This Mexico resort guide compares Playa del Carmen vs Cancun and Tulum, has the top things to do in Riviera Maya, and insider tips for an unforgettable stay.
Deciding on which resort to choose in Mexico is not easy, as let’s face it, most of the hotels have stunning beachfront locations and offer endless facilities – which doesn’t make it any easier! The location is important if are planning on ticking off the top things to do in Riviera Maya, and you should also consider what type of holiday you want: wild nightlife or laid back beach bars, authentic towns or commercialised strips – because Mexico’s Caribbean coast has them all!
Although I did sell many holidays to Mexico when I was a travel agent, I have’t actually been there – well unless you count a brief cruise ship stop in Cozumel many years ago! However, the two questions I was always asked still ring true today: Which resort should I choose – Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, and is Cancun in the Riviera Maya?
For this travel guide to Cancun and surrounding area I needed to get an expert’s opinion on the best resorts in Riviera Maya, and the low down on Cancun vs Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Luckily I knew the very person! Award winning food, travel and lifestyle content creator Stephanie Buckley AKA @EatSleepChicBlog has been to the Riviera Maya resorts and Cancun numerous times – I was glued to her Instagram stories during her recent visit! Stephanie kindly agreed to write this post on the most popular resorts in Quintana Roo – Cancun, Playa del Camen and Tulum, as well as the top things to do in the Riviera Maya.
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But before we hear Stephanie’s thoughts on Cancun vs Riviera Maya, I think it is important that you understand the layout of the region so you can understand the difference between Riviera Maya, Cancun, Quintana Roo and the Yucatán Peninsula.
About Cancun and Riviera Maya:
Mexico is undoubtedly one of the world’s top holiday destinations, and it is America’s favourite vacation spot. Like its neighbour, it is divided by states – 32 of them to be precise. Quintana Roo is one of these states, and it is located on the eastern part of the Yucatán Peninsula where the much sought after Caribbean Sea laps its shores.
Within Quintana Roo you will find the popular resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, as well as the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Where it tends to get confusing is that within Quintana Roo there are two main areas – Riviera Maya which is home to the resorts of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Akumal and more; and Cancun which is home to the main airport in the region and also the first and largest tourism destination in the region.
The Riviera Maya is the region south of Cancun that starts in Puerto Moreolos and ends at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, just south of Tulum. This area was originally called the Cancun–Tulum corridor, but in 1999 it was renamed as the Riviera Maya.
Travel guide to Cancun and Riviera Maya
I’m a huge fan of Cancun and Mexico’s Riviera Maya, I keep going back for more! Each time that I visit, I have a completely different experience – and all have been amazing to date! It’s the destination that just keeps giving, from buzzing nightlife, to thrilling family activities and cultural experiences, this area on the Yucatan Peninsula has it all.
I’ve done the laying by the pool or private beach during the day and partying in Coco Bongo and Señor Frog’s until the sun comes up in Cancun. I’ve done the family stay in Playa del Carmen with endless day trips and excursions, and I’ve experienced the beach clubs, lagoons and jungle in Tulum.
The options are truly endless and all three locations mentioned are relatively close to each other. It’s definitely possible to tick more than one location off your list during your holiday.
If flying from Europe you’ll be flying into Cancun international airport. There are daily flights to Cancun via numerous airports, as well as direct flights from Dublin to Cancun during the summer months – search here.
The Boulevard Kukulkan, Cancun’s main pedestrian strip where the hotel zone is situated, is roughly 30 mins by taxi or transfer. Cancun to Playa del Carmen is roughly 50 minutes and Cancun to Tulum is roughly 90 minutes – times may vary depending on transport option.
So with that said, if you’re thinking of a trip to Mexico but you can’t decide on Cancun vs Playa del Carmen or Tulum, hopefully this guide will help you decide what resort to choose in Riviera Maya.
With powdery white-sand beaches offering an array of water activities along the Caribbean Sea, 100s of all-inclusive hotels and resorts, first class golf resorts, big brand shopping malls and restaurants, not to mention it’s party-all-night, wild nightlife scene (think Spring Break), this 15 mile-long sandbar has a lot going on.
Cancun was our first all-inclusive experience in Mexico, this is going back about 10 years. We didn’t consider Playa del Carmen, and Tulum wasn’t even advertised at the time. We had party-time in mind and sadly, we skipped any day tours and cultural experiences.
We didn’t leave the tourist/hotel zone at all, but took advantage of the all-inclusive hotel experience and accessibility to the turquoise waters from our hotel’s beach. This is typically what first time visitors do in Mexico, or anyone coming here that just wants great beaches and lively nightlife.
Many hotels are located beside the beach where there is a huge selection of water sports available including parasailing, snorkelling, Wave Runners and Banana Boats.
In the evenings we hit the nightlife district in Zona Hotelera (hotel zone). Here you’ll find everything including trendy restaurants, chic rooftop bars and stylish beachfront clubs. The area is home to many of the biggest and most popular nightclubs, such as Coco Bongo, The City and Mandala. Note the legal drinking age in Mexico is 18.
Cancun is the ideal choice for anyone who wants to chill all day and party all night. If you want to explore the surrounding area, there are plenty of things to do in Cancun which I have listed below.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is a great base for exploring, as it’s between Cancun and Tulum, so you could easily visit either locations from Playa – which I did during my stay. It’s also only a 45 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel – a must see if staying in Riviera Maya.
During the day it’s easy for holiday makers to walk to restaurants, local attractions, and to the public beach. Bear in mind the hotel beaches are all public in Playa del Carmen and get very busy at the weekends. From what I gathered most hotels have their own security patrolling their section of beach. There’s a great atmosphere on the beach with lots of families, couples, friends and locals hanging out.
By day or night it’s safe to stroll La Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) the city’s main pedestrian strip. Go for a meal in one of the many restaurants (international and national food) do a margarita crawl along the bars/clubs, and enjoy the street entertainers and people watching.
You’ll find plenty of souvenir shops along the avenue and big brands like Sephora, Nike, Crocs, iphone, Bershka and many more. Shop owners and street vendors will invite you to shop their goods, we didn’t find anyone over persistent or intimidating – we simple said, “no, gracias” and strolled on by without any issue.
Playa del Carmen is ideal for those who like to be a little more active and adventurous on their holidays. For those of you who like to leave your hotel/resort to explore the local area and Mexican culture. We noticed lots of families out enjoying themselves during the day and the night too.
If you want to explore the area further, there are many things to do in Playa del Carmen which I have listed below.
Tulum is another town in the state of Quintana Roo that has stolen my heart! It’s famous for its white sandy beaches, ancient Mayan ruins and chic, luxury accommodation. The first thing you need to know if visiting Tulum is that the town and the beach are about 5km from each other. So you need to ask yourself do you want to base yourself near the town and jungle, or at the beach?
We opted for the jungle but found ourselves getting a taxi to the beach every day. We now know we’re not made for jungle life, we’re a family of beach bums!
We spent six days in Tulum with our then three-year old son and it was the most authentic Mexican experience that we encountered.
We went for a stroll one evening from our lush jungle-situated hotel and found ourselves lost at a local festival, where nobody spoke a word of English and the locals were celebrating in the streets and cheering at an ongoing bullfight at the side of a dirt road – this was an eye opening experience for us!
Tulum is famed as being home to Mexican cenotes (sinkholes and caves) which are filled with crystal-clear cool waters. You will also find tropical lagoons, lush Mayan jungle, tasty local foodie hotspots, high-end restaurants and classy nightlife here.
The beach area is very instagrammable with a plethora of beach clubs and cute cafes – it kind of feels like a lot of the hotels, cafes, restaurants and museums were designed with instagram photo ops in mind!
Tulum is ideal for those who want to enjoy a more relaxed, boho and authentic experience – with a plenty of luxury thrown in. It has become more commercialised in recent years but still offers a laid back vibe. There are a lot of adult only hotels and upscale restaurants but we found it very family friendly too.
Final thoughts on which resort to choose in Riviera Maya
Playa del Carmen is my favourite resort on the Riviera Maya. It offers the perfect balance between a commercial and authentic Mexican experience. Cancun is the most commercial of the three, while Tulum is the most authentic, and most expensive!
However, no matter which resort you choose, whether you are a honeymooner, a party goer, an adventurer or a family, there are so many things to do in the Riviera Maya for everyone to enjoy.
Top 10 Things to do in Riviera Maya :
1. Don’t miss Cozumel
Cozumel is just a 45 minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen and is a must do in Riviera Maya – our visit here was my favourite excursion. Watching my son Phoenix confidently jump off the side of the boat and swim with sting ray, was a highlight of our holiday. Plus the turquoise, warm waters in Cozumel are simply breathtaking.
There are many more excursions in the Riviera Maya to choose from, I have listed some of my favourites here:
Day trip to Cozumel – Private Dune Buggy and Snorkel Tour
After your snorkelling experience along the world famous reefs travel through Cozumel’s rugged terrain at your own pace, grab a map and do a beach crawl, then stop along the coast for a seafood lunch.
Cozumel Snorkelling Tour: Palancar, Columbia and El Cielo Reefs
Visit three of the island’s hottest snorkelling spots: Palancar Reef, Columbia Reef and Playa el Cielo, known for the starfish that decorate its white sands.
See more here
Invisible Boat Snorkelling Adventure in Cozumel
This unique, family-friendly activity will let you explore Cozumel’s world-class sea life and Caribbean waters. The glass boat excursion is a small group tour so everyone gets a great seat and a spectacular view or the ocean below.
Guests will see marine life, coral formations, ship wrecks and also have a chance to jump into the water and cool off.
2. Dive into a cenote
There are many cenotes to explore in the Riviera Maya but Cenote Casa Tortuga Park has four Cenotes to enjoy, each with a unique experience that you won’t want to miss.
You’ll spend approximately 1 hour 20 minutes at each Cenote. When the guided cenotes tour is complete you are free to enjoy the crystal clear waters at your leisure.
See more here
Kaan Luum Lagoon is a stunning lagoon with a large cenote in the middle, just 15 minutes south of Tulum, surrounded by a lush jungle – this is another place I urge you not to miss.
3. Splash out at Xel-Há Water Park, Tulum
Xel-Há in Tulum is not your typical water park – it is completely natural with unlimited snorkelling, food, and beverages! This is an excellent day out and one of the top things to do in Riviera Maya with kids. It is located in Tulum but can be visited from Cancun and Playa del Carmen too – some tours include hotel pick up.
4. Explore Chichen Itza
The ancient city of Chichen Itza is one of the oldest and best-preserved cities of the ancient world and it is one of Mexico’s top attractions.
This full day tour takes you on a Mayan adventure where you stroll through the archaeological site of Chichen Itza and learn about its landmark ruins and the Mayan history and culture. It is an awe-inspiring experience and one of the top day trips from the Riviera Maya.
5. Swim with turtles at Akumal Beach, Tulum
Akumal Beach in Mexico is one of the best places in the world to swim with sea turtles. The nesting season for the Akumal bay turtles is from May to November, however it’s possible to see them all year-round.
6. Book a catamaran trip around Isla Mujeres
Isla Mujeres, a former fishing village, is located just 13km off the coast from Cancun and 15 minutes by ferry. I suggest booking a catamaran tour for a whole day of snorkelling and cruising around this tropical island in the Caribbean Sea. This is one of the top things to do in Riviera Maya for couples.
7. Swim with Whale Sharks
Snorkel with the largest sharks in the ocean on a full-day group snorkelling tour. The enormous fish are found in the Mexican Caribbean waters between May and September. Take a speedboat to their location then hop into the water and enjoy a once in a lifetime experience.
8. Go off road at Maya Adrenaline Excursion
The Maya Adrenaline excursion includes an ATV tour through the jungle; a circuit of four zip lines, including the ‘Evolution’ zip line, the fastest and longest on the Riviera Maya – 1 km long.
You can also enjoy a wall of rappelling, swimming and exploration in a cave cenote. Located close to Tulum, and a one hour drive from Playa del Carmen, this is a great fun thing to do in Riviera Maya.
9. Spend a day at a luxury beach club
If you are looking for a luxurious beach club there is only one place to go – Amansala Beach Club & Spa in Tulum. Spend a day at the beach with the added luxury of delicious fresh cuisine, refreshing cocktails, cool tunes and authentic Tulum vibes! Oh it has good, complimentary WiFi too, and it’s child friendly!
10. Sample the club scene, by day or night!
Don’t miss Señor Frogs (Playa del Carmen, Cozumel & Cancun). You will find foam parties, paint parties, wet t-shirt competitions and staff that go above and beyond to ensure that you’re having an absolute blast! Even if you pop in here during the day for lunch you cant help but feel the party atmosphere.
Coco Bongo (Playa del Carmen & Cancun) is arguably Mexico’s most popular night club, first seen in the movie The Mask in 1994 (a then made-up club in Cancun). Inspired by the movie, Coco Bongo opened up for business in 1997 and has gone from strength to strength since then.
Spend a night at Coco Bongo and experience flying acrobats, live music and entertainment. Some guests are even plucked from the crowd to interact with the entertainers. I’d recommend upgrading your tickets to either Gold member or Front Row for some extra special perks.
Top Tips for visiting the Riviera Maya and Cancun
Having pesos is the way to go! Nearly everywhere we went accepted US dollars, but paying in pesos is preferred and you get a better exchange rate.
Top Tip for visiting Playa del Carmen:
If you’re wearing a hotel wristband, you’re an easy target. We noticed that a lot of the small shop owners and excursion reps will tell you that they work in your hotel. They will look at your hotel wristband, then name your hotel and say that they met you there. This clever act will spark up a conversation and possibly get you into their shop or stand.
We did fall for this tactic last year and ended up in a diamond shop. We quickly realised what had happened and needless to say, we didn’t fall for it again.
In saying that it was no harm, from then on we just smiled and laughed when we heard the locals calling out our hotel name. This happened nearly every time we walked along 5th avenue and we saw other people fall for it too, but as I mentioned before we didn’t feel intimidated or pressured at all.
Top tip for going out in Cancun:
If you want a prompt and attentive service in the nightclubs, make sure you have plenty of one dollar bills for tips – otherwise you could be waiting a while for a drink! We found that if we tipped just a few dollars each time we never had an empty glass in front of us!
I hope you enjoyed Stephanie’s travel guide to Mexico’s resorts as well as her personal recommendations for the top things to do in Riviera Maya.
While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, it is important to note that resort amenities and tours are subject to change. Some of the links in this post contact affiliate links, where I receive a small commission if a booking is made, but at no additional cost to you.