Cancun vs Tulum: which one is the best beach destination in Mexico?

If you are undecided between Cancun and Tulum for your next Mexican vacation, you have landed in the right place.

In this post, I will compare Cancun vs Tulum trying to leave my personal opinion behind, to help you decide which one to choose for your spectacular vacation in Mexico.

If you have never been to the Yucatan peninsula before and you are planning your next trip to this area, I totally get the doubts.

Both are wonderful destinations and it’s difficult to choose between the two if you have no idea of what to expect. In this post, I will try to help you out in the best possible way.

Before diving into the details of the Cancun vs Tulum match, I would like to let you know that in terms of services, beaches, and infrastructure, they have it all and both destinations are not short of great things to do. That is very important to mention.

Cancun beach with clouds in the sky and a kayak on the beach - Cancun vs Tulum
Cancun Beach – Presidente Intercontinental

Having said that, we all agree that they are very different destinations in terms, of vibes, kinds of hotels, and restaurants, and in general, they offer different kinds of vacation. If you know me well by now, at the end of the post you will be able to guess which destination I like the most, Tulum or Cancun.

Cancun vs Tulum – Cancun features and highlights 

Cancun has always been known as the main destination for spring breakers, who flock here to enjoy the perks of the all-inclusive beach hotels especially the unlimited drinking, all-day-long food, spectacular never-ending beach, and 24hr party. But Cancun is much more than that. 

I have lived in Cancun for 7 years and I came to appreciate every aspect of it, although I reckon it comes with some faults. 

Here below I list the highlights of Cancun  

✓ Close to the airport – about 20 minutes drive (depending on where is your hotel)

✓ 30 minutes ferry from Isla Mujeres and to whale sharks tours

Cancun beaches are spectacular, but not all of them are good for swimming.

✓ Amazing nightlife right in the Hotel zone

✓ Many watersports activities are available, from paddle boarding, to kayaking, jet skiing, surfing

Cancun hotel zone beach aerial

✓ Cancun is an All-inclusive hotels destination and you will find some of the best all-inclusive in Mexico (after Cabo)

✓ You can admire amazing sunsets over the Lagoon Nichupte

Cancun restaurants are for every budget, taste, and cuisine

✓ Many options for family-friendly resorts but also all-inclusive hotels and hostels

Read my post on where to stay in Cancun

✓ Great surf spots in Playa Delfines and Playa Marlyn sometimes.

✓ About 2 hours from archeological sites and colonial cities like Valladolid 

✓ Great high-end shopping in the plazas of La Islas and the brand new one in Puerto Cancun where you find the most exclusive local and international brands 

✓ There are local buses from the hotel zone to downtown.

✓ There are 2 small archeological sites and 1 Mayan museum to visit besides the beach 

✓ In Cancun, you will find high-rise all-inclusive hotels on the beach and only a few 5-star exclusive hotels that offer a room only accommodation

✓ 2 hostels only on Cancun Beach

Cancun distances

The negative side of Cancun vs Tulum

🔴 The hotel zone is separated from downtown, and there is no real city center where you can take a walk. Cancun is a very young city made just for tourism, with not much local feel. 

🔴 All Cancun hotels are huge all-inclusive resorts with a few exceptions but there are no boutique hotels in Cancun

🔴 Downtown Tulum has no charm whatsoever, and there is no reason nor space to go for a walk unless you go to a specific place, such as a shop or a restaurant.

🔴 All the hotels on the beach are expensive, except for two hostels. The cheapest hotels are in downtown.

🔴 If you go out at night you must go directly to a nightclub or a bar, as there is not a walkable street where people are out for a stroll. (differently from Playa del Carmen or Tulum)

🔴 There are no beach clubs. A few hotels offer a day pass that costs from 1000 MXN that you can use as a credit for the restaurants and bars.

Cancun Punta Cancun aerial view
Punta Cancun Aerial view

Tulum vs Cancun: Tulum features and highlights

Well, Tulum is one of a kind of a destination. I have seen it developing and growing significantly from a laidback fishing town with just a few cabanas on the beach to a high-end exclusive destination in very little time.

Apparently, Tulum has become a very expensive destination that seems to be enjoyed by only those who can afford it. The struggle is real but I believe you can still enjoy Tulum on a budget if you pick the right places. Regardless of costs, I am not 100% sure that this development is for the good.

The good part is that the so-called Tulum hotel zone, although very much developed has conserved the laid-back feel with low-rise hotels that strive to maintain a certain kind of harmony and balance with mother nature.

However please do not talk to me about eco-friendly because despite the rustic appearance and laid-back luxury look I think the only ECO there is, it’s in their names and marketing campaign. Ok end of the rant 🙂

I don’t deny, that I love Tulum and the creative architecture of the beach hotels, the dominant use of woods and natural colors, the finest ethnic art pieces, and vintage decorations, a wonderful match with the surrounding overwhelming jungle and the turquoise water.

Cancun beach at sunset

In Tulum as well you have the hotel zone separate from the downtown, although differently from Cancun, also the city center, commonly known as El Pueblo, has its charm.

Many lovely coffee bars and nightclubs, restaurants, and trendy shops can be found there as well where tourists and locals alike use to mingle day and night.

Those are two separate realities in one big town each one with its own identity and vibes.

But let’s list the main reasons why you should stay in Tulum and what are the highlights of such a popular beach resort.

✓ There are no all-inclusive hotels in Tulum (actually only one). The majority are all cute nice boutique hotels for any budget but many apartments and luxury condos are available both in town or in the nearby jungle. 

✓ Tulum has a strong community based on healthy living and therefore you can find lots of vegan options.

✓ Tulum Down Town is a nice place where to take a stroll and shop, sit in a cafe’ or a have a nice meal in one of the delicious restaurants

✓ You can find nice trendy clothing shops of all prices, from local brands.

✓ Home to the amazing Tulum archeological site

✓ The archeological site of Coba is only 50 minute’s drive

Tulum is surrounded by amazing cenotes some of which you can reach also by bike

✓ In Tulum, you can rent a bike and go everywhere

✓ You can find a lot of yoga places

✓ Close to the spectacular biosphere of Sian Kaan

Siaan Ka'an aerial
Siaan Ka’an aerial

✓ Only 1 hour 30 minutes drive from Valladolid

✓ Great variety of delicious restaurants for every taste and budget. In Tulum, you can find a 1 dollar taco on the street as much as a 200 USD meal in a fancy restaurant on the beach.

✓ Tulum nightlife is more laidback and takes place in small bars in Down Town.

✓ Easily connected to Valladolid, Cancun, Playa, and Bacalar by bus colectivos or big busses

✓ In Tulum, there are many nice beach clubs where you just pay a fee that you can use against your restaurant bill and it will give you access to the beach facilities.

✓ Tulum is close to Sian Ka’an which is a UNESCO Natural site and protected area

Tulum Ruins and Beach

Tulum distances

  • 1hr 47 min (131 km) from Cancun –
  • 1h (64 km) from Playa del Carmen
  • 2hr (149 km) from Chichen Itza
  • 2hr 28 min (169 km) from Chiquila’ – where you get the ferry to Holbox.
  • 1hr 47 min + 20 min ferry from Isla Mujeres

Car rental

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Tulum downsides vs Cancun

🔴 Located about 2 hours south of Cancun Airport 

🔴 The downtown and hotel zone are separated about 10 km apart

🔴 Even the only hostel available on the beach (salina) has above-the-average rates

🔴 Tulum beach hotels are way more expensive than anywhere else on the Riviera Maya and Cancun (which is not on the Riviera Maya FYI)

🔴 Credit cards are not accepted most of the time although it’s slowly changing

Tulum Beach

Cancun vs Tulum: which one is safer?

When it comes to safety in Mexico, it’s difficult to tell which destination is safer.

Things can happen everywhere, but generally speaking, I consider both destinations relatively safe if you practice some common-sense rules that is always a good idea, everywhere you go.

You can read more about safety in the below posts that will answer your question in a more detailed and comprehensive way.

Is it safe to travel to Tulum?
Is it safe to travel to Cancun?

Cancun vs Tulum: weather

Cancun and Tulum are about 150 km apart and therefore they basically have the same tropical weather. That means hot and humid with a risk of hurricanes in the summer months and a dry climate in winter.

The best time to travel to both destinations depends on what you are looking for. If you want lower crowds and cheaper rates you should travel in the shoulder seasons May, September, October, and November.

If you want the perfect weather and clear skies, you may need to choose the high season, from December through April, which would also be crowdier and more expensive.

To know more about the weather for each month and events, you can check out the following posts:

Final thoughts on Cancun vs Tulum: which one to choose?

All in all, the main difference between Cancun and Tulum besides the vicinity of the airport, is the layout of both cities and the ambiance.

While Tulum has the laid-back vibes of a beach town, and you can walk around in your flip-flops and beachwear everywhere, explore the town by bike and live a relaxing vacation in contact with nature, Cancun is completely the opposite.

In Cancun, you will find the classical city atmosphere and layout. you cannot take a stroll anywhere if not in a mall, you will see all the high-rise buildings, and everywhere you look beyond the beach is a concrete jungle.

In Cancun, you don’t find boutique hotels and a charming atmosphere, only huge hotels that normally lack personality, compared with the small individually owned property in Tulum.

Ok, Tulum is more expensive, but because you pay for that exclusive ambiance you won’t find it anywhere.

Both Cancun and Tulum are home to the most beautiful beaches in Mexico, but everywhere on Tulum beach, you can easily access the sea, whereas in Cancun only in some parts.

I guess by now you know where my heart is.

Before I end this post I will leave you with a table that sums up what I have been talking about.

Cinco Tulum Beach club
Cinco Tulum Beach Club

Proximity to the airport

As I mentioned before, while Cancun is at only 10 km from Cancun International Airport, to get to Tulum there is an extra 140 km drive.

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Private tranasportation Cancun Airport to Tulum

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Cancun vs Tulum in a nutshel

AIRPORT 140 KM distance10 KM distance
NIGHTLIFEMany night clubs only a few laid back and chill in bars and some occasional parties
VIBESimmerse in nature, laid-back vibesCity vibes and lots of concrete
MOVING AROUNDbike/motorbike/car rental/ taxi taxi/car rental/busses
BEACHESAmazing beach – not crowdedAmazing beach but some parts not swimmable for strong currents – only crowded in proximities of hotels and also on Sundays
BEACH CLUBS Almost every hotels offer beach club serviceOnly a few hotels offer a Day Pass
COSTSEvery budget but above the averageEvery budget but the cheap options are only in Down Town
WATERSPORTS (including Diving)Available Available
SAFETYRelatively safeRelatively safe

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