Many people looking at Cancun for the first time are surprised to discover the Riviera Maya (also called the Mayan Riviera) is available as an alternative. If you are deciding whether to stay in an all-inclusive in Cancun or Riviera Maya, there are differences that make each area great in their own way, and travelers often have a preference for one over the other.
Cancun Hotel Zone
The Cancun Hotel Zone looks very similar to Miami Beach, which can be a plus or minus for people. The all-inclusive resorts are generally more likely to be high-rises, which can be good for someone looking for a gorgeous ocean view; however, their footprint is generally pretty small compared to the compounds in the Riviera Maya, with most having other resorts or condominiums right next door.
The beach in Cancun is generally fairly good, with minimal sargassum, white sand, an turquoise waters. If you want to swim in the ocean, I recommend staying in the side that faces North, at a hotel like the Riu Palace Las Americas, as that water is much calmer.
If you want to get off the resort, there is often some nightlife nearby for you, especially if you stay in the Northeast section (near Hyatt Ziva Cancun or Hotel Riu Cancun). Unfortunately, there are not many activities to do without a decent van ride to get there, and the Hotel Zone is on its own peninsula, making it tough to see any local things to do.
The Riviera Maya offers another 65 miles of coastline and all-inclusive resorts between the Cancun airport and Tulum. Many of these resorts are more like compounds, with multiple hotels in them catering to different audiences (such as standard, premium, and adults-only options) across 2000+ rooms. Some people consider this akin to a “resort factory” but others appreciate having a plethora of options for meals, bars, and activities that you can’t find at a smaller all-inclusive.
There are also smaller resorts in the Riviera Maya, and almost all tend to be built into the surrounding jungles and mangroves. Due to that, many feature some wildlife roaming around, such as iguanas and unique birds that can be fun to see and almost impossible to find in the Cancun Hotel Zone.
Pools are often the star at Riviera Maya resorts because they have the available land to do so. Some of the larger resorts have 10+ pools across the multiple resorts in the complex. Just one of the two large pools at the Grand Palladium Colonial-White Sands-Kantenah complex take up more land than the hotel buildings at many Cancun all-inclusives!
While pools can be the star, beaches tend to be a bit more hit or miss. The water is not as turquoise as it is in Cancun and the sargassum can get bad on some days (but also have other days with almost none at all). On the plus side, expect more privacy from other resorts and generally less crowds and wandering merchants, especially if you are on a resort outside of Playa del Carmen.
If you are looking for off-resort activities, Riviera Maya has that in spades. Whether it is a day trip to Tulum, visiting some cenotes, or doing a large water park like Xcaret, there are plenty of activities (albeit most at an additional cost) in Riviera Maya. If you want to do something on a budget, you can take advantage of the collectivo vans that run up and down route 307 between Cancun and Tulum to get there, generally for $.80-$2 USD per person each way.
Should you go to Cancun or Riviera Maya?
This really is a subjective question, so here are my thoughts:
If you want a more spread out all-inclusive resort, often with a larger variety of things to do, larger pools, and with some pretty cool wildlife hanging around, choose Riviera Maya. If you want to be more ‘in the action’, have a better beach (even if it is a bit more crowded) and feel like you are in Miami, choose Cancun.
These are two very different areas and many people tend to prefer one over the other. I like both, but the better beach in Cancun is tempting. If you want somewhere that is a bit newer and has some additional positives, consider the brand new Playa Mujeres all-inclusive resorts