I am sure you are all at least somewhat familiar with the Caribbean’s claim to fame: vast, white sandy beaches, perfectly clear turquoise and tranquil waters, and lush green tropical forests, not to mention the vast array of outdoor activities, vibrant cultural displays, and great nightlife. The Mayan Riviera, or Riviera Maya, refers to the 130 km stretch of Caribbean coastline in Quintana Roo that spans a triad of resort towns: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum. These three towns are very distinct, and your experience of the culture and the great outdoors will likewise vary in each place. I hope this story gives you an idea about what kinds of experiences each of these towns caters to so that you can plan your trip accordingly.
Cancun is by far the biggest and most developed city of the three. The resort zone or zona hotelera is on a 25 km long peninsula that juts out into the ocean. There are hundreds of all-inclusive resorts, restaurants, clubs, shopping malls, museums, and of course beautiful, white sandy Caribbean beaches. All beaches in Mexico are public property, so even though resorts line the beaches, there are many public access points with restrooms and showers as well as public buses and smaller collective vans with routes from the city center through the hotel zone.
The beaches in the zona hotelera are the widest and best-kept beaches in the riviera. Because Cancun’s beaches are along a peninsula, the currents are a bit stronger which may cause stronger waves, but is a blessing during seaweed season as very little seaweed ever makes it to shore. This means pretty much perfect visibility year-round.
The city center and surrounding neighborhoods are nearly exclusively for local habitation and consumption as the majority of tourists have no need to leave an all-inclusive resort. All-inclusive resorts are very relaxing, very luxurious, self-sufficient, and highly entertaining. If tourists wish to venture out, they normally explore the hotel zone’s clubs and bars equipped with DJ sets, go-go dancers, circus acts, and ample dance floors. I’d say the demographic of tourists that enjoy the all-inclusive experience are either families with young kids, or college-aged groups looking to party.
If you’re looking for an authentic cultural experience in the hotel zone, you won’t find it. There are hostels and hotels in the city center; however getting to public beaches is a good 20 minutes on a public bus; with traffic, tack on an extra 30 minutes. Air-BnBs also exist in the hotel zone and surrounding neighborhoods, but I’d recommend renting a car to get around as Cancun and the hotel zone cover a very large area.
Playa del Carmen (known to locals as just Playa) is about 45 minutes south of Cancun. It is a growing city with a small-town feel. All-inclusive hotels, boutique hotels, hostels, and local neighborhoods are all grouped together, and navigating this tight-nit city is incredibly easy. No need to rent a car in Playa as all beaches (all public as I mentioned before) connect directly to the city center. Hotels, air-BnBs, restaurants and clubs are all within walking distance. Moreover, there is a walking-only street called La Quinta (5th Avenue) that runs parallel to -and is one block up from- the beach. La Quinta connects the two, all-inclusive resort zones and private neighborhoods on either end of playa with the city center and 12th street bar scene. There are countless restaurants, souvenir shops, gyms, fruit stands, plazas, and tourist information booths to explore on la Quinta.
It is very easy to feel like a local, even as a tourist in Playa because locals and tourists live and vacation in such close proximity. There are also a lot of local cultural events and markets in the Plaza Municipal and the Plaza Principal, both within walking distance from the beach and most hotels. Furthermore, since its in the middle of Cancun, and Tulum, Playa is a great jumping-off point for daily excursions that can be purchased through tours, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can hop in a collective van that stops off at different touristed landmarks along the highway between Cancun and Tulum. I highly recommend Playa for a more authentic experience of the Riviera Maya.
Tulum is still very much a small town or “pueblito” with one main road where most restaurants, coffee shops, and souvenir shops are located. The hotel zones and beaches are located quite far from town with practically no public transportation from town to the beach. About 3 km before entering Tulum’s city center, there is an archeological zone of beautifully picturesque Mayan ruins overlooking the ocean that can be accessed from the main highway. The first major intersection that marks the beginning of the city center also connects Tulum with the beaches and hotel zones that are between 10 and 20 minutes away by car. At the end of the hotel zone, there is a nature reserve called Sian Kaan that is enormous, completely uninhabited and contains many hidden beaches, lagoons, and rivers that only tour guides and locals know how to find.
All hotels in Tulum are eco-resorts that are small in size, not all-inclusive, and far less obtrusive to their natural surroundings than the giant resorts in Cancun or Playa. The beaches, lush rainforests, and giant nature reserve are a paradise for the more rugged, environmentally conscious, and nature-loving traveler. There are hostels and air-BnBs in the center of town which is very quaint with a growing night-life scene of artisan breweries, bars with specialty drinks, and live music galore. Renting a car in Tulum is very helpful for accessing the beach, the archeological zone, and Sian Kaan nature reserve, but many younger tourists rent bikes and manage just as well. Of the three, Tulum is my personal favorite.
Whether you are looking to relax and luxuriate at an all-inclusive resort in Cancun’s zona hotelera, explore local culture and food along Playa del Carmen’s La Quinta/5th Avenue, or gallivanting through the great unknown of Tulum’s immense nature reserve, the Riviera Maya will not disappoint!
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