Cancun Vs. Riviera Maya: 7 Key Differences You Should Know

Mention a Mexican beach vacation and people usually think of gorgeous turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and tequila drinks. Well Named ! Well, all of that and more exists on Mexico’s beautiful east coast in Cancun and the Riviera Maya. My husband and I have been visiting Cancun for over 20 years. We find ourselves lounging on the white sand beaches once or twice a year since Cancun is a quick and easy trip from Dallas, TX.

Both Cancun and the Riviera Maya offer fabulous locations on the Caribbean Sea, welcoming visitors from all over the world. After welcoming you with their mild beach climate, they invite you to stay a little longer with the lure of Mexican hospitality and the idea of ​​sipping tequila under the influence of palm trees.

Comparing the two is actually very common and although often used interchangeably, these two tourist hotspots are actually very different destinations!

Understanding the key differences between the two areas will help you choose the best location for your travel style, so let’s dive in and explore what Cancun and the Riviera Maya have to offer!

Akumal, a small coastal town in the Riviera Maya (Photo credit: phortun / Shutterstock.com)

1. Size and population

The biggest difference between Cancun and the Riviera Maya is the fact that Cancun is a city and the Riviera Maya is an area made up of many small towns.

Cancun, located at the northeast end of the Yucatan Peninsula, is the largest city on the Yucatan Peninsula. At the time of publication, Cancun’s population is nearly one million.

Tourists flock to Cancun’s Hotel Zone to enjoy the beautiful turquoise waters of the Caribbean, while the majority of Cancun residents live in its downtown area where few tourists venture. This creates a great separation between the tourist experience and the local experience.

The Riviera Maya, located just south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, is an area made up of several small towns. Popular towns in the Riviera Maya include Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos and Puerto Aventuras.

The largest city in the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen, has a population of 250,000 people, relatively small compared to the population of Cancun. The small populations of these towns mean that tourists often mingle with the locals, seeing what their daily lives are like.

Cancun International Airport
Cancun International Airport (Photo credit: Alexander Canas Arango / Shutterstock.com)

2. Proximity to the airport

If you don’t want to travel long by car or shuttle once you arrive in Mexico, then you’ll definitely want to choose Cancun over the Riviera Maya.

The Cancun Hotel Zone is located approximately 15 miles from Cancun International Airport. This short trip takes about 25 minutes. Choosing to stay in Cancun means you could be sipping margaritas on the sand within an hour of touching down in Mexico.

Traveling outside of Cancun to the Riviera Maya requires more driving time. It takes about 45 miles (or more) to reach the Riviera Maya. That means you’ll be in the car for at least an hour if you choose to stay in the Riviera Maya region of Mexico.

Aerial view looking north of the Hotel Zone (Zona Hotelera) and the beautiful beaches of Cancun, Mexico.
Hotel areaor “Hotel Zone”, in Cancún (Photo credit: Frederick Millett / Shutterstock.com)

3. Choice of hotel

Cancun has a wide variety of hotels and resorts for travelers to enjoy. From budget options to five-star accommodations, you’ll find it all in Cancun.

The main hotel region in Cancun is the Hotel Zone. This 21-mile area contains high-rise resorts located on beautiful beaches overlooking the Caribbean Sea. There are also plenty of budget accommodations in downtown Cancun. While you’ll find a few adults-only resorts in the Hotel Zone, many are aimed at families with children. They offer multiple dining options, multiple pools, and nightly entertainment to ensure you never have to leave the resort (unless you want to).

Riviera Maya resorts tend to be spread along the strip of land between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. These resorts range from adult-only properties (including Chris Moore’s favorite nudist resort in the Riviera Maya!) to family-oriented properties. Like the larger Cancun resorts, most Riviera Maya resorts also feature multiple restaurants, bars, pools, and multiple entertainment options to help keep guests busy and happy.

Accommodations in Riviera Maya towns tend to be smaller hotels and vacation rentals. Again, you will find properties aimed only at couples, but the majority of these properties are also available for families. These vacation rental options are often scattered throughout the city and mixed with local residences. These are great for people who want to see how the locals live in the Riviera Maya.

Hard Rock Cafe in Cancun in the center of the Forum in the hotel zone of Cancun
Hard Rock Cafe in Cancun (Photo credit: Fotos593)

Another essential difference between Cancún and the Riviera Maya is the strong contrast of atmospheres and ambiance that you will experience.

Cancun has a thriving nightlife. and the energy of a big city. Here you can enjoy plenty of shops and restaurants as well as plenty of bars and clubs offering fun and energetic nightlife choices.

The Riviera Maya region tends to offer a more laid back and relaxed vibe, which makes sense given the distance between the resorts in this region. Visitors can still enjoy the nightlife and shopping in towns like Playa del Carmen and Tulum, but if you’re not staying in those towns, you have to drive to get there.

Shopping in Cancun ranges from bartering at Mercado 28 to browsing name brands like Walmart, Apple, and Costco. Shopping in Playa del Carmen is centered on the famous 5and Street. You will find stalls filled with local creations as well as branded stores.

Caribbean Sea beach in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Playa del Carmen (Photo credit: Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock.com)

5. Beaches

The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its beautiful beaches. The beaches in this region of Mexico contain beautiful soft white sand leading to clear turquoise waters.

While the whole area has great beaches, there is definitely a difference in the types of beaches contained in each area.

The beaches of Cancun are the beaches you often see photographed and associated with this region of Mexico. These are the magnificent white sand beaches with turquoise waters. Cancun’s beaches stretch for miles and although many resorts have a private area on the beach, it is actually public property. This means the beaches in Cancun can get crowded.

The beaches of the Riviera Maya are just as beautiful but often narrower than the beaches of Cancun. The beaches facing the resorts on the strip of land between Cancun and Playa del Carmen are generally not as long as the stretches of beaches in Cancun either. That said, these beaches are generally less crowded and tend to have a very relaxed vibe. The beaches of Playa del Carmen, one of the most popular towns in the Riviera Maya, are all public, so they tend to get crowded.

The ocean water in Cancun tends to have more waves and waves, while the waters in the Riviera Maya are often calmer thanks to the natural coral reef that protects this area.

Cenote Riviera Maya.
Cenote Riviera Maya (Photo credit: Fanny Leblanc / Shutterstock.com)

6. The atmosphere

Cancun just seems to exude energy around every corner. There is always something going on, so you will definitely not be bored during your stay in the city. It’s easy to spend the day shopping, then spend the evening dancing the night away at the many clubs (both on and off resort properties). Cancun is what it is, and it’s a party town. Cancun offers a lively and festive atmosphere that continues to attract young and old.

The Riviera Maya area has a much more laid back vibe. Here you can find a variety of moods. Some resorts pride themselves on being laid-back, quiet retreats, while others bring the club atmosphere. The fact that the Riviera Maya area is so spread out makes it a little harder to hop a bar or hit multiple clubs in one night. This area generally attracts those looking to have fun, but not to the level of Cancun.

El Castillo (The Kukulkan Temple) of Chichen Itza, Mayan pyramid in Yucatan, Mexico.
Chichén Itzá (Photo credit: Ivan Soto Cobos / Shutterstock.com)

7. Area Attractions

Known as a beach resort, Cancun’s main attraction is the fabulous beach resorts it offers. Many visitors come to Cancun and never leave their resort! Beyond the resort town, Cancun also offers incredible nightlife and fabulous beaches. If you are looking for other attractions in the area, Cancun has a few to offer. The Cancun Aquarium is a nice addition to a family itinerary. You can also go on cool excursions in the Cancun area, including a trip to Chichen Itza or a ferry ride to Isla Mujeres.

Families love visiting the water parks of Xel-Ha and Xcaret during their stay in the Riviera Maya. This area is also ideal for exploring the crystal clear waters of the cenotes found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Adrenaline junkies will love the opportunity to zipline or mountain bike through the jungle in this region of Mexico. Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Cancun Vs. Riviera Maya: Conclusion

No matter which of these destinations you choose, you are guaranteed to have an incredible experience in Mexico. Cancun and the Riviera Maya allow you to enjoy Mexican culture by immersing yourself in the food, history and atmosphere of the region around you. It’s up to you whether you’d rather relax on a quiet, laid-back beach (choose the Riviera!) or head to Cancun’s party scene to dance the night away. No matter which region you choose, you will certainly fall in love with the Yucatan Peninsula and the Mexican hospitality offered by its welcoming people!

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