Cancun vs. Riviera Maya vs. Tulum

Mexico always delivers on all levels for me – incredibly delicious cuisine, warm and intuitive service, some of the most beautiful white-sand beaches in the hemisphere, and not to mention the incredible history, culture, art, and adventure.

While many Americans might not think of a flight to Cancun as being a truly “international” experience, it is important to remember that with just a 2 hour flight from many U.S. cites and with so much to offer in the region, this might just be that easy getaway you’ve been longing for.

My clients frequently ask about where to stay – should it be Cancun, on the Riviera Maya or maybe even Tulum? Given the vast number of hotel options, it can be dizzying! Read my brief description of each area below and then keep scrolling to find my hotel recommendations.

Here is the skinny on these destinations:

Cancun Hotel Zone
Cancun Hotel Zone

Cancun – With the hotel zone located just 10 minutes from the airport, you literally can be sipping margaritas beachside by 11am. While more built up, Cancun is ideal for those coming for a very quick getaway. If shopping, off-resort restaurants, and nightlife are part of the holiday equation, Cancun may be the answer. One definitely does not need a car if staying in Cancun and, in fact, will prefer not to have one unless you are considering many excursions out side of Cancun.

Riviera Maya – What two decades ago was simply called the Cancun-Tulum corridor, has now been developed and marketed as the very best holiday destination in Mexico. Small town Playa del Carmen is all grown up and the once empty beaches of the area are filled with a wide range of resort accommodations. Don’t worry, the beaches are still gorgeous and you can still find a fun, local vibe in Playa del Carmen, a beach town gateway to Cozumel.

A Local Family driving in the Riviera Maya
A Local Family driving in the Riviera Maya

Guests staying in the Riviera Maya can easily stay on their resort, go into Playa del Carmen, or dine at some of the other wonderful properties in the area. Many of the eco-activities are located in this area and you have easy access to the ruin of Tulum and Coba. You may like to have a car while staying in the Riviera Maya if you have plans to get out and explore. The driving is easy with an excellent highway and clear signage. Although, if you are the type that would like to hunker down in your resort lounge chair, I would suggest simply go with the airport transfers and leave the driving to a local. 

Tulum – If you are seeking a relaxed, young, and Bohemian atmosphere with a plethora of tiny “eco-chic” or “hippy-chic” hotels and fantastic beaches, Tulum is the ticket. This is not the place for those seeking incredible room product and many amenities such as air conditioning and gyms, but if you want to completely unwind, ride bikes to bars and restaurants, and take in the jet-set New Yorker turned weekend yoga-warrior, you might just never want to leave Tulum.

Here is a recap of my favorite hotels in the area:

Cancun

Nizuc – While Nizuc likes to say they are located in the Riviera Maya, the resort is actually the closest property to the airport at the entrance to the Cancun Hotel Zone and highway to the Rivera Maya. Location-wise it has the advantage of being close to everything really. It is a gorgeous-design hotel with incredible food and all of the amenities. While the beach is lovely, I would not rate it as the best beach in the area. (see my previous blog on this).

Special perks for guests of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade upon arrival, if available
  • One Way Airport Transfers
  • Complimentary breakfast for two
  • Complimentary visit to the spa hydrotherapy facilities at ESpa
  • Welcome Tequila!
Ritz CarltonCancun Pool
Ritz CarltonCancun Pool

The Ritz-Carlton, Cancun – I have always had a soft spot for this property since I was on the opening team back in 1993 when it quickly won all of the awards for best hotel in all of Latin America. Of course, now there are so many incredible properties throughout the region that it no longer has that claim. None the less, the property is looking great with a lovely, soothing new room design, and a fantastic beach with plenty of covered serviced beach palapas. It has a great location in the hotel zone and offers all of the amenities and services one would expect from a 5-star hotel. It is great for families seeking interconnecting rooms, large suites, and a club floor with complimentary food and beverage presentations.

Special perks for guests of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • $100 USD Food & Beverage credit, to be utilized during stay
  • Daily Buffet breakfast, for up to two in room guests
  • Early check-in/late check-out

Riviera Maya

Belmond Maroma
Belmond Maroma

Belmond Maroma – The grand dame of good taste, this charming Mexican hacienda is beyond gorgeous, has impeccable service, spectacular food and a very romantic, old-world, authentic charm. Maroma is definitely my first choice for old-world romance and sophistication. If you don’t stay here, it is well worth coming for dinner with Chef Pablo or joining the very special tequila and botanas night – truly a worthy fiesta! This is the property that will make even those that think they don’t like Cancun, fall in love with the place.  Below are some pictures taken in the dark of one of the best meals I have had in a while!

Special perks for guests of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
  • One 30 minutes body oil relaxing massage per person per stay
  • Maroma floral bed decoration on arrival
  • Early check-in/late check-out
Viceroy Riviera Maya
Viceroy Riviera Maya

Viceroy – This little unconventional eco-resort is completely unexpected. From the strange arrival through the back of a neighboring hotel, to the drive up to the pavilion where guests are greeted, you are transported to a special place –physically and mentally. There is no lobby, your greeter offers you a glass of fresh coconut milk, stops by the spa for a Mayan ritual, escorts you to your room for a shot of Mezcal, and then leaves you only after slicing up a couple of slabs of lovely soaps, hand made with local ingredients. Service here could not be friendlier or more anticipatory. Viceroy is unexpected and wonderful, for the right client. Viceroy is for couples and only takes children age 16 and older.

Special perks for guest of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Continental breakfast daily, for up to two in room guests served in restaurant
  • $100 USD Resort or Hotel credit, to be utilized during stay
  • Early check-in/late check-out
Rosewood Mayakoba
Rosewood Mayakoba

Rosewood Mayakoba – A sleek, high-design hotel with excellent service and all of the bells and whistles of a luxe resort. Rosewood is the hotel I recommend in the Mayakoba complex. Great for couples or families and the place to stay if golf is on your agenda.

Special perks for guests of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Daily buffet breakfast, for up to two in-room guests
  • $100 USD Spa Services credit, to be utilized during stay
  • Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability

All-Inclusives

While I do not recommend the mass-market all-inclusive properties, there are two standouts in the all-inclusive category that I do recommend with confidence –

Grand Velas
Grand Velas

Grand Velas, Riviera Maya is a huge all-suite hotel with outstanding service, excellent food and beverage, a world-class spa, and many activities. It is constantly named one of the top all-inclusive properties in the region and this is a great option for a group of friends or family traveling together that don’t want to worry about who is going to pick up the tab.

Special perks for guests of Resort to Laura Madrid:

  • Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
  • Daily Buffet breakfast, for up to two in room guests
  • Complimentary one-way private airport transfer
  • 50 USD Spa credit, per adult, per day
  • A welcome tequila bottle
  • Early check-in/late check-out
Blue Diamond
Blue Diamond

Blue Diamond is a new property in the space of what was formerly the Mandarin-Oriental. Given that the property was built as a Mandarin, guests can be assured that the resort has excellent bones. This is an all-inclusive with a great room product and very good food. It is an excellent value for “peso” and for couples traveling without kids on a budget, this is a romantic and swank option.

Tulum

Be Tulum – Superb setting with a live trio playing on the beach, uber-comfortable beach loungers, a young hip crowd, and excellent food.

Coqui Coqui – Dripping with good taste, beautiful linens and furnishings and perhaps a slight attitude, Coqui Coqui is a perfume company turned hotel group with fantastic little hotels in Tulum, Valladolid and Merida.

Ana y Jose
Ana y Jose

Ana y Jose – If you travel to Tulum with kids, Ana y Jose is a funky old-timer (it actually was here 20+ years ago in a much simpler form, long before any other hotels came to town). It has more room options and amenities than the more Bohemian chic properties.

Things to do in the Region – Sitting on the beach is truly a favorite past time here especially since sand and sea do not get much better than this, but if you are wanting to venture out to one of the islands, grab a ferry to Isla Mujeres (with lunch at Maria’s Kan Kin) or to Cozumel – rent a moped and tool around.  For some of the natural/active experiences in the Riviera Maya, consider a vist to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Mexico’s largest protected reserve and a UNESCO world heritage site. Kan Tours and Eco Colors have specialized sustainable tours to the reserve or swim in the Cenotes at Aktun Chen National Park.

A day trip to see the ruins at Tulum or futher up the Yucatan Peninsula to Chichen Itza, of course is mind blowing but be sure to have us book a guide for you in order to get the most of the experience.

Places to Eat in the Region– Viceroy on their Mexican night, Maroma any night of the week and also we highly recommend their Tequila and Botanas night.  Be Tulum, a fabulous place for best fish tacos! Wanting to do something fun and local-yokel, then in Cancun join the locals at La Parilla in downtown and in Playa del Carmen, Xachte is a good choice.

6 thoughts on “Cancun vs. Riviera Maya vs. Tulum

  1. Chintan Patel

    Great summary of the resorts in the area. I’m going with my 1 year old daughter, my wife, and a couple. Any suggestions on all-inclusive resorts? The ones you noted seem great but we’re looking for something with multiple great restaurants so we don’t have to do much planning and paying.

  2. Ashley

    Thanks for posting. I have been researching for a couple months on the best family resort for wedding then switching to an adult only resort for honeymoon but we are also looking for all inclusive. We have not settled on anything! 😕 Options are wide open with playa del Carmen, Cozumel, isla mujeres and all others! Can you help with the best direction for us to go in?

  3. Shelley Brown

    Hi Laura,
    I’m coming to the cancun/pdc/tulum area on Jan. 4-7, 2017 with my two adult kids. I’m afraid we’re too late to find a good place where we can all stay without spending 2,000 dollars a night! We don’t need pool amenities but we’d like to be fairly close to a decent beach….and the main thing is that I’m completely bug-phobic so I must find a clean place without insects!
    Any suggestions?

  4. Jill Curtis

    This is a great blog post, thank you. We are a family of three with a teenager. We’re looking for a smaller high quality property with amenities but also charm/culture. (Preferably NOT an AI) The beach is key and I would like to be able to walk a fair distance on the beach. We are open to Cancun/Tulum/Playa del Carmen etc. Any suggestions? Thanks a million!

    P.S. I would be interested in having you help us plan our stay. We would also like to go to Valladolid while we are there.

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