest party destinations in Latin America. It is a top choice for US spring breakers and has something for everyone.
There are raucous nightclubs and beach clubs here where live DJs from across the world perform all night. The City, Dady´O, and Palazzo are local favorites and have a cover charge of around $35-$40 per person.
If you are seeking something a bit more elegant, there are also lots of incredible rooftop cocktail bars, craft breweries, speakeasies, and live music spots in Cancun. Taboo Cancun (Blvd. Kukulcan Km 13.5) is a great rooftop bar that offers delicious Mediterranean food and cocktails produced by some of the best mixologists in town.
The only problem with the nightlife in Cancun is that everything is so spread out. You generally need to pick an area that you want to go for the night and then take a cab there.
Downtown Playa Del Carmen has some great hangout spots. The towns and resorts along the Riviera Maya do have plenty of bars and restaurants. Things are just a little more low-key.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya Safety
Safety is a major concern for many people traveling to Mexico for the first time. “Is Mexico safe?” is probably the first question on the lips of many of your friends and family when you tell them you are considering coming here.
Mexico doesn’t have the best reputation for safety globally. Sometimes, it can feel as though places like Cancun and Riviera Maya are in the news for all the wrong reasons.
For the most part, both areas are safe as long as you take the same common sense precautions as you would when traveling anywhere else. Tourism is a huge part of Mexico’s economy and the industry is constantly growing.
Since so many local businesses depend on tourism, the Mexican government put additional safety measures in place in tourist areas to ensure that visitors are safe.
Many hotels and businesses in Cancun’s hotel zone have private security. Since autumn 2022, armed military personnel has started being deployed around Cancun to help prevent crime.
Since Cancun is a major city, it does see a lot more crime than the sleepy villages along the Riviera Maya. Criminal organizations do exist here and are currently fighting for control of the territory.
Although tourists are never the intended targets of violent attacks in Cancun, there has been a couple of incidents in recent years where they have been caught in the crossfire. The chances of you being in the wrong place at the wrong time are still slim.
But it is worth keeping in mind. Riviera Maya has managed to steer clear of the violent incidents that have affected Cancun in recent years.
Winner: Riviera Maya is the safer option.
Which Area is Better for Day Trips
Both Cancun and Riviera Maya can be visited as part of a wider Yucatan itinerary. Since there is only a small distance between the two places, arguably any destination that can be reached from Cancun can also easily be reached from Riviera Maya (and vice versa).
However, arguably, Tulum and the southernmost parts of the Mayan Riviera make a better jump-off point for visiting the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and the white-sand beaches of Akumal and Mahahual, as well as Lake Bacalar and the southernmost part of Quintana Roo state.
Xcaret park is also in this area and offers fun for all the family. Meanwhile, basing yourself in Cancun makes it easier to get to El Cuyo in the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, Isla Mujeres, and popular places in the Yucatan state such as Valladolid and Izamal.
The best place to base yourself is subjective, depending on what you want to see and do during your trip.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya Final Thoughts
Cancun and Riviera Maya are both popular destinations. Wherever you choose to base yourself, you are in a perfect place for exploring the wider Yucatan and relaxing on some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico.
The biggest difference is that Cancun is a large city and the Riviera Maya is a quieter area. But both regions boast excellent dining options, boutique hotels, and luxurious inclusive resorts.
Do you have any further questions or concerns about planning your trip? As I mentioned, I live in the Yucatan.
I am happy to assist with anything you need. Feel free to reach out!
Safe travels and enjoy Mexico! Buen viaje! Xo