Many travelers looking to visit the Riviera Maya in Mexico are tasked with choosing between Cancun vs. Tulum or Playa del Carmen, the three major regions of the Riviera Maya. The Riviera Maya is a geographical stretch along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo. It is home to the ocean-front cities and vacation hot-spots of Tulum, Playa Del Carmen, and on the other end, Cancun.
A dense population of hotels and all-inclusive resorts make this area of Mexico a popular vacation spot, especially for tourists from the U.S. Affordable all-inclusive packages at luxury resorts of all budgets make the area especially attractive. Add powdery white sand beaches, crystal-clear turquoise waters, all the delicious authentic Mexican food you can eat, and all the margaritas you can handle and you’ve got yourself the picture-perfect paradise vacation without putting too much of a dent in your pockets.
The 3 majors towns of this Mexican region each have unique characteristics. Traveling solo, as a couple, as a family, or with a group of friends will make all the difference for where you should stay. Keep reading to find out which of Mexico’s vacation hot spots are perfect for you.
Related: How to Avoid Getting Sick in Mexico
Cancun vs. Tulum? What You Need to Know about Cancun:
Cancun is known as a major party town with a bustling strip of clubs and bars and an exciting nightlife. It is a popular spring break destination but can be found packed with college-aged people all year-round. With a major airport and many flight options, it is also a popular vacation spot for families. Hotels are slightly more affordable here than in Tulum and Playa Del Carmen, however there are many luxury and large-name chain hotels and resorts that appeal to all different types, from family-friendly, teen-friendly, couples, singles, and even swingers?? Cancun is the destination to visit if you are with a group of friends looking to party, drink, and socialize. It is a great place for bachelor/bachelorette parties, and is not the most ideal for families with young children unless they plan on spending most of their time on the resort.
The main airport of the Riviera Maya is found in Cancun, making it a convenient location to stay in. The drive from Cancun’s airport to Playa Del Carmen is about 1 hour, and to Tulum it is about 2 hours.
Best for: singles, young people
Recommended Accommodation: Secrets The Vine, Breathless Cancun
Tulum vs. Cancun? What to Know about Tulum:
Tulum is an ultra-trendy bohemian beach town with a strong focus on health and wellness. Several yoga and meditation retreats can be found here as well as many other types of wellness programs and options for healthy dining. Large chain resorts are non-existent in Tulum, making way for more boutique and design hotels lining its pristine beaches. Accommodations in Tulum can be pricey, especially if they are considered luxury and beachfront. In-land and into Tulum town or downtown Tulum you will be able to find several hostels and Airbnbs for more affordable options. Tulum itself is bike-friendly and easy to get around.
If you're looking for a safe, reliable, and affordable shuttle from Cancun to Tulum I highly recommend eTransfers.
Over the years, Tulum has grown into an impressive foodie hot spot with several farm-to-table type restaurants and eateries that boast influences from around the world. World-class dining can be found in Tulum in addition to many vegan, raw, and healthier alternatives to traditional Mexican cuisine. There is also a bustling art and design scene in Tulum, and is a growingly popular spot for digital nomads and the expat community, making Tulum an ideal destination for solo travelers. The nightlife in Tulum is not as intense as that of Cancun, but there is still plenty of places to play from beach bars to famed full moon parties.
If culture is what you are after, Tulum is also home to ancient Mayan ruins which are a must-see when visiting. I find that the beaches in Tulum are the nicest, and the eco-conscious vibe throughout makes for a very unique and rejuvenating vacation. Tulum draws a crowd of many mid-twenties to thirties, making it an ideal place to stay with both friends or with your partner, and is my personal favorite spot in the Riviera Maya.
Best for: solo travelers, couples, young adults
Recommended Accommodation: Papaya Playa Project, Casa Malca
Related: Luxury Cabo Hotels
Playa Del Carmen vs. Cancun and Tulum:
The third major city in the Riviera Maya is Playa Del Carmen. Playa Del Carmen is suited best for families or couples looking for tranquil relaxation. Without an overly heavy nightlife presence, it is the perfect spot to lounge on the beach, get pampered, and enjoy water activities. Many luxury ocean-front and golf resorts can be found in Playa Del Carmen, and in contrast to Tulum, it is the type of place where you will be spending most of your time on the resort as opposed to exploring the town every day. There are many different types of resorts in Playa Del Carmen from adults-only to ones that are suited for small children and families. This makes Playa Del Carmen an ideal destination for either honeymooners or relaxed family vacations. Still can’t make your mind up about the 3? Consider a Yucatan road trip to see it all!
If adventure in the Riviera Maya is what you are after, many different excursions can be booked with transportation to and from your hotel. This includes swimming with turtles in Akumal, exploring ancient ruins at Chichen Itza, swimming in cenotes (natural sink holes and caves), ATVing, and so much more. There are also many astonishing coral reefs making Playa Del Carmen an excellent spot to snorkel or scuba dive. For a day or night out, you can also visit Quinta Avenida, a stretch of pedestrian land parallel to the beach where you will find blocks of restaurants, shops, clubs, and bars.
Best for: couples, families, older adults
Recommended Accommodation: El Dorado Maroma, especially their Overwater Bungalows
Playa Del Carmen to Cozumel
A popular day trip or overnight trip from Playa Del Carmen is to the beautiful island of Cozumel. In Cozumel, you will find some of the best spots in Mexico to scuba dive, ancient ruins to explore, and several wildlife and marine life experiences. It is a more laid-back compared to Playa Del Carmen, but there is still plenty to do to keep you entertained. To get to Cozumel, you can take the 45-minute ferry from Downtown Playa Del Carmen which runs every hour. Cozumel is also a popular cruise port destination.
Recommended Accommodation: InterContinental Presidente
Cancun to Isla Mujeres
A popular day or overnight trip from Cancun is to the beautiful and relaxed island of Isla Mujeres. Isla Mujeres is smaller than Cozumel and more untouched, making it the perfect paradise to relax in. You can explore the entire island on a golf cart, and the beaches and downtown area are close to one another compared to Cozumel, which is more spread out and requires transportation. It’s also a great destination for a bachelorette party!
To get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun, take the 15 minute ferry ride from the Gran Puerto Cancun (Ultramar) in Puerto Juarez located a few minutes from downtown Cancun. The ferry departs every half hour 5:00AM to 9:00PM and every hour after 9:00. The cost is 80 pesos (about $4 – $5.00 USD) one way. Alternatively, you can also take a boat from three separate locations in Cancun’s hotel zone for $14.00 USD one way. See the schedule here.
Looking for another day trip option in the Yucatan? Consider the isla Holbox! It’s another laid-back, car-free island with great marine life for snorkeling.
Recommended Accommodation: Isla Mujeres Palace
No matter which area of the Yucatan Peninsula you choose to plan your trip around, the good news is each of the above locations are no more than an hour or two driving distance from one another with plenty to do and see. You can easily stay in one place and take day trips to explore the neighboring towns and islands whether you choose to stay 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months. All 3 major destinations are also in driving distance to the famous ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, and the many cenotes. A tour company I have personally used and loved is Xenotes. With them, you can spend the day visiting several cenotes where you will swim, kayak, rappel, and zip line into — a tour I highly recommend.
Which Latin America-Carribean Riviera Maya destination will you stay in? If you’ve been, which is your favorite?