Mexico’s Riviera Maya is one of my favorite beach destinations in the world. Easily accessible from most of North America, miles of beautiful white sandy beaches, plenty to do and a wide range of places to stay make the Riviera Maya a perfect beach destination.
However, because the destination has so much to offer to a wide range of travelers, researching and planning travel to the Riviera Maya can be overwhelming.
One way to make it easier to plan the perfect vacation to Mexico’s Riviera Maya is to narrow down your search by general location. First, start by determining where you want to stay, Cancun vs Playa del Carmen, then you’ll be better able to organize the perfect beach vacation from there.
Should we stay in Cancun vs Playa del Carmen?
The Cancun resort area is actually an island located just off the coast of Mexico, connected to the mainland via two short bridges. Here you’ll find mostly large, all-inclusive resorts spread out along the northern and eastern sides of this island. Alternative accommodation options that can save money and offer flexibility for your trip are Cancun timeshares.
Even during the busiest months of February – April, you’ll find plenty of room to spread out and enjoy these world-class beaches.
The ocean-side beaches are by far the most popular, and most of the hotels in Cancun face the ocean. The lagoon-side is more often used for water sports like jet skiing and kayaking.
Here are some of the best reasons to stay in Cancun on your beach vacation.
Cancun Offers Easy Access from the International Airport
Most of the resorts in Cancun are only a few miles from the main Cancun International airport. Especially if you are sneaking to Mexico for a quick weekend away, this might be reason enough to select a place to stay right in Cancun.
Minutes after landing, you will be sipping your welcome cocktail while checking into your resort.
All Inclusive Resorts Dominate Cancun
If you’re looking for pure rest and relaxation at an all-inclusive resort during your Mexican beach vacation, Cancun has a variety of options at a range of price points. There are over 170 all-inclusive resorts in Cancun, and most of them are located on what is actually an island; The Island of Cancun.
You’ll find familiar brands like Club Med, Iberostar and Riu, as well as some recent new additions including Nizuc, Temptation and Dreams.
For the best beaches, select a resort on the east, or ocean side of the island. For easy access to the shopping malls, bars, restaurants and watersports, select a resort on the lagoon side.
Cancun’s White Sandy Beaches Don’t Disappoint
Cancun was founded in the 1970’s. That’s right. The city of Cancun, now with a population of over 700,000 people, didn’t even exist fifty years ago. And the main reason for it’s rapid growth; the amazing natural beaches.
These white sandy carpets of Caribbean bliss were the original draw for tourism to be developed in this beautiful land, and remains the main draw today.
If you prefer laying on the beach vs. pool side, you can’t go wrong with Cancun.
Some of the best of the best beaches in Cancun include Playa Caracol and Playa Nizuc. Located right in the middle of the hotel zone, Playa Caracol is popular among families with small children thanks to it’s clear, shallow water and a sandy, not rocky, bottom.
Playa Nizuc, located at the southern tip of the main hotel zone in Cancun, is set away from the large crowds and the biggest hotels and is a great, less-busy option. But be sure to pack your own water, food, and umbrella as there are no public facilities available in the area.
But what about Playa del Carmen?
Playa del Carmen is located about an hour south of Cancun. The city spreads outwards around the main public beach and the main ferry docks for transport to the island of Cozumel and where day-tip cruise traffic parks. The main beach in Playa del Carmen starts at the ferry docks and runs to Calle 14 and Gran Porto Real.
And here are some of the reasons you may want to consider staying in Playa del Carmen on your beach vacation.
Discover Authentic Mexican Culture in Playa del Carmen
Speaking of growing cities, Playa del Carmen’s roots are as a sleepy, bohemian beach town on the Riviera Maya, about one hour south of Cancun. And while this city has grown rapidly over the years, it maintains the heart and soul of this palapa and hammocks beach town.
The Mayan Riviera has somewhat of a quirky “show” culture, and Playa del Carmen is perhaps the epicenter of that culture. On any given night you can find fire dancers on the beach, live music in the many bars and restaurants, and the intimate Playa del Carmen resorts offer a range of shows and entertainment featuring local performers.
But perhaps most interestingly, you’ll see locals walking to school, doing their shopping and on the weekends enjoying their own beaches. Playa del Carmen is a growing city with lots of locals out and about as well. While in Cancun it’s mostly tourists, here in Playa del Carmen you’ll have the opportunity to interact with locals.
Playa del Carmen is a Walkable City
Built around the pedestrian-only zone of 5th Avenue, Playa del Carmen is super easy to get around on foot. The main area of the city where you will find most of the bars, restaurants and hotels, is only about 10 blocks long. Wander through the street to find amazing authentic local food (hello street tacos!), stock up at the grocery store, or wander the length of the beach.
If you’re keen to venture a bit further or explore the town a bit more, consider renting a bike during your stay. You don’t need a rental car unless you plan on exploring beyond Playa del Carmen. There are a number of trustworthy, high quality transfer companies that can get you from the airport in Cancun to Playa del Carmen.
Tech Tip: Whether at Cancun or Playa del Carmen, use your virtual pc in the cloud through CloudDesktopOnline and collaborate and share using SharePoint through Apps4rent. You can access your work from anywhere with iOS/Android mobile devices as well as PCs and Macs.
Wide Range of Accommodation Options in Playa del Carmen
Where Cancun is the land of the all-inclusive resort, many more options abound in Playa del Carmen.
If you’re looking for an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, The Royal is the best option. Located on a beautiful beach right in the middle of town, you can easily walk down the beach or one block into town to hit the pedestrian only 5th Avenue.
However, if all-inclusive resorts aren’t your thing, you’ll be spoiled for choice in Playa del Carmen. You’ll find plenty of boutique hotels both on and off the beach, as well as thousands of vacation rentals. I love companies like Vacatia and Loco Gringo for narrowing down the options when it come to vacation rentals.
You’ll find plenty of condos on the beach that are new, tastefully decorated and include pools and other family-friendly amenities. Plus, most vacation rentals come with parking, if you do opt to rent a care and explore activities throughout the Riviera Maya.
So what do you think? Have you been to either of these Riviera Maya cities? How would you compare Cancun vs Playa del Carmen?