Both brushed by the stunning turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean, you can’t help but compare the two on a head-to-head battle for Mexico’s best, even including the entire Caribbean, for all the draws they possess. But given their quality selling points, you can’t help but think, why not conquer all of Yucatan, instead of deciding between them?
Probably the mother of Mexican tourism, this beautiful and gifted stretch of coast is the most sought-after place in Mexico that is home to cities and towns that offer the best tropical experience. From Cancun’s tourism success to the magic of Tulum, this famed stretch of coast has everything every type of traveler can ever ask for.
Ancient Mayan ruins, geological wonders, lush forests, gorgeous beaches, and an interesting and flavorful atmosphere in every town and city, the Riviera Maya has one too many draws that give other parts of the country, and maybe even the entire Caribbean Sea a tough time to compete.
What Makes Riviera Maya Unique?
Multiple Heads One Gorgeous Body
You already know by now that the Riviera Maya is not just a stretch of beach, a town, or a city, but rather a beautiful collection of all these things. The famed coast is lined with a gorgeous coast home to a plethora of awe-inspiring beaches right next to beautiful enchanting towns that both satisfy your curiosity for culture and your much-needed beach fix, along with a heavy dose of activities during your stay.
Playa del Carmen
Known for its rustic, and authentic atmosphere, Playa del Carmen is often compared to Cancun as the smaller, yet more authentic and chill, laid-back version. Here, everything seems to tell you to take it slow, and just savor every sweet day in the beautiful Riviera Maya.
Playa del Carmen’s beaches are gorgeous, however, there aren’t as many in comparison to Cancun. The best thing about them though is that crowds aren’t as many and annoying, often cringe than Cancun, you can enjoy the beauty while peacefully kicking back.
Another shining jewel in the Riviera Maya, Tulum is the poster child for Riviera Maya’s overall fame and reputation. With temple ruins perched on a cliff overlooking its gorgeous beaches, the town’s charm is what basically defines the historical and natural magic of the Riviera Maya.
Apart from the beaches, head up to the pueblo and the ruins nearby and you’ll likely experience the authentic and cultural charm of Tulum. Simpler than Playa del Carmen, and much more authentic than Cancun, Tulum is best for culture buffs, beach bums, and wildlife lovers all wrapped in one.
If you come to the Rivier Maya looking for peace, quiet, and true relaxation, this relaxed town is characterized by having the clearest waters, and a protected shallow bay making swimming safe, enjoyable, and calm.
Akumal in Mayan means “Land of Turtles” and still rings true to this day as slews of turtles still choose to spawn here. Apart from the quaint relaxed vibe of the town, it also features a nearby reef, a secluded beach near the bay, and nearby cenotes around.
If you’re looking for a more authentic experience in Riviera Maya, especially the diving and snorkeling scene, Puerto Morelos is the place to be. It is both a charming fishing village and a snorkeling-diving destination thanks to its proximity to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System across the waters of the Rivera.
The town’s defining feature is its size. There are only two main streets that can easily be walked from one end to another, giving it an authentic and simpler vibe that appeals to slow budget travelers.
The Mayan Civilization
The Riviera Maya, with all its inland and aquatic wonders, is almost always synonymous with the once-great Mayan civilization. The coast is a silent witness to the birth, peak, and fall of the mystical Mayan civilization, especially evident with all the ruins and remains of the civilization speckled across the entire stretch of the Rivera.
The Ancient Maya was conceived and thrived across the Yucatan, all the way down to Belize, and Honduras including all of the Riviera Maya, thus the namesake. Across the Riviera, you can find remnants of their culture in the modern traditions of the cities and towns in the area. Thanks to their accessibility to the public, there are tours across the different towns and cities taking you to, ruins, cenotes, and underground rivers that were once part of the former civilization’s territory.
The Second Largest Barrier Reef System In the World
Stretching across Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, all the way to the northern reaches of Yucatan in Mexico, running over 600 miles or 965 km, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System engulfs the entire Riviera Maya. The reef system houses a bounty of marine life, consisting of 500 species of fish, 60 coral species, and 350 species of marine mammals, and mollusks.
Its thanks to this that the waters of Riviera Maya are not only meant for swimming, but also for underwater excursions as well. Thousands if not millions of diving-savvy tourists visit the stretch of the Riviera Maya to wonder upon this awe-inspiring expanse of marine marvel.
The relentless growth of the Riviera Maya has brought forth the challenge of protecting its precious natural resources. Local and national authorities, along with hoteliers, businesses-owners, and members of the marine community are all working together to develop and protect the environment, as more development can possibly put resources at risk.
The waters around the Riviera are protected and some have been designated as marine reserves with moorings put in place at every popular diving spot. Most dive centers are members of the Riviera Maya Association of Dive and Watersport Operators or APSA and practice environmental protection by reminding divers to practice good buoyancy control to avoid reef damage.
One such example is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, 15 miles south of Tulum, one of the largest protected areas in Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name translates as “where the sky was born.” The biosphere reserve houses all ecosystems found in the Yucatan Peninsula, from, beaches, dunes, dry and wet forests, mangroves, swamps, grasslands, even freshwater, and saltwater lagoons, including the 62-mile or 99-km Great Maya Reef.
When you reach that time of year when you are just itching to go on a trip, that special Mexican trip, you will be confronted with a dilemma — Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, or Cancun? When that time comes, it should be a no-brainer that Cancun should be the choice for a champion vacation. There is arguably no place, Mexican or otherwise, that has had more success and lasting fame than Cancun since the iconic 70s era.
If you have an affinity for the cosmopolitan, there’s the Downtown for you. Not only that, it’s chockablock full of hotels that’ll support even the slimmest of pockets all the way to the filthy rich. You’re not even limited to Downtown for your lodging, there are mini- and megaresorts on the seafront if you want direct access to what most perceive to be the “real” Cancun action.
Beyond the creature comforts of modern living — or more appropriately, vacationing — nature, culture, and ancient history are all within arm’s reach. Walk the soft white sand with your flip-flops in anticipation of the waves embracing your feet. Or don your Indiana Jones fedora-style hat as you explore ancient ruins and caves.
What Makes Cancun Unique?
The Biggest Nightlife Scene in the Caribbean
One thing you should not miss in any Latin American tourist spot is to dance the night away. And not just some random jerky unsophisticated movement, but rather some sexy moves from Salsa, or perhaps Merengue. But if these forms of traditional dance are outside your comfort zone, Cancun has so much variety in its nightlife that there are places where fist-pumping is more than enough.
Try and get into the debatably best nightlife clubs in Cancun, in no particular order, of course.
“The City, Casa Latina, Senor Frogs, Route 666 Bikers Bar, Barezzito Puerto Cancun”
At least one of these places, Senor Frogs, has something to offer for families. And there’s Route 666 Bikers Bar for the bikers out there. Now that’s what you call a truly inclusive list.
Chichen Itza and the Mayans
It’s not only Egypt that has famous pyramids, don’t sleep on the Mayans and their very own impressive structures. Chichen Itza is one such of these massive wonders that the Americas, and more specifically the Yucatan Peninsula, can be proud of.
The Chichen Itza pyramid is a principal reflection of the refined culture of the ancients. It is a pyramid that flaunts not only superb megalithic construction methods but also skillful artistic embellishment. Be amazed at the details of the sculptured feathered serpents at the base of the pyramid — simply outstanding!
Inland and Aquatic Delight
There is no shortage of activities to enjoy in Cancun, whether it be a fully aquatic adventure in The Great Mayan Reef or a semiaquatic exploration of the caves and cenotes of the inland — Ikk Caves, Xaman-Ha, Xibalba, Tamha, to name a few.
“What activities, exactly?” might be the first thing that you think of. Well, with this combination of places, you can enjoy diving, snorkeling, caving, zip-lining, and rappelling. There is an abundance of life and man-made formations to see and experience in all of these places. It’s just a matter of what you want to start with.
Over a Hundred Hotels
The Zona Hotelera, with over 100 hotels, and counting, is a zone where it is practically impossible to not find an accommodation that ticks all the boxes in your Cancun list. This zone is mostly a man-made miracle of modern civilization that highlights vistas of both a lagoon and the Caribbean.
If you value cheap thrills and even cheaper lodging, you can go for the mainland side of the Zona with the more budget-friendly spots. But if you are more than willing to flick bills off of stacks of cash, the 7-shaped Hotel Zone accommodates some of the household hotel and resorts chains like the Hyatt, InterContinental, Marriott, etc.
Is Cancun or Riviera Maya Better?
Being on the same seaboard of Mexico, the trouble with comparing Cancun or Riviera Maya is that a lot of their respective draws are the same, except for Cancun’s cosmopolitan high such as shopping, and nightlife, which basically its brand. Additionally, the Riviera Maya isn’t just a single city, unlike Cancun, as the name suggests the Riviera is a whole region. Straddling south of Cancun, the Riviera is composed of towns and a city that offer almost the same natural features as Cancun.
Now, Cancun’s advantage is that it has a seemingly unlimited number of activities on its roster that can overshadow the rest of Mexico’s tourist destinations, which may put Riviera Maya at a disadvantage. However, if you’re looking for a more intimate, authentic, chilled, and easygoing time in the Mexican Caribbean, then all of Riviera Maya is open to serve you until your heart’s content.
If you take a look at it, both these destinations have everything that makes up a great Mexican Caribbean experience, what can set them apart is the kind of experience you want to have. If you’re one for parties, fun, and the beach, well, Cancun is your best best. But, if you’re looking for more than just the beach and the booze, all of Riviera Maya will open itself up to you.
Cancun vs. Riviera Maya – Safety
The entire expanse of the Yucatan Peninsula, famous and iconic as it is, has its fair share of dangers attracted by overcrowding thanks to mass tourism. So, just like any famous, crowded city and region in the world, risks, and threats such as crime can be a possibility, but not always a guarantee.
You can expect Cancun to feel a bit riskier than all the other tourist-famous places in Mexico, partly due to the city being very crowded, especially during peak seasons. However, if you’re worried about crime, Cancun is safe. While there will always be the thought of crime around various corners of the city, most of them are illegal activities conducted by the locals – rarely involving tourists and expats.
The same goes for the rest of Riviera Maya, however, because most of the Yucatan’s spotlight is centered in Cancun, and all the noise it makes, the Riviera Maya feels less crowded, thus, less risky. With the region’s small quaint towns, and the famous rustic feel of the city of Playa del Carmen, if you’re looking for legit R&R, the Riviera is more ideal. With crime much less prevalent than in Cancun, the region is best suited for those looking to chill more and worry less.
If you’re worried about the infamous water quality in Mexico, though clean, you are most likely to veer away from an upset stomach if you are to drink from a water bottle. Tap water may be safe and clean, but it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Are the Beaches Better in Cancun or Riviera Maya?
One common running theme about Cancun and the Riviera is the beauty of their beaches, ridiculously gorgeous, and swimmable. The perfect recipe for a beach getaway, if you’re one for the beaches, is the flavor that defines all of the Yucatan, or the Mexican Caribbean. With turquoise blue waters, fine white sand beaches, and swimmable conditions, beaches on this side of the country are always a good idea, apart from the occasional washed-up sargassum, of course.
Cancun is big on the beachfront. With a 14-mile or 22.5-km beach right on the city’s famous Hotel Zone, among a few others, the city has one of the best beaches, at par with its own nightlife. The beaches on Riviera Maya, on the other hand, may not be as well-developed and equipped as Cancun’s, but when you’re looking for a rustic feel, and a more authentic flavor, with equally fine white sand, and turquoise blue waters, you have Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Akumal for that.
Riviera Maya vs. Cancun – Resorts
When it comes to vacations, holidays, and all the travel whatnot, you can find everything you’re looking for in the expanse of the Yucatan, however, Cancun, and all of the Riviera Maya offers distinct flavors. What determines which is which will depend on you.
Cancun for one is a famous resort city that is defined by the fun, excitement, thrill, and noise it offers. The city is teeming with resorts that cater to different types of travelers, from solo budget travelers to high-rolling executives.
The famous Hotel Zone is lined with luxury resorts and hotels that cater to a more well-heeled set. While those looking to have more practical things to put their money in, the Downtown, or El Centro has a plethora of top-notch affordable stays without taking away the fabled Cancun experience from its guests.
The Riviera Maya is best suited for those looking to have a more authentic feel of the Mexican Caribbean, staying true to its tropical setting, more laid-back and intimate. Most of the Riviera’s stays accompanied by the experience that the different towns offer, is more than just the obligatory booze and beaches.
Playa del Carmen, probably the biggest, most well-known of all the Riviera hosts resorts and hotels that vary from the luxurious to the rustic and intimate. Tulum, thank to its ancient and natural charms, also has resorts that offer the same, plus, all the authentic charm of its small-town feel.
Staying in Cancun vs. Riviera Maya
The best place to say is the one where it offers the things you want to experience, and according to the budget that you have. Cancun and the Riviera are often confused because of their overt similarities, yet they are also unique in more ways than one, so it’s best to know these differences and draws so you could decide for yourself.
If you love to have fun, especially at night, and prefer a more animated city rather than a laid-back, closer-to-nature setting, then Cancun is the ideal place. Staying in Cancun is ideal for those who love to have the cosmopolitan pleasures, and the beach by day, and the whole city as a club by night.
The Riviera Maya, a collection of smaller rustic and more authentic towns and a city, is best for those who want to chill, feel the authenticity of the local scene, explore as much as they can, while still having a decent nightlife, and the gorgeous Caribbean beaches. Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Akumal, Puerto Aventuras, and Puerto Morelos all offer what Cancun can’t – the authentic Mexican experience.
What Is the Difference Between Cancun and Riviera Maya?
Cancun and Riviera Maya often get confused, as most thought that Cancun is a part of the Riviera. Cancun is the party-central, big honcho of vacations and holidays in the Yucatan, basically the blueprint of a tourist mecca, commercial, and iconic. The city has never-ending pulsating energy that lasted for ages with no signs of winding down and stopping. Cancun is best reserved for the party crowd, energetic travelers, and those thirsty for experience, and the occasional booze.
Riviera Maya is what the Yucatan is all about. Ancient wonders, authentic town centers, warm locals, all living right beside the gifts of nature, such as dense forests, rich wildlife, mystical cenotes, and of course, the awe-inspiring beaches. If you’re up for a slower pace, chilled, authentic, a bit rustic, without the thick crowds, you have five towns in the Riviera ready to welcome, and maybe even educate you.