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

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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 feel your pain. 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 terms of services, beaches, infrastructure, they have it all and both destinations are not short of great things to do. That is very important to mention.

And for this topic you are welcome to read:

25 amazing things to do in Cancun
25 amazing things to do in Tulum
Cancun vs Playa del Carmen: which one is best?

The perfect Tulum Itinerary

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, restaurants and in general, they offer a different kind 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.


You may also want to check out

Puerto Vallarta vs Cancun: which one is better?
Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen: which one to choose?


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 lists the highlights of Cancun  

  1. Close to the airport – about 20 minutes drive (depending on where is your hotel)
  2. 30 minutes ferry from Isla Mujeres and to whale sharks tours
  3. Cancun beaches are spectacular, but not all of them are good for swimming.
  4. Amazing nightlife right in the Hotel zone
  5. Many watersports activities available, from kaddleboarding, to kayaking, jetskiing, surfing.
  6. Cancun is the mecca for the best All inclusive hotels 
  7. You can admire amazing sunsets over the Lagoon Nichupte
  8. Cancun restaurants are for every budget, taste and cuisine
  9. Many options for family friendly resorts but also all inclusive hotels and hostels –
  10. Great surf spots in Playa delfines and playa Marlyn sometimes. (Read- Best Cancun Beaches
  11. About 2 hours from archeological sites and colonial cities like Valladolid 
  12. 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 
  13. There are local buses from the hotel zone to the down town.
  14. There are 2 small archeological sites and 1 mayan museums to visit besides the beach 
  15. 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-
  16. 2 hostels only on Cancun Beach
Cancun by night
Cancun beach by night

Cancun distances

  1. 1hr 40 min (131 km) Cancun from Tulum
  2. 1h (68 km) from Playa del Carmen
  3. 2hr 34 min (197.4 km) from Chichen Itza
  4. 1hr 58 min (139 km) from Chiquila’ – where you get the ferry to Holbox.

The negative side of Cancun vs Tulum

  • The hotel zone is separated from down town, and there is no real city center where you can take a walk. Cancun is a very young city made just for tourism, not much local feel. 
  • All Cancun hotels are huge all inclusive resorts with a few exception but there are no boutique hotels in Cancun
  • Down town 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 lagoon and Beach

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, 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.

  1. There are no all inclusive hotels. The majority  are all cute nice boutique hotels for any budget but many apartments and luxury condo are available both in town or in the nearby jungle. 
  2. Tulum has a strong community based on healthy living and therefore you can find lots of vegan options.
  3. 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
  4. You can find nice trendy clothing shops of all price, from local brands.
  5. Home to the amazing Tulum archeological site
  6. The archeological site of Coba is at only 50 minutes drive
  7. Tulum is surrounded by amazing cenotes some of which you can reach also by bike
  8. In Tulum you can rent a bike and go everywhere
  9. You can find a lot of yoga places, and
  10. Close to the spectacular biosphere of Sian Kaan
  11. Only 1 hour 30 minutes drive from Valladolid
  12. 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.
  13. Tulum nightlife is more laidback and takes places in small bars in Down Town.
  14. Easily connected to Valladolid, Cancun, Playa, and Bacalar by bus colectivos or big busses
  15. In Tulum there are many nice beach clubs where you just pay a fee that you can use against restaurant bill and it will give you access to the beach facilities.
  16. Tulum is close to Sian Ka’an which is a UNESCO Natural site and protected area
Tulum Ruins

Tulum distances

  1. 1hr 47 min (131 km) from Cancun –
  2. 1h (64 km) from Playa del Carmen
  3. 2hr (149 km) from Chichen Itza
  4. 2hr 28 min (169 km) from Chiquila’ – where you get the ferry to Holbox.
  5. 1hr 47 min + 20 min ferry from Isla Mujeres

CAR

Rent A Car in Mexico

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Tulum downsides vs Cancun

  1. Located at about 2 hours south of Cancun Airport 
  2. Downtown and hotel zone are separated about 10 km apart
  3. even the only hostel available on the beach (salina) has above the average rates
  4. Tulum beach hotels are way more expensive than anywhere else on the Riviera Maya and Cancun (which is not on the Riviera Maya FYI)
  5. Credit cards are not accepted most of the times 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 risk of hurricanes in the summer months and dry climate in winter.

The best time to travel to both destination 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, November.

If you want the perfect weather and clear skies, you may need to chose 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 in personality, compared with the small individually owned property in Tulum.

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

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
FEATURETULUM CANCUN
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
WALKABLEYes No
COSTSEvery budget but above the averageEvery budget but the cheap options are only in Down Town
WATERSPORTS (including Diving)Available Available
SAFETYRelatively safeRelatively safe

Please let me know if I left something out and I will be happy to include it. Happy travels!


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