Why is the Mexican Riviera so Expensive?

Ek Balam, Valladolid Mexico

Ek Balam, a popular day-trip from the Mexican coast

For the last several days I’ve been trying to understand why the Mexican portion of what is known as the Mayan Riviera is so expensive. In Monday’s post I complained that in Tulum we experienced some of the highest prices for some of the worst services we’ve seen anywhere in the world.

And while I can’t speak for the value proposition offered by the other popular Mexican coastal destinations we didn’t actually visit, a cursory look at prices elsewhere suggests the problem goes beyond Tulum. In Cancun, for example, the cheapest peak-season beach-front hotel we found charged 60% more than similar accommodations in South Beach, Miami.

That doesn’t seem right to me. I’m pretty sure the cost of living is quite a bit higher in Miami than it is anywhere in Mexico, especially now that the U.S. dollar buys nearly 18 pesos apiece. Why is a vacation to Cancun (and especially Tulum) so expensive?

Certainly part of the reason is that Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and other popular Mexican destinations get a fair amount of cruise ship traffic. That absolutely drives up prices. Of course that’s also true for other favorite ports of call like Santorini, Greece, and Dubrovnik, Croatia, where we experienced none of the same sticker shock. We actually spent less in those crowded European destinations than we did in Tulum.

Santorini Panorama

Yup, we paid far less here than we did on the Mexican coast. Seriously, WTF?

Another possible answer is convenience, especially for relatively wealthy Americans who don’t generally like to travel. It’s only a four hour flight from frigid Chicago to sunny Cancun, meaning that you can go from winter coats to toplessly sipping margaritas on the beach in under six. I can certainly see the attraction.

It’s also true that Mexico ain’t South Beach. As much as development has homogenized large sections of the Mexican coast, it’s still easy enough to daytrip outside of resort areas where you can trek through the jungle, swim in underground caves, climb Mayan ruins, and otherwise experience things that are completely foreign to anything you’ll find in the U.S.  

It’s easy for us to forget how appealing that combination of factors might be to someone trying to cram a lot of experiences into limited vacation days. If you’re strapped for time it’s understandable why you might be willing to pay a premium to get all of that in one convenient package.

But that still doesn’t completely answer the question. Belize offers all of those same ingredients, from beautiful turquoise water and crazy underground caves to  monkey madness and Mayan ruins, but at a fraction of the cost. Which leaves the question, why is the Mexican Riviera so expensive?

I don’t have an answer, but I do have a conclusion. If you’re short on time and long on cash, by all means, visit Mexican beaches and have a great time. But if you have more time than cash, you can find less expensive and equally gorgeous beaches the world over. Better yet, skip the beach altogether and spend those days exploring Mexico’s interior where you can fully experience its unique history and culture at a price that makes sense.



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9 Comments on “Why is the Mexican Riviera so Expensive?”

  1. Emily January 22, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

    The Mayan Riviera is indeed pricey if you stay at All-Inclusives and eat and shop exclusively in tourist areas. However, after living for 18 months in Ambergris Caye, Belize and for nearly a year in Playa del Carmen on the “Mayan Riviera” part of Mexico, there is a big difference between being on a vacation and actually living in a place. From a cost of living perspective, Playa was way cheaper than San Pedro/Ambergris Caye. Groceries, dining out (at local places and mid-range tourist places, but not high-end places), taxis, yoga classes, general shopping…we spent a lot less in Mexico. About half, actually. The fact that the dollar was doing so well vs. the peso was a big factor, of course, since our time in Mexico was in 2014-2015, so costs just kept getting better and better as time went on. Since the Belize dollar is fixed at 2 for one USD, there is no advantage gained by currency fluctuations.


    • Brian January 22, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

      It’s interesting that you found Playa del Carmen less expensive than Ambergris Caye. We didn’t visit Playa, which somehow despite it being more developed seems way less expensive than Tulum if you want to stay near the beach.

      We don’t do “all-inclusive” etc. But just judging from prices for hotels available on line near the beach in each place, trying to compare apples to apples, Belize still looks quite a bit less expensive than Cancun, Playa, and far less expensive than Tulum. It’s certainly possible that I’m missing the trick to finding good values in the Mexican Mayan Riviera, but so far no one has been able to show me what I’m missing.


  2. Nikki T January 23, 2016 at 1:20 pm #

    Thank you so much for these articles. As frugal travelers, finding information like this is a gold mine.


    • Brian January 23, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

      De nada. 🙂 Glad to hear you’re finding our posts useful.


  3. Bob November 16, 2016 at 10:01 pm #

    Omg i just tried booking for the off season/early December.

    The prices are nuts and the flights and resorts are empty. The same with rivierra maya and Cozumel.

    Maybe somethings in the water?


  4. LowPricesTravel March 5, 2017 at 9:36 pm #

    May this free website might help someone to save just a little bit more money on there vacation to Mexico because it has for me! Try it? What do you have to lose? Your just comparing for the lowest prices anyway. Here’s the website if anyone is interested LowPricesTravel.Com , Have a wonderful and a beautiful week.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Chuckie Cheese April 17, 2018 at 6:41 pm #

    Tulum is off the chart for what it offers. Town is way off the beach and beachfront boutique hotels start at $350 per night. There is NO PUBLIC access to the beach that I found so had to walk through hotels. Some very good restaurants are on the beach area. Overall it’s a definite rip off. Playa Del Carmen has grown way too large and the beach vibe is far too busy.


  6. Lila February 12, 2019 at 9:15 pm #

    Tulum is over priced it has been for a while. It’s because of the boutique hotels by the seaside which are actually going down one by one as the real owners of the beach are reclaiming the property and kicking the “illegal” squatters out. But these resorts have been responsible for the price hike. Likewise there have been all these new developments built in Tulum bringing more of an “upper class” to the destination and of course restaurants are just naturally raising their rates because of all this . restaurants are raising their rates while Mexican service tends to always be questionable. The cost of living in Mexico particularly in these areas has gone up considerably. It used to be cheep for expats but not so much anymore.

    In the past six years the gas prices have surpassed that of the United States it’s very bizarre nobody can answer why. the cost of living in Mexico in general particularly in these areas has gone up.


  7. Julian December 13, 2019 at 6:29 am #

    Totally agree. Where the sun cream in hotels starts at 30usd a bottle that can be purchased for less than 10usd elsewhere in the world and on all inclusive a day tour cost almost the same as the flight.


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