Cuba or Mexico, which is better for a holiday? Comparing overall vibe, cost, beaches, activities, sights, nightlife, food, and lodging
Travelers trying to decide whether to choose Cuba or Mexico for their vacation are generally comparing the Yucatan Peninsula (Cancun and the Mayan Riviera area) with Cuba, both on the Caribbean Sea.
The Pacific Coast of Mexico, with Puerto Vallarta as a famous tourist destination, while very nice, is a different beast and can’t really compare with Cuba for beaches. In this post, I’ll mainly focus on comparing vacationing in Cuba vs Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
Cuba or Mexico: short answer
Here’s a nutshell comparison of Mexico (Riviera Maya) vs Cuba:
- Mexico generally has more touristic sights and better tours, such as ecological parks, Mayan ruins, scenic Yucatan villages
- Mexico has superior lodging options for a similar rating – e.g. 4-star resorts in Riviera Maya are often better than similar resorts in Cuba
- Food in Mexico is much closer to US standards than in Cuba
- Telecommunications are cheaper and better in Mexico than Cuba
- Nightlife is much better in Mexico (e.g. Cancun) than in Cuba
- Cuba is more affordable than Mexico
- Locals in Cuba are generally more authentic and friendlier than locals on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera
- Cuba is generally safer than Mexico, e.g. Varadero is much more secure than Cancun
- Cuba has a more authentic real-life experience vs Mexico’s more touristic experience
Cuba or Mexico: what travelers say
- Travelers generally agree Cuba has better beaches and seawater compared to Mexico (Riviera Maya). However, many choose Mexico because of tourism infrastructure, quality of services, food, and shopping. Cuba offers a different experience, more authentic but often less comfortable – many think Cuba has a long way to go.
- Varadero, Cuba’s most popular beach resort, is often seen as better than Mayan Riviera beaches. Varadero’s beach is gorgeous and great for swimming, walking, snorkeling, and laze around. Cuba often wins for the quality of its beaches.
- Playa Del Carmen, however, one of Mexico’s most popular beach resorts on the Riviera Maya, is also beautiful and has excursions in the Yucatan Peninsula which are more interesting and better run than those in Cuba, e.g. snorkeling (e.g. to Akumal) and ruins excursions.
- Cuba is more affordable than Mexico, so it’s great for trying something new on a budget. You can sometimes book an all-inclusive 4 or 5-star resort for as low as $400 in Cuba, which is not possible in Mexico. The quality of resorts, however, is a bit higher in Mexico, even though the beaches are typically not as great.
- Cuba has very limited shopping compared to Mexico. Mexico also has better food (Cuba has restrictions on imported foods) and a more luxurious tropical environment.
- Most travelers find Cuba to be extremely safe and very visitor-friendly. In contrast, some beach resorts in Mexico’s Yucatan coast are protected by armed security guards, which some travelers feel uncomfortable with.
- There are more touristic activities in Mexico than in Cuba, though pricier. However, Havana is Cuba’s main cultural attraction. Cuba is sometimes described as an adventure, while Riviera Maya more of a vacation. Cuba tours often combine these two aspects by offering a few nights in Havana and one-week in a Varadero beach resort.
Cuba or Mexico: vibe & people
Cuba has a unique charm and is very different from other destinations. It’s also likely to change in the near future when the US allows its citizens to travel there freely and foreign money starts pouring in.
Cuba is also one of the safest countries for travelers – although a place like Cozumel in Mexico is also considered very safe (see this post for a comparison of Cozumel and Cancun). Single female travelers, namely, feel totally safe in Cuba but not in Mexico.
Travelers often appreciate Cuba for its simpler, more spiritual and less materialistic vibe, something not generally found in Mexico’s Yucatan coast.
The Cubans are often described as genuine, kind, and generous. They are seen as warm, loving people with a great sense of humor. While many travelers also enjoy their experience with the locals in Mexico, Cuba generally wins for meeting great people. Also, hassles from vendors touting tourists are much less frequent in Cuba than in Mexico.
Mexico’s Mayan Riviera is probably a better option for going to an all-inclusive resort and spending most of your time there, or enjoying the restaurants, bars, and tourist activities around it. Cuba, on the other hand, is typically a better choice for visiting authentic cites and towns, going off the tourist path, and meeting locals. You’ll get a very different experience of Cuba if you leave your Varadero sandbar resort.
In Mexico, most travelers go to a resort area around Playa del Carmen. If you’re driving, you can access completely empty beaches in the biosphere near Tulum, and go on short trips to the natural sights and Mayan ruins.
Cuba or Mexico: beaches & activities
In Cuba, Cayo Coco, Cayo Guillermo, and Cayo de Santa Maria (the Cuban keys, small islands off the mainland) are often considered as having some of the most gorgeous and pristine beaches in the Caribbean (and in the world), with fine white sand and shallow clear water. The beaches on the Cayos are secluded areas.
Many travelers find the hotels there very welcoming and with great service. There are few activities though, other than some jungle/mangrove and boat tours. To explore Cuban culture, you need to travel further. The Cayos are mostly great for a stress-free tropical break.
Cuba’s Varadero peninsula also has one of the most impressive beaches in the region. The peninsula has a string of all-inclusive hotels and spas, as well as a golf course. Hotel employees in Varadero tend to be quite aggressive in pursuing tips.
In Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Playa del Carmen is a beautiful white sand beach and the most animated center with many things to see and do. Some travelers, however, are not so fond of the crowds, the music, the hustlers, and the erosion which is slowly eating up the beach.
The beaches near Tulum and on Isla Mujeres are really stunning. Tulum is close to the Mayan ruins. Akumal is a great beach to snorkel and swim with turtles. Between Playa del Carmen and Akumal is Xpu-Ha, another postcard-like beach. Tulum and Akumal beaches are relatively close to Playa del Carmen where you can go for abundant shopping, entertainment, and nightlife.
Cuba or Mexico: sights and culture
In Cuba, taking at least a 2-day trip to Havana is a must. Among many things, you can admire the sunset on the Malecon promenade, go see Hemingway‘s house, visit the Revolution Museum and the El Morro castle. You can just walk around the city to enjoy the architecture, and eat at a casa instead of a state-run restaurant (much better and cheaper food).
Havana is a beautiful city to visit with great sights, but it does have its share of pickpockets and scammers. A good option is to hire a driver to drive you around.
The city of Trinidad in Cuba also has fantastic sights – most Varadero resorts propose day trips to visit it. You can also get off the beaten track and trek up the mountains. Other common day trips include the Bay of Pigs, Vinales, and Santa Clara.
Cuba also has many ecological sites in and outside the Varadero peninsula – you can easily join an ecotour.
While many Cuban excursions (other than Havana) revolve around the sea, Mexico’s Riviera Maya has many opportunities for fun mountain excursions around the Sierra Madre.
Mexico’s Yucatan also offers astonishing natural sites, including over 6000 cenotes. Cenotes are underwater sinkholes similar to small ponds, with extremely clear and clear water that coming from rainwater and filtered in through the ground. Yal-Ku close to Akumal is one example, with many ancient sculptures on the path to the water.
Other cultural sights in Mexico include Mayan ruins such as the Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza ancient Maya cities.
Cuba or Mexico: food & nightlife
As mentioned, travelers generally find the food options in Mexico much more compelling than in Cuba – those who put food high on their list tend to choose Mexico.
It’s worth noting that the water in Cuba is clean and drinkable, while typically not in Mexico – some travelers report getting sick from swallowing even a slight amount of water while taking a shower.
Playa del Carmen, for example, has a plethora of good dining options. Restaurants in Cuba, on the other hand, often tend to offer dishes primarily based on potatoes, rice, carrots, and meat. In general, food is Cuba’s resort areas is considered lagging behind compared to Mexico.
That said, Cuba’s Varadero does have some nice restaurants and bars with live Cuban music. Some travelers feel that in top tier Cuban resorts such as Iberostar or Melia Varadero, the gap with Mexico regarding food quality tends to narrow considerably.
Outside of resorts, the city of Havana also has some nice places to eat well and inexpensively.
Cuba or Mexico: lodging
Here are a few popular resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya travelers often recommend:
- Catalonia Riviera Maya: highly recommended. Located on Xpu-Ha beach. A 10-minute walk from a nice marina and dolphins, a 15-minute free bus ride to Playa del Carmen for shopping and going out. See reviews and prices in Booking.com
- Riu Palace Riviera Maya: a great resort for special occasions such as a honeymoon. 30-minute walk or 5-minute cab ride to downtown Playa del Carmen. See reviews in Hotels.com
- Barcelo Maya, like Riu Palace relatively inexpensive and offering very good quality. See it here in Booking
- Bahia Principe is frequently recommended as being a wonderful place. See it here on Booking
- Sandos Playacar: fantastic location, lovely beach, good food. See it on Hotels.com or Booking
These are following are some of the most frequently recommended places in Cuba:
- Iberostar Laguna Azul Varadero: maybe not the best beach in Varadero – the resorts in town have much better beaches – nevertheless, the Iberostar is often described as one of the best hotels in the Caribbean. See it on Booking
- Sol Palmeras is a nice hotel, though not in the same league as Mexican resorts. Booking
- Royalton Hicacos in Varadero: beautiful adults-only resort. Not much animation but a nice place to rest and relax. See it on Booking
- Paradisus Rio de Oro Resort and Spa (Guardalavaca near Holguin): many travelers warmly praise the place. See it here
- Barcelo Solymar on the Varadero sandbar: fantastic beach, good varied food. Within walking distance to the Varadero town. good entertainment with nice local staff. Some travelers go back regularly. See it on Booking
- Memories (Breezes) Jibacoa – Jibacoa beach in Habana. Nice resort, food comparable to Mexico. Not for everyone though, a little secluded and older crowd. See it on Hotels.com
- Sol Luna Mares on Playa Esmeralda in Holguin. Relatively quiet and secluded but plenty of day trips. Holguin has a retro feel with animal-powered carts used for transportation. Go to Melia website
- Casa de Ania in Havana is a decent hostel and a good place to meet other travelers. Booking
As mentioned, Cuba’s capital Havana is beautiful and should be visited if you go to Cuba. For visiting Havana, staying in Varadero is a more convenient option than staying in the keys (Cayos) or Holguin.
(1) Featured: “Playa Del Carmen and Cancun Mexico Vacat” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by jarnocan
(2) “Playa del Carmen in Mexico” (CC BY 2.0) by dronepicr
(3) “Havana” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by szeke
(4) “Cayo Coco May 2009 – 0379” (CC BY 2.0) by oknidius
(5) “Tulum-Ruins in Riviera Maya” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Grand Velas Riviera Maya
(6) “Havana” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by szeke
(7) “Varadero, Cuba” (CC BY 2.0) by madmack66