The Difference Between Cancun and Riviera Maya | A Comprehensive Guide

by | Mar 24, 2023 | Americas, EDITORIAL, MEXICO

Are you considering a beach vacation but can’t decide between Cancun and Riviera Maya?

These Mexican destinations offer stunning beaches, luxurious resorts, delicious cuisine, and plenty of activities.

So, what is the difference between Cancun and Riviera Maya? Let’s take a closer look at each destination to find out.



Riviera Maya


A popular tourist destination which is known for its incredible beaches, energetic nightlife, and modern amenities.

A stretch of Caribbean coastline known for its all-inclusive resorts, luxury hotels, natural beauty, and ancient Mayan ruins.

Cancun – Joseph Barrientos


A mix of Mexican, Caribbean, and International cultures strongly influences global tourism.

A more authentic Mexican experience with a strong Mayan heritage and focus on eco-tourism.

  • Visit the Mayan communities like Pac Chen.


Warm and friendly locals, with a focus on hospitality and tourism.

  • Take part in the Day of the Dead celebrations in Xcaret Park.

Emphasis on preserving Mayan customs and traditions with eco-tourism and sustainability efforts.

  • Attend a traditional Mayan ceremony.
Xcaret – Grand Velas via Creative Commons


Generally safe for tourists, but it’s essential to exercise caution and avoid risky areas.

  • Monitor travel advisories for updates.

Considered relatively safe, tourists should still exercise caution and follow local guidelines.


Range of options from budget hostels to luxury resorts, focusing on all-inclusive hotels.

Accommodations include eco-resorts, boutique hotels, all-inclusive resorts, and vacation rentals.


Known for its beautiful white-sand beaches and crystal-clear turquoise waters.

  • Visit Playa Delfines and Playa Chac Mool.

Many pristine beaches with turquoise waters, some more secluded than Cancun.

  • Visit Akumal Beach and Playa Xpu-Ha.
Tulum Beach – Anna Sullivan

Places to Eat

Wide variety of international and Mexican cuisine.

Emphasis on local and traditional Mexican cuisine.

  • Visit Hartwood for farm-to-table dining.

What to Eat

Tacos, ceviche, guacamole, and churros.

  • Try Marquesitas, a popular street food dessert.

Traditional Mexican cuisine, such as cochinita pibil, tamales, and sopa de lima.

  • Try Salbutes, a regional specialty.


Vibrant nightlife with several bars, clubs, and entertainment options.

More laid-back nightlife.

Cancun Nightlife – Steven Maher via Creative Commons


Large malls, designer boutiques, and local markets for souvenirs and handicrafts.

  • La Isla Shopping Village
  • Mercado 28

Smaller shops and markets are ideal for local crafts and textiles.

  • Tulum’s Artisanal Market
  • Playa del Carmen’s Quinta Avenida


Well-connected by public transportation and taxis.

Best explored by rental car.



  • An archaeological site like El Rey.
  • Go to nearby islands like Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy.
  • Check out Xel-Há Park and Ventura Park for water activities.


  • Mayan ruins like Tulum and Coba.
  • Natural attractions like Dos Ojos cenote and Gran Cenote
  • Eco-Parks: Xcaret and Xplor
  • Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
  • The nearby island of Cozumel for snorkeling and diving.
Tulum Mayan Ruins – Brianna R

Adventure Activities

Enjoy a variety of water sports, such as jet skiing, parasailing, and scuba diving, at locations like Isla Mujeres and the Cancun Underwater Museum.

Swimming in cenotes, snorkeling and diving in Cozumel or Puerto Morelos, and zip-lining through the jungle at Xplor Adventure Park. Take a kayaking tour through the mangroves of Sian Ka’an.

Wellness and Relaxation

Cancun offers a variety of luxury spas and wellness centers at many hotels and resorts, such as:

The Riviera Maya is known for its wellness retreats, offering yoga classes, meditation sessions, and traditional Mayan spa treatments for a rejuvenating experience.

Family Activities

Cancun has many family-friendly activities:

  • Interactive aquariums – Aquarium Cancun.
  • Water parks – Ventura Park.
  • Pirate Ship dinner cruise.

The Riviera Maya offers various family activities, such as:

  • Swimming with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery
  • Exploring the eco-parks like Xcaret and Xel-Há
  • Visiting the Croco Cun Zoo in Puerto Morelos.
Dolphins – Xad Eugenia Sánchez

Local Experiences

Experience Mexican culture by attending a cooking class, such as those offered by Cancun Food Tours, or take a guided street food tour to sample local cuisine.

Immerse yourself in Mayan culture by participating in a traditional temazcal ceremony or taking a guided tour of a Mayan village, such as the Jungle Maya Native Park.

Festivals and Events

  • Cancun International Film Festival
  • Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival
  • Oasis Jazz U Festival.
  • Experience the vibrant Carnival celebrations in February or March.
  • Tulum Food, Spirits & Wine Festival
  • Riviera Maya Film Festival
  • Day Zero Festival in Tulum.
  • Don’t miss the Sacred Mayan Journey in Xcaret, a reenactment of an ancient Mayan pilgrimage.

Art and Museums

Explore the local art scene in Cancun:

  • Cancun Museum of Popular Art
  • Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo Patricia Mendoza.
  • Take a street art tour to discover vibrant murals around the city.

The Riviera Maya boasts a thriving art scene, particularly in Tulum, with galleries like:

  • Galeria La Nave
  • Tulum Art Club.
  • Visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in Playa del Carmen or explore the murals of the Pueblo Mágico Bacalar.
Mayan Museum – xiroro via Creative Commons

Sports and Recreation

Cancun offers various sports and recreational activities:

  • Golf at courses like the Iberostar Cancun Golf Club
  • Deep-sea fishing
  • Kitesurfing at Playa Delfines or Playa Chac Mool.

The Riviera Maya has a range of sports and recreational options:

  • Golf courses like El Camaleón Mayakoba
  • Paddleboarding in the calm waters of Akumal Bay
  • Kitesurfing in Tulum.

Eco and Wildlife

Experience the region’s natural beauty with an eco-tour:

  • Visit El Garrafon Natural Reef Park on Isla Mujeres
  • Whale shark snorkeling tour during the summer months.

Explore the Riviera Maya’s diverse ecosystems:

  • Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
  • The Sea Turtle conservation programs during nesting season in Akumal.

Marine Life Experiences

Cancun provides various opportunities to explore marine life:

  • Snorkeling or diving in the Cancun Underwater Museum (MUSA)
  • Submarine tour with Atlantis Submarines.

The Riviera Maya is a haven for marine life enthusiasts, with opportunities to snorkel or dive:

  • Cozumel’s vibrant coral reefs
  • Mesoamerican Reef
  • The unique underwater world of cenotes, or swim with sea turtles in their natural habitats.
MUSA – Malek Bee


What is the difference between Cancun and Riviera Maya?

Cancun and Riviera Maya are two popular destinations located in the Mexican Caribbean. Cancun offers a vibrant atmosphere with plenty of opportunities for tourists to explore, from its lively nightlife and shopping scene to its stunning beaches. The nearby beaches offer white sand and clear blue waters, perfect for swimming or relaxing. Riviera Maya is slightly more laid back than Cancun but still has many attractions, such as Mayan ruins, ecological parks, cenotes (sinkholes), caves, and underground rivers. It also boasts some of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches with powdery white sand fringed by turquoise water lapping against it. Both areas have luxurious resorts offering an array of amenities, making them ideal locations for bespoke trips that combine luxury with exploration.

Riviera Maya – Tanja Cotoaga

Which is better to visit, Cancun or Riviera Maya?

The type of trip you are looking for will determine whether Cancun or Riviera Maya is the best option. Cancun offers a lively atmosphere with its vibrant nightlife, bustling beaches, and wide shopping options. Riviera Maya is known for its natural beauty, with lush jungles and stunning Caribbean waters perfect for snorkeling or scuba diving. Both locations offer plenty of luxury accommodations and activities to suit any traveler’s needs; however, if you are seeking a mild luxury bespoke experience, then Riviera Maya may be the better choice due to its secluded nature that allows travelers to fully immerse themselves in their surroundings without interruption from crowds or tourist traps.

Is Riviera Maya quieter than Cancun?

Yes, Riviera Maya is generally quieter than Cancun. The two destinations’ main difference lies in their locations and size. Riviera Maya is situated on the same Caribbean coast as Cancun, but it is much smaller and less populated, providing a more tranquil atmosphere. This makes it an ideal destination for those looking to enjoy more tranquil surroundings during their vacation. Riviera Maya is the ideal choice for a more secluded and indulgent getaway.

What is special about Riviera Maya?

Riviera Maya is a stunning destination located on the Caribbean Sea in Mexico. It offers visitors an array of activities and attractions, from world-class beaches to ancient Mayan ruins and lush jungles to a vibrant nightlife. Riviera Maya is home to some of the most luxurious resorts in the region, offering guests a range of spa treatments, fine dining experiences, and golf courses. Riviera Maya has something special for those looking for a mild luxury bespoke trip experience: its laidback atmosphere and exquisite beauty make it perfect for relaxation or exploration.


Cancun and the Riviera Maya are great places to visit in Mexico for unique and memorable trips.

Cancun is famous for its beautiful beaches, frenetic nightlife, and modern hotels and resorts, which makes it a great place to go if you want a destination with many different things to do.

On the other hand, the Riviera Maya offers a much more authentic Mexican experience, with a focus on Mayan cultural heritage, ecotourism, and natural environments.

Riviera Maya is a good choice for people who want to take it easy and learn more about the culture.

Each place has many options of places to stay, to eat, attractions, and activities to please different tastes and interests.

However, Cancun and the Riviera Maya have something for every traveler, whether you want to do water sports, explore old ruins, eat local food, or relax on beautiful beaches.

When planning your trip, consider what kind of vacation you want and choose the best destination.

In the end, you could also visit both places for a unique and memorable Mexican vacation.

Tulum – Jhana Ellard


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