Resort Areas in Cancún and the Riviera Maya: Which One Is Right for You?
The area around Cancún on Mexico’s Caribbean coast is one of the world’s most popular destinations for a beach getaway. But with miles of sand, surf, resorts, and ruins to choose from, it’s not always easy to decide where to set your towel down. South of Cancún’s party atmosphere and all-inclusive resorts, the Riviera Maya stretches through numerous Yucatán towns, each with something different to offer—from snorkeling tours and Mayan ruins to hippy-chic boutiques and yacht-club luxury. Follow our guide below to help you pick the paradise that’s perfect for you.
Pictured: Isla Holbox
BEST FOR: all-inclusive resorts and all-night parties
Closest to the airport and home to Mexico’s largest strip of all-inclusive resorts, Cancún is easily the Yucatán Peninsula's most famous destination. Fine white sand, shallow turquoise waters, and spectacular diving are just some of the reasons visitors keep coming. There are two major areas of interest for tourists: El Centro (downtown) and the 12-mile-long Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone). Many visitors opt for an all-inclusive package in the heavily developed Hotel Zone, where international cuisine, private plunge pools, and oceanfront suites await. For those looking for a neon-lit party strip, cheaper accommodation options, and a wealth of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops, downtown Cancún is the better option.
BEST FOR: family-friendly, laid-back island living
Located just a 15-minute boat ride from downtown Cancún, this 4-mile-long sliver of sand can be visited on a day trip from the mainland. But with its coral-colored beaches, luxury resorts, and world-class diving and snorkeling opportunities, Isla Mujeres rewards longer stays as well, particularly for travelers in search of a laid-back, family-friendly experience. Despite the island’s growing popularity and the presence of some high-end offerings, there are lots of options for those on tighter budgets, with many mid-price hotels charging a fraction of what you’d pay in Cancún’s Hotel Zone.
BEST FOR: staying in the heart of the action—from nightlife to sightseeing
Fun-loving Playa del Carmen is your best bet for nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and accommodation options to suit all budgets. While the beaches here aren’t as pristine as in Cancún or Isla Mujeres, the city’s central location (a 45-minute drive from Cancún’s airport in the north and 50 minutes from Tulum in the south) makes it the perfect base for exploring the region’s highlights, such as the Parque Dos Ojos nature preserve and the ruins of Coba. Nearby coral reefs give divers and snorkelers plenty to explore underwater.
BEST FOR: outdoor adventures with fewer tourists
Despite being situated about midway between tourist hot spots Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Puerto Morelos has held onto some vestiges of the days when this coast was a string of sleepy fishing villages. In fact, the town’s main draws predate even that era. Among the nearby natural attractions awaiting outdoor adventurers who can tear themselves away from the sand: a network of inland cenotes and the colorful corals of the Puerto Morelos Reef National Park. In the evenings, head for the main plaza to feast on Yucatán specialties and fresh seafood.
BEST FOR: snorkeling, scuba diving, and dolphin-spotting
The island of Cozumel, home to some of Mexico’s best-protected coral reefs and finest stretches of sand, was once a well-kept secret among divers and hardcore sun-seekers. But thanks to a state-of-the-art cruise ship terminal, an international airport, and an ever-growing number of hotels, Cozumel is no longer the deserted island paradise it once was. Still, tourist development comes with its advantages: Visitors now have their pick of sea-view villas, can dine on anything from wood-fired pizza to flame-grilled sirloin steak, and can go diving, snorkeling, and dolphin-spotting with dozens of reputable companies. For those looking to escape the crowds, renting a scooter is a great way to explore less-trodden paths.
BEST FOR: spotting flamingos, dolphins, turtles—and no cars
Slow island life at its best, Isla Holbox (pronounced hole-bosh) is a narrow strip of powdery white sand 37 miles north of Cancún. Few restaurants and bars stay open past 11pm, and sandy, car-free roads encourage visitors to spend their entire vacation barefoot. The main draw here, apart from the island’s blinding white sand and otherworldly greenish-blue waters, is wildlife. Part of the Yum Balam nature reserve, Holbox is home to over 150 species of birds, including spoonbills, herons, and flamingos. Between June and September, you can also spot whale sharks, manta rays, turtles, and dolphins. A diverse range of accommodations—secluded eco-resorts along the north shore, budget hostels near the central plaza—means there’s usually an interesting mix of backpackers, families, and honeymooners around. Whatever you do, don’t miss the island’s signature wood-fired lobster pizza, best prepared at Roots.
BEST FOR: yachting, sport fishing, and luxury behind gates
Set between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Puerto Aventuras is home to a 900-acre gated community that’s popular with family vacationers and retired expats looking for a home-away-from-home retreat. The community, largely made up of luxury condos, house rentals, and spa resorts, boasts a nine-hole golf course, several tennis courts, dozens of restaurants, and its own dolphin discovery center and maritime museum. Puerto Aventuras is also where you’ll find the Riviera Maya’s only marina—a popular choice for yachting and sport fishing.
BEST FOR: bohemian-chic hipsters and scenesters
Tulum is a newcomer to the Riviera Maya resort scene. Once a stop-off for tourists visiting an impressive set of Mayan ruins, Tulum has seen in recent years an explosion of eco-boutique hotels, trendy nomad cafes, and Ibiza-inspired beach clubs. Those developments have made Tulum especially popular with the young bohemian crowd. As in Cancún, accommodations are divided into two main areas: Tulum Pueblo right on the busy Avenida Tulum highway, and the Zona Hotelera (Hotel Zone), which extends north along Tulum’s stunning mile-long beach. The town center, a 15-minute bike ride from the sand, is where budget-friendly lodgings and restaurants can be found, as well as Tulum’s growing nightlife offerings. For luxury beachfront bungalows, haute cuisine, and total relaxation, opt for the more expensive Hotel Zone.
We hate to end things on an icky note. But from April to October, piles of ugly brown seaweed may accumulate on Mexico’s Caribbean beaches, and climate change only worsens the problem. It’s important to remember, however, that conditions vary by location, by the year, and often by the day. Visit the website of Yes to Mexico, an advocacy group created to provide info for those concerned about traveling to the country, to download a Sargassum Fast Facts Guide. It has links to beach cams that let you check out conditions before you book a trip, as well as news about cleanup and disposal efforts and plans to install eco-friendly barriers to keep the seaweed from reaching the shore.
And hey, look on the bright side: In years when sargassum levels are especially high, you could score big savings from resorts eager to fill vacancies—provided you don’t have your heart set on seeing unblemished expanses of white sand every second of the day.