If you think of warm aquamarine waters lapping talcum-soft white sands when you think of Cancun, you’d be right. And if you picture the same image when you think of the Riviera Maya, you’re also right.
At first glimpse, both hotspots look the same. It’s easy to see why they are always compared. But they are two wildly divergent places within Mexico. So, let’s compare Cancun vs Riviera Maya to see which place is better for your lifestyle.
But first, let’s go over the similarities. Or should I say similarity? Because there really is only one.
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Where are Cancun and the Riviera Maya located?
Cancun and the Riviera Maya border each other on the east coast of Mexico, on the stunning waters of the Caribbean. They are postcard-perfect places in the state of Quintana Roo on the northeast tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
And that is where the similarities end.
Cancun is a big city with nearly one million residents. It’s located on the northeast tip of the Yucatan peninsula. It’s modern, with high-rises that line the 15-mile beach. There are two main areas. The Hotel Zone for, you guessed it, hotels and tourists. And downtown, or Centro, where most people and many expats reside.
It has all the world-class conveniences of any modern city in the world. Fast, reliable internet, fantastic healthcare, tons of shopping options, and more restaurants than you could eat at in a couple of years.
As with any large modern city, there are some inconveniences as well; traffic can be challenging. But it’s not insurmountable.
Riviera Maya Basics
The Riviera Maya, also known as the Mayan Riviera, is a region south of Cancun comprising 10 smaller cities. From north to south:
- Puerto Morelos
- Playa del Carmen
- Puerto Aventuras
- Soliman’s Bay
- Tank Ha Bay
- Sian Ka’an
- Felipe Carrillo Puerto
The whole region is 88 miles along the coast. Playa del Carmen and Tulum are the largest and most well-known cities in the area, with populations of 250k and 100k, respectively.
The population of all the towns combined within the Riviera Maya doesn’t come near 1 million. And its modernity can’t compete with Cancun.
Now that you know the basics let’s delve deeper into the differences between the Riviera Maya and Cancun.
How far is the Riviera Maya from Cancun?
It doesn’t matter if you are staying in Cancun or the Riviera Maya; you’ll fly into the Cancun International Airport, CUN.
If you are staying in Cancun, it’ll be about a 20–30-minute drive.
If you are heading for the Mayan Riviera, it’ll also be about 30-minutes if Puerto Morelos is your end goal.
However, if you are going to Tulum, that could take about 1.5-2 hours.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya Beaches
Blinding white sand, as white as snow. Waters so turquoise it looks like it came from a painter’s palette. There is a reason this area’s beaches are world-renowned. They don’t get more picturesque or ridiculously stunning.
The beaches might look the same at first glance as they are neighboring areas. But there is more than meets the eye.
Cancun’s main beaches lie along the Hotel Zone. Those furthest north tend to be the calmest, making them the most crowded. Gaviota Azul and Playa Marlin are less crowded but do have some waves.
Nevertheless, Cancun’s expansive beaches are usually lined, elbow to elbow, with rented chairs and umbrellas, especially during high season.
Additionally, they are backed by hotels, restaurants, and beach bars, so you never need to leave the comfort of your shady spot.
Other the other hand, the beaches in the Riviera Maya region are narrower and shorter, yet always less crowded than Cancun’s. They are less developed overall and, in some areas, even rustic and secluded. They definitely have a more authentic flair.
In Playa del Carmen, the most popular beaches tend to get crowded, but nothing like in Cancun.
There is a barrier reef off the Riviera Maya, so the waters tend to be even calmer there.
The sargassum seaweed is the biggest problem with the beaches along the entire coast from Cancun to the Riviera Maya. It’s a brown alga that drifts ashore in a thick carpet and gives off the stench of rotten eggs as it decays on the sand. It used to appear only a few months out of the year, but in the last few years, it’s been making its presence known all year around. It’s not all day, every day, but it’s certainly in many areas.
The verdict in the Riviera Maya versus Cancun beach smackdown is…
But just by a chaise lounge. And solely because you have so many incredible beaches to choose from. But by all means, there is no real loser here.
Is the lifestyle in Cancun or Riviera Maya better?
Cancun is an incredible place if you want to live in a modern, big city and never want for anything. You may not even need to speak much Spanish. And you’ll have all the creature comforts of contemporary living.
Your lifestyle could be beach by day and hot restaurants or trendy clubs by night. Cancun is electric. You’ll never be bored.
The Riviera Maya is the antithesis of Cancun. Surrounded by nature. Laid-back. More authentic.
Each town in the Riviera Maya has a more Mexican vibe than most of Cancun.
Additionally, it’s less about the party and more about the chill, laid-back lifestyle. Still, there is plenty to do in this area. And Playa del Carmen and Tulum have hot clubs and trendy restaurants, just not in copious amounts like Cancun.
However, one thing to note about the Riviera Maya is that not all the towns have fast, reliable internet. Especially Tulum, which is notorious for its spotty internet.
The winner of the Cancun or Riviera Maya lifestyle showdown is…
drum roll, please…
It’s a tie.
It’s impossible to say which is better because it depends on what kind of lifestyle you want. And since they are neighbors, you can live in the big city and escape to the small beach town for a quiet weekend. Or live in the authentic beach town and head into the big city for a buzzy weekend of excitement.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya Safety
Cancun is a big city. And with every big city comes a little more risk than its smaller counterparts.
That being said, Cancun (and Mexico as a whole) is not a dangerous place. There are far more perilous places in the US.
But you should always be vigilant. Don’t do things you wouldn’t do in your hometown. Don’t walk down dark alleys. Buy drugs. Or put yourself in weird or risky situations. Be smart, and you will be safe.
So, which is safer? Cancun or Riviera Maya?
The answer is the Riviera Maya since the towns are smaller and, therefore, inherently, less crime occurs.
Cancun vs Riviera Maya healthcare
Healthcare in Mexico is generally excellent.
In the larger cities, it’s world-class. And Cancun is one of those cities. There are currently around 20 hospitals and health clinics to cater to your health-related needs. Additionally, it’s all done at a fraction of the cost it would be in the US or Canada.
On the other hand, the hospitals in the Riviera Maya are smaller and can treat almost anything. But for something serious, heading to Cancun is probably the way to go, especially if you are in one of the smaller towns.
The winner of the healthcare battle royale between Riviera Maya and Cancun is Cancun.
With so many options to choose from in such a modern city, it pushes out smaller-town healthcare by a stethoscope.
Cancun vs. Riviera Maya: The Bottom Line
No matter which place you choose, there is no loser. And the beauty of living in this area is you can have the best of both worlds. Or spend a year in each and see which suits you best.
At the end of the day, it’s impossible to choose which is better, Cancun or the Riviera Maya. You just need to decide which is best for the lifestyle you are looking for and dive in head first!