Mexico,  Rizort,  Things to do in Cancun,  Things to do in Riviera Maya

Cancun vs Riviera Maya

Mexico’s stunning coastline and Mayan ruins attract hordes of tourists every year. But it can be difficult deciding where to go, when dreamy resorts and beaches seem to beckon from every slice of the Mexican shoreline. 

In this article, we’ll talk about two celebrated seaside destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula: Cancun and Riviera Maya. The former is divided into two distinct areas: the resorts on the beachfront, and the traditional city centre. On the other hand, Riviera Maya is a resort town known for its all-inclusive retreats and historical ruins in the nearby town of Tulum. So let’s explore the difference – Cancun vs Riviera Maya


Cancun is at the northernmost tip in the state of Quintana Roo and has its own airport, so reaching your hotel takes around 30 minutes. 

Famous as a spring break destination, Cancun attracts its own set of beach lovers who enjoy perennial sunshine and the silky sands of its beaches. Known for its happening nightlife, party animals are going to love Cancun.

Approximately eighty kilometres south of Cancun along the same coastline is Riviera Maya. In contrast, Riviera Maya is laid back and surrounding yourself with natural beauty. It is a paradise for beach lovers and marine enthusiasts and is blessed with archaeological sites, biosphere reserves, and eco-adventure parks.

To reach Riviera Maya, you need to land at Cancun International Airport and reaching your hotel takes an hour.


A sight that catches the eye when you step in Cancun are its multi-storeyed luxury hotels that dot the beach. All the resorts provide stunning ocean views in the morning and unperturbed views of the starry night.

People heady in love and newly weds can book a suite at Live Aqua Beach Resort Cancun and Le Blanc Spa Resort. Families have plenty of resorts to put up in Cancun like The Ritz Carlton Cancun and Hyatt Ziva Cancun. These resorts are located on a private beach for you and your family to rejoice. 

In contrast, hotels in Riviera Maya are blissfully secluded in the emerald jungles on one side and the pristine ocean waters on the other. Cosy private villas nestled in lush greenery will your home when you holiday on this Caribbean coastline.

Honeymooners and couples seeking a romantic getaway can have a look at Rosewood Mayakoba, Blue Diamond Luxury Boutique, and Royal Hideaway Playacar. Families who want to enjoy a Caribbean holiday can opt for Banyan Tree Mayakoba, Belmond Maroma Resort and Spa and Hotel Esencia.


Mouth-watering Mexican food which is seafood inspired is generously available in both the cities and other beach towns on the Caribbean coastline of Quintana Roo. The cuisine is the same and rich in flavor typical of Mexican food.

Local dishes to try are papadzules (creamy dish of pork or chicken), cochinita pibil (pork based), pozole (stew with seasoned pork and white corn), tamale (dough with meat filling which is steamed), panuchos yucatecos (like tacos), lime soup (made of cilantro, chicken, and avocado), tamal torteado de pollo (steamed chicken dish), and more.

Best places to try local food in Cancun is at La Playita Restaurante Bar Cancún, La Parrilla Cancún and Checándole. Best places to try local food in Riviera Maya are Taqueria Honorio, Lol-Ha Restaurant, Los Aguachiles and La Vagabunda Playa.


The Yucatan Peninsula is all about beaches. Though they are on the same coastline and the waves from the same Caribbean Sea lapping on its shore, the beaches can be slightly different. Each beach town has its own charm and appeal for you to experience. 


The feisty Playa Delfines is among the best white sand beaches of Cancun. Come to this public beach to watch powerful waves crashing on the shores, and take a picture with the famous ‘Cancun’ sign. 

Impossibly perfect Puerto Morelos rests on the shores of a small fishing village, and offers a respite from more touristy areas. Come here to go snorkeling or diving in the famous Mesoamerican Coral Reef. 

Playa Chac Mool is the top choice for trying out a variety of water sports, and Playa Tortugas offers calm waters ideal for swimming. And right in the center of all the action is Playa Forum. 

Riviera Maya

Riviera Maya is full of rare, untouched beaches like Xpu-Ha, which has become more popular in recent times. 

A beach which merits a visit is Playa del Carmen. This coastal resort is known for its palm-lined beaches and coral reefs. Life is laid back here and you can visit beach shacks for some beer. 

Akumal is another popular beach where you can swim with turtles, manta rays, and barracudas, even though it tends to be quite crowded. A little ahead of Akumal Beach is Yal-Ku Lagoon, a perfect spot for swimming among the mangroves and observing the marine life. The primal beauty of Xcacel will awe you, as also the dense jungles in the backdrop. It is a must-visit for those who prefer untouched beaches. 

Another gem in Riviera Maya is Punta Bete, a little-known beach that sits between Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos. This slice of paradise is not crowded where cabanas can be rented. 


Among all the beaches that compete for your attention, there are island getaways too which offer a pleasant respite away from the mainland.

A trip to Cancun is incomplete without a visit to Isla Mujeres, a hot spot for day-trippers off the coast of Cancun. Take time to explore the gorgeous surroundings and go snorkeling in one of the most beautiful reefs in the Caribbean which boasts of impressive corals and fish. 

Closer to the shores of Riviera Maya, located near Playa del Carmen is a vast island called Cozumel. Though not often on the tourist radar, there is ziplining, rappelling, kitesurfing, windsurfing, surfing, swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, fishing, golf, cycling, canoeing and kayaking to do.



First thing first, snorkel or scuba dive at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is the second largest barrier reef in the world. 

Just southwest of Isla Mujeres is the Museo Subacuático de Arte, also called Musa Underwater Museum which hosts more than 500 man-made statues. Apart from being an impressive art gallery, the statues also serve as an artificial reef to help strengthen the marine life. 

Learn about Mayan history at El Rey Archaeological Zone, the site of 47 buildings dating back to 250 A.D. More Mayan pyramids await at El Meco Archaeological Site, some with iguanas on top of them! 

After a busy day of sun and sand, drive to Xoximilco in Puerto Morelos to experience Mexican festive spirit. Large boats called trajineras brightly lit and decorated with flowers will make way through an extensive network of canals while you wine and dine on the boat. There are bands heartily singing Mariachi music will make you dance.

Often synonymous for beach clubs, here are a few places in Cancun considered best for partying. The vibe at Melody Maker Cancun and Mandala Beach Club with its pool parties will make it your favorite place to party.

Riviera Maya 

Xcaret is delightful ecological and archaeological park featuring small Mayan Ruins, thrilling water activities, and a wide variety of flora and fauna, including jaguars, dolphins, deer and pumas.

The biggest draw in Riviera Maya are its ancient Mayan history. The ruins of this civilization provide a sneak peek into the rich history and scientific advancement of a bygone era. 

Marvel at the pyramids of Chichen Itza, an archaeological site with Mayan ruins dating back to 600-1200 AD. You will be in awe of the step pyramid temple of El Castillo and other stone structures of historical significance. 

Strap on comfortable walking shoes for a full-day tour of Coba. Standing tall in the midst of a thick jungle is the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the chief attraction here.

Another archaeological treasure to visit is El Balam. Hidden in a sea of tall trees, there is a clearing where a pyramid built with grey-white stones. Scale the pyramid and if you look far into the horizon you can see a glimpse of the pyramid of Chichen Itza. Explore the stunning underground cave and capture some amazing moments amidst ancient natural formations and an underground river at Rio Secreto. 

The final verdict

Cancun and Riviera Maya rival each other to be the best beach destination and both are well-deserving destinations in their own sweet way.

If you like the hustle and bustle of a happening beach town along with a thriving nightlife, then look no further than Cancun

Families with kids in tow and those who love to understand centuries-old history, then Riviera Maya should be your first choice. There are plenty of adventure activities for couples and those traveling in groups which keep you engaged throughout your holiday.  

Things to keep in mind Cancun Riviera Maya
  • Closer to the airport
  • Known for its nightlife
  • A laid back destination which boasts of immense natural beauty and rich Mayan history
Places to stay You will get to stay in multi-storeyed luxury hotels that line the beach

  • Kid-friendly properties (The Ritz Carlton Cancun and Hyatt Ziva Cancun)
  • For honeymooners or others seeking a romantic getaway (Live Aqua Beach Resort Cancun and Le Blanc Spa Resort)
Individual villas secluded in lush greenery and just a few meters away from the beach is where you will stay.

  • Families can opt for Banyan Tree Mayakoba, Belmond Maroma Resort and Spa and Hotel Esencia.
  • Honeymooners and couples will love Rosewood Mayakoba, Blue Diamond Luxury Boutique, and Royal Hideaway Playacar. 
Beaches and island
  • Playa Delfines 
  • Puerto Morelos 
  • Playa Chac Mool
  • Playa Forum. 
  • Isla Mujeres
  • Xpu-Ha
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Akumal
  • Xcacel
  • Punta Bete
  • Cozumel
Things to do
  • Snorkel or scuba dive at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System
  • Visit Musa Underwater Museum which hosts more than 500 man-made statues.
  • Learn about Mayan history at El Rey Archaeological Zone
  • El Meco Archaeological Site, some with iguanas on top of them! 
  • Take a boat ride at Xoximilco
  • Party at Melody Maker Cancun and Mandala Beach Club
  • Enjoy water-based activities at Xcaret, an ecological and archaeological park 
  • Marvel at the pyramids of Chichen Itza
  • Visit the magnificent ruins of Tulum 
  • Explore Coba and you will be in awe of Nohoch Mul Pyramid
  • Another archaeological treasure to visit is El Balam.
  • Hop on a CAN AM buggy and explore the Mayan jungle.
  • Explore the stunning underground cave at Rio Secreto. 
  • Swim in a cenote at Ik Kil, Cenote X’Canche, Cenote Dos Ojos, and Grand Cenote.



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