When it comes to vacationing in Mexico, and amazing destinations such as Cancun vs Playa del Carmen vs Tulum it’s really hard to decide which one to choose.
They all look amazing in the pictures but how do you know which one is the perfect fit for you if you have never been there?
If you feel like that is you, and you can’t decide which one of these destinations to choose for your trip, this comparison between three of the most amazing locations in the Quintana Roo state will help with your decision.
Even though Playa del Carmen and Cancun are just 45 minutes drive from each other, and Tulum isn’t far away either, the vacation each of these destinations offers is hugely different.
In this post, I’ll tell you about my experience in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum—including what makes each one unique, the weather, safety, and any of the advantages and drawbacks of choosing it as your holiday spot.
Cancun is probably the most famous of the three destinations we’re talking about today. It attracts millions of tourists from all over the world every year, and rightly so—there’s a reason it’s known as one of the best resort towns in Mexico.
The city was specifically founded as a tourism hotspot back in the ’70s. Over time, it has only become more and more luxurious and with a wider offer of hotels, bars and restaurants besides a huge array of incredible activities to keep all sorts of tourists well entertained.
Known for being home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, and turquoise waters throughout the world, Cancun is the northernmost Mexican city of the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s made of two large areas:
- the hotel zone known as Zona Hotelera, is an L-shaped strip of luxurious hotels, all-inclusive resorts, exquisite restaurants, and shops
- the downtown area is called El Centro, which is a more modest part of Cancun and is at a 10-minute drive inland with no charm at all.
Another reason Cancun is a popular destination is the nightlife it offers. If you’re visiting during peak season (December through April), which also encompasses spring break (February through April), you will find thousands of students having a blast during their time off from universities and colleges.
Apart from the towering hotels and unending party scene, Cancun also features the Nichupte Lagoon—a natural paradise consisting of mangroves, lakes, and an abundance of wildlife.
All of these features, coupled with Cancun’s spectacular Caribbean beaches, are the perfect formula for a memorable vacation.
- The hotel zone offers one of the most luxurious lodgings in Cancun, along with a vivid nightlife. There are many restaurants and bars as well. But the overall cost of staying in the hotel zone is quite pricey, especially if you’re visiting during high season.
- The downtown area of Cancun is a few kilometers inland, where you will find more affordable stays. It has colorful streets with shops and restaurants, presenting a curious mix of tradition and modernity. If you go there, it’s definitely worth seeing around.
- Cancun has lots of amazing beaches. The never-ending strips of powdery white sand and turquoise water make them nothing short of a picture-perfect beach day location. They’re also quite nice for swimming, but not all of them are swimmable.
- Apart from a relaxing beach day, Cancun also has lots of things to do from water sports activities on the table. These include kayaking, surfing, jet skiing, paddle boarding, snorkeling, scuba diving, and many more.
- The international airport is only 20 minute’s drive from Cancun’s hotel zone, which makes it quite easy to reach if you’re traveling from another country. The roads connecting Cancun with other locations are also quite nice, which makes going to the nearby places convenient.
- The local transport system of Cancun is also very convenient. You can easily find buses going to and from the downtown area and the hotel zone.
- Laguna Nichupte is a wonderful natural heaven for anyone who fancies mesmerizing sunsets, legendary lakes, exotic species of animals, and a lot more.
- A large number of Cancun’s restaurants cover all the famous cuisines and offer various dining experiences for everyone. You’ll find menus ranging from the most budget-friendly to the most extravagant and everything in between to fit your taste (and budget).
- The shopping experience in Cancun is also just as amazing. There are plenty of malls and shopping centers, where you will find all the exclusive brands that you like easily available. The most famous locations for shopping are the La Isla Shopping Village, Puerto Cancun Marina Town Center, and Mercado 28.
- Some of the beaches in Cancun, like Playa Delfines and Playa Marlin, are famed for their surfing experience.
- Places like the colonial-era city of Valladolid and the Chichen Itza archaeological site are a few hours’ drive from Cancun.
- 30 minutes (13 km) from Isla Mujeres (ferry ride from Puerto Juarez).
- 45 minutes (55 km) from Playa del Carmen.
- 1 hour 33 minutes (104.9 km) from Akumal.
- 1 hour 40 minutes (131 km) from Tulum.
- 2 hours 8 minutes (156 km) from Valladolid.
- 2 hours 34 minutes (197.4 km) from Chichen Itza.
- Cancun has more than 300 hotels in the Hotel Zone, but all of them are quite expensive. The all-inclusive resorts in the beach area are in the same category as well. However, there are no boutique hotels there.
- The downtown area is around 13 kilometers inland from the hotel zone, which makes Cancun feel divided into basically two cities that are a world apart.
- Since the city was designed for international tourism, there isn’t much to be found here if you’re looking to experience an authentic Mexican vacation. There is a museum dedicated to Mayan history, and a couple of small archaeological sites, but Cancun was founded as a tourist city so Playa del Carmen and especially Tulum (both of which were originally fishing villages) ended up having a much more vibrant village vibe somehow.
- Unlike Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the streets of Cancun aren’t walkable at night. You can only head to a nightclub or bar directly, without any possibility of taking a stroll and seeing around, and also during the day, because of the distances and the heat, there is no chance to go for a walk unless you go to a mall.
- There are plenty of extraordinary beaches in Cancun, but there are no beach clubs here. You can get a day pass from some of the hotels, which usually costs around a thousand pesos (50 USD) and can be used as credit for bars and restaurants.
- There are only 2 hostels in Cancun’s beach area, so if you’re looking for a more modest stay, downtown is where you will have to look for it.
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Organized tours from Cancun
Playa del Carmen is closer to Cancun in physical distance, compared to Tulum with is further south.
Also, Playa del Carmen offers a variety of cuisine and the nightlife here is quite vibrant as well.
But it’s also not exactly the same as Cancun, because there are plenty of boutique hotels, the town attractions are all found in the same area, so you can take a stroll wherever you like, and the beach strip runs alongside the Quinta Avenida, the main street of Playa del Carmen with lots of shops, restaurants, and nightspots like bars and dance clubs.
It makes wandering around town a very delightful activity both during the day and at night. And that is in my opinion a huge advantage compared to Cancun or Tulum.
Speaking of beaches, they’re just as spectacular in Playa del Carmen, but not everywhere. The palm-lined shoreline and turquoise waters of the Caribbean form picture-perfect views on these beaches are more toward the hotel zone than in the proximity of the town center.
But unlike Cancun, here the beaches are not so large, and considering the high number of visitors, especially during the weekend, they look much more crowded than in Cancun.
The town used to be a fishing village before the ‘90s but now has become an urban beach destination everyone loves at first sight. With chic hotels, all-inclusive resorts, shops, and bars, all carrying a hint of Mexican culture, Playa del Carmen is a great place where to spend a Mexican vacation for families or groups of friends.
I used to live and work in Playa del Carmen about 20 years ago and I can say that despite the huge growth, it hasn’t lost its charm.
Also if you are a digital nomad and work online you will find a huge community of like-minded people, besides co-working spaces and cafes where to work while sipping your coffee in a nice relaxed ambiance.
Playa del Carmen Highlights
- Even though the number of all-inclusive hotels in Playa del Carmen isn’t as big as in Cancun, it’s still a large one compared to Tulum. Because of the development here, the town has a wide range of accommodation options to offer, ranging from luxurious resorts to private lodgings.
- The 5th Avenue (Quinta Avenida) of Playa del Carmen makes it easy to walk around town. There are lots of restaurants, bars, and shops on the walkway as well.
- The beaches of Playa del Carmen have easy access to the water with no dangers at all. There are great diving sites at a close boat distance. In fact, you can find great diving shops there.
- Cozumel is also just a ferry ride away if you want to try a lot more water sports activities and explore the second-largest reef barrier in the world.
- Nightlife in Playa del Carmen is also worth a mention. Lively bars and nightspots make the town come alive after the sun sets. And everything is at walking distance.
- The activities offered by Playa del Carmen suit people of all ages. In fact, there are many more options for things to do if you travel to Playa del Carmen with kids compared to Cancun or Tulum.
- The town is a hub for travelers, with lots of things to do. Giant resorts, shopping areas (including two big malls), and both authentic Mexican and international cuisine in its many restaurants make a vacation here worth every penny.
- Even though some of Playa del Carmen’s hotels and resorts are on par with Cancun’s and Tulum’s in terms of luxury (and costs), there are also lots of pocket-friendly options here, which makes the town a suitable location for all kinds of budgets.
- 45 minutes (55 km) from Cancun.
- 30 minutes ferry (33 km) from Cozumel.
- 50 minutes (64.4 km) from Tulum.
- 30 minutes (38.4 km) from Akumal.
- 1 hour 28 minutes (108.5 km) from Coba.
- 1 hour 49 minutes (141.1 km) from Valladolid.
- 2 hours 21 minutes (182.3 km) from Chichen Itza.
- Though not as crowded as Cancun, Playa del Carmen still isn’t as quiet and laid-back as Tulum. It’s perfect for an urban vacation, but if you’re looking for a more relaxed one, Tulum is a far better choice.
- Just like Cancun, the beaches are also tightly packed during the peak season. But, since they aren’t as wide as Cancun or Tulum beaches, the overall aesthetics get a bit dampened by too many people.
- The town doesn’t have much to offer in the way of natural wonders and wildlife, so if you’re a fan of those, Tulum (and even Cancun to some extent) would be a better option. But keep in mind that you are at a close driving distance to all the amazing natural wonders of the Riviera Maya.
- Playa del Carmen doesn’t have its own international airport, and the nearest one is in Cancun, which is 45 minutes drive away.
- Similar to Cancun, the lodgings and amenities in Playa del Carmen maintain the highest standards of luxury. But if you prefer a more nature-filled destination, with rich wildlife, and colorfully themed, wooden architecture of accommodations, Tulum is where you will find it.
Tours from Playa del Carmen
Tulum is quite different from both Cancun and Playa del Carmen. In fact, because of its unique features, it’s a popular destination in its own right. The well-preserved Mayan ruins and famed Caribbean beaches go hand in hand in the town of Tulum.
Moreover, Tulum National Park is full of nature, wildlife, and amazing cenotes, and also offers stunning views of the coastal landscape.
Tulum has always been a very unique place. Back when it was a fishing village, it still had a similar charm, and all the development since then has only given more people access to this one-of-a-kind destination. Compared to Cancun and Playa del Carmen, the atmosphere here is very laid-back and chill.
The lodgings in Tulum are way more tasteful and vibrant (and expensive). Unlike Cancun’s giant hotels and Playa del Carmen’s all-inclusive resorts, the boutique hotels of Tulum here complement the natural surroundings of Tulum.
But, despite the higher lodging prices, you can find accommodation options suitable to your budget if you look in the right places.
- The bulk of tourism campaigns for Tulum boasts of eco-friendly vacations. Even though most of it is just there for the sake of promotion, it’s still true to some extent. The wooden-style architecture of Tulum’s lodgings does have an ecocentric vibe to it.
- The long shoreline of Tulum is divided into extraordinary beaches. They’re known throughout Mexico for their gorgeousness and huge size. And even if you are not staying on the beach you can find amazing beach clubs where you can enjoy and relax in a laid-back and yet stylish ambiance.
- Since it’s a very long strip, there is always a spot with no crowds easily available on the beaches in Tulum.
- The downtown in Tulum is where you can take a walk, enjoy the cafes, and go shopping as well. It’s also quite decent for an enjoyable nightlife experience.
- Tulum isn’t as walkable as Playa del Carmen, but it’s also not as hard to explore around as Cancun. All you need is a bike and you can go around seeing everywhere in town.
- There are so many breathtaking cenotes around Tulum, and you can use your bike rental to get to some of these as well.
If you have a small budget but what to stay in Tulum check out the top 13 cheap hotels in Tulum
- The Tulum Archaeological Site is an extremely unique feature of the town. It’s not only one of the most important archaeological sites in the state, it’s also the only one facing the Caribbean sea. The lush views offered from it are nowhere else to be found.
- Apart from the archaeological site, many other nature-rich locations, like the Coba ruins and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, aren’t very far from Tulum either.
- Tulum’s eco-friendliness extends to human well-being as well. You will find lots of vegan-friendly restaurants and eateries, and many yoga places in Tulum to replenish your body and mind.
- There is also a variety of restaurants in Tulum serving Mexican cuisine, but also Italian, and international, so food-lovers of every kind are all covered when visiting Tulum.
- Compared to Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Tulum is a far more peaceful destination. The bohemian and eco-chic atmosphere of the town is great for a relaxing vacation.
- 24 minutes (27 km) from Akumal.
- 45 minutes (50 km) from Coba ruins.
- 50 minutes (64.4 km) from Playa del Carmen.
- 1 hour 18 minutes (63 km) from Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
- 1 hour 27 minutes (102.9 km) from Valladolid.
- 2 hours (149 km) from Chichen Itza.
- There is no international airport in Tulum, which means a two-hour drive all the way from Cancun.
- There are no all-inclusive hotels in Tulum, which is to say the lodgings here are high-end and unique and therefore an advantage.
- Staying in Tulum is generally more expensive compared to Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
- If you’re staying downtown (which is relatively cheaper), you will have to pay for the commute required to reach the beaches from there. You can bike or get a car rental to get to the beaches or get a taxi.
- Despite all the development here, many places don’t accept credit cards, so make sure to bring some hard cash along whenever you’re going out.
- Not the kind of urban resort town that Cancun and Playa del Carmen are. The facilities offered by Cancun and Playa del Carmen are more modern including WIFI which most of the time fails on the beachside.
The walkability of Tulum is only limited to its downtown area, so you will need a bike rental or car/cab to get around elsewhere.
You can also walk along the beach road but the distance between the beach and the Town is about 10 km, depending on where you go.
Organized tours from Tulum
The towns attract millions of visitors from around the globe annually, which only goes to show that they live up to the standards of world-class destinations.
But what also goes without saying is that common-sense and safety precautions that apply everywhere else in the world should be used here as well.
These include not leaving your stuff unattended in a public place (like on a beach), keeping your valuables safely locked away in your room’s safe when you’re going out, and not wandering in secluded, gloomy areas of the town at night.
With that being said, you won’t have to worry about major crime in any of the three cities. There have been instances of theft against tourists and locals alike, but those can be easily avoided with the right safety steps.
Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum are in the same climatic region. This means that the weather in these towns is practically the same throughout the year, and the few differences (like the average rainfall) are only minor.
But, apart from the unobservable differences, it’s good to know the general weather of the region, especially if you’re visiting Mexico for the first time.
The regional climate in these three cities is warm and tropical all year round, which means the temperatures vary only by a few degrees across the calendar. The ocean temperature is a pleasant 26 – 29oC (79 – 84 F) any given time of the year.
The high season runs from December through April, when the weather is near-perfect, with the average temperatures and humidity staying in the lower range, and almost no chances of rain. The majority of tourists visit during this time of the year, so it’s also when the crowds (and prices) are higher.
The hurricane season occurs from June through November, but don’t worry about hurricanes, the chances of one hitting your vacation spot are extremely rare. But the chances of rainfall spoiling your plan for the day aren’t as low, so expect some showers.
Luckily, the rains are intense and short here, so it’ll only brighten the day (apart from the slight delay in your day’s schedule).
This period is also known as the low season because it’s when you get the most budget-friendly deals.
So, if you want to make a trip worth remembering, while also trying to avoid putting a dent in your bank, this is a great time to do exactly that.
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If you have the time on your hands, choosing Playa del Carmen will give you the best of both worlds (both Tulum and Cancun are less than an hour away from here).
It offers urban luxuries similar to Cancun but also has some authentic charm of Tulum. However, you won’t find anything in the way of natural wonders, which Tulum takes the crown for.
But if your options boil down to Cancun vs Tulum, I’d recommend going with Tulum. Unlike the extremely metropolitan (and therefore boring) atmosphere of Cancun, it has a bohemian vibe and offers a far more relaxing stay. Just keep in mind that it’s also generally more expensive unless you carefully choose where to stay in Tulum.
Last, but not least, is my humble recommendation to try out all three of the destinations. Like I have said before, they’re all unique in their own right, so each one deserves a trip. Whichever city you choose to stay in, do squeeze a drive to the other two into your Cancun itinerary, if you can.
And with that said, enjoy Mexico!