Riviera Maya, Cozumel or Cancun – which is best?

Three attractive locations, all equiped with resorts that are as luxurious as they are inviting, and bordered by some of the prettiest coastline on the continent: in Mexico, it’s quite a challenge to choose where to put your bags for a one-week all-inclusive vacation!

Here, in brief, are the upsides and downsides of each of these resort destinations if you are unsure where to stay between these three must-see destinations on the Mexican east coast.


Located just a short cab ride from the international airport, Cancun’s hotel zone is more for vacationers looking to be in the heart of the action. Here, clubs and nightclubs swarm and multiply, to the delight of partygoers on a budget – and in little clothes.

In fact, the hotels dotting the Cancun peninsula cater to a young, pretty crowd that likes to party without a tomorrow (though not exclusively, as there are also some grand luxury and family hotels). Many of the hotels host DJs, dancers and big shows to appeal to this particular clientele that is prone to all kinds of excess.

Moreover, Cancun has been the cash cow of Mexico’s tourism industry for over 40 years and exercises little subtlety when it comes to enticing tourists and vacationers to squander their pesos on Americanized experiences. Thus, the temptations (stores, restaurants, clubs, casinos, etc.) are multiple and numerous throughout the hotel zone.

Upsides of Cancun
  • Impossible to get bored
  • Lots of entertainment
  • Proximity to department stores and nightclubs
  • Numerous restaurants outside of resorts
Downsides of Cancun
  • Little authenticity
  • Crowds can sometimes be too much
  • Proximity to potential cartel problems
  • Crowded beaches


Just off the coast of Playa del Carmen is a vast island of 477 square kilometers called Cozumel (“land of the swallows” in Yucatecan Mayan) where it is good to take your time, ideally with both feet in the crystal clear water. The atmosphere is insular and relaxed, especially because the hotels are much smaller than elsewhere in the state of Quintana Roo. It is therefore an ideal destination for vacationers who prefer resorts and crowds on a human scale.

A small paradise on earth, Cozumel was even officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 as a biosphere reserve. No wonder, then, that Cozumel is the best place for scuba diving in the world according to Jacques Cousteau since he set foot there – or rather, flippers! – in 1961. That’s mainly because of the current, which is far more peaceful than elsewhere on the continental coast, and the presence of the second largest coral reef in the world.

Good to know: Cozumel’s hotels are all, with a few exceptions, on the west coast facing the Riviera Maya, making it one of the only places in the region to enjoy the sunsets.

Upsides of Cozumel
  • Away from big tourist areas
  • Pristine beaches
  • Diving sites
Downsides of Cozumel
  • Island access can be complex
  • Very few of the best resorts in Mexico are located on the island
  • Hotel infrastructure is often outdated and has not stood the test of time
  • Lots of mass-market tourist marketing aimed at day cruisers; Cozumel is a big cruise destination

Riviera Maya

Known around the world for its long stretches of white sand, turquoise waters and exclusive resorts, the Riviera Maya is for vacationers who demand the best in dining, facilities, service and amenities. Simply put, Riviera Maya has some of the best resorts in Mexico. This includes world-class spas, children’s centers with specialized educators, 5 Diamond restaurants and suites larger than the homes of most travelers who stay there.

Another factor that favors the Riviera Maya over Cancun and Cozumel is the array of day trip options. From Mayan ruins such as Tulum to the many cenotes and spectacular dive sites, it’s possible to complement long periods of idleness with a day or two in the heart of Mexican culture.

Upsides of Riviera Maya
  • Ultra-secure hotels
  • State-of-the-art technology and design
  • Quiet and spacious beaches
Downsides of Riviera Maya
  • Higher rates
  • Large resorts that can be difficult to navigate
  • Challenging access to stores and restaurants outside the hotel complex

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