Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen: 7 Must-know Facts

The promise of palm tree-lined beaches, crystal clear water, and margaritas might have you dreaming about a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. 

So if you’re trying to understand the difference between the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, here it is: The Riviera Maya is a coastal region in the Yucatan, and Playa del Carmen sits within it. 

Yep, that’s right—by visiting Playa del Carmen, you’ll automatically be visiting the Riviera Maya.

But is Playa del Carmen the best destination in the Riviera Maya?

Not necessarily.

I’ve spent nearly one year galavanting around Mexico’s Riveria Maya and will lay the groundwork so that you understand the relationship between Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya.

Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen: An Overview

Short on time? I’ve got your back.

Here’s a chart to give you a quick understanding of the similarities and differences between the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen.

FeatureRiviera MayaPlaya del Carmen
On the Yucatan's coastYesYes
Lots of beach choicesYesNo
Budget friendlyDependsYes
AtmosphereQuiet to loudMostly a party town
Good for digital nomadsYesYes
Seaweed issueYesYes

Now let’s explore these points in more detail.

1. Playa del Carmen Is in the Riviera Maya

An outdoor tourist shopping street in Playa del Carmen.

You can visit the Riviera Maya without seeing Playa del Carmen, but you can’t visit Playa without being in the Riviera Maya.

To understand why that is, let’s take a look at geography.

The internet is full of sources boasting about how long the Riviera Maya is, ranging from 75 to 100 miles long. 

I’m not about to claim I know the correct number. But I can tell you most people agree that the Riviera Maya starts a little south of Cancun, around Puerto Morelos.

How far south the Riviera Maya stretches is where the real controversy begins.

Some say the Riviera Maya only runs to Tulum. Others claim it extends to Punta Allen, the biggest (but still tiny) town in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Personally, I’m inclined to go with the Sian Ka’an thought process. This reserve begins at the end of Highway 15 in Tulum and extends to the tip of a peninsula, making it the perfect end to a long stretch of Caribbean coastline.

Regardless of where Mexico’s Riviera Maya ends, Playa del Carmen sits squarely within it. 

So, if you’re leaning towards wanting to see both Playa and the Riviera Maya, basing yourself in Playa del Carmen is an excellent choice.

2. Beach Choices Abound in the Riviera Maya

When comparing Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, there are excellent beaches throughout this region.
Akumal Beach, which sits between Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

When comparing the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, there’s no contest in terms of beaches; the Riviera Maya offers more—and better—choices.

Some noteworthy beaches in the Riviera Maya include:

  • Akumal
  • Playa Paraíso
  • Playa Maroma

Since the Riviera Maya covers such a long stretch of Caribbean coastline, you can choose from small fishing towns (Puerto Morelos), party beaches (Playa del Carmen), nature getaways (Sian Ka’an), and even ruins overlooking the ocean (Tulum).

In contrast, Playa del Carmen offers a limited number of beaches. Most of its beaches are short, broken up by rocks, piers, and buildings.

The beaches around Playa’s tourist center are particularly crowded, and there’s little space to lay out a beach towel during high tide. 

That said, if you stay in the gated community of Playacar, you’ll have access to longer and more pristine beaches. The public beaches two to three miles north of downtown Playa del Carmen are also larger. 

Furthermore, you can consider taking a Playa del Carmen to Cozumel day trip to enjoy island life at some of Cozumel’s stunning beaches.

The bottom line? The Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen both offer beautiful beaches, but the “best” beach experience depends on personal preference.

3. Playa del Carmen Is for Backpackers

A view from the top floor of Selina Playa del Carmen.
Selina Playa del Carmen, which is a hostel and cowork space.

If you’re traveling on a budget and love the backpacking lifestyle, Playa del Carmen is an excellent choice.

Playa del Carmen is one of the most populated towns in the Riviera Maya. It’s packed with low-cost hostels, cheap bars, and street food (as long as you head a few blocks back from the beach).

I spent several months staying at the boutique hostel Selina Playa del Carmen, seated in the heart of the tourist district and equipped with a cowork space.

Should you want to steer clear of the backpacking crowd, you’ll find more family and luxury-oriented accommodations and vibes in many other parts of the Riviera Maya.

Akumal, Tulum, and more secluded resorts along highway 307 all offer 3-star and higher beach accommodations. 

Tulum has a particularly unique vibe, so I recommend reading my post on Tulum vs Playa del Carmen before deciding if it’s the right fit for you.

You can also check out my post on must-know tips for visiting Akumal Beach to get a better feel of what to expect.

For the sake of full disclosure, Playa del Carmen offers a handful of upper-class hotels, particularly in and around the Playacar area.

4. The Riviera Maya Has Quiet Areas

When comparing Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen, you can encounter some secluded beaches like Playa Santa Fe.
Playa Santa Fe, a relatively quieter beach in Tulum.

There’s no denying it—Playa del Carmen is a party town.

You can find clubs and bars open seven days a week, and it isn’t uncommon to hear music blaring until 6:00 am.

There’s also a lot of traffic in Playa compared to other destinations in the Riviera Maya.

Quieter parts of Playa do exist, though. I spent a couple of months at an Airbnb in northern Playa del Carmen, which was less touristy and devoid of clubs. The exclusive, gated Playacar is another tranquil area of Playa.

Overall, though, if you’re looking for a quiet beach getaway, destinations in the Riviera Maya outside of Playa del Carmen are your best bet. 

Personally, I’m a fan of Akumal for a quieter vacation if beaching it is your main goal. Especially if you spend the night, given that you’ll pretty much have the beach to yourself in the first hours of the morning.

Tulum is also an excellent choice if you want a quiet beachfront hotel while being a short walk or drive from restaurants, shops, and bars.

That said, the quietest and most nature-oriented area you can visit in the Riviera Maya is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

Psst! Check out my guide on Is Playa del Carmen Safe? for details on how to stay safe during your visit to the Riviera Maya.

5. Playa del Carmen Is an Ideal Riviera Maya Base

A view of Playa del Carmen.

If you’re weighing the differences between Playa del Carmen vs Riviera Maya and know you want to do a lot of exploring, I recommend basing yourself in Playa.

Regardless of where people say the Riviera Maya starts and ends, Playa del Carmen sits in the middle of this stretch of Caribbean coastline.

Traveling to destinations within the Riviera Maya from Playa del Carmen is a breeze; an ADO bus station sits in the center of the tourist district, and buses depart frequently.

Of course, you can always rent a car in Playa and take day trips to sites within the Riviera Maya.

Just be aware that parking in Playa del Carmen can be tricky. So, consider booking accommodation that offers parking to save yourself time. 

6. Digital Nomads Base Themselves in the Riviera Maya

Inside the cowork space at Selina Playa del Carmen.
The cowork space at Selina Playa del Carmen.

The Riviera Maya is an excellent place for digital nomads to base themselves.

Unlike Cancun, the Riviera Maya’s neighbor to the north, the Riviera Maya tends to attract longer-term digital nomads looking to settle in and meet fellow remote working travelers.

Psst! Check out my guide on Cancun vs Riviera Maya for more details on Cancun.

I’ve worked in the two largest towns in the Riviera Maya—Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Of the two, I found Playa del Carmen more reliable in its electricity and WiFi connection.

That said, if you work at a coworking space, such as Selina Playa del Carmen or Selina Tulum, you shouldn’t have to worry about the electricity and WiFi going out since they have generators.

But if you plan on renting your own place and are worried about the WiFi going out during an important meeting with your boss, from my experience, there’s less of a chance of that happening in Playa.

I’ve never worked in towns in the Riviera Maya outside of Playa del Carmen and Tulum.

However, my guess is that the remote work culture would be limited, and the electricity and WiFi situation could be unreliable.

7. Sargassum Season Is No Joke

A wheelbarrow and pitchfork for the pile of sargassum on Tulum's shore.
Tulum’s beach at the height of sargassum season.

If you haven’t heard of sargassum, you’ll never be able to forget this word if you end up traveling to any place in the Riviera Maya, including Playa del Carmen, from May to October.

Sargassum is a brown seaweed that floats on top of the water thanks to oxygen-filled pneumatocysts

Although sargassum is natural, the quantity of sargassum that now graces the Rivera Maya’s shores from May to October isn’t. Between fertilizer runoff from agriculture and rising ocean water temperatures, sargassum is a massive issue for locals and tourists alike.

Mounds of sargassum wash up on shore, sometimes multiple feet high. Many hotels do their best to control the problem by hiring people to cart the sargassum away in wheelbarrows or bulldozers.

Even so, the water remains unpleasant for swimming, and a sulfur smell radiates from the beach.

To be fair, sargassum isn’t only an issue in the Riveria Maya—many Caribbean destinations and even Florida suffer from the problem.

So, if you want a mostly seaweed-free Yucatan vacation, I recommend traveling to the Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen from November to April.

Riviera Maya or Playa del Carmen—Which Is Better?

I hope this information has cleared up your confusion regarding the Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen.

Personally, I love the Yucatan’s Riviera Maya region. It offers a diverse choice of beaches, varying town populations, and unique activities. 

If you have questions about visiting the Riviera Maya or Playa del Carmen, leave a comment, and I’ll be happy to help. 

I’d also love to hear your feedback if you visit this region. What were your favorite parts of the Riviera Maya? What would you do differently if you went back again?

P.S.—Are you trying to understand the difference between other destinations in the Yucatan? If so, check out my guides on Playa del Carmen vs Cancun, Cancun vs Tulum, and Cancun, Tulum, or Playa del Carmen.

2 thoughts on “Riviera Maya vs Playa del Carmen: 7 Must-know Facts”

  1. Hi, thanks for this informative article. I am considering a trip to Akumal in March. We would be staying at a small hotel which seems to have a private beach area–but I am reading on TripAdvisor that the beaches are now open to the public. It sounds like years ago the area was not very crowded, then it became very crowded with people trying to see the turtles, then restrictions were placed which limited visitors to the beaches. Is this correct? What’s it like along the Akumal beach now in March in terms of crowds (and in terms of seaweed, if that can be predicted at all)? Also, Puerto Morelos sounds appealing–do you think that town or anywhere else in the area would be better fora quiet beach experience? Thank you!

    1. Hi Lisa,

      It’s true that the beaches in Akumal are open to the public. However, there’s an entrance fee to enter (they waive it for people staying at a hotel on the beach), which reduces the amount of traffic the beach gets compared to several areas in Playa del Carmen and Cancun. The good news is they don’t open the public gate to Akumal Beach until 9:00 am. So, if you enjoy early morning walks on the beach, only hotel guests will be around.

      March is the high season for tourism in the Riveria Maya, so it’s a time when the beaches have the most crowds. The summer months have the fewest crowds (but also lots of heat, seaweed, and the possibility of a hurricane). I wrote an article on the best time to visit Cozumel for weather, which is essentially the same advice for Akumal, given Cozumel’s proximity.

      It’s uncommon for Akumal’s beach to have lots of seaweed in March. There will still be some seaweed (it’s the ocean, after all). But even during the heart of the seaweed season, less sargassum sticks around on Akumal’s shores because the locals are diligent about cleaning it. They have the funds to do so, given the entrance fee they charge the public.

      Puerto Morelos is a great option for a quieter beach experience. Its beach tends to attract more locals than foreigners, and, like Akumal, it doesn’t have malls, a club atmosphere, and other attractions that draw in crowds and keep them around. I also recommend staying at a hotel in the southernmost part of Tulum (near Sian Ka’an Reserve) for fewer crowds.

      Enjoy your time in the Riviera Maya, wherever it ends up taking you!

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