Cancun vs Riviera Maya: 10 Must-Know Differences

Planning a trip to someplace new comes with excitement and unknowns. So, as you’re researching Cancun and the Riviera Maya, you might hear some people using these words interchangeably while others call them two separate areas.

What’s the real deal? Are Cancun and the Riviera Maya the same thing?

Cancun is the gateway to the Riviera Maya. Both of these destinations call the Yucatan Peninsula home, but they’re not the same place.

I’ve spent many months traveling around and living in the Yucatan. So, I’ll give you the scoop on the differences between Cancun vs Riviera Maya.

Accessibility Note: If you’re a wheelchair user, check out our accessibility articles on Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.

An Overview of Cancun vs Riviera Maya

Short on time? No worries.

Below is a run-down of some of the most important differences between the Riviera Maya and Cancun.

FeatureCancunRiviera Maya
GeographySingle city to the northVast area to the south
PopulationDensely populatedModerately and sparsely populated
International airportYesNo
VibePartyNature-oriented
Good base for day tripsYesDepends

10 Differences Between Cancun and the Riviera Maya

Yes, the Riviera Maya and Cancun both have beaches and enjoy a privileged location on Mexico’s Caribbean coastline. However, there are more divergences between Cancun and the Riviera Maya than there are similarities.

Below are the top differences to consider before you book your trip.

1. The Riviera Maya Is a Region

A rode with speed bumps in Tulum.

The Riviera Maya is a 75 to 100-mile stretch of land along a portion of the coast of the Yucatan Penninsula. It starts just south of Cancun, around Puerto Morelos.

For that reason, many people mistake Cancun for being part of the Riviera Maya.

There’s more debate around where the Riviera Maya stops than where it starts, though. Some people believe it only goes down to Tulum. Others say it stops in Punta Allen the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Personally, I think the Sian Ka’an Biosphere makes the most sense, given that Punta Allen sits on a point at the very end of a coastal peninsula.

In either case, when comparing the Riviera Maya vs Cancun geographically, this much is clear—Cancun is a separate destination from the Riviera Maya.

2. Cancun Is More Populated

A wooden boardwalk running through a beach in Cancun.

Cancun has a population just shy of one million, with World Population Review projecting it’ll pass the one-million mark as early as 2023.

In contrast, the Riviera Maya is made up of smaller towns between areas of mostly unpopulated land.

Some of the most notable towns in the Riviera Maya include:

  • Playa del Carmen
  • Tulum
  • Akumal
  • Puerto Aventuras

Cozumel also sits across from mainland Riviera Maya, and you can reach there via a ferry ride from Playa del Carmen.

Playa del Carmen is the largest of these destinations. But it only has about one-third of the population of Cancun. So, if you’re trying to decide whether to visit Cancun or Riviera Maya, deciding if you’d rather be in a city or smaller town is crucial.

3. The Riviera Maya Has More Beaches

When comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, the Riviera Maya has fewer people like Akumal Beach.
A quiet beach in Akumal, Riveria Maya.

Although Cancun has a larger population, the Riviera Maya is a bigger area. Therefore, it has more miles of coastline for you to snag a spot in the sand.

Needless to say, when comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, you’ll have the potential to encounter less crowded beaches in the Riviera Maya.

Some excellent beaches I recommend in the Riviera Maya include:

  • Akumal Beach
  • Playa Paraíso
  • Las Palmas Beach

That said, Cancun tends to have longer stretches of beach than many parts of the Riviera Maya. That’s especially the case when comparing destinations like Playa del Carmen.

Therefore, although Cancun attracts more tourists than the rest of the Riviera del Maya, at its peak times (the weekends), the beaches in downtown Playa del Carmen can often feel more crowded than Cancun’s.

Cancun’s beaches also have notoriously deep, white sand. That’s not so to say the sand isn’t glorious in the Riviera Maya, but it might come mixed with natural debris, depending on the location.

As for water clarity, Cancun and the Riviera Maya share the similarity that it depends on the weather, time of year, and location. Areas protected by a bay will always have clearer and calmer water than beaches that touch the open ocean.

4. Cancun Has an International Airport

The wing of an airplane flying over a river.

Unless you’re doing a bus trip through Mexico or taking a domestic flight to Merida, you’ll likely arrive in the Yucatan via the Cancun International Airport.

From there, it’ll only be a 20 to 25-minute drive to Cancun’s Hotel Zone.

In contrast, you’ll be in for a longer—but doable—drive to arrive in the Riviera Maya from the Cancun airport.

The time it’ll take you to drive from Cancun’s airport to the Riviera Maya depends on your destination. For example, it only takes around 30 minutes to arrive in Puerto Morelos, the northernmost part of the Riviera Maya.

On the other hand, you can expect an approximately 90-minute drive to arrive in Tulum.

5. The Riviera Maya Is Better for Nature Lovers

When comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, there's more jungle in the Riviera Maya.
Tulum Ruins in the Riviera Maya.

If private eco-friendly cabanas hidden among jungle terrain sounds enticing, head to the Riviera Maya.

The Riviera Maya has undergone less deforestation than Cancun, and the proof is in the number of birds you’ll hear chirping in the morning and iguanas you’ll see hanging out in its trees.

With more nature also comes more opportunities to step on twigs when you’re at the beach and see a less than pristine side of how the Yucatan’s coast looks when there’s less human intervention.

There’s little to see in Cancun nature-wise.

But, as you’ll soon learn, Cancun is an excellent base to take day trips that’ll feed the nature lover’s soul.

6. Cancun Is More Modern

A lot of people at a beach in Cancun.

Cancun is the antithesis of the Riviera Maya in terms of its appearance. High-rise hotels and condos dominate the Hotel Zone.

These buildings are packed so tightly together and have such a modern look that it’s easy to mistake Cancun for Miami when you glance at its skyline.

5-star luxury hotels are yours for the picking in Cancun.

But that’s not to say you can’t have a luxury experience in the Riviera Maya. On the contrary, if you’re trying to decide between Cancun or Riviera Maya for the best accommodation, there are opportunities for a luxurious but quieter vacation at 5-star hotels in the Riviera Maya.

7. The Riviera Maya Attracts More Backpackers

A colorful street in Playa del Carmen.
A colorful tourist street in Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya.

To be specific, Playa del Carmen and Tulum attract the most backpackers within the Riviera Maya.

Playa del Carmen is an especially excellent backpacker’s choice, given that it’s full of hostels and cheap food (as long as you eat starting on 10th Avenue or further back from the coast).

Tulum has a more upscale backpacker feel (and a price to match it), attracting yogis and the spiritually oriented.

The Riviera Maya is also an excellent place for working remotely. I found Playa del Carmen to be the best option since I didn’t experience power outages during my many months there compared to my time in Tulum. Selina Playa del Carmen was my favorite spot for coworking.

Psst! Check out my article on Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen for more details.

Cancun would also be a great place for working remotely in terms of WiFi and electricity reliability. However, it’s more of a vacation destination, so I haven’t met as many people living and working there long term as in Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

As a final note, backpackers can visit Cancun on a budget. In fact, Cancun offers many cheap accommodation options, but they’re primarily in downtown Cancun, a short bus ride away from the beaches.

8. Cancun Is Where the Biggest Parties Are At

The entrance to Coco Bongo in Cancun.

There’s no doubt about it—there are many great places to party in the Yucatan Peninsula.

But when comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, Cancun is the winner, hands-down. By visiting Cancun, you’ll have access to world-class clubs and bars such as:

  • Mandala
  • Coco Bongo
  • Monkey Business
  • La Vaquita

Visiting Cancun means that you’re guaranteed great party spots every night, regardless of the day of the week. Parties last well into the early hours of the morning, and there’s a club or bar that caters to nearly everyone.

But the Riviera Maya is also a great place to party it up—Playa del Carmen even has a Coco Bongo.

You can expect a more budget-oriented crowd at the nightlife scene in Playa del Carmen. In contrast, Tulum tends to have a more refined party scene, equipped with what many people consider to be spiritual-related forms of nightlife, such as toad licking.

9. The Riviera Maya Is for the Spiritual Seeker

A staircase with a sign saying, "It's ok."

Chichen Itza might be a stone’s throw away from Cancun, but there’s nothing spiritual-feeling about being in a concrete beach city.

In contrast, the Riviera Maya, and Tulum in particular, is where people go if they want to find themselves.

Toad licking isn’t the only spiritual option Tulum offers. Moonlit shamanic ceremonies, Temazcal ceremonies, ayahuasca ceremonies, and basically anything with the word “ceremony” in it abound.

Playa del Carmen also has its fair share of spiritual tourists. You’ll be hard-pressed to find such people spending much time in Cancun, though.

10. Cancun Is (Often) a Better Base for Day Trips

Cancun vs Riviera Maya differ because Cancun has more day trip options, such as Isla Mujeres.
Clear water in Isla Mujeres, which is an excellent day trip from Cancun.

Cancun is an easy choice f you’re deciding whether to visit Cancun or Riviera Maya in terms of having a base for day trips. By staying in Cancun, you can visit a number of destinations by bus, ferry, tour, or driving.

Some popular day trips from Cancun include:

  • Isla Mujeres
  • Chichen Itza
  • Playa del Carmen
  • Akumal
  • Tulum

That’s right—it’s easy to visit destinations in the Riviera Maya like Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum, as a day trip from Cancun.

Within the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen is an excellent base for day trips. It gets you further south than Cancun, making it easier to access places like Tulum and its nearby ruins and cenotes (sinkholes). Cozumel is also a short ferry ride from Playa del Carmen.

I don’t think basing yourself in Tulum is ideal if you plan to take a lot of day trips in the northern part of the Riviera Maya or Cancun. However, taking a Bacalar day trip from Tulum is a unique opportunity you can’t easily do coming from other destinations.

Is Cancun or the Riviera Maya Cheaper?

Cancun and the Riviera Maya can be as cheap or as expensive as you make them.

Both of these areas offer accommodation ranging from hostels to 5-star luxury boutique hotels. You can also find everything from cheap street food to fine dining.

Like most places, the further inland you move from the beach in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, the cheaper prices become.

A Note on Seaweed Season

A pile of seaweed in Tulum.
Seaweed cleanup in Tulum.

Although there are many differences when comparing Cancun vs Riviera Maya, one aspect is painfully the same: Sargassum (aka seaweed) season.

Sargassum is a brown alga that creates a mess in Cancun and the Riviera Maya from May to October. It floats on top of the water, forming a thick blanket of intertwined stems and leaves that never attach to the ocean floor.

The good news is that sargassum isn’t harmful to your health. The bad news is that it makes the Yucatan’s water unappealing for swimming.

Sargassum also smells akin to rotting eggs, and it attracts flies as it rots.

If you book a hotel in the Hotel Zone of Cancun and certain upscale beach destinations in the Riviera Maya, the staff will likely do their best to keep up with carting the sargassum off their beachfront property.

Getting From Cancun to Riviera Maya

You can get from Cancun to the Riviera Maya by bus or car.

Personally, I always take the bus. ADO is the bus company that serves the Yucatan region, including Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

ADO’s buses are clean, new, and have frequent departures to most of the top destinations within the Yucatan.

If you’re brave enough to drive, renting a car is always an option. You can also get around Cancun or the Riviera Maya via a private transfer.

Which Is Better—Cancun or Riviera Maya?

Playa del Carmen's beach on a sunny day.

Personally, I’d take the Riviera Maya over Cancun any day. What can I say? It’s the nature lover in me. Plus, being location independent has me doing #digitalnomadlife.

But Cancun undoubtedly has great perks for the right traveler.

If you still have questions about Cancun vs Riviera Maya, leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to help.

I’d also love to hear from you once you travel to one or both of these destinations. I’m sure our readers will appreciate a perspective other than mine, too!

P.S.—Check out my article on Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen for details about the differences between these popular destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula.