Mexico - Cancún or Riviera Maya?
I'm going to save you the time and give you the answer: do both! They are so close to each other (about an hour by bus or taxi) and both so unique and amazing in their own way. I was only in Mexico for 8 days and did both and although I wish we had longer, I don't regret squeezing both in. If you have the time this would 100% be my answer but if that’s not feasible and you absolutely have to pick one or the other, then keep reading and hopefully this post will help you to decide.
Where to stay:
There are literally hundreds of luxury resorts in the Hotel Zone which is spread over about 14 miles. Most have sea views on both sides due to the narrow shape of the coast.
I had the privilege of stay at Secrets the Vine which is right on the beach and a fantastic all-inclusive property with several dining and bar options.
For a more budget option I would say Selina or Nomads hostels are always good options and are located right in the heart of the nightlife and shopping areas and still within walking distance of the beach.
For me it was the crazy ‘Spring Break’ parties which drew me to Cancún in the first place. It is slightly tacky don’t get me wrong, but I was not complaining whilst I drank my yard of frozen margarita whilst wearing my ballon hat at Senior Frogs or as I watched Spiderman fly inches over my head to defeat Madonna at Coco Bongo, but I understand that’s not for everyone. There are also classier options and so not to make this post too long, I would check out Culture's Ultimate Nightlife Guide for the hundreds of options Cancún has to offer. Although if you go to one place, make sure it is Coco Bongo! (There is one in Riviera Maya too.) Tickets are around $70 but include unlimited drinks and of course the show. If you upgrade to VIP you also get table service so you don't have to keep queueing at the bar as the waiters will keep you drinks well filled. ( I have not drunk margaritas since).
Things to do:
The beaches are of course beautiful but be aware that the seaweed during wet season can make it almost impossible to swim in in this area. Definitely head over to Isla Mujeres if you get the chance which is about an hour from Cancún and the beaches there are even more beautiful. We linked this in with a whale shark watching trip and were lucky enough to be there at the right time of year to see over 100 whale sharks and manta rays. Its a protected area so as far as I know they do not feed the sharks as they do on other whale shark tours around the world. The company I went with was called Ocean tours Mexico who were very eco conscious making sure we only went in the water 2 at a time, not touching the animals and were wearing reef safe suncream. They also take photos for you to buy if you don't have your own underwater camera.The rest of the time we just stayed at the amazing resort and made the most of the activities there; including sunrise yoga, Spanish lessons and wine tasting -which we convinced them to change to tequila tasting on one occasion.
Where to stay:
Again there is such a range of luxury and budget accommodations to choose from but I just need to mention the place where I stayed as it really was unique. Bel Air Collection Resort is a huge property and although slightly run down it is still beautiful. Individual villas, each with their own hot tub are spread out over the hotel grounds which used to be a public zoo. Its a very strange almost eerie place as the zoo signs are still there but the animals are not. Or so we thought until we spotted a crocodile whilst walking back from dinner! There are a few other animals pottering about and there are also 3 natural cenotes one of which you can swim or kayak through and search for the family of resident manatees. Finding them was probably the highlight of my trip.
The night life in Riviera Maya is definitely more chilled out than that in Cancun but there are plenty of bars and restaurants. Our favourites were the ones that played live music like Bar Fah which was indie acoustic (my fave!) and Pez Vela where you can sit on swings at the bar and listen to the Mexican Beatles tribute band! What more could you want?! I also found a lot more street food options in Riviera Maya which I would recommend trying, especially the churros!!
Things to do:
Xcaret and Xel ha are big natural water parks that unfortunately we didn't get a chance to visit (due to squeezing in both destinations I suppose) but I will definitely visit when I return. Another thing I would love to have done is a day trip to Chichen Itza. This is quite far from both Cancun and Riviera Maya but you can do a day trip from either. This was a really long trip and as we were short on time we decided to leave it until next time. Riviera Maya has plenty of natural cenotes to visit but as I mentioned we were lucky enough to have 3 right in our hotel! Finally although not technically in Riviera Maya, theres the Mayan ruins of Tulum which are worth a visit.
Realistically if you only have a week, I would choose one or the other. It is of course possible to do both but as there is just so much to do it would be much more relaxing to concentrate on one at a time. If you are going for the nightlife, beaches, luxury resorts and relaxation, Cancun is probably the best option. If you want more activities and things to do I would say Riviera Maya but remember they are so close you don't need to sacrifice any activities. My advice would be to write down all the things you really want to do and work out which destination would work best for your trip.
Whereever you end up you will have an amazing time! Don't forget to book through my affiliate link with booking.com ;)